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Al-Shabab Attack In Kenya Is Deadliest Since 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombing


And in Kenya today, the sounds of mourning pierced in the air.


UNIDENTIFIED MOURNERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: That was one coffin leaving the morgue in Nairobi to be buried of the 147 students who were massacred yesterday on a university campus. Four gunmen from the Islamist group al-Shabaab entered the dormitories at dawn. Kenyan army commandos arrived, and a standoff lasted until after nightfall. It was Kenya's deadliest terror attack since the U.S. Embassy was bombed back in 1998. NPR's Gregory Warner has followed this story since it began. And this morning, he spoke to relatives at the morgue.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The last time Felix Baraza spoke to his eldest daughter, Diana, was Wednesday night. She called, as college students do, to ask for money.

FELIX BARAZA: She wanted some money for cafeteria.

WARNER: They chatted a bit. Diana is an education major focusing on math and geography. She told him she was a bit nervous about the spring exams, so she was planning to wake up early for one last exam prep course before the school closed for Easter. The next morning, Baraza heard about the attack.

BARAZA: So I tried to call the phone. It was not reaching. Then after, at night, I went to Internet. So it's when I found she was among the first ones to be shooted.

WARNER: She had been gunned down in a classroom in that exam prep class. There was a photo circulating on social media of students lying under their desks in pools of blood. The students seem to have been shot where they were sitting. Baraza said he recognized Diana wearing a red cotton dress with white sleeves. He had bought it for her last month. Talking to parents and relatives here at the morgue, the same details keep coming up, how they tried to call but could not get through or only got through in the early morning, in the first hours of the attack. It seemed to suggest that most of the students were killed early on in the day, even as the spokesman for the Islamist group al-Shabaab was bragging TO reporters that afternoon that they were holding hundreds of hostages. Solomon Namisi, an engineer, said he got the first text from his nephew at 6 in the morning and then another one at 7:30.

SOLOMON NAMISI: Just text us and told us I have to pray for him; they've been attacked. That is the whole.

WARNER: And he said, pray for me.


WARNER: The 20-year-old student was in the dormitory hall that the gunmen had chosen for their standoff with police. While some of the gunmen stood guard, the others went shooting from room to room. Namisi did not want to tell me the name of his nephew because although authorities say that all students have been accounted for, not every body has been identified yet by their families.

NAMISI: These are the hope for the country. These are the kids that the country has hope, and we also have hope in them.

WARNER: He said he wasn't ready to give up his hope just yet, so early in this cloudy morning.

MONTAGNE: And that's Gregory Warner, reporting from the mortuary in Nairobi, Kenya, where the bodies of students are being taken. And, Greg, let me keep you with us here for a moment to ask you, what is known at this moment in time about what happened?

WARNER: Well, the attack happened in Garissa, Kenya, which has been called the most peaceful town in Kenya and is now one of the most militarized. It's a place where Kenyan army has a base, antiterrorism police frequently patrol mostly because it's 100 miles to the Somali border. It's also a key town in Kenya's north, which has a much more ethnic Somali population. And that is a place where al-Shabaab militants have found, in the past, cover. It's a town that has been targeted before but never with such a brazen attack and such a deadly attack as this one.

MONTAGNE: And this town of Garissa has a larger Somalian population. Is that one of the reasons it would have been targeted by this group that has been based in and even controlled Somalia?

WARNER: Yeah, that's exactly what al-Shabaab said. They have this rhetoric of this is Christian occupation on Muslim lands. We should also, though, say that most of the targets of al-Shabaab, most of the deaths have been their fellow Muslims. But that's certainly their mantra. And the broader context of this is that Kenya has troops over the border in Somalia. It's been fighting against al-Shabaab in Somalia, so al-Shabaab's intention is to take that war to Kenyan civilians.

MONTAGNE: Now, one of the things that's being reported about this massacre was that these al-Shabaab militants separated out the Christians and Muslims and let the Muslims students go. How much do you know about that?

WARNER: Right. There is certainly evidence from witnesses that some people - a security guard, for instance, was asked to say the Shahadah, the Muslim prayer.And if he could say it, he was spared. So there was some of that. However, there were other instances where witnesses reported just a shooting spree. And they certainly - there were Muslim victims.

MONTAGNE: What does this mean for Kenya going forward? Because this is, of course, not the first such attack by al-Shabaab.

WARNER: Right, right. I mean, a couple of things - clearly, the choice of Garissa was somewhat symbolic. This is a highly fortified town, and the idea, I suppose, of the terrorists was to be able to say, listen; you can bring in your army. You can bring in your anti-terror police. We can kill your university students, and this many of them, right under you. And there's nothing you can do. Even though the army did arrive at the scene within minutes, they were paralyzed because of the gunmen's choice of position. It's very similar, I think, in messaging, to the 2013 attack, if you remember, in Nairobi Westgate shopping mall. A shopping mall on busy Saturday was attacked. Sixty-seven people were killed. So again we have an attack where innocent people were killed, but also a larger message was sent. That mall was the kind of pinnacle of the Kenyan economy, the Kenyan growth story. We're going to kill people right in there; there's nothing you can do about it.

MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Gregory Warner, speaking to us from a mortuary in Nairobi, Kenya. And the al-Shabaab gunmen were reportedly killed by Kenyan army commandos. No suspects were taken prisoner during that standoff. 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.