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Thursday, April 02, 2015

Garissa University Attack: The Inside Story

I have lived in Garissa. To be honest it is the kind of place where you cannot help but wonder if you are really still in Kenya. Even though you have to cross a famous Kenyan river, the Tana River, shortly before entering the town. The terrain is really close to what you would imagine a desert looks like.

Still it is the largest and most developed town in the semi arid North eastern province of the country.

A dark cloud hangs over the town this Easter holiday after 5 al Shabaab masked gunmen stormed Garissa University a few hours ago. The government says that four of them were killed by KDF soldiers and the fifth arrested as he was trying to flee the scene in the midst of all the chaos.

Before the incident few Kenyans knew that such a university existed in the country. Garissa University is actually an affiliate of Moi University in Eldoret.

In retrospect it was an ideal target for the terror group consisting of so many non-Somalia students from different parts of the country. It had a total population of over 800 students. In the past attacks in Garissa and most of the former northern frontier district have attracted little interest from the rest of the country. This one was different because of the extremely high death toll (147) and the fact that institutions of higher learning have always been considered a very unlikely target for terror attacks.

And yet this should not have been the case. For months intelligence reports have singled out some Night Clubs and generally places where drunkenness and  immorality go down as possible targets for terror attacks. These are vices that are deeply frowned upon by the terror group who view themselves as religious zealots. Now what do you expect in a campus anywhere in the world? Immorality and drunkenness is a way of life.

And to make matters worse Garissa is only about 90 Kms from the Somalia border and the porous borders mean that folks from that war-torn country frequently criss cross between the two countries coming and going. It would have been difficult not to notice the student presence and mostly "unacceptable to al Shabaab" activities in town, even for a visitor.

The inevitable criticisms against the nation's security organs are bound to emerge but experts agree that this time round the response was pretty fast. Impressive really. No doubt this was helped by the military barracks not too far from Garissa town and the fact that security top dogs in the country have been doing a lot of useful work in the area to ensure that Kenyans are protected as much as possible. Eyewitnesses say that they saw soldiers on the scene only minutes after that attack started. This undoubtedly saved plenty of lives.

KDF did an excellent job in ending the siege even as the militants held hostage non-Muslims in one of the buildings the most likely objective being to use them as human shields to slow down attacks. And also despite the terrorists cleverly positioning snipers at the top of the building to take out anybody who tried to approach it.

New Kenyan Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery (a former soldier turned-politician-turned-interior-cabinet-secretary) emerged as the kind of figure who inspires confidence even after such a horrible attack. He was quite convincing talking to the press about the situation on the ground and how it was being handled. No doubt a far cry from the former cabinet secretary (who was really a hospitality-industry-professional-turned-interior-cabinet-secretary).

The local media mostly left out the gory details. Like the fact that some eyewitnesses say that they saw bodies without heads meaning that some victims were beheaded, a common gruesome practice of the terrorists.

Why is it that Kenya has suffered the most from terror attacks, even long before KDF went into Somalia? After all there are a number of other countries that have sent troops to Somalia including Ethiopia and Uganda who have not suffered to the extent Kenyans have. Now that is a mystery that may have something to do with the fact that most Somalis, have relatives on both sides of the border.

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