Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, where he focuses on religious extremism and militancy in South Asia. He is on Twitter: @basitresearcher.
Propaganda is the lifeline of terrorist groups; they do not perpetrate violence for the sake of it. Rather, their aim is to draw attention to their political and ideological frameworks, grievances and demands. According to Louise Richardson, terrorists want the 3R’s, revenge (for real or imagined atrocities), reaction (provoking counter terrorists to use excessive force to generate a victimhood narrative) and renown (publicity). In this case, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) wants revenge for Uyghurs, renown for being the most vocal anti-China jihadist group, and reaction by provoking China, the Taliban regime and Pakistan to act against the group and in order to construct a victimhood narrative.
In the digital era, propaganda has gained an added significance for terrorist groups as the battlefield has expanded from the physical to cyberspace. It has compelled terrorist groups to have dedicated and specialized propaganda units in their organizational structures and maintain presence on social media platforms.
Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, the jihadist propaganda against China has increased manifold. Furthermore, China’s global expansion through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is spread across Asia and Africa, has equally contributed to the exponential rise in jihadist propaganda against Beijing. Similarly, Beijing’s growing closeness with the Taliban regime has also brought it into the cross hairs of anti-China militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pak region.
Of all the jihadist groups, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group has been at the forefront of anti-China propaganda in recent years. Additinally, among IS’ worldwide branches, its Afghan franchise, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), has produced the largest volume of propaganda materials against Beijing. To create space for itself in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region’s competitive landscape, turning its propaganda guns toward a rising global power like China was ISKP’s master stroke.
Meanwhile, China’s economic footprint in Pakistan — through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an important node of the BRI, and the economic partnership with the Taliban regime — have provided ISKP with tremendous propaganda opportunities.
Evolution of ISKP’s Anti-China Propaganda
Though ISKP fixated its eyes on China as early as 2015, it morphed into the most hostile anti-China militant group in South Asia after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. As other jihadist groups, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Afghan Taliban and to a lesser extent Al-Qaeda, have shied away from critiquing China for its atrocities against the Uyghur Muslim community in Xinjiang province, ISKP has shrewdly stepped in to claim and monopolize this propaganda space.
Likewise, the circumspect behavior of the Uyghur militant group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), to avoid alienating the Taliban, has also enabled ISKP’s anti-China rhetoric.
First Phase: The China-Taliban Partnership
At any rate, ISKP’s anti-China propaganda has evolved in three distinct phases.
In the first phase, the group targeted the China-Taliban security and diplomatic partnership before Afghanistan’s takeover by the former. Beijing opened up to the Taliban in 2015 following ISKP’s rise, which was also aimed at increasing the political, military and financial costs for the US to stay in Afghanistan, which eventually forced it out of the country.
As a result of this partnership, China provided diplomatic support to the Taliban and hosted some intra-Afghan track two summits where the Taliban were given a seat at the table. In return, the Taliban pledged to eradicate ISKP’s presence from Afghanistan and keep the Chinese border areas abutting Afghanistan free of its presence.
Following the Taliban’s return to power, ISKP brought into sharp focus the Taliban-China economic cooperation. In January 2023, a Chinese company, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co (CAPEIC), reached an agreement with the Taliban’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in Kabul. As per the agreement, CAPEIC will develop an oil reservoir in the northern Sar-e-Pul province and extract oil from the Amu Darya basin.
Initially, CAPEIC will invest $150 million which would increase to $540 million in three years. The deal is likely to generate 3,000 jobs along with giving the Taliban regime 20 percent partnership in the 25-year contract.
China has also been sending humanitarian assistance to the Taliban regime since their return to power. In December 2022, ISKP attacked a hotel frequented by Chinese nationals in Kabul to discourage Chinese firms from investing in Afghanistan. The attack was ISKP’s warning shot to China not to invest in Afghanistan and further deepen its economic engagements with the Taliban regime.
Second Phase: Atrocities Against the Uyghur Community
In the second phase, ISKP expanded its China-focused propaganda to highlight the abuse and atrocities Beijing committed against the Uyghur Muslim community in the Xinjiang province. ISKP accuses China of carrying out systematic genocide and massacre of Uyghurs living in Xinjiang and turning the entire province into a mass jail.
This stream of ISKP’s anti-China propaganda also brings into sharp focus the mass internment camps that China has created. In China, these prison camps are officially referred to as vocational education and training centers. As many as 380 of such internment camps have sprung up in Xinjiang in the past decade where around 1 million Uyghur Muslims have been detained. ISKP frequently calls out China for barring Uyghur Muslims from observing their fundamental religious rights, such as keeping beards, observing hijab, reading Quran or observing fast during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. On its part, China maintains that it is rooting out the twin evils of religious extremism and separatism through the internment camps.
