NAIROBI — Kenya is retaliating against al-Shabab for last week’s massacre of students at a Kenyan university, sending warplanes to bomb the extremist group’s camps in neighboring Somalia, officials said Monday.
Kenyan air force jets attacked al-Shabab positions Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, said Col. David Obonyo, a military spokesman.
Obonyo said the planes pounded camps in Gondodowe and Ismail, both in the Gedo region bordering Kenya, news agencies reported.
The Kenyan military had information that attacks inside Kenya have originated from those sites, the Reuters news agency said.
“Two camps hosting militants in Gondodowe and Sheikh Ismaili were destroyed,” Obonyo said, according to Bloomberg News. “We have been able to confirm that through satellite. A vehicle suspected to carry militants was also destroyed in Gondodowe.”
Gunmen killed 148 people Thursday in a predawn attack on Garissa University College in eastern Kenya. Almost all of those killed were students. Four gunmen also died in the assault.
Al-Shabab, based in Somalia, asserted responsibility for the attack, which brought the death toll from the group’s assaults in Kenya to more than 400 since April 2013. In September of that year, 67 people were killed, including four attackers, in a siege of Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall.
Al-Shabab denied Monday that its camps were hit by Kenyan airstrikes, asserting that the bombs fell on farmland, Reuters reported.
Retired Col. Musa Noor, an adviser to the government in Kenya’s Mandera county, which is along the border with Somalia, said the strikes were intended to create a “buffer zone” between the border and al-Shabab’s operations base.
That, he said, would force the militants “back into the interior of Somalia.” But he warned that the airstrikes, while offering Kenya some respite as al-Shabab scrambles or works on an alternative strategy, are not a “long-term solution.”
He also noted the possibility of retaliatory attacks by the group.
The airstrikes come as the Kenyan government struggles to prove it can ensure security.
The university is just off Kismayo Road, which cuts through the town and stretches about 90 miles to the Somali border. The porous nature of the 420-mile border is blamed for much of the insecurity in Kenya.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed that the nation would respond to the massacre with force.
The government and police have been faulted for what critics say was a sluggish response in the critical hours after the gunmen stormed the university. Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper reported that it took seven hours for police to send a specialized unit to the college while the attack was ongoing. When the unit finally went in, it took only 30 minutes for the force to kill the gunmen.
“The security matter should be taken seriously, and they’ve completely neglected the issue,” said Hussein Malaam, a Garissa University student who was awoken early on the morning of the attacks by a phone call from a friend warning him not to go to school.
“The people were trapped here for 13 hours. Where was the government? They failed to protect their people,” said Farhiya Haji, a high school student from a nearby village. “We don’t feel safe here, and the government isn’t doing anything to protect us.”
Al-Shabab asserted that it attacked the university in retaliation for Kenya’s deployment of troops in Somalia, where an African Union peacekeeping force that includes Kenyan troops is fighting the extremist group. The force arrested militants and seized ammunition from an al-Shabab camp in Gondodowe in August.
“If going into Somalia was to secure Kenya, then they have failed,” said Abdullahi B. Halakhe, a Nairobi-based East Africa researcher with Amnesty International. “The elephant in the room [is] what is Kenya’s plan as far as Somalia is concerned. What does the exit plan look like? Is it two years, is it three years?”
As details of the Garissa attack emerge, Kenyans have been stunned by the revelation that at least one of the gunmen was the son of a Kenyan government official from an area bordering Somalia’s Gedo region. Abdirahim Mohammed Abdullahi, 24, an ethnic Somali and a graduate of the University of Nairobi law school, was reported missing by his father last year after he crossed into Somalia to join al-Shabab.
“The fact that we can have a lawyer who can easily get recruited into the al-Shabab circle, they’re saying that everybody has the potential of being an al-Shabab operative now,” said Ali AwDoll, a blogger and human rights activist in Garissa. “I’m actually personally shocked.”
Branigin reported from Washington.