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Massacre in Pakistan’s Karakoram signals eastern storms over China

Fairy Meadows, it’s called, the quiet stretch of grass where the ten men were sleeping before they began their perilous assault on the great Nanga Parbat. From the testimony of a man who survived, we know this: ten foreign climbers, and one Pakistani mistaken for a Shi’a, were lined up, and then shot through the back of the head. The guides were then allowed to go, after a lecture on the virtues of jihad.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the murders—including its very first of Chinese nationals since 2011, when it assassinated a woman in Peshawar saying it was that country "killing our Muslim brothers".

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. AFP

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. AFP

Like so much else in Pakistan, elements of the media have been scrambling to blame the killings on the favourite fiction of the country’s paranoiac conspiracy theorists, the HinJew Plot.

No dissimulation, though, can obscure the stark message: even though China’s friendship with Pakistan might be "taller than the mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey", Asia’s principal power won’t be immune to the storm that is building up as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014.

For much of this summer, China’s Xinjiang—an oil and coal-rich province which makes up one-sixth of the Asian giant’s territory, and borders troubled Pakistan and Afghanistan—has been mired in communal violence. Last week, knife-wielding mobs were reported to have killed 17 in attacks on police stations and a construction site in Shansan, east of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, before police opened fire killing another 10. Earlier, 21 people were killed in riots which broke out in Kashgar, reportedly after tried to force Muslim women to stop wearing niqab.

In 2009, an estimated 197 people were killed in Ürümqi during murderous communal violence pitting the region’s Uighur Muslims against ethnic Hans. Later, in 2011, several people were killed in serial knife and bomb attacks. Last year, 16 people were killed in an led by Uighur religious activist Abudukeremu Mamuti at Yecheng, near the border with Pakistan.

From images circulating around the internet, there’s good reason for suspicion that jihadist groups are hoping to cash in on the ethnic-religious strains in Xinjiang. Earlier this summer, the Hizb-e-Islami Turkistan—also known as the Turkestan Islamic Party, and in Chinese literature as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement—posted video of its operatives conducting suicide attacks in Afghanistan.

The video featured suicide bomber Nuruddin Mehmet, who announced that he was participating in the operation "to make the religion of Allah the Almighty supreme and predominant in the world, and to make polytheism disappear". Firstpost obtained video footage showing children being trained at a Hizb-e-Islami Turkistan training camp said to be located in Pakistan’s North Waziristan.

The Hizb-e-Islami Turkistan has well-documented links with Al Qaeda. Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the organisation’s former chief, was a member of Al Qaeda’s executive council. Abdul Shakoor al Turkistani, also reported killed in drone strike last year, is also thought to have been appointed to the central council, in addition to being designated commander of Al Qaeda forces Pakistan’s tribal areas.

None of this is news to Beijing—but with the United States pulling out of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s north-west in meltdown, it’s likely groups like these will gain strength.

Islamism in Xinjiang was forged in that great crucible: the great anti-Soviet Union jihad that tore Afghanistan apart from 1979—funded, and equipped by the United States and Saudi Arabia, with China’s assistance. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs are reputed to have participated in the jihad, returning home empowered with the belief that a superpower could be successfully defeated through insurgent warfare. In 1993, Hasan Mahsum and Abdukadir Yapuquam, both residents of the town of Hotan, founded ETIM to spearhead this cause. Both men are known to have met with Osama bin Laden; their cadre fought alongside the Taliban.

Xinjiang’s first struck in February, 1997. Following the killing of nine Uighurs in police firing on a mob protesting the execution of several Islamists, a clash now known as the Ghulja incident, jihadists, bombed three buses Ürümqi. Hasan Mahsum had, by this time, relocated TIP’s headquarters to Kabul, under the Taliban’s patronage—and Beijing began to worry that worse was to come.

