The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has sent an implicit warning to Beijing by claiming to recruit ethnic minorities for recent attacks in neighboring Afghanistan at a time when separatists are increasingly looking to a more influential China as a target in the region, like reported by newsweek.com.
The Islamic State Khorasan Province, commonly referred to as ISIS-K, ISKP or ISK, has claimed a series of attacks across Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal from a two-decade war effort there in late August. Two high-profile operations this month involved suicide bombings against Shiite Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in the cities of Kunduz and Kandahar, and both displayed a new potential front for ISIS recruitment efforts years after the group’s so-called “caliphate” was crushed in Iraq and Syria.
Last Friday’s attack in Kandahar involved an “Abu Ali al-Balochi” and “Anas al-Khorasani.” Balochistan and Khorasan are historic terms that encompass parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Baloch insurgents have waged a decades-long war across Iran and Pakistan and, more recently, have been blamed for deadly attacks targeting Chinese citizens in Pakistan, a close strategic partner of China.
A week earlier, the attack in Kunduz was said to have been perpetrated by a “Mohammed al-Uyghuri,” tying the suspect to the largely Muslim ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang province, which neighbors Afghanistan. It’s in this northwestern province that China has sought to stamp out a separatist insurgency that aims to establish an independent “East Turkestan.”
Though infamously intolerant of those not adhering to its ultraconservative brand of Sunni Islam, ISIS has opened its arms to members of all ethnic backgrounds, from East to West. Now, as ISIS entrenches itself in Afghanistan, the group appears to be exploiting existing divisions to challenge neighboring countries, with China high on the list.
“The message being sent is political and geo-strategic,” Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, told Newsweek. “It is messaging that ISKP is continuing the course in Afghanistan against foreign enemies. It is putting China on notice.”
But there may also be a point of validation for the longstanding strategy pursued by the People’s Republic, and Sun said “the message received by Beijing is slightly different” than that which the jihadis broadcast.
“Of course the Chinese authorities understand well the local threats and oppositions,” she explained. “But the Uyghur identity of the attacker helps tremendously in validating China’s long claim about Uyghur terrorists in Afghanistan, and that China’s grievance is legitimate, hence the Chinese domestic policy on Uyghurs is also justified because of the terrorist threats.”
On the other hand, recent events appear to contradict a shift in U.S. policy that views Beijing’s concerns toward Uyghur militant groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as exaggerated attempts to validate the mass internment of the minority group in Xinjiang.
Days after the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump’s administration removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List that restricts travel for blacklisted entities. Sun said the recent ISIS-claimed attack in Afghanistan now “undermines the State Department claim from last November that ETIM no longer exists.”
Last month, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that “ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist as the same organization that was conducting terrorist attacks in Syria at the time of their designation.”
But the State Department does acknowledge that a Uyghur group by the name of the Turkestan Islamic Party is active in both Afghanistan and Syria.
“Uyghur terrorists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan are members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP),” the State Department spokesperson said, “a separate organization that China and others have incorrectly identified as ETIM.”
The State Department spokesperson identified TIP as “an organization allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida elements operating in Syria, and the group seeks to establish an independent Uyghur state, East Turkistan, in the area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China.”
As to whether the Biden administration planned to relist ETIM or outlaw TIP, the State Department spokesperson said that “the United States does not comment on deliberations related to our terrorist designation process.”
A spokesperson for TIP’s political office told Newsweek around this same time that the group rejected any notion of “targeting, kidnapping, threatening or [doing] anything bad against an innocent person or country,” but did not rule out armed struggle against the Chinese government specifically.
“The Chinese government should leave the land of East Turkestan by the peaceful path,” the TIP spokesperson said. “If they choose the path of war without leaving peacefully, then we have the right to choose all kinds of paths in order to restore our homeland.”
And while such groups have been traditionally linked by both U.S. and Chinese intelligence officials to Al-Qaeda, their allegiances may shift as ISIS seeks to eclipse its competitor as the most disruptive jihadi actor in Afghanistan. This rise also threatens to shake the nascent leadership of the Taliban, which swiftly took over the country as the U.S. military left and the government it backed for 20 years collapsed.
