Raila Odinga vowed that his government would not bow to terrorism by withdrawing some 2,400 Kenyan troops from Somalia, where they have been deployed since last October to fight against the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab.
Sunday’s attacks in Garissa, which left 17 people dead and more than 60 more injured, were the worst in a series that have occurred since October, mostly in Nairobi, the coastal city of Mombasa, and in the north of the country. Garissa is located in North Eastern Province, about 100 miles from the Somalia border.
Masked gunmen shot dead two policemen guarding an Africa Inland Church (AIC) service, and then used the policemen’s weapons to shoot at worshipers. A Catholic Church in the town was also attacked with hand grenades.
Kenyan officials said all of the dead were at the AIC, while two children were injured in the grenade blast at the Catholic service.
“It is the worst [attack since October] in terms of the numbers killed, the manner of execution, the anger behind it and the anguish it has aroused, as well as the national impact it has had,” The Standard daily quoted national police spokesman Eric Kiraithe as saying.
The newspaper said the latest fatalities brought to “just over eighty” the number of Kenyans killed since the troop deployment.
“These brazen attacks on innocent Christian worshippers are horrific,” said Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA. “The area near the border of Somalia and Kenya is becoming a killing field as well as a place where many aid workers are being kidnapped.”
“While attacks on churches in Nigeria have held our attention over the last few months, attacks on Christians have increased in the Somalia/Kenya border area,” he said, calling for prayers for the families of the victims.
Speaking during a visit to Garissa, Odinga said pulling the troops out of Somalia would amount to surrendering to the terrorists, urging Kenyan citizens to support security forces in fighting terrorism that could “destabilize the whole African continent” if the Somali and Nigerian groups linked up.
“Surrender is therefore not an option for us because if we leave Somalia, anarchy will set in which will spill over the borders,” he said.
Odinga warned Kenyans not to fall into the trap apparently intended by the terrorists, to incite animosity between Christians and Muslims in the country. Mainstream Muslim organizations denounced the attacks.
Some security experts believe al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda’s north African affiliate already collaborate with Boko Haram, a group responsible for multiple attacks in Nigeria, most of them targeting Christians.
In a speech in Washington on June 25, U.S. Africa Command commander Gen. Carter Ham said that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram each posed “a dangerous and worrisome threat.”
“What really concerns me is the indications that the three organizations are seeking to co-ordinate and synchronize their efforts. This is a real problem for us and for African security in general,” he told a seminar at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The three groups may be sharing funds, training and explosive materials, Ham added.
Kenya’s stability has long been impacted by the situation in Somalia, which has been in a state of near-anarchy since 1991. Some half a million Somali refugees are being hosted at a refugee camp in Kenya that was set up more two decades ago, originally designed to house about 90,000 people.
Kenya’s intervention in Somalia followed a spate of attacks last September and October, which saw fighters cross over from Somalia to kidnap and kill foreign aid workers and tourists.
After Sunday’s attacks some Kenyan commentators raised the possibility that al-Shabaab may be collaborating with jihadist elements inside Kenya’s North Eastern Province (NEP).
“Security officials are now working on the assumption the attack on the churches signals a new shift in tactics by Al-Shabaab: a desire to open a new broad front in the province capitalizing on the existing support network of jihadi cells and radicalized youth,” Rashid Abdi, religion editor of Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, wrote in a column.
“That NEP should be the focus of Al-Shabaab new terror campaign is not surprising. The vast province is poorly policed, has a long and porous border with Somalia and has long been a hotbed of Islamist radicalism,” he said.
In an editorial, the Daily Nation said that if it emerged those behind the attacks were of the “home-grown variety, then they must be hunted to the bitter end and put out of action.”
“The militant al-Shabaab movement has built a cross-border presence and a clandestine support network among Muslim populations in the north east [of Kenya] and Nairobi and on the coast, and is trying to radicalize and recruit youth from these communities, often capitalizing on long-standing grievances against the central state,” the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank, said in a report last January.
Kenya is no stranger to Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Dar-es-Salaam, capital of neighboring Tanzania, in 1998, killing a total of 224 people, including 12 Americans.
In 2002 the group used a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile in a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner shortly after it took off from Mombasa. At the same time it bombed an Israeli-owned hotel in the city, killing ten Kenyans and three Israelis.
Adding to Kenya’s security concerns, police last month arrested two Iranians who led investigators to a cache of explosives. An Associated Press report citing unnamed officials said the two were believed to be members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations division, Qods Force, and to have been planning attacks against Israeli, U.S., British or Saudi targets in Kenya.
Earlier this year, alleged Qods Force operatives were linked to attacks against Israeli interests in Thailand, India and Georgia, and last October the U.S. uncovered an alleged Qods Force plot to carry out attacks on American soil, beginning with the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington.