Shabab Lured Kenya Students to Deaths With Promise of Life

Students evacuated from Garissa University College waited in a holding area on Friday before being taken back to their home regions. Credit Carl De Souza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

GARISSA, Kenya — Elosy Karimi curled up in a crawl space, immobilized by fear.

Her classmates were flooding out of the dorms, in boxer shorts and thin nightgowns. Gunfire was ringing all around her. People were screaming. It was predawn and pitch black.

“If you want to survive, come out!” the militants yelled. “If you want to die, stay inside!”

In the terrifying confusion, Ms. Karimi, 23, decided to risk it inside, she said, and stayed hidden in the ceiling above her bunk bed for the next 28 and a half hours.

“I knew those guys were lying,” she said at the hospital, having just arrived to be checked after the ordeal.

New details emerged Friday about how a handful of fighters from the Shabab militant group, with just a few light weapons, managed to kill nearly 150 students in Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi.

Survivors said many students had fallen for the militants’ trick, voluntarily walking outside and obeying commands to lie down in neat rows, only to be shot in the back of the head.

04Kenya5-web-articleLargeStudents mourned the loss of friends, a day after Shabab militants killed nearly 150 of their classmates. Credit Carl De Souza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One of the militants appeared to be a trained sniper, some witnesses said, picking off several Kenyan soldiers and critically hampering the rescue effort, giving the gunmen hours more to keep killing.

The militants seemed especially cruel and gleeful, ordering some students to call their parents on their cellphones and tell them the attack was payback for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia.

Students who hid during the attack said they had heard their classmates whimpering as the militants taunted them. Then a single gunshot. Then silence.

Garissa, the hard, thorny frontier town that was the scene of the siege, is now a town on edge.

Huge military trucks with four-foot-tall tires thunder down the main highway. Ambulances hurtle bodies to the airport. Garissa University College, where the students were killed, has been sealed off, and young, nervous soldiers, dripping with sweat, try to hold back crowds of onlookers by swatting them with acacia branches.

The attack on Thursday exposed just how powerless this industrialized, westernized country is in the face of a ruthless terrorist organization. Many fear that Kenya cannot stop the Shabab, who are clearly trying to fan a religious war.

On Friday morning, a dozen local young men, all Muslim, marched down Garissa’s main road to show solidarity with the victims, the vast majority of whom were Christian and hailed from other parts of Kenya. We will not succumb to this, the demonstrators said. We stand with you. We may be ethnic Somalis, but we are Kenyan, too.

Ahmed Youssouf, 28, said he was inside the university mosque with other Muslims on Thursday when the shooting began.

Immediately, Christian students began pouring inside seeking refuge, and their Muslim classmates hid them, he said. Many of the students later crawled out in single file, dashing for the university’s gate, he said.

“I could see the mess of what was happening – children jumping out of rooms, running helter-skelter, others falling down with bullets,” he said.

For the first time in decades, a militant group in Kenya is stirring up not just religious tensions but territorial ones as well.

In the 1960s, Somalia’s government sent guerrilla fighters across its border with Kenya. It was called the Shifta War. This part of Kenya is predominantly ethnic Somali, and Somalia was trying to reclaim what it considered long lost territory.

Now the Shabab are resurrecting that old cause. The Shabab tried to justify the attack on Thursday by saying this part of Kenya was “a Muslim land under colony.” A Shabab spokesman called the university part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity.”

Not a single person among dozens interviewed here on Friday uttered a word of support for the Shabab, considered one of Al Qaeda’s most murderous branches.

But there was growing resentment toward the Kenyan government.

Aden Osman, a thin man with protruding collar bones and a hungry, vacant face, stood outside Garissa’s main hospital. The collar of his shirt was splattered with blood. A yellowing bandage was taped atop his head. At first glance, he could have easily been mistaken for a gunshot survivor.

But Mr. Osman said it was actually the government that had done this. He said, and witnesses seconded his account, that Kenyan soldiers had beaten him with a club simply for showing up at the gates of the university to check on a friend whom he thought might be killed.

“I will never like the Shabab,” Mr. Osman said. ”But no government should be beating its own people.”

All that separates Kenya from Somalia is a thin dusty line. The 424-mile border is scarcely patrolled – the Kenyans don’t have the resources for it. Elders here say that the few guards who do run patrols are notoriously corrupt, letting smuggled sugar, illegal refugees, truckloads of guns and just about anything else pass through, for the right price.

The Kenyan government is now asking Western allies to help it build a massive border wall. But that may not be a cure-all.

This attack, said Kenneth Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, showed how vulnerable Kenya really is.

“It was low tech, low budget, low risk, and the target was low-hanging fruit,” he said. “It says a lot more about how hard it is for an open society like Kenya, with tens of thousands of soft targets, to prevent a terrorist group from attacking them.”

Despite new security laws and a heightened state of vigilance that has already put police officers on almost every major street corner in the capital, Nairobi, Kenya remains squarely in the cross hairs of the Shabab.

The group has killed hundreds of Kenyans — on country buses, in churches, in remote coastal towns and inside one of Kenya’s fanciest malls during a devastating siege in 2013 that left 67 people dead and rattled Kenya’s prized image as a cornerstone of stability in this part of Africa.