In wake of student massacre, security questions swirl

Confusion reigned last week over the number of students missing following the brutal killing of 148 people by al-Shabaab Islamist militants – 142 of them Christian students – on 2 April at Garissa University College.

Urgent questions were also being asked about whether the security forces or the university college itself could have done more to avert the massacre.

And in Nairobi and Mombasa students were protesting, demanding better protection for universities from the ongoing threat from al-Shabaab.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s spokesperson Manoah Esipisu admitted last Thursday that there had been shortcomings in responding to the attack: “Did we do something wrong in Garissa? Yes of course,” he told editors in Nairobi.

But he was unable to explain the poor transport of the Special Forces who finally killed the terrorists and ended the university siege. While top security officials flew from Nairobi, the Special Forces platoon had to travel to Garissa by road, a distance of 380 kilometres.

Missing students

Last Wednesday the Universities Academic Staff Union claimed at a press conference that 160 students of Garissa remained unaccounted for, while Titus Safari, secretary-general of the Moi University Students Organisation, quoted a lower figure of 59 missing students.

Neither organisation had accurate student admission data – but even government leaders have issued conflicting reports.

On 8 April Defence Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo, surrounded by a coterie of top officials, said 613 students and 50 staff had been rescued. But since 142 students were killed and the college had an enrolment of 815, it appeared that 60 students remained unaccounted for.

Later, Education Cabinet Secretary Professor Jacob Kaimenyi stated that in fact 663 students had been rescued – but even this left 10 students unaccounted for a week after the massacre.

College shut down

Meanwhile, the government has closed Garissa University College indefinitely. Its students have been directed to report to Kesses, the main campus of Moi University, more than 400 miles to the west. Garissa is one of the university’s constituent colleges.

“We are making arrangements for all the students who survived the terror attack to report to Kesses on 20 May, so that they can carry on with their academic activities,” Moi University Vice-chancellor Professor Richard Mibey told University World News.

According to Mibey, after completing a first semester at Kesses, the Garissa students will be integrated into other Moi University satellite campuses of their choice across the country.

Failure to act

The key question being asked in Kenya is whether the Garissa massacre could have been averted.

Kenyans are still shocked that it took more than 11 hours for special forces to be deployed at Garissa, where four gunmen reportedly entered the grounds, shot two guards dead, before taking hostages. They challenged students to prove they were Muslim by reciting the shahada – the first of five pillars of the Islamic faith – and shot those who could not.

According to Mwenda Mbijiwe, a security analyst in Nairobi and former Kenya Air Force senior intelligence officer, the attack occurred not because there was no intelligence but because there was no vigilance among those supposed to act on available information.

“There were posters in some of the universities warning students of threats of imminent terrorist attack but no security measures were put in place at Garissa College, which had the single largest non-Somali population in any one place in North Eastern Province and is a well known stronghold of al-Shabaab’s recruitment drive,” Mbijiwe told University World News.

Although Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign affairs cabinet secretary, on 8 April exonerated state security organs of blame, citing lack of actionable intelligence, Mbijiwe said British intelligence had mentioned Garissa as a town under imminent threat from al-Shabaab.

Just before the attack, President Kenyatta insisted that Kenya was safe and scoffed at new British advisories to UK citizens against visiting Kenya.

Kenyans are worried about whether state security and intelligence personnel have the capacity to identify and neutralise terrorist networks before they unleash more attacks on universities and schools, or kill people in shopping malls and in buses.

Still little security at universities

It appears that very little had been done in terms of deploying police to universities.

Since the Garissa attack, university students in Nairobi and Mombasa have held protests, urging the government to provide security to universities across the country.

“Our security cannot be left to private security guards who are poorly armed and inexperienced in fighting heavily armed terrorists,” Tarwish Olotele, a student leader at the Technical University of Kenya, told University World News in Nairobi last Tuesday.

Citing absence of robust security in universities, some students suggested they be given training in order to be able to defend themselves.

“We could be trained during holidays, so that in case of an emergency, we could counter the attack before the police arrived,” said Josphat Ochieng, a student at Kenyatta University.

