Thirty eight years after the U.S. started Kenya police training in 1977, yet another failure in Garissa University massacre

The trained elite forces of Kenya’s Recce Company Crisis Response Team of the Kenya Police Service’s paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) do not lack for personal courage and technical competence, as they showed once again in dispatching the four terrorists who spent the day Thursday murdering Christian students at  Garissa University College after killing the two guards and seizing control of the campus.

Sadly, as we also saw in the Westgate tragedy, the top ranks of leadership in Kenya’s security apparatus lack the will and/or the focus that would be required to use such forces effectively to protect Kenya’s citizenry from even such small bands of terrorists.

The infuriatingly obtuse mediocrity of Kenya’s political elite was perhaps most conspicuously on display in Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed’s characterization of the police response to the university siege as “adequate” in her interview yesterday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, going so far as to conclude “we did all that we could do.”  While it is true that the Kenya Defense Forces did not intervene with “friendly fire” as at Westgate, the terrorists were left in control of the school for hours on end while the Recce Squad remained in Nairobi before finally departing by plane in the early afternoon, followed by two hours of briefings on the ground in Garissa before the successful assault.  Reporting in the Sunday Nation indicates that the Recce Company members, trained in the U.S. and Israel, are regularly being diverted to ordinary policing tasks in diverse locations and not maintained as intended on standby for the emergency Crisis Response Team at their Nairobi headquarters.

Surviving students reported being aware of their insecure environment long before the attack, which was preceded by specific warnings of attacks on university campuses, as well as the British and Australian warnings of threats which so angered President Kenyatta in the preceding days.  Most individual politicians in Nairobi have more security than this inviting cluster of “upcountry” Christian young people sitting in Garissa which has long experienced small scale church attacks and other terror incidents, as well as mass “security” repression on a periodic basis.

In an interview with the Daily Nation about the background of the middle class Kenyan among the terrorists, the assistant principal of the high school attended by the now notorious killer noted that student had finished at the school “way back in 2007 when radicalization was unheard of.”  “Terrorist was a gifted, obedient student

Even “way back in 2007” when I went to Garissa to train prospective parliamentary candidates the area was insecure enough that police escort was required from a checkpoint on the highway east of Mwingi in Eastern Province on into Garissa, crossing the Tana River into North Eastern Province.  It is hard for me to understand the idea that some grand foresight would be required to see the need for more security for this particular campus.  On its website, the University reports that it “benefits greatly from Garissa’s urban setting.  It feels closely tied to and responsible towards the city and county.  For its part it contributes to the cultural life of the city and region, and in all its activities pays regard to community and urban needs.”  The University came into being as the first full university in the old North Eastern Province in 2011 as an upgrade to an older Garissa Teacher Training College.  A noble initiative toward the crucial long term endeavor to begin the work of bringing this historically neglected region more fully into the Kenyan nation–one that made it an obvious target for Islamist extremists opposed to this endeavor.  And now shuttered indefinitely in the wake of the horrific mass executions.

Jeffrey Gettleman’s story in the New York Times “Shabaab Militants Learning to Kill on a Shoestring” identifies the extremist ideological counter-narrative. In claiming credit for the attack on one of the largest concentrations of non-Muslims in the area a Shabaab spokesman called the University part of a scheme by the Kenyan government to spread “their Christianity and infidelity” in a Muslim area that the Shabaab consider a “colony” under Christian control.

Nonetheless, Radio France International in a story headlined “Not enough Kenyan police in Garissa because its considered a ‘punishment zone'” quoted analyst Adam Hussein Adam saying “This is something that has been there since independence, and we continue to see that place [Garissa] as an outlier, and therefore we don’t deploy enough state authorities there until we have a problem like we now have.”

To me, the idea expressed in various quarters that pulling the Kenya Defense Forces out of AMISOM in Somalia now would resolve the underlying contested nature of the broader northeast within Kenya seems naive.  I don’t think the original 2011 incursion into Somalia was well considered or the best priority for Kenyan security at the time, and the AMISOM role for the KDF ought to be evaluated on its own merits now and going forward.  Nonetheless, I do not believe that there is a de facto bargain to be struck by withdrawing the KDF that would assuage those fighting what Nairobi-based security consultant Andrew Franklin has described for many months now as an insurgency within Kenya’s border counties.

Attention also needs to be paid to the experience and motives of the 27 year old Nairobi law graduate and banker, the son of a local chief from Mandera County who came to the capital for high school, followed by university.  Reportedly he wanted to join IS but settled for Al-Shabaab because he did not have a passport to travel to the Middle East but could transit the porous border into Somalia.

6 thoughts on “Thirty eight years after the U.S. started Kenya police training in 1977, yet another failure in Garissa University massacre

  1. Ken, perhaps when you have some time, another important blog post may be to examine Kenyan-Somali relations and how that relationship has fed the extremism of Al-Shabaab. On Hardball last night, the panel seemed to be conflated the motives for this attack with Boko Haram in Nigeria, i.e. the attack at Garissa occured because Al-Shabaab doesn’t like western education and “our” way of life. That certainly may play into their extremism but I thought there were broader issues at play. Thank you.

    • Al Shabaab has very little in common with Boko Haram; commentators, pundits and securocrats in America merely find conflating one with the other–wrapped up in a big Islamic box– much easier when it comes to sound bytes and superficial analysis.

  2. Am only requesting the goverment to address the problem of insecurity in my country Kenya. It is only a matter of time a Christian politician will say enough is enough and religions will end up killing themselves (a ticking time bomb that needs to be averted ASAP). I want to blame my sisters and brothers from the other religion that the terrorists resides amongst them and that they should be patriotic enough to our country Kenya to reporting anyone suspected of terrorism. Most of young men have disappeared not because they went to look for employment but to be radicalised and to kill Christians. The government should give directive to all parents to report to the nearest police station if they children have disappeared mysteriously and failure to do that, a parent will automatically assumed to be a terrorist.
    Terrorism is a global problem and all nations on earth should join hands, resources and machinery so that they minimise this problem. Sharing of Intel amongst security organs is very important, I don’t know whom to blame for the death of so many Christians totaling to above one hundred and forty. I wanted to blame the Kenya security organs but maybe they did not collect or receive enough Intel. I wanted to blame the CIA (I guess the Intel came from them, later security advisories) but maybe their Intel reports were ignored by the Kenya goverment. Please, I beg you, work together.

    • Hillary, thank you–yes, this is a global problem and we do all need to work together to keep each other safe. It is encouraging to see Kenyans of all faiths coming together to seek better approaches; the good news is that only a relatively small number of individuals do these terrible things. You are right that parents and local communities do need to support the trying to stop young people who have been “radicalized” before they end up in the news.

      My condolences on such a sad loss. I am confident that Americans do want to help as best we are able.

      Hope you are doing well in every other respect.

  3. This well written essay needs to be distributed to relevant members of the US Congress. At the risk of sounding self-serving Obama’s ambassadors to Kenya have completely ignored my written materials sent to them accurately and comprehensively describing the increasingly serious state of insecurity in Kenya. My comments in local media since October 2011 and my numerous television appearances especially since April 2014 gave publicly highlighted the problems besetting the Kenya security situation; nI gave also offered concrete solutions and specific recommendations to begin resolving these most obvious issues. The U.S. Government in Kenya is asleep at the wheel with its senior personnel apparently rehearsing for retirement!

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