UN committee slams state over Garissa college massacre

A committee of the United Nations Security Council has faulted the Kenyan government for failing to act on credible security intelligence about an imminent attack on Garissa University College in the northeast by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab Islamist militants. The subsequent attack on 2 April this year resulted in the deaths of 148 people, mostly students.

In a report, S/2015/801, released on 19 October in New York, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea also blasted Kenya’s security forces for their slow response to the assault.

The Garissa attack – the deadliest on Kenyan soil since the 1998 United States Embassy bombing in Nairobi – could have been thwarted.

Attack could have been prevented

According to the report, multiple intelligence sources told members of the monitoring group that Al-Shabaab gunmen were known to be in Garissa 10 to 14 days prior to the attack.

Further, the Principal of Garissa University College Dr Ahmed Warfa was aware that campus security arrangements were inadequate and had consulted and even written several times to the local government security apparatus, but was not taken seriously by anyone.

“Following many incidences of terrorism attacks in many parts of northern Kenya, which has posed a great security threat to Garissa town, I had requested an additional six police officers to beef up security at the campus,” Warfa told the United Nations committee.

When Al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the university college, it was only protected by four police officers and 12 unarmed private guards. Five of the guards were stationed at the main gate and seven at the back of the campus.

Concerns ignored

Garissa University College is 150 kilometres from Kenya’s border with Somalia and 370 kilometres from the capital Nairobi. In view of the weak security measures, students were worried and had urged the university administration to request additional police officers.

It emerged that from December 2014 to March this year, Warfa wrote five times to senior government officials, warning of a potential attack and requesting security upgrades to the campus. All of the authorities failed to heed his concerns.

In the first letter dated 4 December, Warfa asked the deputy county commissioner for Garissa for the deployment of additional policemen. In the next letter dated 18 December, Warfa asked the local division police commander for the establishment of a police post at the university as a matter of urgency.

In January 2015, the principal wrote to the Garissa county commissioner, who was responsible for coordinating security in the county, but had no response. On 15 March – barely two weeks before gunmen stormed the college – a frustrated Warfa wrote another letter to the county commissioner, requesting more police patrols near the college.

Unfortunately, the commissioner did not respond to the request and neither did high-ranking officials in Nairobi. The letter was copied to the minister of education, science and technology and the vice-chancellor of Moi University, of which Garissa was a constituent college.

The attack in detail

Contrary to government assertions that security personnel responded swiftly to the attack, the United Nations committee report said they were slow to arrive at the scene.

Providing a timeline of the attack, the monitoring group said four Al-Shabaab gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles and grenades reached the main gate of Garissa University College at about 05h30 to 06h30 in two cars and shot dead two unarmed guards at the gate.

“The militants’ entry to the campus was facilitated by an unsecured pedestrian gate, which was open to allow residents of the town to attend the campus mosque for Friday prayers,” said the report.

Once inside the campus, the attackers engaged two policemen who retreated following a brief exchange of fire. Without opposition, the gunmen quickly proceeded to a classroom used as a Good Friday prayer centre and shot 18 students engaged in prayer.

The monitoring group confirmed that, thereafter, the terrorists split into two teams and succeeded in herding students to a hostel located at the end of the campus.

Once most of the students had been forced into a dormitory, one gunman climbed to the second floor stairway, which he used as a sniper’s nest to fend off Kenyan security forces personnel, as well as shoot at students sheltering in neighbouring dormitories.

“It is in this building known as Elgon B that between 107 and 113 students were massacred within an hour of the attackers entering the campus,” said the report.

Although security personnel arrived at the campus two hours after the attack, no assault on the militants was made. That only happened when an elite commando unit arrived from Nairobi in the late afternoon and launched an assault on the dormitory, killing all four gunmen and ending the siege at roughly 18h00.

Officials and media in Kenya reported that the gunmen were equipped with suicide vests, but the UN monitoring group determined that this was not the case. “One of the militants may have rigged a number of grenades to serve as a makeshift suicide device,” said its report.

The militants were led by Abdirahim Abdullahi, a law graduate of the University of Nairobi. The government believes that the mastermind of the attack was Al-Shabaab regional leader Mohamed Mohamud, nicknamed ‘Gamadhere’ or ‘long arms’, who is also linked to several Garissa church attacks and recent massacres of bus passengers and quarry workers in Mandera.

Failures of communication

In its analysis, the monitoring group attributed the success of Al-Shabaab’s attack on Garissa University College more to failure of communication than lack of actionable intelligence.

It is already in the public domain that in March this year, intelligence warnings of an imminent attack on an education institution in Kenya had been widely disseminated and the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University and the United States International University Africa – all based in Nairobi – went onto high alert.

On 25 March, a note was posted at the University of Nairobi warning students and staff that Al-Shabaab was planning retaliatory attacks on a major university in Kenya. Al-Shabaab had been blaming the Kenyan government for atrocities against Muslims in East Africa.

“Western embassies in Nairobi had warned of an imminent attack on an education institution in Kenya, but it appears the Kenyan security forces did not regard Garissa University College as a primary target,” said the report.

Further, on 31 March Warfa received an SMS from the police advising him of a possible attack against four targets – Garissa Teachers Training College, North Eastern Province Technical Training Institute, Garissa Medical Training College and Garissa University College.

Warfa told the monitoring group that the SMS only advised recipients to be alert and was similar to others he had received before. “The generic nature of the message led Warfa to believe that the threat was not credible, or at least not out of the ordinary,” said the report.

For the first time, the monitoring group has shown details of an SMS received 12 hours prior to the attack by a senior police officer in Wajir town, 250 kilometres from Garissa. According to the report the terse message read: “Garissa University and the teachers college being targeted. Operatives 30 kilometres away. Relay urgently to all concerned.”

Despite the urgency of the message, it was not transmitted to Warfa until over a month after the attack and it is unclear why this information was not acted upon.

According to the monitoring group, the success of the Al-Shabaab attack was not of lack of actionable intelligence but a disconnect between the collection of intelligence and its use.