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Al-Shabab Militants Cross Border To Storm University In Kenya


The Islamist group that for years controlled Somalia before that country's government took it back has now attacked a university over the border in Kenya. At least 14 people have died in the attack by the group al-Shabab and hundreds of students remain unaccounted for. NPR's Gregory Warner is watching the ongoing attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and joins us now. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: And what are people telling you about what's going on there?

WARNER: Well, currently what's going on is a firefight between Kenyan security forces and some very strategically placed gunmen who have been holed up in this university with an unknown number of civilians for the last six or seven hours. And this extended situation suggests that this attack was well-preplanned. The gunmen scoped out where in the university that they wanted to lay siege to have the most strategic position and a maximal view inside and outside to prevent Kenyan security forces from entering. As you mentioned, the Kenyan president says that some students have been taken hostage. More than a hundred students are unaccounted for. We don't know, at this point, who is taken hostage and who is just trapped inside. And this attack began in the dawn hours.

MONTAGNE: And some of the students who escaped have been speaking about this. What have you heard from them?

WARNER: Sure. Well, every witness I talked to say that this reminds them of another attack back in 2013 on a Nairobi shopping mall called Westgate shopping mall. And that was actually - that attack was claimed by the same Islamist group, al-Shabab. And the attack, especially the mode of entry, was very similar.

In this case, the gunmen entered, they overpowered security guards with grenades and explosions and then entered the dorm shooting. It was an entry designed, of course, to pin down civilians and create this kind of drawn-out siege situation. The Westgate attack back in September of 2013 took place over four days. So parents and classmates at this point are just terrified that this attack at this university may not end today and may not end tomorrow.

There are, though, important differences from Westgate. In this case, Kenyan security did seem to show up more quickly. They've been more professional about delivering information to the public as opposed to the very poisonous rumor mill that developed around the Westgate mall. But the most important thing is, is the Kenyan military prepared to deal with gunmen who are hiding out in a close situation and enter quickly and not kill hostages that may be trapped inside?

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk momentarily about that group, al-Shabab.


MONTAGNE: It's on the run from Somalia. It used to control that country for all intents and purposes.

WARNER: Right.

MONTAGNE: But what sort of presence does it have in Kenya now?

WARNER: Well, I mean, they say that when al-Shabab was booted out of power of Somalia, a great number of those fighters came to Kenya. Kenya shares a long, porous border with Somalia. And Kenya is, unfortunately, an easy target for agents who are located both inside Somalia but inside Kenya.

I'm actually looking at a leaflet right now which some Nairobi students have sent me. They say that it was warning them of an imminent attack by al-Shabab on a major university in Nairobi. I'm still trying to verify that. But there is a sense that the threat is all around, and it's something that the Kenyan security forces need to get a lot better at. They need to get better at intelligence gathering, and they need to reform corruption in the police force, which, of course, feeds more of this insecurity.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Gregory Warner speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.