Daesh affiliate in Afghanistan targets China

ISIS-K focuses its threats against "Chinese imperialism" in Central Asia. It has already attacked its interests in the Taliban's self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate

PHOTO/FILE  -   In this image released by the jihadist group, several ISIS-K militants pose with M24 sniper rifles, Romanian DMR PSLs, M16A2 rifles, LMG RPKs, AKM rifles (with GP-25 UBGL), RPG-7/Type 69 launchers with PG-7V and OGi-7MA rockets

The threats of Daesh have disappeared from the headlines. They don't make the front pages of newspapers, nor are they broadcast on radio or television news. The most fearsome terrorist organisation of the 21st century has been transforming itself into a low-intensity insurgency after its near-defeat at the hands of Kurdish militias in 2019. It is a long way from regaining the power it amassed during the Syrian civil war. Today, its attacks do not reverberate on a global scale, but its damaging influence remains on the rise in a handful of regions thanks to its bloodthirsty proxy militias

The Sahel, Somalia and Mozambique currently account for the bulk of the jihadist group's hostilities. Afghanistan is also suffering. The reinstated Islamic Emirate, piloted two decades after the Taliban, is considered an "apostate" regime in the eyes of the Afghan branch of Daesh. The Central Asian country is home to the Islamic State of Greater Khorasan, known by its acronym ISIS-K, a group that has been fighting the Taliban movement for seven years and is trying to destabilise its control of the country, which was established in August 2021 after the abrupt withdrawal of the United States. 

The Afghan affiliate of Daesh has many enemies, as many as there are kuffār or infidels. Starting with the Taliban and ending with China, which it has recently targeted. The terrorist organisation's new rhetoric denounces China's growing imperialism in the region. 

An article in ISIS-K's English-language publication Voice of Khorasan vehemently criticised Beijing's economic expansion in Central Asia and the Chinese regime's mistreatment of the Uighurs, the Muslim minority living in Sinkiang province. The jihadist group's media and propaganda terminals not only point to, but explicitly threaten China's interests in the region. Indeed, in the May issue of ISIS-K's new Pashto-language magazine Khorasan Ghag, one can read things like: "Islamic State warriors will attack China's modern cities to avenge Uighur Muslims".

AFP/ NOORULLAH SHIRZADA - Militantes del Estado Islámico detenidos por el gobierno afgano son presentados a los medios de comunicación en Kabul, Afganistán, el sábado 21 de diciembre de 2019
AFP/ NOORULLAH SHIRZADA  -   Islamic State militants detained by the Afghan government are presented to the media in Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 2019

Beyond human rights violations against Muslim minorities in China, the threat is directed against the Asian giant's commercial interests in Afghanistan and its other neighbours. Religion is relegated to the background, with economic and political factors predominating. The article analyses how to attack China's multi-billion dollar projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), whose "colonising" role it compares to that of the British East India Company. It gives examples of the closure of Chinese companies in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province, which is besieged by the Al-Shabaab jihadist insurgency. 

Threats against China have come from the various branches of Daesh, although the one that has gained the most traction in recent months is the aforementioned ISIS-K, which operates clandestinely in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The branch of the jihadist organisation claims the unity of what they consider to be the province of Khorasan, a territory that encompasses northeastern Iran, Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan. Khorasan means 'land of the sun', and was part of the Umayyad caliphate from the early 7th century. It soon became a centre of reference for early Islamic culture. 

This is the first time the terrorist organisation has explicitly threatened China since 2017. In the same year, two Chinese nationals were kidnapped and executed at the hands of Daesh in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The chosen location was intended to send a message. It is the location of the Gwadar port, a flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Shortly before, the jihadist group had released a video showing foreign Uighur fighters training in Iraq and vowing to shed "Chinese blood like rivers to avenge the oppressed". 

