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Uyghur militancy becomes transnational threat to China

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Message James Duglous Crickton

Uighur protest in Berlin on July 10, 2009 for the human rights of this persecuted Muslim minority in China.
Uighur protest in Berlin on July 10, 2009 for the human rights of this persecuted Muslim minority in China.
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Militant Uighurs' threat to China is no longer confined to their home stretch in the Xinjiang province. It has begun to haunt China from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and the Middle East to Africa, wherever Chinese investments are flowing. In short, unarmed Chinese engineers and workers have become no more than sitting ducks.

The kidnapping and execution of Fan Jinghui, a freelance consultant, in Syria eight months ago clearly and unambiguously highlighted the new developments to the dismay of Beijing. Months earlier, the Chinese embassy in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, was damaged and a staffer died in a car bomb attack that primarily targeted a nearby hotel.

Chinese engineers are not finding it easy going even in Pakistan, for whom China is a time tested friend. From Gilgit to Quetta and Gwadar, the pereception of threat is increasing by the day, even as the Pakistani civilian and military leadership says they have walked the extra mile to beef up security for Chinese workers. The incidents of kidnapping and ambushing of Chinese workers are on the rise.

The Uighur Islamists operate from safe havens provided by the Pakistani Taliban in the North Waziristan belt, using the Gilgit-Kashgar corridor to mount attacks on their home targets. Pakistan Army's Operation 'Zarb-e-Azb' has spared them both since the Pakistani Taliban are good terrorists, according to the classification of the ISI, which nurtures terrorists of various hues in furtherance of State policy.

Uighur Islamists, under the banner of the Turkistan Islamic Party, TIP, ( also known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement or ETIM), have forged close ties with al-Qaeda, and ISIS, with which the Taliban, was associated from Day One, first as a trainer, and then as a recruitment centre.

Terrorism expert, Nodirbek Soliev (Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, ICPVTR, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, RSIS, Singapore) estimates that nearly 1,000 Uighur fighters and their families from China's Xinjiang province have joined al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front, and its rival, ISIS, in the Middle East. The number of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan is put at around 300-500 as part of the IS-Taliban axis.

TIP's Syrian branch, known as the Turkistan Islamic Party in the Levant (TIP-L), is a close ally of al Nusrah Front and part of "Jaish al Fatah" ('Army of Conquest'), the new coalition of jihadists that has been fighting against the government forces in Syria.

All this helped the Uighur Islamists to spread their wings and mobilize jihadi support to make China bleed, and hurt its economic interests globally either on its own or with the help of allies like al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda's branch in Somalia, the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) of Pakistan.

Uighur heat is being felt mostly in Pakistan, where China is investing heavily in an energy corridor from Gwadar on the Balochistan coast to Xinjiang province in Western China. Also in Afghanistan, where China is focusing on mining and processing of copper, amongst other ventures.

Put simply, the situation has reached a stage where China can no longer rest on the assurances of the army, police and other security forces of Pakistan and hope for a turnaround.

It is this realisation that appears to have stirred China to finally raise an accusing finger at the LeT for the 2008 Mumbai (India) terror attacks. A documentary on the Chinese state TV channel, CCTV-9, in June highlighted the role of the LeT and its sponsors in Pakistan in the terror attack.

This is a clear giveaway that China is no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's greatest export -- terrorism. Until now, Beijing has been blocking UN efforts to put more Pakistani entities and wanted militants like Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, Talha Saeed and Hafiz Abdul Rauf (all of LeT/JuD, Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) on the terrorism watch list or black list.

China's new anti-terrorism law that has paved the way for Beijing to deploy its military for overseas counter-terrorism purposes makes sense. Action rather than rhetoric will be necessary if China wants to take pre-emptive measures to safeguard its transnational business interests, rather than the 'non-interference' foreign policy, that Beijing has been following ever since it became a Bamboo capitalist on the prowl. It needs to make a beginning with Pakistan if it wants to sound credible.

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A blogger since July 2008 James Duglous Crickton is a London based consultant working with a consultancy firm focusing on Asia, particularly South Asia and East Asia. Political Research is his functional focus area. While his interests are (more...)
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