Afghan Militants Have China in Their Crosshairs

New Islamic State rhetoric targets Chinese imperialism.

By , an associate professor of history at Frostburg State University.
Armed Chinese police stand guard at Tiananmen Square.
Armed Chinese police stand guard at Tiananmen Square.
Armed Chinese police stand guard at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 2014. Goh Chai Hin/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” is actually “China’s daydream of imperialism,” according to a recent article published by the Islamic State-Khorasan—the Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State terrorist movement. China has been a relatively low-value target for Islamist movements—but that may be changing. The Islamic State-Khorasan criticized China’s global economic expansion and maltreatment of Uyghurs in a Sept. 2 article in its English-language Voice of Khorasan. The article appeared shortly following the Aug. 31 United Nations report detailing China’s repressive policies targeting Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. It is a major renewal of war rhetoric after the Islamic State previously stopped talking about China.

This critique of Chinese imperialism marks a new development in the Islamic State’s militant rhetoric against China’s rising economic clout in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Islamic State released several notable statements, including a condemnation of China’s Uyghur policy in 2014, the execution of Chinese hostages in Pakistan in 2015, and direct threats against the Chinese government in 2017. Since then, however, the Islamic State has almost entirely ignored the plight of the Uyghurs and made no further claims calling for attacks on Chinese interests in its propaganda and media channels.

The Islamic State-Khorasan article signals a new level of attention being paid to Chinese actions among Islamist groups, shifting from an initial religious perspective toward political and economic factors. Notably, the article uses “imperialism” to refer to Chinese global expansion, elevating its critique from a narrow focus on Muslim persecution to accusations that China—like other past superpowers, such as the United States, Russia, and Britain—seeks global hegemony. Echoing the global narratives of the China threat, the Islamic State-Khorasan presents a jihadi perspective on the imperial overreach of China’s global economic expansion. The article describes Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as tantamount to contemporary imperial expansion—no different than the British East India Company’s historical role in Western colonization.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” is actually “China’s daydream of imperialism,” according to a recent article published by the Islamic State-Khorasan—the Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State terrorist movement. China has been a relatively low-value target for Islamist movements—but that may be changing. The Islamic State-Khorasan criticized China’s global economic expansion and maltreatment of Uyghurs in a Sept. 2 article in its English-language Voice of Khorasan. The article appeared shortly following the Aug. 31 United Nations report detailing China’s repressive policies targeting Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. It is a major renewal of war rhetoric after the Islamic State previously stopped talking about China.

This critique of Chinese imperialism marks a new development in the Islamic State’s militant rhetoric against China’s rising economic clout in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Islamic State released several notable statements, including a condemnation of China’s Uyghur policy in 2014, the execution of Chinese hostages in Pakistan in 2015, and direct threats against the Chinese government in 2017. Since then, however, the Islamic State has almost entirely ignored the plight of the Uyghurs and made no further claims calling for attacks on Chinese interests in its propaganda and media channels.

The Islamic State-Khorasan article signals a new level of attention being paid to Chinese actions among Islamist groups, shifting from an initial religious perspective toward political and economic factors. Notably, the article uses “imperialism” to refer to Chinese global expansion, elevating its critique from a narrow focus on Muslim persecution to accusations that China—like other past superpowers, such as the United States, Russia, and Britain—seeks global hegemony. Echoing the global narratives of the China threat, the Islamic State-Khorasan presents a jihadi perspective on the imperial overreach of China’s global economic expansion. The article describes Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as tantamount to contemporary imperial expansion—no different than the British East India Company’s historical role in Western colonization.

The linking of Chinese imperialism to historical Western colonialism in Central and South Asia to some extent echoes contemporary Indian discourse on the contentious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Rising Chinese economic expansion via the BRI is especially perceived as a threat to the West’s global dominance, which has also been challenged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the potential U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. Amid the chaos in a transition from a unipolar to a bipolar world order, the Islamic State-Khorasan sees an opportunity to establish the Islamic State’s global caliphate.

