Kenya:Kenyans Try to Trace a Student’s Path to Terrorism

Abdia Noor Abdi sat in the yard, exhausted after all the questions from the authorities. When she saw the face of her son on the front page of a daily newspaper, she pushed it aside and began to tear up.

He was not poor or marginalized, and did not seem especially angry. He strutted around in $200 suits, the son of a local chief.

But now her son, Abdirahim Abdullahi, has been identified as one of the four gunmen who killed nearly 150 people at a university in eastern Kenya last week, the authorities say.

Once a promising student himself, Mr. Abdullahi was killed along with the other gunmen as Kenyan forces stormed the campus in Garrisa. Police officers later paraded his naked, bullet-riddled body in the back of a pickup truck.

“He was a polite and obedient son,” his mother said. “We are in shock.”

But there were big mysteries in his life, his mother acknowledged. It was exactly one year ago, she said, that she last spoke to her son.

Mr. Abdullahi called her and said, “I’ll come home after evening prayers.”

She never talked to him again, she said.

The Kenyan authorities are trying to piece together how Mr. Abdullahi, 26, went from the competitive University of Nairobi law school, where he impressed other students with his quick wit, to being the terrorist the authorities contend he was.

Though Kenya’s slums have long been fertile recruiting ground for alienated youth lured to fight for the Shabab with the promise of being paid, Mr. Abdullahi was educated, with a seemingly bright future.

His family said that after breaking contact, he simply disappeared. Kenyan authorities said Mr. Abdullahi was killed with the other gunmen after getting cornered in a blood-splattered dorm.

The Shabab, the Somali militant group that has attacked Kenya several times, has gleefully claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retribution for Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia and vowing to make Kenya’s cities “run red with blood.”

On Monday, Kenyan defense officials said that their fighter jets had bombed two Shabab training camps in Somalia, the first military response to the university massacre, which was the worst terrorist attack in the country since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy here. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, had vowed to respond “in the severest way.”

It was difficult to assess the damage from the airstrikes, military officials said, because of heavy cloud cover. Kenya has carried out bombing raids in Somalia after terrorist assaults in the past, and the Shabab militants, knowing what was coming, have often abandoned their camps after major attacks.

The Shabab issued a statement saying the bombs had missed and landed in an empty field.

Mr. Kenyatta was coming under intense pressure to do something. Many Kenyans are furious that it took more than eight hours after the attacks began for commandos to arrive at the university. The delay was attributed to logistical issues, but the slow response raised questions about whether more lives could have been saved.

Students at other universities have threatened to boycott unless security at their campuses is significantly improved. Others have complained that the Kenyan government had intelligence that such an attack was in the works and did little to prevent it.

Kenyan officials have talked of building a 424-mile wall along the Somali border, but it is not clear how that would help. As the portrait of Mr. Abdullahi put forward by the authorities shows, the problem of deadly extremism is now coming from within.

Mr. Abdullahi grew up in Mandera, a sun-soaked town where the borders of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia meet. A Kenyan of ethnic Somali background, he did so well in primary school that an uncle urged him to attend a high school in Nairobi, the capital.

“He was bright, hardworking and polite,” recalled Abdisalam Birik, a former colleague. “The last time I saw him was when he went to university.”

After university, Mr. Abdullahi worked at a bank and managed a small business on the side. Friends said he liked expensive clothing and loved to shoot pool. Photos of him show a thin, attractive man with a strong chin.

According to The Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, Mr. Abdullahi wanted to join the Islamic State, but since he did not have a passport he settled on the Shabab (Kenya’s border with Somalia is notoriously porous).

His mother and six siblings said that he had never showed any interest in politics and that they had no idea what radicalized him.

“This was the first time we heard any news of him since he disappeared,” said Mr. Abdullahi’s older sister, Ifrah.

She remembers him as a helpful brother, a soccer fan and an avid reader.

“He liked ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ” she said. “And those literature books.”

“I think someone brainwashed him to do something on behalf of them,” she said.

Another sister, Khadija, 16, appeared angry, sad and frustrated.

“He will not come back,” she said as she slammed her fist on a table.

The family house is on a dirt road, not far from the center of town. Mr. Abdullahi’s mother spent much of the day sitting on a bed in the yard, stunned.

“He is gone,” she said and began to cry.

Isma’il Kushkush reported from Mandera, and Jeffrey Gettleman from Nairobi.

Source: The New York Times