We were unsure whether to bother noting down the claim of one local resident that ‘In 2010, Interpol voted Garissa as the safest town in east and central Africa’  – but this turns out to have been the case.  Although the jihadist rebel movement al-Shabaab controlled the territory across the Somali border from Garissa from 2008, Kenya was not a target for attack. 
However, events were unfolding that would dramatically alter Garissa’s future. In 2010 Kenya put troops on the Somalia border, and there were sporadic attacks and retaliations between Shabaab and the Kenyan police and the military. Violence began to worsen in 2011: in February, a Somali sheikh was assassinated in Garissa, while another scholar was gunned down in Dadaab refugee complex. In March, Shabaab militants fired at a Kenyan General Service Unit (paramilitary police) water tank in the border town of Liboi.  In response, GSU officers entered Somalia and killed a dozen suspected Shabaab militants. Shabaab then mounted two revenge attacks on Kenyan police in Liboi in quick succession.
Later that year came the trigger for more intense conflict in Garissa. Two refugees and two Spanish doctors were kidnapped from the Dadaab refugee camp complex in Garissa county in Kenya’s North-Eastern Province on 13 October 2011. Three days later the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) entered Somalia to join the war against al-Shabaab. Somalia was at rock bottom, following two war-torn decades, and Kenya had already been running below-the-radar operations to combat Shabaab for some time. But its wholesale move into Somalia was also a catalyst for the violence to come in Garissa.
Shabaab moved fast to hit back in Garissa. Later that October, a vehicle in a convoy carrying members of a Kenyan paramilitary unit hit a mine planted by Shabaab seven kilometres from Garissa town. Four people were injured. The following week, on 5 November 2011, two grenades were hurled at the East African Pentecostal Church in Garissa town. Among the two victims was an eight year-old girl.
Within a month there were four more attacks. Two more grenades claimed three lives and injured a further 27 people at a Holiday Inn and a shop in Garissa. In Bulla-Garay, near Mandera town, a roadside bomb killed a Kenyan soldier and wounded four others on patrol. In Dadaab, a mine targeting a UN convoy killed a police officer and injured three others, and within two weeks a UNHCR official and a refugee leader were gunned down at the camp.
In January 2012, Shabaab stormed a remote police camp in Gerille, near the border, killing seven people and kidnapping three. Another police officer died in an attack on a police station in Hulugho, Garissa, three months later.
As these attacks on security personnel, businesses and churches mounted, additional security measures were put in place. A security backlash and an escalation of the situation were perhaps inevitable. In mid-November 2011 police reportedly killed eighteen suspected Shabaab members and made dozens of arrests in two separate raids in the Iftin area of Garissa town. Then in December, Kenyan police responded to two attacks on security officials in Dadaab by brutally beating scores of refugees and sexually assaulting several women in Dadaab.  In January 2012, witnesses accused the army and police of abusing Somali refugees in an Agence France-Presse report.
Although 2015 was Garissa’s deadliest year in the last two decades, 2012 witnessed the highest overall number of incidents. By now there were nearly five incidents in the county each month, and a new threshold of bloodshed was reached with the ‘twin church attacks’ of 1 July 2012. At the Catholic Cathedral, the attackers were successfully shut out, but using weapons seized from a murdered police officer (as well as a bomb according to some accounts) Shabaab killed 17 people in the African Inland Church (AIC) in Garissa town, injuring 60 others. Police arrested 80 people in response, and more police were deployed to the county.
If the violence and the security response were increasingly threatening to turn Garissa into a front in the war that was playing out just across the county’s eastern border in Somalia, events from late September 2012 took it to the very brink. Iftin in Garissa town was again the epicentre for regular eruptions of tit-for-tat violence over the following months.
Shabaab targeted the police with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), grenades and arson attacks, and the police responded with indiscriminate attacks on local ethnic Somalis. On 1 October, police officers reportedly beat dozens of villagers, including women and children, following a grenade attack.  One witness reported hearing an officer saying: “We shall make sure we have killed all of you terrorists before you kill us”.  On 19 October, after an explosion in Garissa town, Human Rights Watch reported that police officers carried out a night-long operation in which they beat or shot at least 40 local residents and destroyed property. 