The Taliban has vowed to crack down on any groups that seek to disrupt efforts to reestablish its Islamic Emirate after it was dismantled by the U.S.-led intervention launched after 9/11. And the resurgent Taliban has pledged to never again allow militants to use the country to attack any other nation.
As the Taliban asserts itself not only at home but in a flurry of diplomatic meetings with foreign powers in hopes of obtaining international recognition, China has so far been the most receptive nation. In response to the recent, attacks Beijing offered a resolute message.
“China opposes violent extremism and terrorism in all manifestations,” Liu Pengyu spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told Newsweek. “We will continue to closely follow the situation, maintain close communication and coordination with all parties in Afghanistan and the international community, and provide utmost support and assistance to help Afghanistan restore peace, rebuild economy, combat all terrorist groups, including ETIM, and integrate into the international community.”
But continued instability indicates the Taliban is struggling to live up to its side of the bargain, according to Fan Hongda, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.
“The Taliban in Afghanistan are indeed facing a very serious counter-terrorism task,” Fan told Newsweek. “As a neighboring country, China is certainly concerned about Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism.”
Given the history of ETIM and other Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, to which many fighters fled after the implementation of what Chinese officials such as Xinjiang spokesperson Xu Guixiang called “strict prevention and severe crack-down measures in accordance with the law” during a press conference last week, the presence of these groups is a primary concern.
“The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) international terrorist organization is recognized by the United Nations, and it has caused many violent and terrorist attacks in China,” Fan said. “A report issued by the United Nations Security Council in May 2020 said that there were about 500 members of ETIM in Afghanistan.”
This report referred to the TIP as “a widely accepted alias of ETIM” and, citing one unnamed member state, said “that the group has also established corridors for moving fighters between the Syrian Arab Republic, where the group exists in far larger
numbers, and Afghanistan, to reinforce its combat strength.”
Months before the report was released, the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily reported in January that the ETIM had announced its presence in Afghanistan along with its the group’s to the Taliban. When the Taliban declared victory following the U.S. exit, TIP issued a statement welcoming the move.
“If the Taliban can’t control the situation in Afghanistan well, the turmoil in Afghanistan itself and ETIM can pose a threat to China’s security,” Fan said.
But China has options 20 years in the making. Just months before the U.S. would enter an intractable war in Afghanistan, a country where both Washington and Beijing had a role in supporting an anti-Soviet mujahideen rebellion that ultimately helped give rise to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation and then rallied regional powers to form a new security pact called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The group originally included China, Russia and the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and has since expanded to include South Asia rivals India and Pakistan. Afghanistan and Mongolia are observer states, as is Iran, which, following a high-level meeting last month in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, is set to become a full-time member as well.
Much of that gathering, which took place partially in-person and partially via virtual link, revolved around efforts to boost security cooperation in response to the precarious situation in Afghanistan. A joint statement called for combined action against what China has referred to as “the three evils”: “terrorism, separatism and extremism.”
Among the groups that the SCO has declared terrorist organizations and demanded should not “should not be allowed to maintain a foothold on Afghanistan’s territory” are ISIS, Al-Qaeda and ETIM, as well as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Baloch Liberation Army and Jondollah, another Baloch group that has splintered to form Jaish ul-Adl.
Fan said the SCO could prove pivotal as a mechanism for preventing the militant threat in Afghanistan from spreading.
“Central Asia and South Asia have originally been regions where terrorism is prevalent,” Fan said. “Now the situation in Afghanistan has exacerbated instability in the region. China, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian countries have a need and strong desire for collective counter-terrorism. In this regard, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can play a good role. Anti-terrorism has always been one of the basic tasks of SCO.”
Sun echoed this point.