The article claims that Chinese imperialism is more vulnerable than historical Western colonialism, arguing that U.S.-China global competition and unspecified regional rivalry continue to constrain China’s rise to global dominance. But the article points to the weakness of Chinese soft power and claims that, compared to the “wild-west,” “barbaric Chinese infidels don’t have an enriched history in terms of literacy and culture … and hardly seems to be possessing the linguistic advantage for global domination.”

Within the theological understanding of geopolitics, too, the article posits that atheist China’s materialistic and mercantile imperialism cannot sustain its global expansion and dominance, comparing it to what it describes as the short-lived Mongol Empire. It also links the Mongols’ historical Silk Road project in the 13th century to China’s 21st-century Belt and Road Initiative spanning the Eurasian continent. Just like the Mongol hegemony, the “Chinese thugs” will fail in the same way as the Mongols did, the article states.

But the aspect that may most worry Beijing is not the historical analogies but the call for new current tactics. The article also discusses how to attack China’s multitrillion-dollar BRI projects around the world. When citing the closures of Chinese companies in Mozambique for fear of mujahideen attacks, the article claims to “remind those red atheists whose hands are soaked with the blood of innocent Uyghur Muslims,” signaling a direct threat to Chinese economic expansion in the developing world. The Islamic State’s opposition to China’s BRI, especially Chinese projects in Pakistan, seemingly are not empty threats. In 2017, two Chinese citizens were kidnapped and executed by the Islamic State in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, where Beijing has pledged $57 billion for connectivity projects.

The article pays particular attention to China’s overseas military capabilities and claims that—unlike Western powers that have mastered what it calls “remote controlled technology” and “remote controlled militia,” such as the Taliban, seen by the Islamic State-Khorasan as a Western-backed rival—Chinese imperialism mostly relies on economic and financial power. The article predicts “coward Chinese infidels” will not be able to protect themselves from the “sharp knives of the Khilafah soldiers”—language that plays into China’s own characterization of knife-wielding Muslim terrorists.

The article seems to consider possible Chinese responses to its terrorist threats or attacks. But, it says, “Those Maoist cowards have not mastered remote controlled warfare like the western powers did, and nor they will.” The only means available for China, according to this article, is spending money and “remotely setting up four footed cattle like the Taliban murtaddin” (meaning “apostates”) in an apparent reference to Beijing’s financial, not military, support for the Taliban. The Islamic State-Khorasan’s indication of Chinese financing probably refers to recent Taliban-China deals, such as the development of the Sino-Afghan industrial estate on the outskirts of Kabul, the resumption of talks on the Mes Aynak copper mine, or the purported oil contract signed with Chinese companies. Regarding China, the Taliban-Islamic State-Khorasan struggle tends to focus on two separate yet intertwined issues: Chinese investment and Uyghurs in Afghanistan. Taliban’s alleged refusal to hand over the Uyghurs to Beijing, coupled with China’s failure to invest in Afghanistan, suggests the interconnectivity and sensitivity of these issues to China, the Taliban, and the Islamic State-Khorasan. Each side needs to take into account the risks to its relationships with the other actors.

The article’s discussion of U.S.-China tensions and possible conflict in the Asia-Pacific indicates the salience of major-power relations in the group’s strategic calculations, including an opportunity for the terrorist group to attack Chinese interests from Central and South Asia to Africa. The article poses this question: “Do the coward Chinese atheists possess guts to counter both the west and the Islamic State simultaneously?” Amid an evolving international strategic context, the Islamic State-Khorasan has reshaped its narrative and strategy to increasingly target China not only for suppressing Muslim minorities but also for promoting “Chinese imperialism.”

Notably, Beijing has not responded directly to this threat and its previous terrorist acts against the Chinese in Central and South Asia or Africa through military means. In line with its overseas counterterrorism strategy, the Chinese government has utilized various bilateral and multilateral anti-terrorism mechanisms with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan as well as within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the United Nations to support the counterterrorism missions of neighboring countries to confront terrorist threats on the ground. Going forward, the China dream seems to be challenged not only by Western powers but also by the Islamic State in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Haiyun Ma is an associate professor of history at Frostburg State University.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.