A Brief History of Al-Shabaab Attacks Against Chinese Interests in Kenya and Somalia
On January 23rd, Al-Shabaab guerillas raided a China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) work site in Kenya, detonating explosives and torching eight of the firm’s vehicles. The attack took place in the Omolo-Bodhei area on the Lamu-Garissa highway. Prior to the incident, Kenyan security forces were on high alert due to chatter about planned operations along the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) corridor.
It is also worth noting that earlier this month Al-Shabaab’s official Arabic-language Shahada News website published an article about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Kenya, accusing Beijing of pursuing a strategy of debt-trap diplomacy. The post was prompted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s January 6th meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Mombasa. Shahada News discussed the visit in the context of China’s alleged predatory lending practices and involvement in infrastructure projects such as the railway running from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
Al-Shabaab Operations Targeting Chinese Interests
The recent attack on the Chinese construction company comes as the latest incident in Al-Shabaab’s history of targeting Chinese nationals, diplomatic assets, and commercial interests across Kenya and Somalia. On occasion, the group has also criticized China in its media productions, though not very often. Al-Shabaab has expressed some anti-China sentiments, however, most related activity seems to be more opportunistic and purposed to create problems for the governments they are fighting in Somalia and Kenya. Striking Chinese nationals and commercial assets draws unwanted pressure from Beijing onto the respective ruling parties and undermines their foreign relations.
Some early indications of Al-Shabaab’s hostility towards China emerged in 2013 when the group pledged solidarity with the Uyghur and East Turkistan cause, criticizing the Chinese government for their “orchestrated campaign to expel them from their lands”.
This thread continued in 2015 when the group attacked Mogadishu’s Jazeera Palace Hotel in which China’s Embassy in Somalia was located at the time, killing over a dozen people including a Chinese security guard. After the fact, the group reportedly claimed to have intentionally targeted Chinese nationals, but, as Raffaello Pantucci points out, the embassy was more likely hit as collateral damage.
Notably, in the wake of the attack, the Al-Qaeda-aligned and Uyghur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) posted a message on Twitter addressing the incident. The TIP was quick to narratively frame the event, saying the operation was a “practical response to the aggression of the communist government of China against the Muslims in the forgotten Islamic East Turkistan.” Furthermore, they stated, “We the mujahideen in Turkistan Islamic Party congratulate the Islamic Ummah for this blessed operation, and we endorse it, and we encourage the Shabaab al Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to carry out more of such jihadi operations.”
There seems to have been a bit of a lull in Al-Shabaab operations targeting Chinese interests until January 2019 when jihadis attacked Chinese construction facilities in Kenya. Then, in February 2020, Al-Shabaab gunmen reportedly kidnapped a local villager and ordered him to lead them to a Chinese construction site near the Kenya-Somalia border. Kenyan police thwarted the attackers, but four people were injured in the attack.
Al-Shabaab continues to sporadically target Chinese interests in the region, draw attention to Chinese commercial expansion in East Africa, and even express solidarity with the Uyghur and East Turkistan cause. In the Summer of 2021, for instance, the group published a statement through its official Al-Kataib media branch congratulating the Taliban on their victory in Afghanistan and reiterating its support for Muslims in China, India, Myanmar and elsewhere.
*Thank you to Riccardo Valle for assisting with this article