NAIROBI, Kenya — Public anger spilled into the streets of the Kenyan capital Tuesday, a fury stirred by the seven-hour delay between the time authorities learned of a deadly attack by gunmen on a college and when police commandoes finally arrived at the scene.
Authorities were informed of the assault just before dawn Thursday at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya, where four militants killed 148 people before being slain by police in the early evening.
Questions have arisen that the delayed arrival of the police could have contributed to the high death toll as the country confronts the threat from the Islamic extremists from the Somalia-based al-Shabab militant group.
During a demonstration by about 250 students, they passed a truck carrying security forces with red berets and rifles and shouted at the troops: "Where were you?"
The troops did not respond.
The students also banged on the sides of a police vehicle and converged briefly outside Kenyan police headquarters, again demanding: "Where were you?"
The Kenyan military, which has a barracks in the town of Garissa, was the first to respond with some help from local police, the government has said. The police department's paramilitary tactical unit, known as the Recce Squad, was briefed about the attack but put on standby because the military said it could handle the attack, said a senior police officer who was involved in Thursday's actions.
It was only after hours had gone by and the military had suffered casualties that a decision was made to send in the Recce unit, which is trained in close-quarters combat and hostage rescues and is based in Nairobi, he said. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.
Military spokesman Col. David Obonyo did not immediately answer phone calls seeking comment.
With police helicopters not operational because of mechanical problems, the Recce Squad flew the 200 miles (325 kilometers) to Garissa on two small planes that could not carry the whole unit, forcing other members to travel by road. Once the tactical team went into the besieged campus at 5 p.m. — almost 12 hours after the attack began — its members killed the gunmen and secured the site within a half-hour. By then, 148 people were dead.
Kenya has vowed severe retaliation against al-Shabab, and its military on Monday announced it had carried out airstrikes on militant camps in Somalia.
The lack of a coordinated response to an extremist attack also plagued Kenya's security forces after al-Shabab struck Nairobi's Westgate Mall in September 2013, killing 67 people. The army stormed the mall without checking with the Recce unit whose members had already infiltrated the site and were closing in on the attackers. That led to a friendly fire incident that killed one Recce officer and forced the elite police team to withdraw.
"We have refused to learn from the Westgate attack. What was the Kenyan army doing for seven hours before the Recce team came in? Were they just hanging about? We saw KDF (Kenya Defense Force or the Kenyan army) camping outside of the university as the killing went on inside," said Patrick Gathara, a commentator and award-winning political cartoonist.
Inter-service rivalries may also be playing a role in coordinating responses to extremist attacks, and security officials also complain of corruption and a lack of funding. A government commission looked into the procurement of the grounded police helicopters, suspected fraud and recommended an audit of their purchase.
"The systemic corruption that afflicts all our institutions infects our security services too. This continues to be the dead weight our efforts against terrorism have to carry," said Kenyan corruption expert John Githongo, currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Haas Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
A number of Kenyan universities have increased security following the Garissa attack, hiring more guards and urging students to be vigilant. But some students are fuming over what they allege is a government failure to act on intelligence and prevent violence by al-Shabab, which has vowed more attacks as reprisal for Kenya sending troops into Somalia.
"We are not safe!" Kenyan students chanted Tuesday.
Their slogan captured the unsettled mood in many Kenyan schools and the country as a whole.
"We might be next," said Walter Mutai, a 22-year-old statistics student at Moi University. "These people, they can target anywhere."
Ricky Thomas Nyakach, a 22-year-old student who plans to study law this year, said Kenya is struggling with a "badly flawed security system" in which security forces have poor equipment as well as low morale because of inadequate salaries.
"I feel vulnerable as a Kenyan citizen," he said.
Wearing a suit and tie, Nyakach stood in a park before the rally and said student demands include "a total overhaul" of Kenya's security apparatus, the construction of a memorial to honor those killed in the Garissa attack, and the payment of funeral expenses and about $22,000 in compensation to families of the victims.
The protesters presented a petition to the office of President Uhuru Kenyatta, but some were skeptical whether they could achieve meaningful change.
The demonstration was mournful at times. There were signs that read: "You remain in our hearts!" and "RIP comrades."
Students and other Kenyans gathered at dusk for a vigil for the victims, lighting candles, holding flowers, reading their names aloud and erecting a white wooden cross for each of those killed in Garissa.
On Tuesday, police presented five suspects in court, three of whom allegedly supplied guns to the men who carried out the killings. The court granted police 30 more days to investigate the suspects before charging them. Police said they want more time to investigate a sixth suspect, a Tanzanian citizen who is being held in Garissa. The Interior Ministry had said they had arrested the Tanzanian who was hiding in a ceiling with grenades, but the police charge sheet says he was found under a bed and was not a student at the university.