Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algeria-based offshoot of al-Qaeda, has reportedly threatened to target Chinese interests overseas in retaliation for Beijing’s deadly crackdown against Uighurs in Xinjiang last week, in which 184 people were killed. Quoting a security consultancy, the South China Morning Post wrote that while AQIM was the first al-Qaeda-linked group — or, according to experts on terrorism, a loose umbrella for regional extremist organizations — to issue such a threat against China, others were likely to follow.
It matters little that, according to Beijing’s claims, of the 184 people who were killed in the clashes in Urumqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang, 137 were Han Chinese rather than Muslim. For extremist organizations like AQIM (a rebranding of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, GSPC) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the decades of victimization of Muslims in Xinjiang is the essence of the problem; last week’s violence was simply the trigger.
Interestingly enough, the targeting of China follows a pattern established with the West, and the US in particular, whereby the interests of the “oppressor” are targeted by al-Qaeda where they are weakest and as a means to pressure its central government to (a) change a policy and (b) leave the region. In this present case, the proximate enemy is China, but ETIM and other extremist organizations in Central Asia — China’s rear — are in no position to target it head-on. Instead, they will punish Beijing by attacking soft targets abroad: Chinese workers, diplomatic missions, firms, and so on. Just like the US, China will be the victim of its growing presence abroad. Given China’s severe reliance on oil and natural gas, combined with the fact that a large share of those resources comes from the Persian Gulf, Africa and Central Asia, exposure of Chinese interests to radical groups will not be minimal.
In coming weeks and months, therefore, we can expect kidnappings and attacks on Chinese soft targets in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Maghreb and the Middle East, as well as certain parts of Latin and Central America with large Muslim populations, with the first two regions the likeliest to see violence. Should this transpire, we can predict that China, which so far has remained relatively hands-off on regional security, to become more involved militarily in Central Asia to protect its people, interests, and the flow of energy.
Implications for Taiwan
Two things stand out for Taiwan relative to this development. First — and this harkens back to my days in the Threat Assessment Unit at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — by virtue of their similar features and language, Taiwanese abroad could be mistaken for Chinese and targeted by such extremist organizations. This is akin to the threat level facing Caucasians whenever al-Qaeda or other extremist groups call for attacks against Americans or British.
Another offshoot of this threat is that it will likely add urgency to US-Chinese cooperation on antiterrorism, as a terrorist attack against Chinese interests would “confirm” that Beijing and Washington face a common enemy. If this were to happen, this would provide Beijing with yet another lever with which to pressure the US — especially under a scenario where the People’s Liberation Army is called upon to exercise a security role in Central Asia and perhaps further into Afghanistan, where ETIM elements are believed to have sought refuge.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on July 19.