China: in Al Qaeda’s Cross Hairs

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China was the only major country in the World which had not been marginally affected by terrorism. Though there was fledgling resistance by the rebels in Xingjian, Beijing had succeeded in controlling the spread of terror beyond the periphery of the remote, mountainous region where an obscure group the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement has been operating over the years.

A Chinese court hearing trial of Huseyin Celil, a China-born Uygur-Canadian in Urumqi, the capital of Xingjian publicly denounced existence of terrorist camps for East Turkistan separatists in Pakistan. Thus in talks between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Pakistani counter part Shaukat Aziz in May the two sides agreed to cooperate in campaigns against “East Turkistan” separatists in Xingjian.

But China had perhaps not bargained for the fundamentalists waiting in the wings to suck Beijing in the escalating whirlpool of global terrorism. The suave and educated face of fundamentalism represented by the medico bombers in UK and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy chief cleric of the Lal Masjid, a master’s degree holder of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad as well as the larger Al Qaeda-Taliban fraternity had other designs.

Their plan unfolded on 23 June, when seven Chinese citizens were abducted by vigilantes of the now infamous Lal Masjid or Red Mosque in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. The timing was astute by any measure. Pakistan’s interior minister Mr Sherpao who hails from Charsadda in the increasingly Talibanised badlands of North West Frontier Province was due to visit Beijing for a meeting of the Pak-China Joint Working Group (JWG) on Terrorism.

Beijing’s message was stern; it would not brook a meeting till its citizens were released. The Pakistani establishment obviously worked over time to ensure that the kidnappers released the Chinese and Sherpao (Tiger’s Paw) could make the trip to Beijing. It was an acute embarrassment to the Pakistani government placing its relationship with its long standing neighbour China on the block.

After exchange of pleasantries, the Chinese bluntly asked the Pakistani delegation to safeguard Chinese people and businesses in Pakistan. The other issue for discussion by the JWG was Chinese request to Pakistani authorities to hand over 20 militants of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, reportedly hiding in Pakistani tribal areas. But terrorist organisations do not follow dictates of governments as Beijing would soon realize.

On 8 July, three Chinese citizens were killed in Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) by alleged terrorists, though Pakistani authorities initially claimed this to be an attempted robbery. Reports of eye witnesses indicate that the attackers had covered their face and were shouting fundamentalist slogans. All this was taking place even as the siege of Lal Masjid was in progress. Why should Chinese citizens be targeted in a three wheeler factory outside Peshawar? The message was loud and clear. Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Luo Zhaohui thus requested the Pakistanis, “to investigate it, round up the culprits, properly handle the follow-up issues and take effective measures to protect all the Chinese in Pakistan.” President Musharraf could not afford to stay silent, thus the attack on the Red Mosque was perhaps named symbolically, Operation Silence.

Many people in Pakistan believed that the attack on the mosque was undertaken at China’s insistence. A news report indicated Tauseef Ahmed, a professor at the mass communication department of the Urdu University to have stated, “Musharraf besieged the mosque under Chinese pressure, so the Islamists retaliated by targeting Chinese nationals.” It was surely affecting a relationship which was running deep and characteristically symbolized by the phrase, ”higher than mountains and deeper than oceans.”

But there are almost 5000 Chinese citizens in Islamabad. With fundamentalist terrorism affecting many parts of Pakistan, the government will be finding it difficult to come up to Chinese expectations. Moreover, the Al Qaeda follows a nuanced strategy of globalizing terrorism against the West. Now it seems that it has shifted its focus on China which was spared thus far. Will China too be drawn into the vortex of fundamentalist terror? Perhaps Yes, may be No. Beijing is however warned and needs to evolve a viable global counter terrorism policy to protect its citizens in the hot spots straddling Chinese interests across Asia and Africa.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.