In summer 2014, then ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi included China in a list of 20 countries and regions where "the rights of Muslims are taken away by force". The Iraqi-born fundamentalist, who was killed in 2019, specifically mentioned "extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkestan", as Sinkiang province is called. Until 2019, Daesh continued to support the Uighur cause and recruit Uighur followers. Since then, however, it has "almost completely ignored the plight of the Uighurs, which is difficult to square with the Islamic State's self-proclaimed role as a staunch defender of Muslims around the world", notes analyst Elliot Stewart in War on the Rocks.

AFP/ DELIL SOULEIMAN  -   A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds up the flag of the Islamic State group in the Syrian town of Al-Thawrah, west of Raqqa

The jihadist group significantly reduced veiled threats against China, which it saw as the biggest rival to its main regional adversary, the United States. The logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend prevailed. China was perceived as an indirect ally to displace Washington once and for all and dissolve its regional influence. But the context has changed dramatically. The Biden Administration is now embarking on a gradual withdrawal from the enclave, especially militarily, which alters the equation. The first scenario was precisely Afghanistan. 

The aggressive remarks to Beijing come at a time when the Asian giant is redoubling its efforts to gain commercial clout in Central Asia and the Middle East after two years of isolation on account of COVID-19. They also coincide with the release of the UN report on repressive policies towards Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Sinkiang. 

Released on 31 August, the UN investigation confirmed the existence of so-called "re-education camps" and shed light on some of the many human rights violations committed by the Chinese regime against hundreds of thousands of members of this ethnic group of 12 million people, most of them Muslims, according to the official census. 

China fears the spread of extremist or separatist ideas and activities in this region, which has indeed occurred. To counter threats, Beijing has systematised repression and simultaneously encouraged the movement of ethnic Han Chinese to the region for decades to dilute the representation of the Uighur population. A case of state-sponsored internal migration for political purposes. In 1953, Uighurs made up 75% of Sinkiang's population; today, the percentage has dropped to 45%.

AFP/AFP  -   Graphic on the “re-education" camps in China's Xinjiang region, according to research published in November 2019 by the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement

Sinkiang occupies one-sixth of China's land area and borders eight countries, including Pakistan, the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, with which the Asian giant shares a 74-kilometre border along the mountainous Wakhan corridor. None of these countries has historically supported the Uighur cause. "Moreover, [the border states] have always silently supported Beijing's policy of persecution [of the Uighurs] by extraditing pro-independence activists and Uighur refugees back to China without trial," Kyrgyz researcher Uran Botobekov stresses on the Homeland Security Today portal. 

In Sinkiang there is a jihadist Uighur separatist group that aims to establish an independent state of East Turkestan, which is unacceptable to China, which considers its territorial integrity to be non-negotiable. This is the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), whose deputy emir, Abdusalam al-Turkistani, has also recently spoken out against Chinese imperialism. The TIP's messages coincide with those issued by ISIS-K for some time now. The two groups have clearly aligned their interests based on the behaviour of the Taliban, who have moved closer to Beijing's orbit because of the need to attract foreign investment and international recognition, but are competing to occupy the same space. 

Botobekov claims that there are notable changes in the ideology of the TIP that point to a gradual shift away from global jihadism towards the national liberation movement of East Turkestan. Within the group there has been "a shift away from al-Qaeda's anti-Western propaganda towards increased anti-China hostility", according to the analyst. In such a scenario, many of its cadres could float into the ranks of an ISIS-K with a more hostile stance towards Beijing. 

China, for its part, has offered economic support to the needy Islamic Emirate in exchange for the Afghan insurgents addressing its security concerns, something that does not seem to be working at all, although the Taliban agreed to relocate TIP militants based in Badakhshan province, near the Chinese border, to other parts of the country at Beijing's request. This has put a wedge between the Turkestan Islamic Party and the Taliban, a rift that ISIS-K is seeking to exploit by toughening its rhetoric against China.

