The Kenyan miners were marched off in the predawn dark on Tuesday, some barefoot, others shirtless.
The Somali militants methodically separated the Christian workers from the Muslims and took the Christians to the side of a hill, near a gravel pit. Then they ordered the disbelievers to lie face down.
According to the Kenyan authorities, the militants killed 36 people, most of them young men. Many were shot in the back of the head, at close range, and some were decapitated. It appeared all the Muslims had been spared.
The killings, which followed a similar sequence on a passenger bus less than two weeks earlier, unnerved the Kenyan public and led to the ouster of Kenya’s top security chiefs.
“Innocent Kenyan lives have been lost, in a most harrowing manner, to these animals,” said Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
But, he said, “We will not flinch.”
Kenya has been severely hampered by Somali militants next door, a problem that never seems to go away. It started in the 1960s and became acute in the early 1990s, when Somalia’s government collapsed and hundreds of thousands of refugees, and waves of gunmen called shiftas, fled into Kenya.
In the past few years, the Shabab militant group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda operating from southern Somalia, has been terrorizing Kenya with dozens of attacks, from rolling grenades into bus stops to slaughtering shoppers, as happened last year in an upscale mall in Nairobi.
On Tuesday, the Shabab asserted responsibility for the gravel pit killings, saying, as they have before, that they had executed disbelievers and crusaders in response to Kenya’s deployment of peacekeeping troops into southern Somalia.
Analysts say that the Shabab, who have recently been hit by scores of defections, are now trying to foment a religious war and that the Kenyan security forces must not rise to the bait.
In past crackdowns, Kenyan police officers have rounded up thousands of Somalis, brutalizing civilians and locking innocent men, women and children in a stadium. At the same time, several Muslim preachers have been assassinated, setting off antigovernment riots along Kenya’s coast. A secret counterterrorist unit of the Kenyan police is widely suspected of killing the preachers, which seems only to have increased tensions.
“From a propaganda standpoint, I suspect that Shabab is trying to play the role of a Robin Hood, swooping in at random to avenge the wrongs done to the Muslim communities,” said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington.