How Al Shabaab infiltrated Garissa University before attack

Rashid Charles, Mberesero Hassan Edin and Mohamed Abdi at the Milimani Law Courts during sentencing for their role in the Garissa University attack. [George Njunge, Standard]

Failure to act on prior warnings about an impending infiltration and attack of Garissa University College by terrorists facilitated the 2015 raid by Al Shabaab. 

Information on how Kenya’s security agencies failed to act on intelligence that the Somali-based insurgents were plotting an attack emerged in a judgement by a Magistrates Court in Nairobi.

Witnesses testified that terrorists called out people by names during the April 2 attack, which suggested they had prior knowledge of the facility. In the end, 148 people mostly students were killed by the gunmen.

The testimony of two witnesses - university student Collin Waliaula and then head of security Elias Wambugu - raised questions whether lives would have been saved by acting on the intelligence by beefing up security and flushing out anyone suspected to have been a militant or sympathiser from the university.

Mr Waliaula, who had transferred to the institution from Moi University, was the first State witness.

He told Nairobi Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi that he thought the attack was an inside job.

Waliaula said that in the midst of the gun battle, he heard the attackers call out names of the people they wanted to kill. Top on the attackers' list was Berbin Cheruiyot, the students' council chairman, Laban Kweya, who was the dean of students, deputy principal Prof Kiriamiti and a Prof Mwayuli.

He testified that the familiarity of the attackers with the names signaled that they might have been people who had lived among the students and knew their way around.

Waliaula, who the deputy president of the students governing council, recounted that the attack started at 5am when the calm morning turned into a hell-hole of gunshots, shouts and wails from those who were maimed and dying.

He remained in his room in Block D during the chaos. At one point he heard someone issue a command to shoot students who were scampering over a fence. “Kuna wengine wanaruka waya, piga hao miguu (others are jumping over the fence, shoot their legs),” he recalled one of the terrorists instructing another.

He remained hidden and scared in his room for four hours before he saw security agents. But his safety was not immediately assured even with the presence of security officers who had come to their rescue because he had to dodge a hail of bullets.

“My roommate, David, with whom I was with in the room, also survived. However, the student council president Kumba Laban Daniel, my best friend Christopher Nyakundi, Njeri, Caro Gatitu, Kosgey and Abel Mukhwana were among those who died in the attack,” he recalled.

The untold story of chaotic scenes, lady luck and high adrenaline action, such as what is seen in horror or action movies, and the heroic actions by Kenya’s security agents was contained in a trial that that lasted four years and ended up in a conviction of three men.

A total of 22 witnesses testified in the trial against Mohamed Abdi Abikar, Hassan Edin Hassan, Sahal Diriy Hussein, Garissa University guard Osman Abdi Dagane and Tanzanian national Rashid Charled Mberesero. They gave a blow by blow account of how a calm morning turned into a death-filled atmosphere, with four men killing innocent students with the pull of a trigger or the toss of a grenade.

Looming attack

Mr Wambugu testified that it was not the first time he heard about the looming attack.

“I received intelligence reports of the impending attack by Al Shabaab on the university from PC Munyeki of Garissa Police Station who was working in the operations room which gets all the intelligence reports. Despite that information, the police did not beef up security at the university,” he narrated.

At the time of the attack, the university was manned by six in-house guards, seven others outsourced from Hass Security Company, Kenya Police officers and two more from the Administration Police.

“I informed the two AP officers I was with that night during routine patrol of the university grounds. I retired at around 12.30am. I had received such threats in the past and this was not the first time,” he testified.

The security blunders did not end there. According to Wambugu, when he started hearing gunshots he called the two officers he had been with but none of them picked his calls.

It emerged that unarmed guards and students were left at the attackers’ mercy. Their boss was in a sewer making frantic calls, seeking help from, among other people, Garissa Police Station deputy OCS.

The first police officers who heeded the rescue call went to the institution after an hour. 

Everlyn Chepkemoi had a close shave with the agents of death and only her blood-plastered face saved her from the killers’ guns.

She recounted that on the day of the attack, about 36 members of the Christian Union were praying in the lecture room. She was leading the prayers.

They were gathered in the middle of the room with chairs pushed to the sides.

The court heard that the terrorists stormed into the room and started spraying them with bullets.

One bullet hit her on the right hand. Chepkemoi narrated that she went down praying, seeking God to save her. Other students also sought for divine intervention.

And amid the deafening din of the high-powered guns, the prayers slowly died down.