NAIROBI — Somali militants burst into a university in eastern Kenya on Thursday and killed nearly 150 people, most of them students, in the worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy here, laying bare the nation’s continuing vulnerability after years of battling Islamist extremism.
A small group of militants, most likely between four and 10, roved dorm to dorm, separating Christian from Muslim students and killing the Christians, the authorities said. Students described being awakened before dawn by the sound of gunfire and fleeing for their lives as masked attackers closed in.
Officials said that by the time Kenyan commandos cornered and killed the attackers on an upper floor, 147 people lay dead. Most were students, but two security guards, one police officer, and one soldier also were killed in the attack, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said. At least 79 people were wounded.
Despite new security laws, significant Western help, and a heightened state of vigilance that has already put police officers on almost every major street corner in the capital, Kenya remains squarely in the cross hairs of Al Shabab, the Somali terrorist group that immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday.
Al Shabab has killed hundreds of Kenyans — on country buses, in churches, in remote coastal towns, and inside one of Kenya’s fanciest malls during a devastating siege in 2013 that left 67 people dead and rattled Kenya’s prized image as a cornerstone of stability in this part of Africa.
The Kenyan government is so desperate to stop Al Shabab, one of the most violent franchises of Al Qaeda, that some officials have even proposed building a 424-mile wall along the entire Somali border.
Kenya’s tourist industry, one of the pillars of its economy, has been badly damaged by the terrorist attacks. There are also fears that Al Shabab’s relentless emphasis on singling out Christians could inflame religious strife in a country already wrestling with tensions between a Muslim minority, which has complained about government persecution, and a Christian majority that increasingly feels under attack.
The violence Thursday came just days after President Obama announced that he would visit Kenya in July, his first trip to his father’s homeland since taking office.
Obama had stayed away until now, at least in part out of concerns about Kenya’s public safety.
The White House issued a statement condemning the attack, but it offered no indication whether the siege would change Obama’s travel plans.
Kenyan authorities said that around dawn the attackers stormed Garissa University College in Garissa, about 90 miles from the Somali border. Though the college is in a predominantly ethnic Somali area of Kenya, it attracts students from across the country.
In a statement early on Thursday, Al Shabab said that its fighters had attacked the university early in the morning, separating Muslims from non-Muslims in an “operation against the infidels.”
In an audio message soon afterward, an Al Shabab spokesman, Ali Mohamoud Raghe, said the attack had been carried out because “the Christian government of Kenya has invaded our country,” a reference to the Kenyan military’s 2011 incursion into Somalia to oust Al Shabab from its strongholds.
He said the university had been targeted because it was educating many Christian students in “a Muslim land under colony,” a reference to the large Somali population in a part of Kenya that Somalia once tried to claim. He called the university part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed to crack down on terrorists.
On Thursday, panicked students streamed out of the besieged university with chilling stories of witnessing their classmates being killed.
Augustine Alanga, 21, an economics student, said he had been asleep in his dormitory when the shooting began. He said he bolted from his room without stopping to put on his shoes, cutting his feet as he sprinted barefoot across the campus and into a nearby forest.
“When I looked back, I saw them,” Alanga recalled. “There were five or six of them. They were masked. And they were shooting live rounds.”
The authorities said that the attack began when the gunmen killed two guards who were posted at the university’s main gate.
“Police officers heard the gunshots and responded swiftly, and engaged the gunmen in a fierce shootout; however, the attackers retreated and gained entry into the hostels,” a police statement said.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.