Professor’s Take: Education’s role in the Garissa school attack

David Shinn is professorial lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.

Al-Shabaab, an organization based in Somalia, launched a horrific suicide attack last week on Garissa University College in neighboring Kenya, resulting in the death of 148 people – mostly students.

Al-Shabaab, which means “The Youth,” is dedicated to the overthrow of the Somali government and the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Garissa is about 100 miles from the Somali border in a region inhabited by Kenyan Somalis. The university was an easy target – reportedly only having two armed guards.

Unfortunately, the attack on Garissa was not the first al-Shabaab attack in Kenya: There have been many, including a major one at Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. Al-Shabaab claims that it has singled out Kenya for attack because Kenyan troops are part of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which is trying to remove al-Shabaab from the regions of southern Somalia that it still controls.

While al-Shabaab has always employed terrorist tactics and has been affiliated with al-Qaeda for a number of years, its actions have become more heinous with the passing of time.

Unable to confront the African Union forces in major battle, it has chosen small ambushes, improvised explosive devices along roads, suicide bombings, targeted assassinations and, of course, attacks on civilian targets in Somalia and neighboring countries. This keeps the organization in the news and, probably – in the minds of the al-Shabaab leadership – relevant.

A notable revelation following the Garissa attack was that one of the four terrorists killed by Kenyan security forces was Abdirahim Abdullahi, whose father is a local chief in the Somali-inhabited part of Kenya.

In 2013, Abdullahi graduated from the University of Nairobi with a law degree and was considered a “brilliant upcoming lawyer.” His father reported that he disappeared a number of months ago, and it is now apparent that he crossed the border into Somalia and joined al-Shabaab.

Abdullahi is not the first well-educated person with a seemingly bright future to join al-Shabaab or some other terrorist organization. We may never know what triggered his decision to give up his future and agree to take part in what he must have known would be a suicide mission.

The most senior leaders of terrorist groups tend to be reasonably well-educated and sometimes come from prominent families – as in the case of Osama bin Laden. I have long argued, however, that the followers or foot soldiers in groups such as al-Shabaab tend to be young, unemployed, minimally educated and generally alienated from society for a long list of reasons. I continue to believe this is true, even if Abdullahi qualifies as a foot soldier rather than a leader.

The case of Abdullahi reminds us that good education and excellent prospects for a successful life do not eliminate the possibility of making a really bad choice – in this case, one that resulted in Abdullahi’s death, and, more importantly, the deaths of many innocent young people who also once had bright futures.

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