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Garissa University Attack: The Lights Should Have Gone Out

Updated on May 13, 2015
Bodies of Students Strewn in a Classroom
Bodies of Students Strewn in a Classroom

There was no better time for the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) to pull off one of their infamous power blackouts, than when Al Shabaab militia attacked Garissa University. But always trust the KPLC, known to have blacked out even a President Uhuru Kenyatta function, to ambush you with a blackout when you really need light, and to give you uninterrupted light when it is the last thing you want.

The point is, the Al Shabaab attack, launched in the early dawn of 2nd April 2015, should have been blacked out. Before the well trained Recce company of the Kenya Police set off on their ponderous, six-hour, intervention road trip from Nairobi to Garissa, their commander should have placed a voice call to the manager of the erratic power company, to switch off the lights in Garissa University. That would have saved some lives. This is not a joke, it is a maneuver borrowed, albeit without permission, from the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) operations manual. And the Recce company, trained by Americans among other trainers, know this very well.

Activating Survival Instincts

It is easy to understand why so many students, 168 in total, were killed by the gun wielding terrorists. They were caught by surprise, their defenses were down and it took some time before they fully comprehended what was going on. Compare their reaction, for instance, to the stampede of Nairobi University students when underground power cables, belonging to the KPLC of course, exploded in a power mishap. Similar reactions have since been witnessed at the Migori Teachers College, when students left for home on the basis of a rumor; and more recently, at Kenyatta University where there was a stampede out of the library, on account of an unidentified stranger with a hooded cardigan walking in.

Since they were caught flatfoot, the reflexes of the Garissa students were numbed and they simply watched like zombies, hoping that the terrorists would spare them. According to survivors, it was a most painful experience watching colleagues being slaughtered as one awaited his turn to be dispatched. Others were paralyzed by fear in their hostel rooms, praying that the massacre would not reach them. Yet the lights blazed on, keeping the gunmen firmly in control.

Now just imagine that the lights suddenly went out. That would have been a sure way of activating the survival instinct of the students and starting a stampede. A stampede is exactly what the terrorists did not want. It is easy to talk in hindsight, but there is no guarantee that this is the last such attack by Al Shabaab. So let us explore this scenario together.

Al Shabaab are Ill Equipped

I seriously doubt that the ill equipped Al Shabaab militia had alternative lighting arrangements once the power went off. Even if they had, they would have to divide their attention between lighting up the place and controlling their victims. That was likely to take away control from them, especially since they launched their attack at dawn, when it was fairly dark. The sudden darkness would also confuse their well planned operation. More importantly, the darkness would embolden their victims into some kind of fleeing action. In the confusion, many who otherwise just awaited their deaths, would have escaped, or at least had a split second to think on what to do.

The FBI Maneuver

Whenever there is a hostage situation inside a building, the FBI officers almost always switch the lights out first. Then they begin to secure the building floor by floor until they get to the target floor. Of course they carry with them their lighting apparatus, which the Kenya Police may remember to forget on such an operation. If it is the case of one gunman holding several people hostage, sudden lights out gives the hostages a chance to escape or charge at the man. It decreases the assailant’s chances of success, and enhances prospects of escape for the hostages. In some cases, the FBI reaches the target floor to find that the hostages have already taken over control of the situation.

One of the big blunders of the Al Shabaab operation was that it was launched in the dark. Such operations are quite difficult to carry out even in broad daylight. Any number of things may go wrong since the target is living, thinking human beings. So, at night, such operations are much more complicated. The only advantage is that the victims may just be coming out of sleep and their thinking is still retarded. That is why house robbers choose the wee hours. Nevertheless, the timing was a blunder precisely because proper lighting is needed for such operations, and that could fail.

The Kenya Police should have taken advantage of the improper timing. Since the students cowering in the hostel rooms gradually became aware of what was going on, they made phone calls to their parents and other acquaintances. Information trickled on to the police. The first thing would have been turning the lights out. Lights out would have given the students the incentive to react, even irrationally. When rational behavior is going to get you killed, then irrational behavior suffices. Just ask the Nairobi University student who jumped to his death from the upper floors of a hostel during the power mishap stampede.

Al Shabaab Overrated

The Al Shabaab is seriously overrated in Kenya. An organization that has run out of most the territory they control, including their main economic mainstays like pirate operations in the Indian Ocean, Al Shabaab is an organization on the brink of collapse. The terror group also seems to have realized that bomb blasts involve intricate planning and end up killing very few people. Consequently, they have resorted to the much easier to operate gun attacks on defenseless citizens, where their operatives physically make body counts of the dead before being killed themselves. These are the kinds of operations that are relatively easy to thwart. Moreover, the killers have moved out of the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa, where the Kenya police have literally driven them out of town, to peripheral outposts like Garissa, where government reaction time is relatively slower. All these are signs that they are going down. Consequently, they cannot have such sophisticated planning as to deal with unexpected setbacks such as power blackouts.

So maybe the Kenya police would do well to make the lives of the rag-tag militia more difficult by complicating their operations. KPLCs infamous blackouts may just come in handy after all.


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