Then, on 19 November 2012, three KDF soldiers, all members of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), were gunned down while changing a tyre in Garissa town, and the attackers made off with the soldiers’ guns. This triggered a rampage by the military, who shot several people including uniformed police, beat many others, and proceeded to burn the Suq Mugdi market in Garissa town. Women and children were among the casualties, and soldiers also shot at students inside a local school. 
At this point, a widening circle of local religious leaders, officials and others realised that the escalating violence was going to affect all communities in Garissa, and would devastate many lives if it went unchallenged. But even so, deadly attacks continued month by month – targeting police posts, soldiers, restaurants, hotels and aid workers. Alongside these, arrests, beatings and tighter security controls became commonplace. As Saleh Sheikh explained to the International Crisis Group (ICG) in 2014:
“Every time a terror incident happens in northern Kenya, the towns are deserted fearing violent retaliation and collective punishment from security forces. Security forces arrest everyone on the street without discrimination”. 
Elsewhere in Kenya, the Westgate mall attack of 2013 had shocked the nation. Attacks on non-Muslim workers and professionals in Mandera county in late 2014 threatened social service provision in Garissa: many health workers and teachers simply refused to work in Kenya’s north-east.
This was the prelude to the Garissa University attack on 2 April 2015, when gunmen stormed the Garissa University College, killing 148 students, soldiers and police officers, and injuring 79 others. This attack marked a turning point. By now, not only Kenya but the world was stunned by the scale and cruelty of violence in Garissa. The sense of shock helped create the political openness to attempt a different approach.
There have been more attacks in Garissa since then, and violence continues over the contentious issues of water, land and pasture for grazing. But interviews and focus groups convey the widely shared view that Shabaab-related violence has now diminished and security has markedly improved.  The progress is tangible, but it is important to ask whether Garissa’s wounds will continue to heal thanks to effective first aid – or whether they warrant more long-term treatment.
This article asks what caused this escalating wave of violence, what it meant to its perpetrators and to local people, how it was dealt with, and whether the problem is solved. But to tell this story, we first need to know more about Garissa – its history, its underlying challenges and divisions, and its connections to neighbouring counties and the problems of Somalia.
1. Respondent from mixed focus group discussion, Garissa town, January 2017
2. IPSOS (2015), ‘Garissa was once a safe haven but now heaves under weight of terror’, 26 May http://www.nation.co.ke/counties/Garissa-once-safe-haven/1107872-2729850-7mhbgdz/index.html
3. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, pp 2-3 (https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya/kenya-al-shabaab-closer-home)
4. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 3 (https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya/kenya-al-shabaab-closer-home)
5. Human Rights Watch (2012), ‘Criminal Reprisals – Kenyan Police and Military Abuses against Ethnic Somalis’, 4 May (https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/05/04/criminal-reprisals/kenyan-police-and-military-abuses-against-ethnic-somalis)
6. Human Rights Watch (2012), ‘Kenya – End Police Reprisals in Northern Region’, 25 October (https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/25/kenya-end-police-reprisals-northern-region)
7. Human Rights Watch (2012), ‘Kenya – End Police Reprisals in Northern Region’, 25 October (https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/25/kenya-end-police-reprisals-northern-region)
8. Human Rights Watch (2012), ‘Kenya – End Police Reprisals in Northern Region’, 25 October (https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/25/kenya-end-police-reprisals-northern-region)
9. BBC (2012), ‘Kenya: Garissa residents shot after army launches crackdown’, 20 November (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20412594); Daily Nation (2015), ‘Three years later: No justice for traders at Suq Mugki’, 18 September (http://www.nation.co.ke/lifestyle/DN2/No-justice-for-traders-Suq-Mugdi-GARISSA-------/957860-2961938-145dborz/index.html)
10. International Crisis Group (2014), ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home’, 25 September, p 13 (https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya/kenya-al-shabaab-closer-home)
11. See also: Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (2017), ‘Conflict Assessment Report’, p 46 (http://www.chrips.or.ke/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Conflict-Assessment-Report.pdf)
Header photo: A woman is stricken with grief after the Garissa University College attack. The shockwaves led local communities to come together in rejecting further violence. Photo: Stringer/AP/REX/Shutterstock