For a long time, “crusaders and Zionists” were the main enemies of jihadist organizations. However, over the past decade the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has garnered the attention of such groups. China’s internal policy concerning its Uyghur religious and ethnic minority has triggered hostility from Islamist terrorist groups. Furthermore, as noticed by Lucas Webber from University of New Brunswick, parts of the New Silk Road’s crucial infrastructure run through areas where jihadist organizations are actively operating. The question is: how will China protect itself and its strategic plans?
Traditionally, the jihadist narrative on China has mainly focused on Beijing’s discriminatory policies towards Uyghurs and its ethnic cleansing campaign in Xinjiang (called Eastern Turkistan by Muslim separatists). However, jihadists are now also focusing on China’s growing influence in Muslim countries — especially where there are planned Eurasion connection corridors. Xinjiang’s importance to Beijing is largely due to its strategic location connecting China to Central Asia.
China’s Growing Global Profile
China’s growing multi-polarity presents new opportunities, but also makes it susceptible to new threats. While jihadists have traditionally targeted the West (the United States in particular), China’s growing political and financial influence have caught the attention of jihadists. Just as they used to decry the negative influences of Western culture on the way of life of Muslims and the corrupt governments of Muslim states, the PRC has become the new target of jihadist criticism.
The PRC, so far, has been able to refrain from interfering in the internal policies of Muslim countries and abstain from rhetoric that could infuriate Muslim societies. Beijing has even maintained a good relationship with the Taliban. However, the question remains: will Beijing be able to continue its diplomatic policies amid its growing global profile?
Social Discontent Over BRI
Even though many governments want to be included in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — hoping for increased FDI and economic growth — social discontent is emerging over these dealings. Anger towards China has been growing amid reports of corruption, lack of transparency, wasted investment, terrible working conditions, the exploitation of resources and growing debt. These conditions are also the perfect breeding ground for radicalization.
Several regional jihadist organizations already consider China to be their enemy, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Society of Allah’s Soldiers (Jamaat Ansarullah) and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). However, powerful international terrorist groups, such as Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda, have also jumped on the anti-China bandwagon.
IMU’s mufti Abu Dhar al-Burmi from Myanmar (Burma), compared China to colonizers from the British East India Company. He criticized the PRC for supporting the Pakistani government in their fight against terrorist organizations and aiding Myanmar in its persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Already, at a meeting with TIP and Russian-speaking terrorist organizations in 2013, he mentioned China as “the next enemy number 1”. These groups have accused the Pakistani government of favoring Chinese investments and handing over control of the Gwadar seaport — the gateway to the Arabian Gulf.
Other organizations followed suit. Tehrik-i-Taliban considers China as the leader of a global order which is hostile to Muslims. The Islamic State, in its publication Al-Naba, instructed its followers to be ready for a long war against the “idolatrous” China which supports local tyrannic governments. In 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi named China as one of the countries where Muslim rights were being forcibly suppressed. Also in 2014, Al-Qaeda’s Resurgerence magazine declared China an enemy, pointing to its discrimination of Uyghurs in East Turkistan. In 2015, Al-Qaeda in India called China the “global enemy of the Ummah”.
Terrorist Attacks Begin
Amid these accusations, several jihadist operations were carried out against Chinese targets outside of China. However, TIP succeeded in carrying out an attack in Beijing in 2013 where a car rammed into a crowd in Tiananmen Square killing five people. It also carried out a dagger attack in 2014 at Kunming train station in Yunnan Province which left 29 people dead.
Outside of China, TIP carried out a suicide attack on China’s embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek in 2016, where a car loaded with explosives rammed into the gates of the embassy. One year later, IS kidnapped and beheaded two Chinese workers in Balochistan. That halted the free movement of Chinese in Quetta city and, in January 2021, IS beheaded 11 Shia coal miners. Although this specific attack was not directed against China or Chinese interests, experts attributed the deteriorating situation in Balochistan to the One Belt, One Road Initiative. In April 2021, again in Quetta, TTP targeted the PRC ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong. The bomb exploded at his hotel just five minutes before he arrived, leaving five people dead and 12 injured.
As China increasingly expands its global profile, analysts believe there will be more terrorist attacks waged against Beijing and its interests. Already, there are threats from al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to attack Chinese workers in North Africa and there is growing terrorist activity directed at Chinese investments in the Sahel. Terrorist organizations are aware that, sooner or later, China will need to directly or indirectly intervene in one of the Muslim countries in order protect its interests. However, for jihadist organizations, potential conflict is a threat, but also an opportunity to radicalize people and recruit members.
