On December 8, 2017, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned its nationals of possible terrorist attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan (Dawn, December 8, 2017). It gave no details of how it had come by this intelligence or who the potential attackers might be. However, attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan are not uncommon, and a range of possible actors have put China in their crosshairs.
In May 2004, the Baluch Liberation Front (BLF) gunned down three Chinese port workers at Gwadar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province (The Nation, April 20, 2015). Since then, attacks on Chinese projects and nationals working in Pakistan have become more frequent. Most of these attacks, including one in 2013 that targeted five oil tankers carrying fuel for a Chinese mining company at Saindak, have occurred in Baluchistan (Balochwarna News, September 30, 2015).
The recent threat, however, is more likely from the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist organization. Less than two months before the Chinese embassy in Islamabad alerted its citizens, it had raised concern over a possible threat from ETIM to its ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing. In a letter to Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, China claimed that an ETIM assassin, Abdul Wali, had entered Pakistan on an assassination mission (The Nation, October 22, 2017).
Evolution of the Terror Threat
Over the years, China’s terrorism concerns have been primarily domestic. In the 1990s, the majority of attacks by Uighurs, including the bombing of buses and knife attacks in crowded public spaces, occurred in China’s Xinjiang province. By the end of that decade, however, Uighur militants were carrying out attacks in other parts of China too, including in Kunming and the capital Beijing (Indian Defense Review, July 27, 2016).
Uighur militancy has also had a transnational dimension. As early as the 1990s, Uighur militants were training and carrying out attacks in China from bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs). A bomb blast on a Beijing bus in 1997 was the work of Kazakhstan-based Uighurs, and in the decades that followed, a rising number of Uighur militants have fought alongside the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the CARs.
The close ties between Uighurs and global jihadists have transformed Uighur militants into more radicalized and battle-hardened fighters, capable of striking beyond China’s borders. In August 2016, an ETIM suicide bomber rammed a car into the gates of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and then detonated an explosive device. Uighur terrorist groups in Syria affiliated with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are reported to have masterminded that attack (China Daily, September 8, 2016).
Worryingly for China, the ETIM’s reach now extends to countries far from Xinjiang’s immediate neighborhood. In August 2015, two suspected ETIM militants set off a bomb in the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, killing 20 people. The attack was in retaliation for Thailand’s forced repatriation of more than 100 Uighurs to face prosecution in China (Bangkok Post, August 21, 2015).
Importantly, Uighur ties to al-Qaeda, IS and their affiliates have put China in the cross-hairs of these jihadist groups. In 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi listed China among countries where he claimed “Muslim rights are forcibly seized” (SITE Intelligence Group, July 1, 2014). The following year, a Chinese national named Fan Jinghui was abducted and killed by IS in Syria (Global Times, November 19, 2015).
In Pakistan, groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda and IS have all threatened to target Chinese nationals as a warning to China over its treatment of Muslims (Express Tribune, March 2, 2012). In a video released in March 2017, IS vowed to “shed blood like rivers” in attacks on Chinese national in order to avenge Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs. It followed up on that threat by killing two Chinese nationals in Baluchistan a few months later. As China steps up its repressive policies in Xinjiang, it can expect more attacks on its nationals and projects in Pakistan (South Asia Intelligence Review, June 19, 2017).
The Threat in Pakistan
ETIM and its jihadist allies object to Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs. In Pakistan, the group’s concerns are shared, albeit to a lesser extent, by TTP, al-Qaeda and IS, as well as their affiliates. Although the Pakistani government claims to have eliminated ETIM bases on its soil, hundreds of Uighur fighters operate in the North Waziristan region and remain committed to jihad against China.
For ETIM, targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan may be easier than carrying out operations at home. Unlike China, were security is tight, vast swathes of Pakistan are effectively lawless, enabling scores of terror outfits to operate with impunity (Friday Times, June 8-13, 2012). Additionally, there is no dearth of potential targets for terrorist groups looking to hit Chinese interests in Pakistan. For one, an estimated 30,000 Chinese live in Pakistan today, and their numbers are rising (Associated Press of Pakistan, August 24, 2017).
China has also invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Pakistan, and any of these projects is a potential ETIM target. Particularly attractive are the roads, railways, ports, pipelines and dams that are part of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) (China Brief, January 12). A flagship venture of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), CPEC’s success is an imperative for China (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, September 4, 2017). However, the large number of terrorist groups active in Pakistan undermine security in the country, which could delay completion of CPEC projects and cost Pakistan and China billions of dollars (Hindustan Times, May 11, 2017).
Specifically targeting CPEC projects and workers would provide ETIM with a major propaganda victory and constitute a major blow to Chinese pride. A major terrorist attack on CPEC would undermine the confidence of other BRI participants in the Chinese initiative and present a possible setback to China’s global ambitions.
CPEC itself has been divisive, and Chinese workers face a serious threat from sections in Pakistan who feel exploited by China and excluded from CPEC’s benefits. Foremost among these are the Baluch. Gwadar port, which is often described as the “crown jewel” of CPEC, is in Baluchistan (Express Tribune, September 23, 2016). However, few Baluch are beneficiaries of the project (The News, January 29, 2017). Instead, Baluch nationalists and militants, who have fought against Islamabad’s exploitation of their resource-rich land for decades, now find China using CPEC to strip their region of its mineral wealth (Economic Times, October 18, 2017). In addition to targeting the Pakistani military, which has a heavy presence in Baluchistan, militant groups like the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Baluch Republican Army (BRA), and BLF are now training their guns on CPEC’s non-Baluch workers, including Chinese nationals (Dawn, May 13, 2017).
Lesser-known outfits outside Baluchistan province are also targeting Chinese nationals. In May 2016, a Chinese engineer in Karachi was injured by a low-intensity bomb. Claiming responsibility for the attack in a pamphlet recovered from the blast site, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Party denounced CPEC as an “anti-Sindh project” and accused China of “looting Sindh’s resources” (Daily Times, May 31, 2016). While CPEC may be the target, the threat to Chinese nationals is generalized—a 46-year-old Chinese executive was killed this month in Karachi after an unknown gunmen opened fire on his car (Dawn, February 5). A company trainee who was in the car with him survived that attack. Both worked for Cosco Shipping Lines Pakistan, a company unconnected with CPEC.
Potential for Attacks
China’s treatment of its Uighur population is a key driver for jihadist attacks on Chinese nationals and interests both in Pakistan and further afield. In Pakistan specifically, CPEC has presented an additional driver for attacks and its projects and workers are potential targets.
If Beijing’s approach to its Uighur population remains repressive and if CPEC’s benefits do not reach local communities in Baluchistan and other provinces, the potential for attacks will only increase.
As China’s global footprint expands, so too will its exposure to international terrorists groups. This has already prompted enhanced Chinese engagement abroad, including the deployment of its special forces to protect its projects and rescue Chinese national who have been taken hostage (See Terrorism Monitor, August 15, 2017). The array of terrorist threats that Chinese projects and personnel face in Pakistan is a pointer to what it can expect in other countries participating in the BRI, and from radical Islamist groups sympathetic to the Uighur cause.