A spot check by University World News noted little presence of police on campuses.

According to Edwin Osaga, a security analyst and lecturer in criminology, security management and public policy at Karatina University, there is urgent need for the Kenyan government to rethink how to improve security in universities.

“Apart from the University of Nairobi, which has a police station nearby, most universities in the country are sitting ducks for Garissa-style terror attacks,” said Osaga.

In the absence of government security, some institutions have taken matters into their own hands.

Last week Daystar University contracted a private firm to advise on how to improve security on its campuses in Nairobi. Kenyatta University – the second largest in Kenya – increased its number of private security guards. The university is near the Kahawa military barracks, which according to Osaga puts it out of al-Shabaab’s sights.

With growing terrorism, mostly allied to al-Shabaab militants from Somalia, universities will have to be more vigilant, also taking into account that radicalised students could easily form terrorist cells within institutions.

Home-grown terrorism has matured

Kenyans should also be concerned that homegrown terrorism seems to have matured in recent years, Osaga said.

He noted that the radicalisation of youth, especially in Muslim-dominated parts of the country, has been happening for some time and young people have been going to Somalia through the two countries’ porous border.

“We should be concerned about al-Shabaab fighters’ capacity to infiltrate and to recruit inside the country, as that means it will be hard to identify terrorists in our midst,” said Osaga.

Al-Shabaab has not only been attracting lowly educated youths but has more recently been recruiting university students and Islamic religious teachers.

Mohammed Kuno, who the government named as the mastermind of the Garissa attack and posted a US$215,000 reward for his capture, was a madrassa teacher in Garissa.

Madrassas are religious educational institutions that base their curriculum on the Quran and also provide social services such as free food, clothing and boarding to poor students.

Unfortunately in Kenya, some imams teach a brand of violent political jihad, extol extreme Islamist militancy and impart ideological and other training that encourages violence.

According to Peter Alingo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, Kuno is suspected of being an al-Shabaab commander who organised cross-border terrorist forays through Somalia’s Jubaland, a region that borders Kenya.

Probably one of his high-profile recruits was Mohammed Abdirahim Abdullahi, a son of an administrative chief in Mandera and a law graduate of the University of Nairobi, who led the al-Shabaab fighters in the assault on Garissa University College.

Described by former colleagues at the university as a sharp dresser who favoured well tailored suits and loved to play billiards, his involvement indicates that al-Shabaab has changed tactics in its recruitment drive.

Osaga stressed that there was an urgent need for the government and universities to invest in intelligence collection and focus on measures to stop the radicalisation of students, at schools and universities.

“For instance the National Intelligence Service should strive to identify specific target intelligence and not merely general intelligence of imminent attacks,” said Osaga.

Causes of terrorism

The ease with which al-Shabaab has gained a foothold in Kenya, especially in the northeastern and coastal districts, is partly being attributed to the lack of economic development occasioned by decades of discrimination by successive governments, as well as heavy-handed security tactics to deal with terrorism.

According to a report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission – an independent transitional justice body created in 2008 to investigate human rights and violations and historical injustices in Kenya since independence – Muslims face institutional, political, social and economic discrimination.

“The commission finds that because most massacres committed by security agents have occurred in northern Kenya, victims of massacres are therefore predominantly of Somali and other ethnic groups that were predominantly Muslims,” stated the report.

Deal with terrorism

But since the Garissa massacre, Kenyans across religious and political divides have been calling on the government to deal firmly with terrorism.

The Council of Imams and Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, or SUPKEM, joined Christian churches in condemning the Garissa killings and called on the government to do more to isolate homegrown al-Shabaab terrorists and sympathisers and to improve security along the Kenya-Somalia border.

“On our part, we will respond to this problem with the seriousness it deserves, in order to check the lure of Muslim youth into joining al-Shabaab,” said Adan Wachu, secretary-general of SUPKEM. He said SUPKEM would form a standing committee to try to weed out imams and madrassa teachers who have been recruiting for al-Shabaab.