China turns the heat on Pak to act on terror groups

Aug 2, 2011 15:44 IST

#China   #Pakistan   #Terrorism   #TerrorTrail   #Uighur   #Xinjiang  

By B Raman

The US and India are not the only countries that have been pressing Pakistan to do more against jihadi terrorists operating from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory. China too has been exercising similar pressure on the Pakistani authorities to do more against Uighur and other terrorists operating from Pakistani territory. These terrorists pose a threat not only to the security of Chinese nationals living and working in Pakistan, but also to the internal security of the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region.

A handout picture shows armed policemen trying to rescue hostages at a police station during a clash in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region July 18, 2011. China on Wednesday raised the death toll to 18 from the clash at the police station in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, saying that 14 "rioters" died along with two policemen and two hostages in the worst violence there in a year.   Xinjiang Public Security Bureau/Handout/Reuters.

A handout picture shows armed policemen trying to rescue hostages at a police station during a clash in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang Public Security Bureau/Handout/Reuters.

China's concern arises due to three reasons: first, the threats to the lives of Chinese nationals. There have been five attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan in recent years. Three of these were in Balochistan and one each in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Four of these incidents resulted in Chinese fatalities. Two of these incidents took place after the Pakistani commando action in the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007. Three Chinese nationals were killed by unidentified elements in Peshawar and Chinese engineers travelling by bus in Balochistan escaped an explosion targeting their bus. In addition to these incidents, there was one incident in which six Chinese women working in a massage parlour in Islamabad were kidnapped by students of the girls’ madrasa of the Lal Masjid. They were subsequently released.

Second, Pakistani police have failed to make any progress in the investigation into these incidents and arrest and prosecute those responsible. Third, the Pakistani intelligence agencies have failed to locate and neutralise Uighur terrorists belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic movement (ETIM) who, according to the Chinese, have taken sanctuary in Pakistan.

In August 2007, the Daily Times of Lahore quoted Liu Guchang, the then Chinese Ambassador in Moscow, from a media briefing on a six-nation counter-terrorism exercise of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), held in Xinjiang that month: “Judging from recent years the most real terrorist threat mainly comes from the East Turkestan terrorist forces active both within China and beyond its borders.”

Pakistan more responsive to China

There has been equal pressure from the US and China to do more against jihadi terrorists operating from Pakistani territory; however, the Pakistani Government has been more responsive to Chinese concerns and more worried about the impact of the Chinese concerns on Pakistan’s strategic relationship with China.

While former President Pervez Musharraf avoided any action against the pro-Taliban elements operating from the Lal Masjid for six months, Chinese expression of concern and unhappiness over the failure of the police to prevent the kidnapping of six Chinese women by students of its girls' madrasa and over the slanderous campaign of the Masjid projecting Chinese women working in Islamabad as prostitutes made him order a commando raid on the Masjid on 10 July 2007.

One saw a similar response in the case of Abdullah Mahsud, the pro-Taliban tribal leader from South Waziristan, who was helping the Neo Taliban in its operations against British and American forces in Afghan territory. The Pakistani security forces did not heed repeated expressions of concern from Hamid Karzai government officials over Mahsud’s activities in Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. But a Chinese expression of concern over the threat he posed to the lives of Chinese nationals in Pakistani territory made the Pakistani security forces and intelligence agencies trace him to a hide-out in Zhob in Balochistan on 23 July 2007 and kill him. While the Government claimed that he blew himself up when surrounded by security forces, his followers alleged that he was shot dead at point-blank range by the security forces.

China was behind the Lal Masjid raid

Chinese concern over the threat that Mahsud and his followers could pose to the lives of Chinese nationals in the wake of the jihadi anger against the Chinese over their suspected role in prompting Musharraf to act against the Lal Masjid could be traced to an incident in October 2004. At that time, Mahsud’s followers had kidnapped two Chinese engineers working on the Gomal Zam Dam project in South Waziristan-Tank area, Pakistani commandoes staged a rescue mission, in which five of the kidnappers and one of the Chinese engineers were killed. The other engineer was rescued.

In a subsequent interview, Abdullah Mahsud said that while he did not have anything against the Chinese, he ordered their kidnapping in order to force Musharraf to stop military operations against pro-Taliban elements in South Waziristan. He said: "I am not against the Chinese people. I realise that China is Pakistan's best friend. But desperate people do desperate things. That is the reason I ordered the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers. I felt this act would hurt the Musharraf Government the most."

While the kidnappers were killed in the commando action, Abdullah Mahsud, who ordered the kidnapping, remained at large; the Pakistani security forces took no action against him at that time. Only after the commando action on the Lal Masjid, when Chinese officials expressed concern over the likely threats to Chinese nationals from Mahsud, did Pakistani security forces run him down.

