Before dawn on Thursday masked gunmen attacked a university on the outskirts of Garissa, a town in northeastern Kenya, and a way-station on the road to Somalia. The target, Garissa University, has more than 800 students, most of whom live in a series of three-storey residential blocks on the sprawling campus. The gunmen separated students according to religion: some Muslim students were allowed to leave and an unknown number of Christian students—possibly several hundred—were taken hostage and remain unaccounted for. Others were shot dead. According to the latest report, at least 147 people have been killed, including four attackers, and 79 injured. A spokesman for the Shabab, a Somalia-based al-Qaeda-aligned Islamic militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Once an Islamic insurgent group that restricted its activities to Somalia, Shabab is increasingly taking its jihad to Kenya. Losing ground at home to an African Union force that includes Kenyan troops, Shabab has taken to launching cross-border attacks designed to drive a wedge between Kenya’s already-divided religious and ethnic communities. The first sign of this strategy came in September 2013 when four Shabab gunmen attacked Nairobi’s Westgate mall and made cursory efforts to separate shoppers according to religion. In the end there were several Muslims among the 67 killed.
Subsequent attackers have made the distinction more carefully and more starkly. In two murderous episodes late last year, close to Kenya’s north-eastern town of Mandera, which claimed the lives of 62 people, gunmen attacked a bus and a quarry, in both cases separating Muslims and non-Muslims before executing the latter. “Shabab need that war of civilisations in Kenya, between Christians and Muslims, to maintain their relevance,” says Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert from Davidson College in North Carolina.
Witnesses who escaped from Garissa University said they heard the Swahili-speaking gunmen demanding to know students’ religion before opening fire. The taking of hostages—which was confirmed by the Shabab spokesman—is a first for the group. Past attacks focused solely on the business of killing. The new tactic has raised fears as to what the gunmen’s intent may be.
Thursday’s assault came just a day after President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed in scathing terms a series of international travel warnings issued by governments in London, Washington and elsewhere in response to the terror threat. Britain updated its travel advice last week, and ruled much of Kenya’s coast out-of-bounds to British citizens who used to flock to the white sand beaches and warm seas.
“Kenya is as safe as any country in the world,” President Kenyatta assured a gathering of diaspora investors on Wednesday. “The travel advisories being issued by our friends are not genuine. I have not heard of any travel advisory issued to those visiting Paris, which recently experienced a terror attack.”
In fact, travel warnings were issued at the time of January’s terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but they were lifted after French security services took swift action to counter the threat—something, diplomats have pointed out, that is not true of Kenya.
This latest attack represents another heavy blow to Kenya’s tourism industry, already on the ropes. Increasingly, when foreigners think of Kenya they picture terrorist atrocities, rather than safari parks and beaches. Shabab has in the recent past attempted to raise its profile in the West. In February the group released a video which called on “Muslim brothers, particularly those in the West” to attack a series of “American or Jewish-owned shopping centres across the world”.
But the Garissa atrocity is intended to get attention locally, rather than a globally. Shabab no doubt hopes that the increasingly border-blind conflict will cause Kenyans to reconsider their involvement in Somalia. Already some in Kenya’s political opposition as well as in the press and the wider public are questioning the wisdom of keeping troops abroad while the fight threatens those at home.