“SCO has been working on CT cooperation for years even before Taliban took over,” she said. “China and regional powers have been more prepared for a civil war where Taliban is not able to control the whole country and runs into conflict with local warlords or the former Afghan government. They are also prepared to work together if and when there is major growth of terrorist cells inside Afghanistan that they start to spill over into neighboring countries, such as setting up a buffer zone in eastern Tajik.”
“However,” she added, “they are less prepared for an intervention into Afghanistan if the attacks and threats are primarily local.”
The emphasis of SCO member states on non-interference in one another’s affairs is a key principle that seeks to separate the pact from Western countries, especially the U.S., that stand accused, primarily by China and Russia, of invading and interfering across the globe without regard to national sovereignty.
But here too the Taliban’s ability to rein in the chaos in Afghanistan may be tied to its legitimacy.
“I think China has been very cautious when it comes to the Taliban—every country in the region has been taking a ‘wait and see’ approach, despite their interest in seeing a stable Afghanistan,” Amira Jadoon, assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told Newsweek. “It’s very likely that China already harbored some degree of doubt with regards to the Taliban’s ability to fully secure the country, or constrain the movement and activities of militants.”
As a result, she argued that China would likely continue to work through increasingly tight partnerships with nearby powers to contain the threat emanating from Afghanistan.
“The only effective way to tackle ISK is through a regional counterterrorism strategy,” Jadoon said, “because ISK poses a threat to all of its neighbors and also recruits various anti-state militants.”
And in fact, Chinese officials met with Russian and Pakistani counterparts on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a platform called the Moscow format, in which the U.S. announced it would not participate.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters Thursday that “all parties had an in-depth exchange of views and reached broad consensus on such issues as the current situation in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and anti-narcotics security and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.”
“They stressed the importance of respecting Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and upholding the ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led’ principle, called on the country to establish a broad-based and inclusive political structure, implement moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, respect the basic rights of ethnic minorities, women and children, take concrete measures to fight all forms of terrorist forces and adopt friendly policies toward its neighbors,” Wang said.
And while China promoted its growing regional ties, Jadoon argued ISIS too was actively seeking to advertise a widening array of militants within its ranks, and said that the inclusion of ethnic minorities in recent attacks had a domestic message as well.
“This is ISK’s way of signaling to its potential audiences its commitment to its transnational agenda,” she said, “and also its ability to absorb/attract militants of different backgrounds, and also from other groups.”
This expanding lineup of foes is concerning to Beijing, according to Raffaello Pantucci, who serves as senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.
“I think the Chinese are probably very worried about this because increasingly across the region they’re being targeted,” Pantucci said in response to a question posed by Newsweek during a Twitter Spaces conversation on the effects of the Taliban’s takeover on China’s approach to Central Asia.
“And we may say, ‘Oh that’s always been happening,'” he added. “It hasn’t really.”
Pantucci points to a history of sporadic attacks that hurt Chinese nationals and interests launched by separatist and Islamist groups, some of whom appeared not to target China specifically.
Rather, historically, he said, “the targets are the Westerners, the evil Westerners who are supporting sort of oppressive regimes.”
And now these groups are proliferating.
“There’s a broader range of groups that are kind of against the state, or militants, or ISIS-type terrorists, others are separatists in different regions where the Chinese have increasing influence,” Pantucci said. “They’re all kind of turning on China, and they’re talking about China as a target specifically.”
At the same time, he said ISIS aims to “peel off” members of the predominantly Pashtun Taliban by forcing the group to choose between catering to more disruptive elements with separatist agendas or risk being viewed as puppets of China, or Iran, Pakistan, Russia or other regional powers. Official and non-official ISIS outlets began threatening China years ago, and have more recently mocked the Taliban’s warm embrace of Beijing, hoping to stir dissent within its ranks.
And while others feel the heat, the issue may be most pronounced for China, as it assumes the role of the premier power in the region.
“I think that’s the kind of thing that’s been building for some time, and I think this is going to be a bigger problem for China going forward,” Pantucci said, “as they kind of replace the United States as the big power in the neighborhood.”
“No one likes the big guy, right?” he added.