In the context of great power competition, Isis is cleverly positioning itself to exploit the rivalry by turning its guns on China. The thinking is that US-China tensions, as well as the Russia-Ukraine war, will pave the way for the rise of Isis’ self-styled global caliphate.
As early as 2014, jihadist ideologue Abu Zar al-Burmi had targeted Chinese foreign policy. After the US announcement of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, he issued a video titled “Let’s disturb China”, saying Washington had lost the war in Afghanistan, and it was time to focus on Beijing, a rising global player.
This year, the September issue of the Isis-K magazine Voice of Khurasan carried an article, “China’s Daydream of Imperialism”, comparing Chinese ambition and the belt and road plan to British colonialism and the infamous.
However, the article argues that the Chinese are more vulnerable than their Western counterparts due to the lack of a decisive military edge over the Americans. It maintains that unlike the US, which gained its global hegemony through military power, China is sticking to the economic path to achieve its global ambition.
Interestingly, the article also compares Chinese foreign policy to the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, thereby implying that socialist China’s dominance will be as short-lived as the Mongol empire’s. It suggests that Chinese companies in Asia and Africa could one day shut down amid fears of the jihadist threat, as Western companies in Mozambique did recently.
It is important to note that these are not just empty threats. In 2017, Isis was reported to have killed a Chinese couple in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, which is home to the Gwador port, a flagship project of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Isis-K has emerged as a major anti-China global jihadist group since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last year. The Taliban’s deafening silence on the Uygur issue and growing ties with Beijing, as well as al-Qaeda’s reticence about Taliban-Beijing relations, have left a vacuum for Isis-K to fill.
In criticising China’s suppression of the Ugyhurs in Xinjiang and the Taliban’s growing closeness with Beijing, Isis-K seeks to delegitimise the de facto regime in Afghanistan. It is worth mentioning that Beijing has been developing a relationship with the Taliban through backchannels since 2014, against the backdrop of the withdrawal of most Nato forces from Afghanistan.
China has offered economic support to the Taliban regime in exchange for attention to its security concerns, especially with regard to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uygur separatist group which aims to carve Xinjiang from China and create an independent state. Thus, Isis-K is also trying to cause a rift between the Taliban and the Turkistan Islamic Party, by censuring the regime’s pro-China tendencies.
Afghanistan and China share a 74km-long border along the mountainous. At Beijing’s insistence, the Taliban relocated TIP militants from Badakhshan province, near the border, to other areas last year. However, some TIP elements are believed to have their bases in Badakhshan.
Isis-K’s anti-China rhetoric may also be intended to attract Uygur militants to its fold. The more the Taliban regime curtail TIP activities, the greater the chances of Uygur militants gravitating towards Isis-K. According to a United Nations Security Council report, Isis-K has reached out to disgruntled fighters from other terrorist groups, and as many as 50 Uygur militants have joined it.
In October 2021, Isis-K claimed responsibility for atargeting a Shia mosque in the Afghan city of Kunduz, and said the bombing had been carried out by a Uygur militant. This was clearly meant to showcase Isis-K’s successful recruitment of Uygurs in Afghanistan.
As global geopolitics continues to be driven by great power competition, China will feature more prominently in the transnational jihadist rhetoric. Jihadist groups like Isis-K require a bigger adversary to justify their extremist violence and attract funding and recruitment.
For the past two decades, the raison d’être of transnational jihadism was the American interventions in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Now, it is Chinese expansion through the Belt and Road Initiative that has become the bête noire of the jihadist groups.
Abdul Basit is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore