Al-Shabab and the Garissa Massacre:  Implications For China in East Africa
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Al-Shabab and the Garissa Massacre: Implications For China in East Africa

Feb. 29, 2016  |     |  0 comments

At approximately 5.30 AM on Thursday April 2, 2015, a group of heavily armed gunmen from the Somali al-Shabab militant organization invaded the eastern Kenyan campus of Garissa University College, shooting students sleeping in their dormitories and taking others hostage. According to witnesses, the militants specifically targeted Christian students. The 15 hour siege ended when Kenyan security forces killed the gunmen. The attack on Garissa left at least 147 people dead, and at least 79 people injured. Garissa, which is 90 miles from the Kenyan border with Somalia, represents the latest bloody round in Kenya’s troubled relationship with its neighbour, and it also represents an increase in political risk for China’s continued economic engagement with Africa. Al-Shabab had previously struck Kenya in September 2013, when an attack by its militants on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall left 67 people dead. 312 people were killed by al-Shabab in Kenya between 2012-14, including the Westgate victims. The Garissa massacre was the second most deadly terrorist attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, which left 213 people dead. Terrorism experts fear Garissa marks a further escalation in al-Shabab’s campaign of violence (Hatcher & Sieff, 2015; Schuppe, 2015).

The Globalization of Terror

Al-Shabab, which is Arabic for “the youth,” first came to power as the youth wing of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts, a militant alliance which controlled Mogadishu in 2006, until it was ousted through Ethiopian military intervention. The Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu in 2009, and they were replaced by a regional African Union peacekeeping force, which included Kenyan and Ugandan troops. In 2010 al-Shabab conducted its first attack on foreign soil, staging suicide bombings in Uganda. Attacks in Kenya were met with further Kenyan military intervention in Somalia, and this was reciprocated with an escalation of al-Shabab violence in Kenya, including the Westgate and Garissa massacres (Schuppe, 2015; “Who are Somalia’s,” 2015).

Al-Shabab has benefited from the globalization of terrorism, with its ranks of local fighters strengthened with foreign jihadists, including some from the US and Europe(“Who are Somalia’s,” 2015). Its original leaders had forged ties with al-Qaeda and its regional branch al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This alliance has shifted with the declaration in June 2014 of the establishment of a caliphate by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with the emergence in al-Shabab of factions favoring an alliance with the Islamic State. This has been facilitated by US drone strikes that have assassinated al-Shabab leaders like Ahmed Godane and Adan Garaar, clearing the space for the rise of a new group of leaders (Seldin, 2015). While the US War on Terror has managed to suppress the activities of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has grown its caliphate in a remarkably short period of time. The Islamic State’s carefully cultivated image of jihadist violence and military prowess has been vigorously propagated through social media, thereby capturing the imagination of jihadists around the world (Andrews & Schwartz, 2014; “More than 25,000,” 2015). Interestingly the Islamic State could have learnt its propaganda strategy from Al-Shabab (Hackel, 2015). The Islamic State’s successful establishment of a caliphate in particular has excited impatient jihadists who had grown weary of al-Qaeda’s admonishment that the task of jihad would take a century (Maruf, 2015). With the weakening of al-Shabab’s original leadership, the organization is poised to be taken over by leaders who seek to replace their previous alliance with al-Qaeda with an alliance with the Islamic State. Indeed, the Islamic State itself seeks such an alliance, as this will expand its caliphate into the Horn of Africa (“Will Somalia’s Al Shabaab,” 2015). The Islamic State hence has officially called on Abu Ubaidah, the emir of al-Shabab in Somalia, to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of the Islamic State. If al-Shabab does form an alliance with the Islamic State, this could lead to an influx of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters seeking to expand the caliphate’s East African territory, thereby escalating the jihadist violence in the region (Ahmed, 2015; Hellyer, 2015; “Somalia: al-Shabaab,” 2015).

Liu Xianfa, China’s ambassador to Kenya, has swiftly condemned the massacre at Garissa, and reiterated China’s staunch support for Kenya’s fight against terrorism (“Chinese ambassador,” 2015). China has good reason to oppose Al-Shabab and the globalization of terrorism, as it has in recent years become the victim of global terror. Jihadist terror in China is centered in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where hundreds of disgruntled locals have reportedly crossed the mountainous southern borders of China to travel to the Islamic State to receive training and experience in jihadist warfare. This has been exacerbated by condemnations from both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for China’s harsh treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population, and the Islamic State’s inclusion of Xinjiang in its map of its vision of a global caliphate. The Chinese government has blamed the recent rash of domestic terrorist attacks, including the 2013 Tiananmen Square and 2014 Kunming train station attacks, on Uyghur Muslim militants, and used these to justify a deeper crackdown on the community (Hunt, 2014; Hunt, 2015; Keck, 2014; Moore, 2014).

The threat posed by al-Shabab to Chinese interests in East Africa would offer an important justification for the government to crack down on the ivory trade.

Ironically, in the case of al-Shabab, it appears that the growing Chinese market for ivory has contributed to the group’s expansion. An investigation into the group’s funding has discovered that the illegal trade in ivory is one of its key sources of funding, with al-Shabab earning between 200,000 to 600,000 USD each month from ivory (Kalron & Crosta, 2012). China is one of the top Asian markets for illegal raw ivory, and the product sells for between 1,500 to 2,865 USD per kilogram. Following the government’s recent crackdown on luxury gift-giving, ivory carvings have risen in popularity as relatively safer gifts for government officials to exchange (Guilford, 2013; Neme, 2013). The threat posed by al-Shabab to Chinese interests in East Africa would offer an important justification for the government to crack down on this trade.

The Risks to China’s East African Interests

With its increased economic engagement in countries affected by terrorism, China has to weigh the risks facing its investments against the potential benefits. In the case of Somalia, despite its short-term dangers, China sees a partner for long-term economic engagement. On October 12, 2014, China reopened its embassy in Mogadishu, which it had closed 23 years earlier in 1991 upon the outbreak of the Somali civil war (“China reopens embassy,” 2014). The risk China has accepted with this reengagement is reflected in the car bombing that occurred in Mogadishu the very day China announced its plan to reopen its embassy (Elie, 2014). This diplomatic reengagement has been accompanied with a program of economic rehabilitation, including emergency cash aid as well as much-needed infrastructural development and the rebuilding of the country’s health and education systems (“China donates,” 2015). In contrast to Somalia, Kenya is of greater immediate economic importance for China, as is seen in its strategic location on China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (Lim, 2015a). Kenya’s importance to China is also reflected in its debt to China, which has recently surpassed 100 billion Kenyan shillings. (As of this time of writing, 1000 Kenyan shillings are worth 66 Chinese Renminbi.) This debt has been used to finance infrastructural projects, including the Chinese-built Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway, and is expected to increase to 2.9 trillion Kenyan shillings in 2015 (Wangalwa, 2015). These infrastructural development projects are having a multiplier effect on the Kenyan economy. In 2015 the Chinese steel company Sinosteel agreed to invest in a multibillion Kenyan shilling steel mill, to feed the growing demand for steel generated by infrastructural projects in Kenya and the region (Wahito, 2015). Chinese investment in Kenya is not just at the level of infrastructural development. The Chinese government has just launched its fourth Confucius Institute in the country, at Moi University in Eldoret in western Kenya. This new Confucius Institute partners Donghua University in Shanghai, and while it offers the standard curriculum in Chinese language and culture, it also draws on Donghua University’s and Moi University’s strengths in textile science to accelerate cooperative ventures in fashion and textiles (“Confucius Institute,” 2015).

While these projects face the threat of al-Shabab’s unpredictable violence, terrorism is not the only source of risk for Chinese investments in Kenya. In a recent incident, a Chinese restaurant inflamed anti-Chinese public sentiment by implementing a “no Africans after 5 PM” policy. Its public relations manager worsened the situation by explaining that this policy was implemented because the Chinese customers were afraid that an African patron could be an al-Shabab terrorist (Chege, 2015). The restaurant was promptly shut down and its Chinese owner arrested for not having a valid restaurant license (Mutiga, 2015). The Chinese embassy in Kenya had to repair the damage by issuing a public statement of regret and sternly warning other Chinese enterprises in the country against such misconduct (“Spat over restaurant’s,” 2015). However, public opinion in Kenya could turn against the Chinese again when the Venice Biennale opens in May 2015, as the artists presented at the Kenyan pavilion, including Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, and Li Gang, are almost all Chinese artists who have never been to Africa nor refer to Africa in their artworks. The same happened at the previous Venice Biennale in 2013. This has already raised anger on Kenyan social media, and unhappy Kenyan artists are planning to stage protests at the exhibition when it opens (Warner, 2015). Potentially the most serious threat to Chinese investment in Kenya, outside of a terrorist attack, comes from Kenya’s anticorruption police, who have recently detailed allegations of corruption against government officials. Some of these involve Chinese infrastructural projects including the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway. Five government ministers have already been asked to take a temporary leave of office, and the full fallout of the investigation is still to unfold (“Kenya corruption watchdog,” 2015). The Chinese government will have to keep track of these unfolding events as they could potentially have a significant impact on the progress of Chinese investment projects in the country.


This paper was originally published in Eurasia Review (Lim, 2015b). Since that time of writing, al-Shabab remains a threat to the region, with its militants having launched attacks this year on a popular restaurant and an African Union base (“19 dead,” 2016; “Shabab storms,” 2016). A recent deadly in-flight bombing of a Somali passenger plane is suspected to have been the work of al-Shabab. Some other analysts, however, believe this bombing is instead the work of former al-Shabab militants who had formed their own splinter group after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (Odula, 2015; “Militant group,” 2016). However, this has not scared off China’s economic engagement with the region. China is now Kenya’s largest trading partner, with Sino-Kenyan bilateral trade in 2015 exceeding 5 billion USD (“China Becomes Kenya’s,” 2016). Recent Chinese projects in Kenya include a 102 MW wind farm worth 221 million USD which will be built by China Machinery Engineering Corporation (Mancheva, 2016). In Somalia, China Civil Engineering and Construction Company recently completed the Bosaso International Airport, increasing the accessibility of Somalia’s northeast to international trade (Abdirahman, 2016; “Airport Built,” 2016). In January 2016, nine months after the al-Shabab massacre, classes resumed at Garissa University (Duggan, 2016).


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