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The Garissa University Massacre

At least 148 people were massacred and 79 were wounded when Al-Shabaab, a Somalian Islamist group, attacked a Kenyan university in the northeastern town of Garissa, on April 2, 2015. Kenya’s interior ministry said the dead included 142 students, three policemen and three soldiers.[1]

The Al-Shabaab group said during the siege that the assault was launched in revenge for Kenya sending troops to fight the group in Somalia.[2]

After severe setbacks in Somalia, Al-Shabaab is turning its attention to Kenya and other African countries (Ethiopia, Djibouti). Many of the recent attacks in Kenya were carried out by Al-Shabaab fighters who returned to Kenya after training in Somalia. The high-profile attacks on the Westgate shopping mall and Mpeketoni, in Kenya’s northeastern Lamu County, were echoed in multiple smaller, but also deadly attacks in public places across Kenya.[3]

The attack and the rescue operation

Members of Al-Shabaab attacked the university campus after dawn and were holed up in a dormitory with hostages until the evening.

The attackers used grenades to breach the gates and they shot the guards at the entrance to the university. Police officers responded, but the attackers managed to get into the university. Hurling grenades and firing automatic rifles, the masked gunmen stormed the university as students were sleeping, shooting dead dozens before setting Muslims free and holding Christians and others hostage.[4]

Kenyan security forces had encircled the building and exchanged sporadic bursts of gunfire with the terrorists inside, who were holding scores of students hostage. 

In the final hour before darkness fell, Kenyan troops stormed the student dormitory where the gunmen were holed up as explosions and heavy gunfire rang out. Troops then continued to search the campus for any possible insurgents.[5]

The operation at Garissa University lasted some 16 hours, from dawn until well after dark, with all four terrorists killed, said Joseph Nkaissery, the interior minister. [6]

The Al-Shabaab response

The Al-Shabaab group said their gunmen were holding Christian hostages inside the complex in revenge for Nairobi’s troops fighting in Somalia. The gunmen divided students at the university between Muslims and non-Muslims, letting the Muslim students go, the group’s spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told the AFP news agency by telephone. Rage said the armed group had targeted Kenya for its involvement in the African Union mission against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. “When our men arrived, they released some people, the Muslims, and it is them that alerted the government. We are holding the others hostage,” he said, adding that those seized were Christians, but not saying how many there were.[7]

In a statement issued on April 4, 2015, the group warned Kenyans that their cities will “run red with blood”. “No amount of precaution or safety measures will be able to guarantee your safety, thwart another attack or prevent another bloodbath from occurring in your cities,” the statement read.[8]

The Kenyan response

After the attack, the country’s interior ministry announced a 12-hour curfew starting at 6.30pm in Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, and Tana River counties.[9]

Kenya’s interior ministry released an image of a man they suspect of being behind the attack. Authorities are offering a $215,000 reward for information leading the capture of Mohamed Mohamud, also known as Dulyadin and Gamadhere.[10]

Kenya’s interior ministry said on April 4, 2015, that five men – suspected accomplices – were arrested in connection with the attack.[11]

Two days after the attack, in a televised speech, Kenya’s president,  said the Al-Shabaab assault that killed 148 people at the university is an “attack on humanity” and vowed to take harsh measures against what he called “extremists” The time has come for us to be honest with ourselves and indeed each other,” President Kenyatta said. “The radicalization that breeds terrorism is not conducted in the bush at night. It occurs in the full glare of day in homes, in madrasas and in mosques with rogue imams”.”

Kenyatta said that the planners and financiers of attacks like the one in Garissa are “deeply embedded in our communities”. He said the government must get the information and cooperation from parents, community chiefs, political leaders as well as religious leadership to effectively combat “the terrorists”. “We must ask the question: Where are the parents and the families of those who are radicalized, where is the community leadership, where is the political leadership? Where is the religious leadership?” Kenyatta said. [12]

Kenyatta also declared three days of national mourning.

