MANDERA and GARISSA, Kenya — Teaching finally resumed last week at Garissa University, the northeast Kenyan college where al-Shabab killed 148 people last April.
The attack by the al Qaeda-linked group, which over the last five years has morphed from a Somali insurgency into a regional terrorist threat, was the largest on Kenyan soil since the U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998, and it reinforced the deep and widening rift between Kenya’s marginalized northeast and the rest of the country: The students and teachers who fled Garissa after the attack were just the latest in a long line of educated or professional Kenyans who have abandoned this isolated, conflict-torn region.
But the reopening of the university — which ends nine months of uncertainty about its fate and puts to rest rumors that it might be shuttered or turned into a security installation — reflects the cautious optimism, at least among locals, that the northeast has been brought back from the brink.
After years of heavy-handed police and military operations against al-Shabab that eroded the trust between residents and the security services, the Garissa attack catalyzed a total rethink of Kenya’s strategy in the region. The result was a plan to make locals a part of the counterterrorism effort rather than view them as potential suspects.
The biggest change involved putting Mahmoud Saleh, a former provincial police commissioner who hails from the region, in charge of all police operations in the northeast. Saleh helped end a period of rampant banditry and violence here around the turn of the millennium by working with locals to track criminals’ movements. His ability to cultivate human intelligence is legendary, and he is lionized by locals both because of his previous record of success and because he is a native son of the region.
“He understood the local dynamics. He could tell the integrity of the information people were giving,” said Ali AwDoll, a human rights activist based in Garissa.
Saleh’s plan centered on putting a local face on the police force and trying to win over the public. “The problem we have is most of [the] security officials here, they come from outside the region,” he said in an interview. “If you don’t know the culture and the language — it’s very important. How do you communicate? How do you get information? How do you understand?”
In answer to that question, Saleh summoned roughly 300 Kenyan Somali policemen who were posted around the country back to their home region. He also professionalized the informal community watch units that had patrolled their home areas for years but remained outside the official chain of command. Integrated into the formal security apparatus now, they form a useful conduit for intelligence.
Saleh’s appointment reflects a belated realization on the part of Kenyan officials that securing the northeast hinges above all else on addressing the isolation and distrust of the country’s 2.3 million Kenyan Somalis. These people are Kenyan citizens as a result of where the border between the Kenya and Somalia was drawn at independence, but they have strong ties to Somalia, where many still have family and friends. Mutual distrust between Kenyan Somalis and the central government runs deep, dating back to a failed secessionist war in the 1960s aimed at joining the northeast to Somalia.
Lack of trust in Kenya’s government — coupled with the common ethnicity that straddles the border — has made it easier for al-Shabab to gain a foothold in the community, which is known to harbor cells from the group’s elite intelligence wing, known as the Amniyat. But locals are also far more adept at identifying suspicious newcomers, and they are weary of the havoc al-Shabab has wrought on their lives, with the group’s attacks driving away revenue-generating businesses run by Kenyans as well as driving away teachers and doctors.
In the past, Kenyan Somalis were too afraid to inform on al-Shabab fighters because the police, mostly from elsewhere in Kenya, would often arrest them as suspected terrorists as well. “I said I must win the hearts and minds of the community. They have gotten info and [have] nowhere to take it,” Saleh said. So far, locals say Saleh has helped restore trust, which in turn has yielded better intelligence on al-Shabab and has thwarted attacks.
Now in Mandera, a town of about 50,000 wedged against the border with Somalia in Kenya’s farthest northeast corner, community police officers wearing mismatched uniforms and sandals walk hand in hand with local young men as they chat — a gesture here that is platonic, but indicates close friendship. Security has also improved, as locals’ trust in law enforcement has grown: Towns across the northeast are noticeably livelier and more relaxed than they were a year ago. Al-Shabab’s attacks have been less frequent and less ambitious, deterred by the police escorts now provided for buses and the heightened security presence in towns. Most attacks have been simple cross-border operations involving small numbers of fighters.
On a recent night in Mandera, a group of men tinkered with their broken-down bus well after dark to get it ready for a morning departure. They were unhurried and calm. But a few months ago, said driver George Owiti, they would have missed their scheduled departure rather than risk being on the streets after sunset.
“It was like a war zone at night. Shooting on this side, shooting on that side,” said Mandera County Chief of Staff Tamima Ali.
In Garissa, the site of the university attack, the streets once again bustle well after dark. Young men go to the mosque for evening prayers, and though students from elsewhere in Kenya are refusing to come back, 145 local students showed up when the university reopened.
But as Saleh stitches up the torn relationship between the government and Kenyan Somalis from his side, security forces that don’t answer to him are unraveling it on theirs: A frightening number of Kenyan Somalis are disappearing and turning up dead days, weeks, or months later with little explanation. Several branches within the Kenyan security services, including the military and the National Intelligence Service, are widely thought to be behind the spate of deaths. And though he is the highest-ranking police official in the region, Saleh appears unable to stop the killing spree that is undoing much of the goodwill his community outreach has generated.
An investigation published in September by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous watchdog organization, reported at least 25 deaths and 81 disappearances of Muslim Kenyans at the hands of security services for suspected al-Shabab links.
Although the government denies responsibility for the deaths and disappearances, Kenya has an ugly history of using extrajudicial killings as a method of law enforcement, be it against suspected terrorists, criminals, or gangs. In one notorious incident in 1984, security forces massacred at least 1,000 Kenyan Somalis during an operation to disarm a local clan.
“There is no rational framework to this,” said Abdullahi Boru, a Nairobi-based researcher with Amnesty International. “We can’t kill our way out of this. We can’t torture our people and see that as a solution.”
The newfound calm in the northeast is precarious, and a campaign of extrajudicial killings by security services could easily scuttle the progress that has been made. Indeed, a spate of al-Shabab attacks in the region leading up to Christmas served as a potent reminder of how easily things could once again unravel.
Whether Garissa University can have a successful rebirth — and whether it can persuade students to come and sleep in the same dormitory where more than 100 of their classmates were gunned down — ultimately comes down to whether Kenya can guarantee security in the region. To do that, the government needs locals on its side — and so far, every step forward on this front seems to be followed by two steps back.