In doing so, ISKP is positioning itself as the champion of Uyghur cause and vowing to take revenge for China’s atrocities and liberating “East Turkistan,” the alternative moniker it uses for Xinjiang. ISKP portrays Wilayah Khorasan as a gateway to re-conquer East Turkestan. ISKP, through this propaganda, assures Uyghur Muslims that it has not forgotten or abandoned them.
This is important given the fact that no notable jihadist group is raising the Uyghur issue, barring TIP, leaving a big vacuum for ISKP to exploit. At the same time, ISKP’s Uyghur-centric anti-China rhetoric also puts important Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan on the spot for maintaining criminal silence and deepening their economic and diplomatic relations with Beijing.
ISKP has also been reaching out to TIP in Afghanistan to join its ranks. It is important to note that TIP is a Taliban-aligned group but lately it has been alienated by the growing China-Taliban ties and the latter’s decision to relocate Uyghurs living in northern Badakhshan province closer to China’s border to central Afghanistan. Later, some of those Uyghurs moved back to Badakshan.
At any rate, according to a July 2022 UN report, ISKP has managed to win over the loyalties of around 50 disgruntled TIP militants in Afghanistan. Likewise, the February 2023 UN report underscores that ISKP has struck a tactical relationship with TIP whereby the latter is providing military instructors to the former and sending its fighters to join its operational unit responsible for tracking Chinese nationals and carrying out attacks. According to the report, both groups planned to purchase weapons in Kabul in July 2022 and conduct attacks against Chinese nationals in Afghanistan.
The suicide bomber, Muhammad al-Uyghuri — who targeted a Shiite Mosque in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province in October 2021 — was of Uyghur decent. However, it is not clear if he formerly belonged to TIP or not. At any rate, ISKP is trying to claim the Uyghur jihadist space in the region with or without TIIP’s help. To this end, ISKP’s Uyghur-centric propaganda coupled with limited inroads into TIP’s ranks shows that the group is relatively successful in exploiting these fault lines.
In a recent book, ISKP has singled out Xinjiang’s Hui Muslim community — now part of the government apparatus — for allegedly accepting Chinese rules. Interestingly, the group urges TIP to join it while portraying the Taliban as unreliable partners who have prevented them from attacking China. The book discusses China’s strategy in Afghanistan in detail and breaks it down into 10 objectives with varying degrees of political, economic, and security significance.
Third Phase: Chinese Imperialism
More recently, ISKP has turned its propaganda focus on to growing Chinese “imperialism.” The September 2022 issue of its monthly English-language flagship magazine, the Voice of Khorasan, carried an article titled “China’s Daydream of Imperialism.” The article focuses on Beijing’s growing economic footprint at the global level through the BRI. In the article, ISKP laid out the case that unlike Europe and the US — which along with economic prowess used their military might to gain the global hegemony — China lacks the military muscle. Hence, it is using its economic prowess through the BRI to attain global dominance. Furthermore, ISKP argues that unlike Europe or the US, Chinese imperialism will be short-lived like that of the 13th Century Mongol’s Silk-road based Empire which lasted a little less than 100 years. The article cites examples of Chinese companies’ closure in Mozambique due to IS-affiliated jihadists’ threats.
It is important to note that ISKP’s threats to China are not empty. In 2017, the group also abducted and killed a Chinese couple in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province where CPEC is located.
Finally, ISKP also compares China’s BRI with British imperialism, which spread in the Indian Subcontinent through the infamous East India Company. The East India Company made inroads into the Indian Sub-continent on the pretext of doing business and paved the way for British Imperialist forces to take over the region. ISKP’s comparison of China’s global rise with the British Imperialism is equally instructive because it was also based on economic inroads and witnessed a downfall in a little-less-than two centuries (1757-1947).
As the US-China rivalry is set to intensify, Beijing will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of ISKP’s jihadist rhetoric. This is how IS — and by extension ISKP — is positioning itself to stay relevant in the era of great power competition.
After the US exit from Afghanistan, ISKP is using China as its arch-nemesis to justify its violence and fuel its recruitment and fundraising campaigns. For the last three decades, US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were the driving factors behind global jihadist groups’ propaganda and ideological narratives. In the era of great power competition, Chinese “imperialism” through the BRI and atrocities against the Uyghurs have now become the main focus of ISKP-like groups.
In IS’ estimation, evolving global geopolitics — where the US and China are facing off over Taiwan and Europe and Russia are clashing over Ukraine — will create an opening for the group to exploit and reclaim the so-called Caliphate.
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.
 Ariel Victoria Lieberman, “Terrorism, the Internet, and Propaganda: A Deadly Combination,” Journal of National Security Law and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 95, (2017), pp. 95-124.
 Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, (New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2016), pp.71-75.
 Islamic State Wilayah Khorasan: Supporting the Muslims of East Turkistan (Al-Azaim Foundation, 2022).
 China’s Daydream of Imperialism, Voice of Khorasan, September 2022, pp. 37-42.