Washington Post’s Kenya Massacre Coverage Short on Why?

Omission of essential context in Washington Post coverage of the April 2, 2015 massacre in Kenya likely hinders the readers’ ability to discern why it happened. The attack by the terrorist group al-Shabab at the Garissa University College murdered 148 students and faculty, most of them reportedly Christians. From April 4 through April 7, Post reporting by Abigail Higgins, Jessica Hatcher, and William Branigin on the immediate aftermath of the event details the tragic loss of life and features interviews with stunned and shaken survivors and community members.

Yet, while offering a body count, horrific eyewitness descriptions, and a recounting of statements by authorities and others, The Post often fails to mention the key factor in the Garissa massacre: Islamic extremists and their targeted killing of non-Muslims. This results in a lack of essential context.

The group claiming responsibility for the attack, al-Shabab, is an Islamist movement designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Originating as the violent wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (or “Movement of Striving Youth”) as the group is also known, is motivated by radical Sunni Islamic goals and objectives. Its forerunner was known as Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (or “Unity of Islam”). A split in this extremist Salafi group, between an older, relatively less violent faction and younger radicals saw the latter entering into an alliance of sharia (Islamic law) courts, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), that provided some order in the chaos of Somalia’s failed state.  

This group sought to establish an Islamic emirate in “Greater Somalia” and received funding and support from al-Qaeda and its founder Osama bin Laden. Concerns over the threat posed by al-Shabab to Ethiopia, a Christian majority neighbor, prompted an Ethiopian invasion into Somalia in 2006. 

The Washington Post provided none of this background, which could have helped readers understand the ideology of the al-Shabab murderers responsible for the news that The Post otherwise covered in such depth.

Not digging up the roots

In both the April 5 and April 6 coverage the newspaper identifies the terrorist al-Shabab as an “Islamist militant group.” The April 4 reporting also notes that the killers shouted “God is great” while slaughtering innocents at the university. The newspaper further reports that the attack seems to have been extensively planned and briefly mentions that Christian prayer sites were specifically targeted. Terms such as “Christian” and “Islamist” are used on occasion but not connected directly to the terrorists’ actions. This is more than just a mere detail; it’s an integral part of the story.

The Post‘s reporting in both the widely circulated Sunday April 5 print edition and a subsequent piece on April 7 is flawed by even more serious omissions. In the April 5 article, the newspaper fails almost entirely to even hint at the ideology motivating al-Shabab’s attack. The Post briefly notes that the chief suspect in the planning of the assault, Mohamed Mahamud, is a former teacher in a Kenyan madrassa (Islamic religious school) but fails to explain why this detail may be relevant. The word “Islamic” only appears once in the April 5 article.

The second of only two mentions of religion comes in the phrase “Christian survivor” when the Post describes an individual who escaped murder at the hands of Islamic terrorists by hiding in a closet for two days. Otherwise, the April 5 article provides no clue that the terrorist group is Islamist and their targeted victims Christian. The Posts “Kenya, avenging college massacre, bombs al-Shabab camps in Somalia” (April 7) falls short in the same way. These omissions are especially puzzling since al-Shabab itself has stated that it seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate and to target Christians.

Other media’s Kenya massacre coverage illustrate that it is possible to provide essential background explaining the terrorists’ motives and to do so concisely. The Baltimore Sun’s “Attack raises new fear in Kenya” (April 7) mentions al-Shabab’s objective of driving a wedge between the Christian and Muslim communities in Kenya. This Associated Press dispatch describes how the terrorists singled out non-Muslim students, but that those praying in a nearby mosque were not attacked.
USA Today’s “Terrorist Gunmen Kill 147 in Kenya, (April 2) says that recent converts to Islam appeared to have been targeted along with Christians, noting that locals can often tell the difference between converts and those who were born Muslims by virtue of their ethnic affiliation. USA Today reports that al-Shabab terrorists separated students by religion, placing explosives around Christian captives. The paper quotes White House spokesperson Josh Earnest confirming that the terrorists targeted Christian students. A few words of such context could have left Post readers more completely informed.

By providing essential background incompletely and inconsistently The Post, reporting deeply what happened, fails to tell readers exactly why it happened. By not highlighting the motivating ideology of Islamist terror group al-Shabab, the paper leaves out too much of the “who” as well. Al-Shabab’s statements and actions, as well as the descriptions of those who survived, tell a more precise, informative story; one that readers of The Washington Post did not get in full.

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