Despite all this, Chinese concerns remained high because the Pakistani intelligence agencies and security forces were not able to trace and neutralise the Uighur members of the ETIM, who have been operating from Mir Ali in North Waziristan along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

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Pak blamed ‘foreign hand’

Embarrased by the failure of the intelligence agencies and the security forces to trace and neutralise the Uighur terrorists and to effectively protect the Chinese nationals, Pakistani authorities were alleging that unidentified foreign elements were instigating these attacks. The then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told journalists on 8 August 2007 at KallaKahar, near Chakwal, that there was an “international conspiracy” behind the attacks on the Chinese nationals.

According to contemporaneous accounts, the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan and action against the Uighur terrorists was the main subject discussed by the then Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai during a visit to Pakistan in August 2007. Among others, he called on Gen Musharraf, Shaukat Aziz and the then Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri.

Local media reported that Musharraf condemned the attacks on Chinese nationals and assured the Chinese government of Pakistan’s commitment to bring the perpetrators to justice. Shaukat Aziz was quoted as telling the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister that the security and safety of Chinese people working in Pakistan was of paramount importance for Pakistan and that the government was taking stern measures to ensure their safety. He alleged that "our adverseries" were harming Chinese nationals in Pakistan deliberately "to create mistrust between the two counties", but that such attempts would be dealt with an "iron hand". Kasuri expressed deep sorrow over an incident in which three Chinese nationals were killed in Peshawar and assured that the government was investigating the matter. Additional security measures had been taken for the security of Chinese nationals, he reportedly said.

Sino-Pak joint task force

On 6 August 2007, Syed Kamal Shah, the then Pakistani Interior Secretary, and Luo Zhaohui, the then Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, signed a memorandum of understanding to form a joint task force to improve security for Chinese nationals in Pakistan, and to review investigations into the previous attacks. The task force was to consist of senior officials from the Interior and Foreign ministries, the National Crisis Management Cell and top Chinese diplomats in Pakistan.

A handout picture shows broken chairs piling near the entrance of a police station after a clash in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region July 18, 2011. .Xinjiang Public Security Bureau/Handout/Reuters.

A handout picture shows broken chairs piling near the entrance of a police station after a clash in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region July 18, 2011. Xinjiang Public Security Bureau/Handout/Reuters.

During a visit to Beijing in May 2008, Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said: "Enemies of China are the enemies of Pakistan" and his country would spare no effort in future as well in eliminating elements posing a threat "to our most trusted ally." Malik further said that ETIM gang leader Masoom was killed in 2002, and another leader Haq had been killed more recently by "our law enforcing agencies." He said that he assured "his Chinese brothers and sisters" that if any ETIM activity came to his knowledge, the Pakistani Government would act decisively.

China involved in capacity-building

In June 2009, replying to a debate on the budgetary demands of the Ministry of the Interior in the National Assembly, Malik said: "Due to the efforts of the President and the Prime Minister, the Chinese Government has provided $290 million for capacity-building of our security forces."

The Chinese authorities' decision to assist Pakistani capacity-building in counter-terrorism was officially conveyed to Malik when he visited Beijing and Shanghai in June 2009. Just prior to the visit, the Pakistan Government handed over to the Chinese 10 members of the Uighur diaspora in Pakistan, despite objections from the Amnesty International, which feared that the Uighurs might be executed by China without proper trial. Pakistani authorities, who officially revealed the handing-over on 5 June 2009, as reported by the News of 6 June, claimed that these Uighurs, who were rounded up during the Pakistan Army’s counter-insurgency operations in the FATA, belonged to the ETIM.

Post-Osama solidarity wearing thin

Soon after the US raid on the hideout of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in early May 2011, China had strongly defended Pakistan against US suspicions of possible complicity with bin Laden, and praised Pakistan's contribution to the war against terrorism.
However, Chinese concerns over Pakistan's perceived inaction against the terrorists of the ETIM operating from sanctuaries in North Waziristan, which had remained unexpressed for some months after the visit of Rehman Malik in 2009, have been revived after the recent incidents of violence in the interior areas of the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region.

Initially, these concerns found expression in the comments of Chinese counter-terrorism experts working for well-known Chinese think tanks, but now the expression of concern is finding its way into the party-controlled media.

ISI chief in China

According to well-informed Pakistani police sources, after a phone call from President Hu Jintao to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been rushed to Beijing to address Chinese concerns regarding the revival in the activities of the ETIM from Pakistani sanctuaries in the weeks before an international Expo to be held in Urumqi in September.

The ETIM operates in close co-ordination with Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union from hideouts in North Waziristan. Despite pressure from the US, the Pakistani Army and the ISI have till now been disinclined to act against the terrorist sanctuaries in North Waziristan. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese pressure will make them act.

Insensitivity to India's concerns

The Chinese have never been responsive to India’s concerns over the anti-India terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory. For many years, China prevented the anti-terrorism Monitoring Committee of the UN Security Council from declaring the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as terrorist organisations. It used to support Pakistan’s contention that the JuD was a humanitarian organisation. It changed its stance only after the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Despite China's insensitivity to India’s concerns over the anti- Indian terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory, India should utilise China's recent concerns to underline to the Chinese the threat that they face as a result of China's double-standards on the question of the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (Retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India; he is currently Director of the Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Republished with permission from the Chinese Centre for China Studies.