Voice of Khorasan
PHOTO/FILE  -   Issue 43 of the Voice of Khorasan magazine, the propaganda organ of ISIS-K

The growing belligerence may be aimed at "drawing Uighur militants into its fold", analyst Alex Sokalski explains in Policy Forum. "The more the Taliban regime curtails the activities of the PIT, the greater the chances that Uighur militants will gravitate towards ISIS-K. Indeed, the group has already claimed responsibility for the attack on a Shia mosque in Kunduz, which they stressed was carried out by a Uighur member." Botekov notes that ISIS-K has "a well-defined strategy to take advantage of the new reality in Afghanistan, presenting itself as the only hard-line jihadist force capable of liberating East Turkestan from the Chinese yoke". 

ISIS-K makes good on its threats 

The Chinese ambassador to Kabul, Wang Yu, met with Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai in early December to demand increased security at his embassy. Wang was aware that the Daesh branch was planning an attack on Chinese targets. Hours later, ISIS-K detonated a bomb and gun attack on the Longan Hotel in Kabul, a Chinese-owned resort in the centre of the Afghan capital, frequented by Chinese and other nationals. More than 30 Chinese guests were inside the building and at least 18 people were injured. The three attackers were neutralised. 

This was the first attack on Chinese interests in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Beijing urged its citizens to leave the country "as soon as possible" to avoid a repeat of a similar scenario, which could lead to a massive withdrawal of Chinese capital from the country. It would be an economic setback for the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate, which is eagerly pursuing any economic investment capable of boosting the state's impoverished coffers. 

In any case, China is a difficult target for ISIS-K militants to attack. The Asian giant is protected by a robust security apparatus and, above all, by geography. The Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges serve as a natural divide. That is why the Afghan affiliate of Daesh looks for Chinese targets on Afghan soil.

"The kind of stability in Afghanistan that China may have envisaged may not materialise. In recent months, China has held almost weekly consultations with the Taliban through its ambassador in Kabul. Many economic and investment opportunities have been discussed, and the Taliban have even alluded to reserving large mining projects for Beijing. In preparation, they have even been working to preserve the country's Buddhas, a radical departure from 2001, when the then Taliban chief Mullah Omar led the charge and destroyed the famous Buddha statues of Bamiyan to the horrified gaze of the world," writes analyst Kabir Taneja in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). "They are now offering Afghanistan's natural wealth to China in exchange for investment, aware that their own Islamic Emirate will not be able to prosper for long as a hermit state, and that the current ruling classes, such as the Haqqani Network and the Kandahari faction, will need a strong and independent financial base to secure their respective interests and future, both as part of a state and, potentially, against each other". 

China has been one of the few countries in the world willing to establish commercial ties with the Taliban government, which has not yet received any international recognition from any state. However, in addition to China, Russia and Pakistan are among the few countries that maintain a diplomatic mission in Kabul. This may change if the attacks continue

Beijing denounces persecution by Washington 

The pro-government Chinese daily Global Times was quick to criticise the analysis published in the US magazine Foreign Policy, which echoed the Voice of Khorasan article. "Washington has called the jihadist group Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, a global threat, and has mobilised a Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Its own military operations against ISIS continue this year. However, in an attempt to attack China, a US media outlet used the views of an article by a branch of the ISIS terrorist movement as a source to smear China's Sinkiang policy and China's proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The US public's war on China is increasingly ineffective, and the hype about Sinkiang-related issues is not at all convincing," the paper writes. 

ISIS-K uigures
PHOTO/FILE  -   This image released by the Islamic State shows the two ethnic Uyghur members of ISIS-K who carried out the attack at the Longan hotel in Kabul in one of the rooms

The article goes on to note that "ISIS's targeting of China illustrates the need to fight terrorism, separatism and extremism in the Sinkiang region".

In the aforementioned Foreign Policy article, its author, Professor Haiyun Ma, stresses that "in line with its overseas counterterrorism strategy, the Chinese government has used various bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism mechanisms with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the United Nations, to support neighbouring countries' counterterrorism missions to address terrorist threats on the ground".