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.