Kenya’s military has launched air strikes against Al-Shabaab bases in Somalia following an attack on a Kenyan university that killed 148 people. Colonel David Obonyo, a military spokesman, said that warplanes had attacked positions of the Al-Shabaab group on the afternoon of April 5 and in the early morning of April 6, 2015.[13]

Al-Shabaab’s allies in Kenya

Al Hijra

Al-Shabaab works with hardline imams and underground groups such as Al-Hijra in Kenya.  Al-Hijra’s roots go back to the Islamic Party of Kenya in the 1990s, when Sheikh Rogo and Sheikh Makaburi – who became the ideological leaders of Al-Hijra – were themselves moving in al-Qaeda circles”. Both Rogo and Makaburi were killed and Al-Shabaab now uses their deaths as a recruitment tool in their videos.[14]

The emir of Al-Hijra, Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali, for instance, left Nairobi to fight in Somalia in 2009, where he was placed in charge of “Kenyan affairs” a few months after Kenyan troops began operations inside Somalia against Al-Shabaab.

Al-Hijra is believed to be behind many terror attacks in Kenya and appears to have gained strength.  Al-Hijra also has a Tanzanian wing.


In January 2015, a new group emerged in East Africa calling itself al-Muhajiroun. With apparent links to Mombasa in Kenya and Mwanza in Tanzania – and noticeable promotion of public speeches by Ahmad Iman Ali – it is possibly an offshoot of al-Hijra.

The group announced its arrival with the publication of a magazine in Swahili and English called Amka and a pledge of loyalty to Al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. Shortly after, it issued a public message to Tanzania calling on the government to “protect our sheikhs”.[15]

“We’ve heard of them but the details are very scanty on where they were and where they are now,” said Abdulhamid Sakar, executive director of the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance.

International responses to the attack

Pope Francis condemned the massacre, calling it an act of “senseless brutality” and said he would pray for the perpetrators to change. The pontiff’s feelings were expressed in a telegram sent by his Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, to Cardinal John Njue, the President of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Good Friday, the holiest day of the year in the Christian calendar.[16]

US President Barack Obama also condemned “the terrorist atrocities” and confirmed that he would continue with plans to visit Kenya later in the year. “The future of Kenya will not be defined by violence and terror; it will be shaped by young people like those at Garissa University College – by their talents, their hopes, and their achievements. This is a message I will relay to the Kenyan people when I visit Kenya in July,” Obama said in a statement.[17]


Al-Shabaab is considered a serious threat to the security and stability of Somalia and its neighbors.  Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in Garissa, the same group which carried out the Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi in September 2013, when four gunmen killed at least 67 people in a four-day siege. The aforementioned attack was the worst in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by Al-Qaeda, when 213 people were killed by a huge truck bomb.

The military success of the AMISOM forces in Somalia has had limited effect on the operational capabilities of Al-Shabaab and its allies in Kenya. President Kenyatta said that the planners and financiers of attacks like the one in Garissa town are “deeply embedded in our communities”. This is one of the main challenges for the Kenyan government – to isolate and contain the radical Islamic elements within the Muslim community of Kenya.

Al-Shabaab is definitely proving resilient and highly capable, and they still have regional networks that are capable of staging fairly sophisticated and spectacular attacks. That threats not going to go away any time soon.

[1] Al-Shabaab threatens more attacks in Kenya after Garissa, Al Jazeera, April 4, 2015.

[2] Al-Shabaab siege of Kenya university leaves 147 dead, Al Jazeera, April 2, 2015.

[3] ISIL courts Al-Shabaab as al-Qaeda ties fade away, Al Jazeera, March23, 2015.

[4] Official: death toll in Kenya university attack climbs to 147, Al Arabiya, April 2, 2015

[5] Ibid.

[6] Al-Shabaab siege of Kenya university leaves 147 dead, Al Jazeera, April 2, 2015.

[7] Kenya troops storm university campus held by Al-Shabaab, Al Jazeera, April 2, 2015.

[8] Al-Shabaab threatens more attacks in Kenya after Garissa,Al Jazeera, April 4, 2015.

[9] Al-Shabaab siege of Kenya University leaves 147 dead, Al Jazeera, April 2, 2015.

[10] Kenya troops storm university campus held by Al-Shabaab, Al Jazeera, April 2, 2015.

[11] Al-Shabaab threatens more attacks in Kenya after Garissa ,Al Jazeera, April 4, 2015.

[12] Kenyan leader vows to crush Al-Shabaab after massacre, Al Jazeera, April 4, 2015.

[13] Kenya strikes Al-Shabaab in Somalia after Garissa attack, Al Jazeera, April 6, 2015.

[14] ISIL courts  Al-Shabaab as al-Qaeda ties fade away, Al Jazeera, March23, 2015.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Survivor: Gunmen scouted Kenya campus before attack, Al Jazeera, April 3, 2015.

[17] Ibid.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).