ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Islamist group al-Shabab has increased attacks in Kenya over the past few months. The most high-profile killed three Americans at an airbase. After that, the militants hit schools and other civilian targets in Kenya's northeast. It's a mainly ethnic Somali region.
As NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from the city of Garissa, people there are worried that as the threat grows, the government has been slow to respond.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Garissa University is the site of one of the most gruesome attacks by al-Shabab. Back in 2015, militants stormed the campus and killed 148 people. Vice Chancellor Ahmed Osman was there. I ask him how often he thinks about that day.
AHMED OSMAN: All the time, yes. All the time, yes.
PERALTA: After that attack, the government moved with force, and things quieted down. Garissa felt fully under government control. Shabab mainly operated farther north toward the border with Somalia. But recently, things have changed. One day, Shabab opens fire on a bus. Another, they blow up a police convoy. In the past weeks, they have struck two primary schools, shot and killed four students in one, three teachers in the other. Osman says it feels like al-Shabab is closing in.
OSMAN: First, it was 50 kilometers, then 30 kilometers, then 20. And then we were told they were seen around 9 kilometers.
PERALTA: Osman, who is responsible for the security of his school, has dedicated his academic work to trying to understand al-Shabab. The militants are Somali who have fought to create an Islamist government at home. In 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia to fight them. To retaliate, Osman says, al-Shabab targets the few services Kenya provides in this rural region - the schools, the hospitals, cell phone towers.
OSMAN: They don't want that. They'll destroy that system, that order.
PERALTA: He says the Kenyan government could have stopped the recent assaults on schools.
OSMAN: They were told earlier - one day earlier - that all these guys are here. They're coming.
PERALTA: But the government did nothing. Osman shakes his head, and then he says something you wouldn't expect from an academic.
OSMAN: For us, for our region that's northern Kenya, the only thing is to arm the locals, so they can defend themselves.
PERALTA: Give them guns, he says, and they will take on the insurgency themselves. The government says it has sent reinforcements to the region. And during a press conference, Kenya's interior minister, Fred Matiang'i, seemed to blame locals. Sympathizers, he said, would be treated as terrorists, and so would those people who helped finance Shabab.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRED MATIANG'I: We are going to start an unprecedented crackdown.
PERALTA: Despite that promise, people here are scared. At a technical college, administrators sent students off campus because staying overnight in dorms would not be safe.
Right outside the college, I meet Zenaib Snina (ph) at her home.
ZENAIB SNINA: (Through interpreter) So we are fearing because we are near a university - and the people who are attacking, and there's no safety.
PERALTA: Right now, as the sun goes down, the city shuts down.
SNINA: (Through interpreter) OK, once it's past 6 in the evening, we'll close the doors because we can't move out because there's soldiers moving around.
PERALTA: It's like they get it from both sides, she says. They're scared of al-Shabab, but they're also scared of getting caught in the middle of a brutal government crackdown.
Eyder, Peralta, NPR News, Garissa, Kenya.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZALA KRALJ AND GASPER SANTL'S "SEBI (INSTRUMENTAL)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.