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 crackdown against Uighurs in Xinjiang last week in which 192 people were killed.
Quoting a security consultancy, the South China Morning Post wrote that while AQIM — a loose umbrella for North African extremist organizations, according to terrorism experts — was the first al-Qaeda-linked group to issue such a threat against China, others were likely to follow.
It matters little if, according to Beijing, 137 of the 192 people who were killed in the clashes in Xinjiang were Han rather than Muslim. For extremist organizations like AQIM (a rebranding of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), decades of victimization of Muslims in Xinjiang and the attendant list of grievances are 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, in which the interests of the “oppressor” are targeted by al-Qaeda where they are weakest — and as a means to place pressure on the central government to (a) change a policy and (b) leave the region.
In this case, the proximate enemy is China, but ETIM and other extremist organizations in Central Asia are in no position to target the Chinese government head-on.
Instead, they will punish Beijing by attacking soft targets abroad: Chinese workers, diplomatic missions, companies and so on.
Like the US, China will be the victim of its growing presence abroad. Given China’s 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 soft Chinese targets in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Maghreb and the Middle East, and possibly in parts of Latin America, with the first two regions the likeliest to see violence.
Should this transpire, we can predict that China, which so far has remained relatively stand-offish on security in these regions, will become more involved militarily in Central Asia to protect its nationals and its interests — particularly the flow of energy.
This also has implications for Taiwan.
Two things stand out. First, by virtue of their similar features and language, Taiwanese abroad could be mistaken for Chinese and targeted by extremist organizations.
This is akin to the threat level facing Caucasians whenever al-Qaeda or other extremist organizations call for attacks against Americans or Britons.
Another offshoot of this threat is that US-China cooperation on anti-terrorism could be boosted, as a terrorist attack against Chinese interests would “confirm” that Beijing and Washington face a common enemy.
If this were to happen, Beijing would acquire yet another tool with which to manipulate the US — especially under a scenario in which the People’s Liberation Army is called upon to exercise a security role in Central Asia and perhaps in Afghanistan, where ETIM elements are believed to have sought refuge.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei and the author of Democracy in Peril: Taiwan’s Struggle for Survival from Chen Shui-bian to Ma Ying-jeou.