Terrorists kill 148 people and wound 79 in university attack

As many as 148 people – most of them Christian students – were killed on Thursday after militants stormed a university in northeast Kenya, in one of the country’s worst Islamist attacks. Several other universities had warned of terror threats and stepped up security in the week before the attack.

Addressing survivors of the massacre on Friday, Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi announced indefinite closure of Garissa University College, after consultation with the university senate. Surviving students would be transferred to Moi University.

Brendan O’Malley*, a global expert on military attacks on education – who has led studies on the subject for UNESCO and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack – described the Garissa incident as one of the most serious assaults on universities worldwide in the past 15 years.

“Universities, like schools, are soft targets in conflict and this is a very worrying turn of events, as militants were reportedly able to rampage at will through the university killing innocent students.

“It follows a massacre of similar proportions carried out by a handful of militants in Pakistan in December where 141 people, mostly children, were reportedly killed in a school.

“There is a need within countries and internationally to develop better ways to protect education institutions from these kinds of attacks. “Students must be able to attend university without fearing for their lives.”

Since coming into existence in Nigeria, the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has targeted ‘Western education' and there have been numerous attacks on educational institutions including universities.

On Saturday Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three-day national mourning for victims of the university assault.

The attack

Members of the al-Shabaab militant group, which has links with al-Qaeda, entered Garissa University College in the early hours of 2 April, at first shooting “indiscriminately” according to police and reportedly taking many Christian students hostage.

Soldiers and police surrounded the campus and engaged the attackers – strapped with explosives – in gunfights during an all-day siege. Reuters reported 79 students injured and said many had been airlifted to Nairobi for treatment.

Al-Shabaab quickly claimed responsibility and the Kenyan government quickly offered a US$215,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Mohamed Mohamud Kuno, described as “most wanted” and linked to the attack. Later, a ‘wanted’ notice with photographs and names of six men, was issued, appealing to the public for information.

The group’s military operations spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters: “We sorted people out and released the Muslims.” Those killed were almost all students, although a few members of the police and military also died.

Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery told local media on Thursday night: “The operation has ended successfully. Four terrorists have been killed.”

According to the BBC, the Kenyan Red Cross said on Saturday that 54 of the victims had been identified by relatives at a morgue in Nairobi, where they were taken because local mortuaries could not cope and because many students came from other parts of Kenya.

Many survivors, the BBC also reported on early Sunday, had been reunited with their families at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium, set up as a disaster centre. Officials said they were holding five people for questioning, including one who might be a university security guard.

Kenya shares a border with Somalia, a hotbed of extremism and source of many attacks. The university college in Garissa is 200 kilometres from Somalia.

In 2013 four al-Shabaab militants slaughtered 67 people during a shooting spree at a Nairobi shopping mall, and in 1998 al-Qaeda bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on the same day, killing 224 and injuring thousands.

The group has mounted many attacks in Kenya in retaliation for the country sending troops to fight in Somalia.

Terrifying experience

Canada’s National Post reported a Garissa student Njeri Maina as saying that three assailants entered the main dormitory carrying assault rifles and grenades.

“They shouted in Arabic, then Swahili, telling everybody to lie down before they opened fire, she said by phone. Maina said she escaped through a back entrance after security forces started engaging the militants,” the newspaper said.

Collins Wetangula, vice-chair of the student union, told Associated Press he was about to shower when he heard gunshots coming from one of the six campus dormitories, which hosts both men and women students, about 150 metres away.

The Telegraph reported that he and three roommates locked themselves in their room.

“All I could hear were footsteps and gunshots. Nobody was screaming because they thought this would lead the gunmen to know where they are. The gunmen were saying sisi ni al-Shabab – Swahili for we are al-Shabaab,” the newspaper continued.

“If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot. With each blast of the gun I thought I was going to die. The next thing, we saw people in military uniform through the window of the back of our rooms who identified themselves as the Kenyan military.” He and 20 others were helped to safety.

CNN ran a horrifying account of the terror, and reported medics and people who had viewed corpses as saying many students had been hot in the back of the head and some had been beheaded.

The college

In 2011 the Kenyan government upgraded Garissa Teacher Training College into a degree-awarding institution, and it was reconstituted as Garissa University College, a constituent college of Moi University.

Situated in Garissa county, the university college is nearly 380 kilometres from Nairobi and is the first and only public higher education institution offering degrees in the region.

Its initial focus has been on training in the technology and business fields up to degree level, and it has continued offering technical and vocational diplomas and certificates.

According to the Garissa website, it currently has around 75 staff serving its 850 or so students. With relatively small numbers, such large-scale killing of students will have a devastating impact on the university college and its future may even be in doubt.

Education institutions vulnerable

Media reported anger among Kenyans that only two police had been allocated to guard the university entrance, along with security staff, while several other institutions which had recently been told about new attack threats had bolstered security and warned students.

The University of Nairobi sent a letter to students referring to a terror threat against universities. It said in a statement by Chief Security Officer WM Wahome:

“Intelligence reports indicate that the al-Shabaab terror group is planning retaliatory attacks on vital institutions in Nairobi including a university. The information is already being processed by relevant government agencies with an objective of putting necessary measures in place to foil such attempts.”

In March, the Australian, British and American embassies issued security alerts about possible terrorist attacks.

Condemnation of the attack came from around the world and a range of NGOs and religious groups including Muslims and Egypt’s al-Azhar University – Sunni Islam’s oldest and most respected seat of learning.

Duncan Harvey, country director at Save the Children Kenya, described the attack as “unjustified and horrifying in equal measure. The simple act of going to school or university is becoming increasingly perilous for young people across the world, with attacks on schools constantly on the rise.”

Photo credit: By Jeff Angote, Daily Nation, Kenya.

* Brendan O'Malley is chair of the board and managing editor of University World News.