THE killing of 147 people in an attack by Somalia’s al-Shabaab gunmen at a college in northeastern Kenya is a show of strength that may help the al-Qaeda-linked militants recruit fighters as well as inflame sectarian tensions, analysts said.
At least four gunmen stormed Garissa University, about 330 kilometers (204 miles) northeast of the capital, Nairobi, before dawn on Thursday and continued their assault until after nightfall, the Interior Ministry said.
Seventy-nine people were injured in the attack, Kenya’s worst since al-Qaeda bombed the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
Al-Shabaab fighters separated the victims according to their religion and “mercilessly executed the Christians,” al- Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage told Radio Andalus in Somalia. That mirrored a tactic used in at least one previous assault—in Mandera in northern Kenya last year when 28 bus passengers were shot dead.
The group, which has waged an insurgency in neighbouring Somalia since 2006, has been forced to withdraw its fighters from central and southern parts of that country after Kenya deployed troops to fight the militants.
Since then, the group has carried out a series of raids in East Africa’s biggest economy, including one on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013 where 67 people were killed, after it warned of reprisals for the Kenyan incursion.
Thursday’s attack was “partly to get back at the Kenyan government, partly to show strength to Kenyan Muslims to gain recruits,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, associate professor at the University of Life Sciences in Oslo and author of ‘Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group.’
Kenyan intelligence agencies warned last week of possible attacks on universities in the country, prompting two colleges in Nairobi to increase security measures, according to Francois Conradie, an analyst at NKC Research in Paarl, South Africa.
On Thursday, the government offered a $220,000 reward for Mohammed Mohamud Kuno, an al-Shabaab member on a government watch list, in connection with the attack.
Police imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Garissa, Mandera and Tana River counties that will last until April 16.
President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the police to speed up the recruitment of officers to help battle the militants.
The assault came after Kenyatta criticised an advisory issued last month by the UK Foreign Office against all but essential travel to Kenya’s coastal region. Among other places, the advisory warned against travel to the region where the attack took place.
“The incident will have a further negative impact on international perceptions of risk, and will probably draw a forceful response” from Interior Secretary Joseph Nkaissery, Conradie said in an e-mailed research note.
“Radicals will perceive this response as anti-Muslim persecution -– at worst they will then find more recruits, and the cycle of violence will keep contributing to security risk.”
Kenya’s shilling dropped to its weakest level in 3 1/2 years on concern that tourists already scared by previous attacks make take further fright, said John Muli, a currency trader at Nairobi-based African Banking Corp. Tourism generates about $1 billion of revenue a year for Kenya, second only to earnings from tea exports.
Al-Shabaab’s loss of territory, along with the killing of some its key leaders, has forced it to switch from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics, Austin, Texas-based Strategic Forecasting Inc. said in an e-mailed note.
Adan Garar, a member of al-Shabaab’s security and intelligence wing, died in a US drone strike last month, while Ahmed Abdi Godane, the group’s leader, died in a similar attack in September.
“The Garissa attack shows that the group still possesses the capability to conduct raids against soft targets inside Kenya,” it said in an e-mailed note.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud on Friday called for increased cooperation between Somalia and Kenya to fight the militants.
The attacks are designed to increase tensions in Kenya, said Matt Bryden, former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia.
“The message is Christians and Kenyans should get out of northeastern province,” he said.
—With assistance from Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu.