Islamabad under scrutiny from China as Pakistan-trained terrorists blamed for attacks in Xinjiang

China publicly links recent attacks in Xinjiang province to Pakistan-based terrorist group. Radical anti-US cleric al-Sadr warns Washington that military trainers could become targets. After years of fighting, al-Shabab withdraws from Mogadishu. NATO, Kosovo and Serbia reach agreement following violent clashes between ethnic groups in northern Kosovo. All this in today's security briefing...
Radu Nikolaus Botez
10 August 2011

On 31 July, an armed group stormed and set on fire a restaurant, then turning with knives on bystanders outside the premises, leading to the death of eight in Kashgar, a city in China’s Xinjiang province. Police shot dead five suspects, while killing another two some days later. Blaming the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a militant separatist group calling for an independent homeland named East Turkestan, the local government, joined by the media, said the attackers had been trained in camps in Pakistan. The group is believed to be based in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement on the ministry’s website that "Pakistan, as an important frontier of international counter-terrorism campaign, makes prominent contributions to combating terrorism," thus downplaying reports suggesting that the events would strain China-Pakistan relations, commonly referred to as the ‘all-weather friendship’.

According to reports, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), left for talks in Beijing the same day the attack took place, vaguely described as aiming at building a ‘broad-based strategic dialogue’. Commentators suggest that the events in Kashgar were high on the agenda.

A day before the attacks in Kashgar, two men hijacked a truck and drove into a group of pedestrians, killing eight and injuring 28 while an attack on a police station in Hotan, another city in Xinjiang province, left four people dead two weeks earlier.

In 2009, clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the same province left 200 dead. Uighurs, sharing a language and culture close to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, resent the presence of Han Chinese that have increasingly populated the province as well as the government policies seen as an assault on their culture.

The openSecurity verdict: While it is not the first time Chinese analysts have linked attacks in Xinjiang province to the Pakistan-based ETIM, the recent statement by the local government, likely to have been authorised by officials in Beijing, as well as the extensive coverage of different media outlets, indicate the growing concern of Islamist terrorism in China. Indeed, the fact that such a statement was issued while ISI-chief Pasha was on his way to Beijing highlights Chinese impatience with the Pakistani response to terrorist groups trained on its territory. According to an article published by Asia Times Online today, Chinese president Hu Jintao called his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari "to express concern over the growing activities of the ETIM in Xinjiang providence", while intelligence circles say that "Pakistani military authorities are under mounting pressure from Beijing to establish military bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan to counter anti-Chinese rebels purportedly operating from its soil."

China has repeatedly addressed the issue in talks with Pakistan, arguing that Uighur terrorists have received training by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and, indeed, sanctuary in Pakistan. In 2003, ETIM’s leader Hasan Mahsum was killed in a raid by the Pakistani army at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, his successor facing the same fate in 2010 with Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik stating that "we treat ETIM not only as an enemy of China but also as an enemy of Pakistan." Then-president Pervez Musharraf echoed this position when stating during a visit of Chinese prime minister Wen that Pakistan will never allow anybody, including the terrorist force of ‘East Turkistan’, to use the territory of Pakistan to carry out any form of anti-China activities. Some experts, however, have questioned the degree of ties with other Pakistan-based groups and al-Qaeda, saying that China has exaggerated the threat by ETIM to be able to crackdown on separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang and increase control of the region.

The recent incidents do affect the ‘all-weather friendship’ yet this will take place behind closed doors, with both parties hailing their relationship publicly. At the same time, it might also represent an opportunity for Sino-Indian ties to be strengthened as Islamist terrorism seems to become a shared concern. Past cooperation between the two countries on this issue included the establishment of bilateral dialogue on terrorism in 2002. However, as John Holslag, a China expert, points out, quoting an Indian official, "the Chinese side "was satisfied with having such a dialogue," while New Delhi wanted to use it as a platform for mobilizing China to urge Pakistan to stop supporting terrorists in Kashmir and elsewhere in the region." This might now change, at least to some degree.

Al-Sadr warns US that military trainers could be targets

On Monday, radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr warned Washington that any US training mission in Iraq after the withdrawal of troops, to be completed by the end of this year, could become a target. In a letter published on Saturday on his website, al-Sadr, whose militia, the Mehdi Army, had fought foreign troops until 2008, stated that "we will treat anyone who stays in Iraq as an oppressive occupier that should be resisted through military means," also saying that the "government that agrees to their stay, even if it is for training, is a weak government."

With his statements, al-Sadr responded to the recent decision of the Iraqi government to open talks with the US on keeping an estimated 2,000-3,000 US military trainers in the country, as opposed to the 6,000-7,000 suggested by the US according to reports. It is said that all parties in parliament, except for the Sadrists, agree on a training mission. Al-Sadr and his party played the role of kingmaker following last year’s elections, helping al-Maliki to secure a second term as prime minister.

Al-Shabab withdraws from Mogadishu, may resort to guerrilla tactics

On Saturday, al-Shabab, an Islamist-insurgent movement with links to al-Qaeda fighting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), withdrew from the disputed capital of Mogadishu to the surprise of many. Known for its refusal of allowing international organizations to provide relief to a population that currently suffers from one of the most severe droughts in East Africa in decades, al-Shabab recently rescinded an earlier-made promise to allow certain relief organisations, notably the World Food Program (WFP), into territory under its control. However, other organisations were allowed to operate there. Yesterday, WFP announced it would begin air-lifts of food to fight the famine in Somalia where the UN has declared five famine zones, including refugee camps in Mogadishu. It is estimated that around 3.7 million people need urgent food aid, most of them in areas controlled by the rebels.

While the government is hailing the withdrawal as "a tremendous step forward", al-Shabab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage, said it was a tactical withdrawal, preparing a counterattack. Lieutenant-Colonel Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU peacekeeping troops, stated the withdrawal was treated with caution in case it was a trap. Observers see a disintegration of the rebel group which allegedly also suffers from funding problems and has lost popular support due to its failure to fight previous famines. Rashid Abdi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank, says that "al-Shabab is now much weaker, but also more dangerous because their backs are against the wall." Others, as Will Ross, the BBC’s East Africa correspondent, point out that "we could now see more suicide bombings, more grenade attacks and perhaps the use of more landmines [as the rebels] simply may be melting away in order to carry out these guerrilla-style tactics." 

Parties reach agreement following violence at Kosovo-Serbia border

On Friday, an agreement was reached between Serbia, Kosovo and NATO after clashes between ethnic Albanian police forces and the local Serb minority in northern Kosovo. Pristina sent the units to two border posts in order to enforce a ban on Serbian imports, a response to Belgrade’s decision not to allow imports from Kosovo and allegedly ignored by the local Serbs in charge of the border. Subsequent violence between the two groups left one police officer dead, leading to the intervention of KFOR, a NATO-led peace force deployed since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, which faced assaults by local Serbs.

Under the NATO-brokered agreement, the border posts would be manned by KFOR troops while naming the disputed crossings ‘military security zones’. However, the Serb minority, yet to approve the decision, has been unhappy with the agreement which is seen as an indication of Serbia abandoning the region as it moves towards EU membership, according to reports. While the situation now appears to have calmed down, underlying tensions between the ethnic groups persist and may escalate again in the future.

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