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Kenya's Security Problem With Al-Shabab Doesn't Stop At Borders


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. When Islamist militants took over a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013, Kenya vowed never again - never again would Kenyan citizens be left so vulnerable. But this week, militants from the same group, Al Shabaab, struck a university campus, killing at least 143 students. The gunmen were killed. Authorities arrested five other people in connection with the massacre. This morning, a student who survived the attack was found. Other students remain unaccounted for. NPR's Gregory Warner reports that many Kenyans are asking how could this happen again?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The attacks were just so similar. One was a mall; the other was a campus dorm. But in both cases, four gunmen blasted into a building, two of them positioning themselves strategically to keep a platoon of Kenyan soldiers at bay, while inside the other two gunmen had hours to devote to singling out the Christians and shooting as many as possible. How could such a similar attack come a year-and-a-half after the one on Westgate Mall?

TEDMAN ALMO: Yes, that's the question every Kenyan is asking.

WARNER: I met Tedman Almo outside a Nairobi morgue where parents and relatives were lining up to identify the bodies of students. He accused the Kenyan president of not taking safety seriously. He said the week of the attack the Kenyan president had bragged about President Obama's announcement that he would be visiting Kenya for an African summit in July.

ALMO: And you could see the reaction from the president saying, you know, Kenya is safe. After all, Obama is coming. Is that the security meter? If Obama is coming and so all is well.

WARNER: Since the university attack, President Obama did express his support for the Kenyan people and said he still looks forward to his summer trip. The U.S. has been very active in training Kenyan security forces in counterterrorism, and Kenya does spend more than any other East African country on its military. It bought $50 million worth of weapons and tanks from Serbia and Russia in 2013. On Thursday, while the university attack was still ongoing, Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, addressed what he said was the problem.


PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: We as a country have suffered unnecessarily due to shortage of security personnel. Kenya badly needs additional officers, and I will not keep the nation waiting.

WARNER: He ordered 10,000 police recruits, whose enrollment was pending, to immediately report for training at the academy. But those enrollments were pending because of allegations of widespread bribery. Corruption in Kenya's police is seen as a far greater source of insecurity. So that brings us back to our question - can Kenya keep its people safe?

MATT BRYDEN: It's very hard to prevent this kind of attack because it was a low-tech but well-planned attack. I would also say, though, this isn't a Kenyan problem.

WARNER: Matt Bryden, with the Nairobi-based think tank Sahan Reserach, says that Kenya is particularly vulnerable because of its long, porous border with Somalia and its history of weak and corrupt policing. But Al Shabaab is not just in Kenya and Somalia. It has cells in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, Tanzania.

BRYDEN: This is a regional network and one of the things that has been very weak so far has been cooperation and sharing between the countries of the region.

WARNER: Across the African continent, in Nigeria a coalition of neighbors are making military strides against Islamist group there, Boko Haram. To keep Kenyans safe from its Islamist group, Al Shabaab, Kenya may need its neighbors to help out more. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. 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.