NAIROBI, Kenya — Islamic extremists killed 36 non-Muslim workers in northern Kenya early Tuesday, prompting the president to shake up his security team, firing his interior minister and accepting the resignation of the national police chief.
Pressure had been mounting for President Uhuru Kenyatta to replace the two officials following a series of extremist attacks, including one 10 days ago on bus passengers in the same area.
The militant group al-Shabab, which has been battling for years to establish hard-line Islamic rule in Somalia, claimed responsibility for the killings at a quarry in Mandera County near the Kenyan-Somali border. Al-Shabab has vowed to attack Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia to fight the al-Qaida-linked group.
“I know we are all under a lot of pressure, but I appeal to each one of us: This is not a time to be cowed by the enemy,” Kenyatta said in a nationwide television address.
“This is a war we must win,” he said. “We will not flinch or relent in the war against terrorism in our country and our region.”
Kenyatta named an opposition politician and retired army general, Joseph Nkaissery, as the new interior minister, in charge of security. Police Chief David Kimaiyo said he was taking “early retirement” for personal reasons.
Earlier Tuesday about 50 heavily armed men walked into a tented camp next to the quarry at 12:30 a.m. as the workers were sleeping and fired warning shots, said Peter Nderitu, a worker at the site in the Koromey area on the outskirts of the town of Mandera.
When he heard the shooting, Nderitu ran and hid in a trench. He said he heard his colleagues being asked to recite the Shahada, an Islamic creed declaring oneness with God. Gunshots followed.
He said he only rose from his hiding place two hours later, when he was sure there was no more movement. The bodies of his colleagues were in two rows and nearly all had been shot in the back of the head, he said. The gunmen escaped.
The bodies of the 36 were flown to Nairobi, where relatives gathered at the city morgue to identify their kin.
Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said the attack was a response to Kenya’s troop presence in Somalia and to alleged atrocities committed by the Kenyan army there. Al-Shabab said a recent airstrike killed innocent people and destroyed their property.
Kenya said the airstrike was in response to a Nov. 22 al-Shabab attack on bus passengers in Mandera County that left 28 people dead. In that attack, non-Muslims also were separated from other passengers and shot if they could not recite the Shahada.
After the bus attack, about 100 non-Muslims sought refuge at the Mandera army base, demanding that the government evacuate them.
Kenyatta’s chief of staff, Joseph Kinyua, tried to persuade non-Muslims from leaving Mandera County, whose population is predominantly Kenyan Muslims of Somali origin.
The Kenyan military was deployed to Somalia in 2011. Since then, there has been a series of attacks in Kenya blamed on the militants, including last year’s siege at Nairobi’s upscale Westgate shopping mall in which 67 people were killed.
In his speech, Kenyatta said the Kenyan military incursion in Somalia has been largely successful. He said al-Shabab is depleted and in retreat, although it remains a threat.
“The obvious intent is to create hostility and suspicion across ethnic and religious lines and to drive non-Muslims from certain parts of this country. The ultimate aim of this atrocious campaign is to establish an extremist caliphate in our region,” Kenyatta said.
Billow Kerrow, a senator from Mandera County, said the militants “want to create chaos in the country by creating divisions between Muslims and Christians.”
“I am worried that this may get out of hand. They can be so emboldened because they are meeting no resistance and decide to take over a town,” Kerrow said.
Despite the central government’s claims that it has increased the police and army presence in the county, he said there is a lack of co-ordination and commitment on dealing with the insecurity in Mandera.
Kenyatta was criticized after the bus attack for not cutting short a four-day official trip to Abu Dhabi. Public anger increased after photos emerged on social media appearing to show Kenyatta at a social event, as well as media reports that he attended the Formula 1 Grand Prix that weekend in the United Arab Emirates instead of addressing the security crisis at home.