It should be mentioned that IS has been silent on the plight of Uyghurs. As Elliot Stewart — a Middle East analyst and a 2020 Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Counter Terrorism fellow — pointed out, this silence proves IS’s ability to prioritize its goals. IS’s top priority is kicking the United States out of Afghanistan, and it is being careful not to encourage US-Chinese counter-terrorist cooperation in the region. This could explain why they are silent on the Uyghurs. However, analysts believe that it is only a matter of time before China becomes one of the main enemies of IS.
Is China Vulnerable?
The above analysis poses an important question: just how vulnerable is China to terrorist attacks? Attacks inside China are difficult to carry out. Beijing is boosting its security services while ramping up its control of social media networks, which makes it more difficult to organize against it. Beijing’s control over the internet makes it very difficult for terrorist groups to recruit and radicalize lone wolves. Also, the fact that China is increasingly authoritarian, makes it less vulnerable to social discontent. Therefore, carrying out an attack inside China will be very difficult for terrorist groups. It is also important to note that the residents of Xinjiang are not very organized or prone to radicalization. However, we will likely see an increase in attacks on Chinese citizens, infrastructure and interests abroad — where terrorist groups are more capable of challenging Chinese expansion and connectivity in Eurasia.
The current situation China finds itself in is very similar to historical Silk Road challenges. The Mogao caves — also known as Thousand Buddha Grottoes — placed at the crossroads of the Silk Road, contain historical wall paintings confirming that. Among them there is a 9th century painting showing a robbery of merchants. To protect the trade, the Tang dynasty extended the Great Wall, but also set up garrisons across the Silk Road, increasing its influence over the Fergana Valley located at the junction of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Periods of centralized power were marked by increased security and trade along the Silk Road, whereas its decline was accompanied by insecurity and decreased trade.
China’s Expanding Military Presence
Presently, China has adopted a similar strategy in order to protect its interests and citizens abroad. Thus, it is constructing its String of Pearls — a network of naval bases protecting marine routes, but also used as outposts for military interventions. These bases were useful during the wars in Libya and Yemen, allowing the Chinese army to quickly evacuate its citizens.
Beijing’s method and tools to combat terrorism through high-tech surveillance has become another Chinese export sold to other countries and has redefined PVE approach previously influenced by the West. Meanwhile, a recent law was passed in China allowing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deploy abroad and take part in counter-terrorism operations. There are reports of the PLA stationing in Tajikistan’s Upper Badakhshan province located between Afghanistan and Xinjiang. The PLA is purportedly training the Tajik military and there are joint border patrol exercises being carried out.
Just south in the Wakhan Corridor — a valley that directly connects Afghanistan to Xinjiang — China and Afghanistan are carrying out joint counter-terrorism patrols. The Corridor is the valley that directly connects Afghanistan to Xinjiang. Controlling this area is crucial to preventing terrorist movement between states. With planned US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, that cooperation could expand, giving China increasing influence over Central Asia.
The BRI’s security is highly privatized. According to data from 2018, almost 20 private security companies comprising 3,200 staff are employed to protect China’s investments. The Rand Corporation noted that many of these companies lack professional training and experience in counter-terrorist measures. Therefore, China might choose to support governments of Muslim countries to solve problems with extremists which may, in turn, amplify the terrorist narrative on the “close enemy”.
Considering the growing tensions and increasing competition between the US and China, one can wonder if there is a potential of using radicalized Islamists to contain China’s expansion — a move similar to the campaign to contain the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s in which the US was accused of fostering modern Islamist terrorism. At the time, one of the campaign’s architects, Zbigniew Brzezinski, defended the policy with a rhetorical question: “what is more important in world history? The Taliban, or the collapse of the Soviet empire?”
Today, a campaign similar to Brzezinski’s “Cyclone Operation” seems to be unimaginable. Even if there was political will in Washington, it will be difficult for the US to convince Islamists that they believe in the same God and, therefore, should fight against Chinese atheists. However, the prospect of using jihadists as proxies should not be ruled out completely. Pakistan accuses India of covertly supporting TTP in order to destabilize the country and Chinese investments. Russia’s discontent over increased Chinese presence in former Soviet Republics is another aspect to consider.
There are many factors which can increase or limit the risk of Islamist terrorism against China, but the main factor — its growing global influence — will remain constant and China will inevitably be exposed to risk. “If China continues to become more powerful, assertive, and interventionist it may very well become a higher priority enemy for a number of jihadist groups”, states Webber. The Middle Kingdom will eventually have to deal with the threat which, in turn, will influence the global counter-terrorist struggle.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.