By Barry Moody
The Islamist massacre of nearly 150 university students in Kenya last week will accentuate concerns about the capacity of this strategic Western ally to face a mounting threat from al Qaeda’s Somali allies.
The killings, which occurred only three months before U.S. president Barack Obama plans to visit the land of his father, showed the deadly reach of militants in Africa just as Washington and its allies are struggling to defeat Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere across the Middle East.
They are desperately worried that these movements will export more terror to Europe and America.
The first reaction of Kenyans to the attack last Thursday on Garissa university, close to the Somali border, was horror. It was quickly followed by widespread anger at the failure by intelligence and security forces to prevent or rapidly end the assault.
Four fighters from Somalia’s al Shabaab group murdered 148 people after storming Garissa University College in the early morning as students slept, selecting Christians for execution.
Twelve hours passed before the rebels were killed in a half-hour assault by an elite police unit.
Kenya — a key Western ally
As is so often the case with events in Africa, media reaction in Europe and the United States has been relatively subdued compared to tragedies elsewhere.
But Western security agencies must be deeply worried about Kenya’s difficulties in combating a rapidly accelerating threat from Islamic terrorism.
Some 400 people have now died in attacks by al Shabaab since President Uhuru Kenyatta took power in April 2013.
The Garissa attack was the greatest loss of life in a single incident since 1998 when al Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing 207 people, in a major precursor of the 9/11 attacks.
Kenya has been a key Western ally in Africa since independence from Britain in 1962 and is the area’s biggest economy, a dynamic locomotive for East Africa counting for around 40 percent of regional GDP.
Washington sees Kenya as a key partner in the fight against violent extremists, and Obama plans to visit the east African nation in July.
But the failures in Garissa highlight long-standing problems headed by endemic corruption, particularly among police and immigration officers, which have hamstrung Kenya’s ability to combat a lethal threat to the country founded by the president’s father, Jomo Kenyatta.
President mocked warnings
Most worryingly, failures at Garissa indicate that Kenya has failed to learn enough lessons from a spectacular attack on a luxury shopping mall in the capital, Nairobi, in September 2013.
In striking similarities between that attack and the latest assault, a small group of heavily armed militants were able to cause mayhem, murdering 62 civilians from 13 countries.
It took four days for security forces to overcome the attackers inside the mall.
The operation was hindered by blunders, including a fatal lack of coordination between police and the army. Soldiers accidentally killed the head of an elite police unit and were accused of looting the mall’s luxury shops.
Kenya appears to have ignored or downplayed Western intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent in the Garissa area, which is only 200 kms (120 miles) from a 700-km-long porous border with Somalia.
President Kenyatta mocked British warnings to its citizens not to visit the coast or northeastern regions bordering Somalia only a couple of days before the attack.
The university entrance was guarded by only two armed police, who were killed at the start of the raid. But it is the length of time it took Kenyan forces to mount an operation against the guerrillas that has attracted most criticism.
According to Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, an elite police unit trained to deal with hostage taking took 11 hours to reach Garissa from Nairobi because air transport could not be found any quicker.
Army units who reached the scene soon after the raid were apparently not authorized to mount an assault.
Corruption and ethnic rifts
Government spokesmen deny there were failures and say the time taken for the police unit to reach Garissa was reasonable. They say their actions saved more than 660 people.
Kenya’s police are regularly ranked the country’s least trusted institution and openly ask for bribes at roadblocks and elsewhere. That raises the question of whether al Shabaab paid police to circumvent security and border controls.
John Githongo, a top anti-corruption official turned whistle-blower who says he had to flee Kenya after threats to his life in 2005, told the U.K’s Guardian newspaper shortly before the Garissa attack that a huge corruption scandal in which officials diverted millions of dollars earmarked for security had opened the door to al Shabaab.
President Kenyatta’s father, Jomo, is revered as father of the nation but his rule was also marked by favoritism to his majority Kikuyu tribe and its allies, and the acquisition of large tracts of land by his family.
Resentment and bloodletting
Critics say such policies have fueled resentment among less privileged groups ever since, maintaining wide disparities of wealth, enormous regional inequalities and a culture of wealth accumulation by officials.
The North Eastern region where the latest attack occurred is the country’s poorest.
Resentment against Kikuyu domination was one of the causes of the bloodletting that followed a disputed election at the end of 2007 in which more than 1,200 people died.
Although Kenyans have worked hard to put that nightmare behind them and repair its wounds, the crisis seriously damaged the vital tourism sector based on Kenya’s beautiful coastal resorts and game parks.
As the economy finally recovered, however, al Shabaab began its murderous campaign against Kenya, and the tourist sector is again in crisis, with many new cancellations after the Garissa attack.
Clumsy collective punishment
Al Shabaab says its campaign is punishment for Nairobi’s participation in an African Union force which, supported by U.S. drone strikes, has pushed it out of large areas of Somalia including the capital, Mogadishu.
The successes against al Shabaab in Somalia itself, however, have evidently not sapped its ability to conduct spectacular and well-planned assaults in Kenya and elsewhere as it tries to transform itself into an international movement.
Experts say that al Shabaab recruitment and radicalization of young Kenyans have been helped by religious, ethnic and economic divisions as well as clumsy collective punishment of Muslims and ethnic Somalis for militant attacks.
All this piles pressure on Kenyatta, who fired his interior minister and chief of police in December for security failures.
Garissa seems to indicate that Kenyatta needs to do more and that only a decisive effort to correct Kenya’s endemic societal problems will help stem the deadly threat from across its border..