China and the ISIS Threat

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China and the ISIS Threat

Already grappling with a home-grown terrorism problem, should Beijing fear the Islamic State?

China and the ISIS Threat
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The Islamic State (IS), also widely known as ISIS and ISIL, is apparently attempting to make good on its promise to attack nations who oppose them. A week ago, in the largest counterterrorism operation in Australian history, 800 federal and state police officers raided more than a dozen properties across Sydney, sparked by intelligence that IS was planning a public street killing as a demonstration of its reach.

The arrests in Sydney follow the arrest of two men in Brisbane last week for allegedly preparing to fight in Syria, recruiting jihadists and raising money for the al-Qaeda offshoot group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front. Australia estimates about 60 of its citizens are fighting for IS and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. To date, 15 of those fighters had been killed, including two young suicide bombers. Within Australia, the government believes around 100 Australians are actively supporting extremist groups, recruiting fighters and coaching suicide bombers, as well as providing funds and equipment.

Australia is not alone in taking the threat from IS seriously: The New York Police Department’s top counterterrorism official stepped up security in Times Square on Wednesday following a recent Internet posting – purportedly authored by IS – that urged “lone wolf” terrorists to attack Times Square and other tourist spots. Also this week, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Yemen living in upstate New York, arrested earlier this year on charges of plotting to kill members of the U.S. military and others, faces new charges that he tried to aid the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Obama’s decision to go after IS, announced on September 11, deliberately harked back to the response of George W. Bush on that same day 13 years ago, when he promised to “find those responsible and to bring them to justice.” And much as world leaders in Israel, Russia, the Philippines, Algeria, Egypt, India and Tunisia followed Bush’s lead in cracking down on terrorist activity back then, world leaders will again consider the emergence of IS as a rallying call to heighten counteroffensive action against domestic terrorism.

The U.S. and Australia are obvious targets for IS, but how dire is the threat for China? According to comments made in July by Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, up to 100 Chinese citizens may be fighting for IS. Wu believes the Chinese fighters are Uighurs from Xinjiang, a Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic minority group.

A recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose members include China Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, saw its members sharing the same fear Europeans and Americans have of their fellow citizens who have joined IS in Iraq and Syria returning to their home countries. In addressing the heads of state of SCO in Tajikistan, President Xi Jinping confirmed “(We) should make concerted efforts to crack down on the ‘three evil forces’ of terrorism, extremism and separatism.” Zhang Xinfeng, the group’s director of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Agency also spoke on the members’ concern of returning IS soldiers, saying, “These people have started returning to their homeland, which constitutes a major threat to regional security.”

The heightened concern comes as Beijing battles an active homegrown terrorist insurgency primarily focused in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Local authorities lay the blame for the violence on the minority Uyghur population, who are thought to be behind the July 28 attack, which led to 59 suspected terrorists being gunned down by security forces in Shache county in Xinjiang’s far south. Three days after the incident, the government-appointed head of the Id Kah mosque in the far western city of Kashgar was killed after leading morning prayers. This year has seen a number of grisly terrorist actions, including a suicide bombing on May 22 at a morning street market in Urumqi, which killed at least 39 people and wounded dozens. Other attacks include the stabbing of six people earlier this month at a train station in Guangzhou, a suicide bombing at the end of April at the Urumqi train station, and stabbings at the Kunming train station in March.

While some Chinese diplomats may be publicly downplaying the threat of IS coming to China, Beijing is likely heightening its activity in response to comments made in early July by IS speaking of revenge against several countries, including China, for seizing “Muslim rights.” The comments made the cover story of Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based newsmagazine widely distributed in China, and the article was widely disseminated throughout Chinese news websites and social media to a population still anxious and fearful following the Kunming and Guangzhou attacks.

The article quotes a July 4 speech in Mosul, Iraq by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, during which he says, “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine” and, “Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades.” The article specifically notes that China was mentioned first on al-Baghdadi’s list, and shows a map that reportedly shows the territory IS plans to occupy in the next five years – which includes a significant portion of Xinjiang.

Some analysts claim the article and the map are exaggerating the potential for foreign jihadists to wage jihad in such distant lands as Xinjiang, citing the difficulty in mounting concurrent attacks across multiple fronts such as the U.S. and U.K. Clearly, following Obama’s approval for airstrikes, IS fighters have their hands full in Iraq and Syria, but the planned attack in Sydney reveals a global reach.

Yet whether or not IS poses a real and immediate threat to the population in Xinjiang, Beijing is likely to give the go-ahead soon to use the perceived threat as justification to intensify their crackdown on the Uighur population. Uighur exile groups already complain Beijing overstates the threat from terrorism, falsely portraying riots as premeditated terror attacks. However, determining the extent of any threat, and what actually transpires on the ground, is difficult given constraints on foreign journalists operating in Xinjiang and delays in reporting from Chinese state media.

Without better reporting coming out of Xinjiang, China will not attract much sympathy for its war on terrorism, despite sharing a common enemy, the Islamic State, with Washington. In theory, the interests of Washington and Beijing could align – as they may be doing in Iraq, where there is some support from China for carrying out airstrikes against insurgents in northern Iraq. Of course, Beijing’s other interest is economic – China is Iraq’s largest foreign oil buyer, owning more than 20 percent of Iraq oil projects.

Sharing common interests in Iraq are a far cry from gaining Washington’s backing for stepped up efforts to fight terrorism in Xinjiang, as the situation there is less transparent than it is in Iraq. Unfortunately for the citizens of Xinjiang, Beijing is likely to use reports of an Islamic State presence in Xinjiang as propaganda to step up their fight against terrorism. Sadly, much as we saw happen to the Chechens, Kashmiris and Palestinians following the events of September 2001, Beijing’s reaction to the perceived threat of IS will likely only lead to more innocent victims, more counterattacks by extremists, and the radicalization of Uighur youth. All of which could one day fulfill the prophecy of IS entering the region.

Gary Sands is a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory, and has contributed a number of op-eds for the South China Morning Post, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Times, and other outlets. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, and is based now in Ho Chi Minh City.