Kenya is reeling from the shock of the massacre, early on Thursday, of 147 people in an attack by Somali militants on a college. At least four Shabab gunmen stormed Garissa University College, about 200 miles northeast of the capital, Nairobi, before dawn. They took students hostage and continued their assault until late in the evening, when Kenyan security forces ended the siege.
A Kenyan worker for an international aid agency, Reuben Nyaora, told Agence France-Presse: “I have seen many things, but nothing like that. There were bodies everywhere in execution lines, we saw people whose heads had been blown off, bullet wounds everywhere, it was a grisly mess.”
The attackers, Islamist militants from the Shabab, the Somali terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility, were reported to have taunted the victims, saying they came ready to die, and it would be a “good Easter” for them. In a particularly callous touch, they ordered some victims first to call their parents on their cellphones to relay the terrorists’ message that the attack was in retaliation for Kenya’s part in military efforts in Somalia against the Shabab, and then shot them.
In the event, the militants more than succeeded in raining on Kenya’s Easter holiday. A somber mood has settled over the country.
Kenyans on Twitter, easily Africa’s most vocal population on social media, were reflective. The customary jokes about funny encounters by Nairobians traveling upcountry for the holiday were markedly absent. The top trending topic was #NoMore, a hashtag denouncing the Garissa terror attack. #HappyEaster did make its way into the Top 10, as did #GoodFriday, but among the rest were #Somalia, #PrayforKenya, #Westgate — the upmarket mall that the Shabab attacked, killing 67 people, in September 2013 — and #Muslims.
The attack sent a worrying message about the Shabab. The militants may have been beaten out of their strongholds in Somalia by African Union peacekeeping forces over the last two years, and a combination of American airstrikes and several defections have taken out many of its leaders, but the Islamists are far from defeated.
This was the most deadly terror attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi by Al Qaeda. If the Shabab meant to declare that it has emerged stronger from its crisis, it has indeed acted with more deadly efficiency. Fewer gunmen were involved at Garissa than in the Westgate assault, yet they slaughtered twice as many.
Another significant factor is that, as far as can yet be determined, the Garissa attackers avoided killing Muslims, whereas at Westgate the militants executed “bad” Muslims who couldn’t recite verses of the Quran fluently or were not dressed with sufficient modesty. This time, the fighters sorted the victims according to their religion and then “mercilessly executed the Christians,” as a Shabab spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, gleefully told Radio Andalus in Somalia on Friday. In attacks last year on the Kenyan coast, and in the northeast, they did the same. Letting the Muslims walk, then killing the Christians.
In this respect, the Shabab is different from Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which will kill Muslims they consider not to be true believers. In a Kenya that is still struggling to heal ethnic and regional divisions, inserting a new Muslim-versus-Christian dynamic could throw an accelerant on the flames of conflict.
The Shabab has also evolved in its demands. In addition to its call for Kenya to withdraw its troops from African Union peacekeeping forces, the militants also said they wanted to reunite the northern part of Kenya, which is populated by ethnic Somalis, with their motherland. This pan-Somali nationalist project has coincided with active recruitment by the Shabab among poor young Muslims in northeastern Kenya.
If the Kenyan government responds heavy-handedly against either Somalis or Muslims — which is clearly what the Shabab is trying to provoke — there will be a real risk of alienating the Somali-populated northern region. There are also signs inside Kenyan politics that nervousness about Somalia is growing.
As the appetite for the military campaign wanes, a new approach is needed. Aden Bare Duale, the majority leader of the National Assembly and himself a Kenyan Somali, was pilloried when, a few weeks ago, he suggested that it was time to negotiate with the Shabab. Outlining a very different strategy, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said recently that Kenya was considering the construction of a security barrier along its 430-mile border with Somalia.
The sands now seem to have shifted in Shabab’s favor. When it controlled large parts of Somalia, its hands were full: collecting taxes, policing the streets and administering its cruel forms of Shariah law justice. It was stretched and distracted.
Now relieved of the burden of administering territory, the Shabab can focus on its original mission: jihad. And with this has come a new discipline and sharper focus.
Inside Somalia, the Shabab is training its fire on political and military targets — the presidential palace, Parliament, the African Union military base and hotels where government officials hang out. Outside Somali territory, it is minimizing Muslim casualties.
A humbling on Somalia’s battlefields may, tragically for Kenyans, have turned to the Shabab’s advantage.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is the editor of The Mail and Guardian Africa.