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How China Became Jihadis’ New Target

International terrorist organizations long considered Beijing a secondary focus. That’s changed.

By , a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag.
A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag.
A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag outside the Chancellery in Berlin on May 31, 2019. Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.

China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.

In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.

China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.

There’s very little evidence that happened. The tolerance China appeared to show in the late 1990s toward al Qaeda figures who occasionally used Chinese territory for transit and support operations was more likely due to ignorance than to plotting. By 2004, this dynamic had changed, and Chinese intelligence was willing to work with Western services to hand over suspected terrorists who passed through China’s airports.

During the first Taliban-led government in the 1990s, Chinese officials were hesitant but willing interlocutors with Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime. China was never a full-throated Taliban supporter but instead preferred to find ways of working with the group in the background. This mostly took the form of China providing limited investment and support that was encouraged by Pakistan, with the expectation that the Taliban would restrain the Uyghur groups that had established themselves in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar’s protection from attacking China. Beijing didn’t seem to be very concerned about what the Taliban’s larger goals were, as long as Afghanistan’s leaders acted on this key request. Still, there is little evidence that Beijing linked this domestic problem to a broader international terrorist threat.

With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the problem of international terrorism took off globally, with groups targeting an expanding range of countries. Yet China’s successful push to get some of its own domestic Uyghur groups added to the United Nations and U.S. roster of terrorist organizations did not bring the country much international jihadi attention. Meanwhile, in the years immediately after 9/11, China became wary of the Taliban. A Uyghur group reportedly fought alongside the Taliban for years, as a video by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri highlighted in 2016 and as U.S. intelligence information from Guantánamo Bay indicated earlier.

As the 2010s went on, more Chinese citizens started to be harmed in terrorist incidents around the globe, but, for the most part, these seemed incidental—a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Al Qaeda and then Islamic State leaders released some statements that threatened Beijing for its treatment of Uyghurs—and indeed Muslims more generally—but for the most part, they were limited and didn’t lead to any major push to target China.


Now, it’s undeniable that China is being targeted, especially as its footprint in Afghanistan grows. Beijing has long skirted around formal engagement in Afghanistan, and while it continues to do this to some degree, it has also been the most willing of the major powers in the region to engage with the Taliban directly. The Islamic State-Khorasan clearly sees the Taliban bowing to Beijing as a weak point to capitalize on, and the group’s message is clear: It is offering itself as a home to Uyghurs who are unhappy with the Taliban regime, as well as others in Afghanistan appalled at China’s treatment of Muslim minorities.

The new Taliban government has publicly stated its desire to work with the Chinese government—something Beijing has made clear is conditional on action against Uyghur militants. Taliban leaders are especially keen to attract Chinese investment and economic partnerships. In late October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the group’s leaders in Doha, Qatar. Taliban Foreign Minister-designate Amir Khan Muttaqi presented Wang with a box of Afghan pine nuts, reflecting one of the many goods Afghanistan is hoping to export to the Chinese market. Wang, meanwhile, focused on the need for stable government in Afghanistan and appealed to the Taliban once again to sever their links with Uyghur militants.

But the degree to which the Taliban are able—or want—to entirely sever this Uyghur connection is an open question. Over the past few months, the group has said that they would not let their territory be used by militants to launch attacks abroad and that Uyghur militants had left the country. Yet while rumors circulate of anti-Uyghur action behind the scenes—and of the Taliban moving Uyghurs within Afghanistan away from China’s borders—Beijing is not entirely convinced. After the meeting in Doha, the Chinese foreign ministry wrote that Wang had expressed that China “hopes and believes” that the Taliban “will make a clean break with the ETIM” (the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” the name China uses to describe militant Uyghur networks), suggesting that the group hasn’t yet fulfilled Beijing’s desires.

Beijing likely knows that this is a dangerous development—especially in a region where it is facing greater threats.

It is this dynamic that the Islamic State-Khorasan capitalized on when it used a suicide bomber in the Kunduz attack with the battlefield name Muhammad al-Uighuri. In the message released by the Islamic State’s media channels claiming the attack, the group linked the attacker directly to the Taliban and China’s cooperation, stating, “the attacker was one of the Uyghur Muslims the Taliban has promised to deport in response to demands from China and its [China’s] policy against Muslims there.”

The message has many layers. First, it is a signal to the Taliban highlighting their inability to protect minorities in the country they now purport to control. Second, it is a message to China, attacking Beijing for its policies in Xinjiang and linking those to the group’s interests. Third, it is a message to other Uyghurs who feel abandoned or threatened by the Taliban and may be seeking to join other groups that will advance their interests. Finally, it is a message to the world, showing that the Islamic State-Khorasan is a capable organization that’s continuing the Islamic State traditions on the battlefield and speaking up for oppressed Muslims. These messages will resonate with potential supporters around the world.

Publicly, China was circumspect in its response, which decried the loss of life. No official comment was made about the attacker’s identity, though a Chinese academic published an opinion piece in the state-owned Global Times accusing the Associated Press of fabricating the narrative of the attacker being Uyghur. He instead advanced Taliban narratives that Uyghurs who had been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan had left the country and praised the Taliban’s control and cooperation with China.

But Beijing likely knows that this is a dangerous development—especially in a region where it is facing greater threats. There have been new reports of a growing Chinese security presence in Tajikistan aimed at strengthening its ability to address potential threats from Afghanistan. A growing range of militant groups in Pakistan are targeting Chinese interests there, with attacks in Dasu and Karachi coming from local Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was struck in 2016, as was its consulate in Karachi in 2018, an attack that killed four people (and three attackers). Local protest movements, militant groups, and politicians are all looking at China as an adversary. Until now, however, most of the attacks were conducted by local separatist movements. The addition of the Islamic State-Khorasan to the roster finally brings the country firmly into jihadis’ crosshairs.

The problem for China is that it is ill prepared to handle such threats. Its military may be large and well equipped, but it has little experience countering militant organizations and often relies on other countries to do so for it. Yet, as Beijing is increasingly discovering in Pakistan—one of its more reliable allies—this is difficult to guarantee. Taliban leadership may project great strength and hubris, but they will face the same difficulties as others in the region in quelling militant groups in their territory, and they may find it difficult to entirely protect China from determined terrorist organizations.

In a sense, Beijing is stuck. China is Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbor, which partly explains the growing attention toward its role in the country. Beijing is increasingly seen as the Taliban’s great supporter on the international stage. In assuming this role, China runs the risk of being seen as filing the vacuum the United States left in Afghanistan—something Beijing is keen to avoid. The reality, however, is that it is already getting sucked in. The Islamic State-Khorasan’s attack in Kunduz merely highlighted how far down this path Beijing has already gone.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the co-author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, with Alexandros Petersen. Twitter: @raffpantucci

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