Using Non-State Actors to Undermine a Non-State: China, the Taliban and ISIS

A rift may be opening up between jihadist groups in Pakistan that do the bidding of Pakistan’s ISI and want to launch attacks in the Indian Sub-Continent and those bitterly opposed to the ISI who wish to avenge the perceived humiliation of Muslims in China, Central Asia and Myanmar. Included in this latter category is the so-called Islamic State, which has begun infiltrating Asia and may soon pose an asymmetric threat to Beijing’s interests in West China, given that Pakistan has long been used as a launching pad for attacks within the Uighur territories.

This July, would-be Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s speech in Mosul spelled out the need for his followers to fight for the dignity of Muslims in China. In the service of this campaign, they have already gained the allegiance of one of al-Qaeda’s most valuable assets in Pakistan, the radical preacher Abdul Mualana Aziz. He has a long history of subversive activities against Pakistan, drawing a hard line and refusing to even attend peace talks between elements of the TTP and the Pakistani government. However Aziz is also committed to inspiring, recruiting, and training Chinese Uighurs, with a history of supporting Uighur extremists– culminating in the Siege of the Red Mosque in 2007. It is believed that the Chinese had a hand in the Siege—and in response, terrorists have tried to strike back at Chinese interests, vowing revenge both at home and abroad. For his part, Aziz was acquitted on charges of provoking the 2007 incident, waltzing out of the court in 2013 to a hero’s welcome.

Making things worse, Central Asians are presently fighting in Syria and have declared an intention to return and perform jihad in their respective countries; Indonesia recently arrested four Uighurs who hoped to join their ranks. This is a worrisome development to China, which has brutally repressed, and had to deal with violent backlash from, its Muslim minority Uighur population. Though China wrongfully claims that all anti-China Uighurs are terrorists, extremists from among them have found refuge in Pakistan—to include with the Pakistani Taliban. Domestically, China has responded with repressive moves which are certain to feed the cycle of radicalization and resistance. Geopolitically, these developments have prompted China’s close ties with both the Pakistani government and Afghan Taliban (although its ties with the Taliban are equally motivated by economic reasons and a desire to sway influence in Afghanistan away from India).

Thus far, China’s relationship with the Taliban has been one of cautious dialogue–but as China emphasizes, it is the only country other than Pakistan to have continued relations with the Taliban’s leadership after the U.S.-NATO invasion. The rapport has been largely based on convincing Taliban leaders to not allow Uighur extremists safe havens within Afghanistan—something that the Taliban stated it would deliver on, but the deal was never finalized. However, China also supported reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government—viewing the fostering of both a healthy relationship with the Taliban, and a stable Afghanistan free of civil war, as interrelated and strategically important to the long term stability of the region, to include China’s own Western Province.

But beyond forming an integral piece of China’s strategy for post-NATO Afghanistan, Beijing may be hoping that the Taliban can help check the expansion of the so-called Islamic State in much the same way the U.S. aspires to cultivate Sunni opposition groups to the IS in Iraq and Syria.

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