China’s Belt and Road Likely to Become the
Focus for Jihadism
By Derik R. Zitelman
Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the Middle East and South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, will likely experience stepped-up attacks by Islamic terrorists and ethnonational separatist groups. Overseas Chinese workers and assets are becoming high-value targets for jihadist militants, as China’s domestic persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang continues. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship project along the BRI’s western front, is particularly susceptible to terror attacks.
Last year there were three high-profile attacks targeting Chinese nationals by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a militant group that the United States identifies as a terrorist organization. On April 21, 2021, a TPP suicide bomber detonated an explosive at Quetta’s Serena Hotel, where the Chinese Ambassador was staying, killing five people and injuring 12 others. On July 14, 2021, the TTP attacked a shuttle bus carrying Chinese workers building the Dasu Dam in Kohistan Province, killing 14 and wounding 39. On August 20, 2021, a BLA suicide bomber attacked a bus ferrying Chinese mining workers in the port city Gwadar, injuring one Chinese national and killing two children.
The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal will likely energize jihadists and further erode regional stability. The Taliban’s poor state management and the pause in international aid are fueling poverty and hunger, creating conditions favorable for terrorist recruitment. Before the Taliban took over the country, 40 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) came from foreign aid, and 75 percent of foreign aid funded public expenditures. Due to the U.S. decision to halt aid to the country and freeze billions in Afghan government funds, Afghanistan’s economy is in a freefall. Furthermore, Afghanistan is experiencing one of its worst droughts and winters, resulting in a significant humanitarian crisis. The collapse of government services, curtailment of foreign aid, rising inflation and supply chain bottlenecks, disease, and drought are forcing millions of Afghans into extreme poverty. More than 22 million Afghans face life-threatening food insecurity, and nine million are close to being afflicted by famine. Millions of Afghans have gone months without a steady income, and many cannot afford to buy even the most basic necessities for their families.
Jihadist recruiters often seek individuals who feel disenfranchised, excluded, and have nowhere else to turn to meet basic needs. Extremist organizations operating in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), are already exploiting the dual economic and humanitarian crises to leverage resentment of the Taliban regime and recruit militants. These crises bolster IS-K’s recruitment campaigns that portray the Taliban as an illegitimate government, casting doubt on the Taliban’s ability to govern and provide security – the Taliban’s principal campaign promise.
As China increases its economic footprint in the Middle East and South Asia, terrorist groups operating in the region (e.g., al-Qaida and IS-K) will likely escalate targeting of Chinese infrastructure projects in response to China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Last October, an IS-K bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. IS-K claimed the attack aimed to punish the Taliban for their close cooperation with China, which oppresses Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
There is a palpable increase in jihadist propaganda narratives directed toward China, linked to Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslim community. Increasingly, IS recruiting propaganda features anti-China themes, portraying China as an oppressor of Muslims. Jihadist groups like the IS are producing content using Mandarin Chinese, targeting Uyghur and other Chinese Muslim audiences.
During the 1990s and 2000s, jihadist groups, including al-Qaida, focused their efforts on the United States, protesting U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and U.S. policies in the Middle East. China’s non-intervention foreign policy and growing global influence led al-Qaida’s leaders to believe that China could be a potential ally in bringing down the United States. However, after 9/11, China labeled its actions against Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang part of the global war on terror, transforming the nation into a target for jihadists. Additionally, China’s increased economic investment and military activity in the Middle East and Africa and support for local repressive regimes have made overseas Chinese assets a valuable target for jihadists.
Abu Zar al-Burmi, a prominent extremist cleric with ties to the TTP, IS, and al-Qaida has openly called for attacking Chinese embassies, companies, and nationals, declaring China a chief target in the global jihadist campaign. The IS’ weekly newsletter al-Naba periodically provides commentary and updates on Xinjiang affairs and instructs its followers to be ready for a long war against the “idolatrous” China.
Regional ethnonational separatist groups continue targeting Chinese citizens within Pakistan’s borders. Throughout 2021, Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups attacked Chinese nationals in gun assaults in Karachi. These attacks will likely increase as China expands its BRI projects into Pakistan.
Increased cooperation between Beijing and the Taliban divides the jihadist community. The Taliban seeks Chinese economic investment in Afghanistan, but Beijing emphasizes that any partnership is conditional on the Taliban suppressing Uyghur militancy. In October 2021, the Taliban removed Uyghur militants from an area near Afghanistan’s border with China, demonstrating its willingness to cede to Chinese demands. However, it is unclear if the Taliban will deliver these fighters to Chinese authorities. If the Taliban comply with Beijing’s demands, it adds credence to IS-K messaging campaigns that paint the Taliban as heretics collaborating with “imperial” powers.
IS-K condemns the Taliban’s cooperation with Beijing and sees Taliban complicity as a weak point to capitalize on for recruiting. The group portrays itself as a home to Uyghurs, those unhappy with the Taliban regime, and others in Afghanistan appalled at China’s treatment of Muslim minorities. Rising IS-K support and anti-Chinese sentiment will make it difficult for the Taliban to protect planned Chinese BRI projects in Afghanistan from jihadist attacks.
Disclaimer: This article was prepared by the author in their personal capacities. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of their employer.