Following the Taliban’s triumph in Kabul, Beijing used its influence in Islamabad to open a channel to the Islamic Emirate’s chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar. The Taliban's then-ambassador to Pakistan described his Chinese counterpart "the only one to maintain a good relationship" with the Taliban. In fact, China was signing deals in Kabul the very day of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. In December 2000, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Liu Shulin, received promises the Taliban would not "allow any group to use its territory". In return, Mullah Omar asked for Chinese help against western sanctions, and demanded the establishment of diplomatic relations between his isolated regime and Beijing.

Neither side, expert Andrew Small has recorded, kept its promises. China abstained on United Nations sanctions against the Taliban—pushed through after the United States finally lost patience with its long-standing policy of trying to bribe the jihadists into submission—but didn’t use its veto. The Taliban, for its part, corralled the jihadists into camps run by the sister Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, but didn’t actually shut the group down.

Following 9/11, the Hizb-e-Islami Turkistan was decimated—and retreated into North Waziristan, where it flourished under the patronage of jihadist warlords like Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri.

From January, 2007, evidence began to emerge it was regaining its lethality. That month, a raid on a training camp inside Xinjiang claimed the life of 18 insurgents. Inside the camp, investigators found an hour-long videotape, which included a call by the Syrian Al Qaeda ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasar mentioning China as a target for the global jihadist movement. The video also contained footage of Uighur jihadists training with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and shoulder-fired missiles. Then, in 2008, a secret witness in the trial of Malika el-Aroud—the wife of the assassin of the anti-Taliban Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud—told the court t the largest group of jihadists in Pakistan’s north-west was from China.

In the build-up to the Beijing Olympics, a series of spectacular attempts were foiled. In March, 2008, crew on a Beijing-bound China Southern flight foiled an attempted mid-air suicide bombing by 19 year old Guzalinur Turdi—trained, it emerged, in Pakistan. There were successes for the jihadists, too: in August, 2008, terrorists killed 16 police officers in a raid in Kashgar, following up that up by crashing an explosives-laden truck into a police station in Kuqa.

Xinjiang, for Al-Qaeda, is an important target—and not just because it’s a tool with which to embarrass it’s most immediate enemy, the Pakistani state. In a recent video, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that a key task for the global Islamist movement ought be "to liberate the occupied Muslim lands". He cited "Russia's takeover of the lands of Chechnya and the Caucuses, India's presence in Kashmir, Spain's Andalusia, and China's takeover of East Turkistan".

China has long sought to address the looming threat with a three-pronged strategy. It has closely engaged Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate: Hasan Masoon, notably, was killed by the Pakistani army in 2003. It has opened discreet channels of communication with the Taliban, as has the United States, but is at once investing heavily in Afghanistan, hoping its cash will buy it influence irrespective of what shape a future political dispensation might take. And it is pumping in cash into Xinjiang’s economy, hoping ethnic resentments will be dissolved in the flood of Yuan.

None of these strategies, though, are running quite to plan.

For one, Chinese nationals have become targets worldwide. In 2007, three workers were assassinated in Peshawar, while Al Qaeda’s regional franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, killed a Chinese engineer in a 2009 ambush. There have been attacks, too, on Chinese workers in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and Afghanistan’s Faryab region. In 2011, authorities in Dubai convicted Pakistan-trained Xinjiang resident Mayma Ytiming Shalmo for planning to bomb a shopping mall selling Chinese products. The ISI just doesn’t have the muscle—or the will—to take on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as events within that country have demonstrated.

Then, China’s investments in Afghanistan—like those India is hoping to make—are going nowhere. Its mines at Mes Aynak could turn out to be cash-cows, but only if someone figures out a way to safely build, operate and then transport-out—something the United States hasn’t done even with a military presence.

Finally, there is the obvious: modernisation in China, like in India, has been uneven, fuelling ethnic-religious resentments and paranoia, rather than ending them. Development might, in the long run, breed an egalitarian identity where all Chinese participate as citizens—but right now, it’s fuelling tension between ethnic Hans and ethnic Uighurs, in and outside Xinjiang.

Beijing knows there’s a serious problem—but bar fire-fighting, doesn’t know what to do. India, China and Russia need to begin a focussed conversation on the fallout from 2014: they’re the ones, after all, who will be left holding the bill the United States has made clear it’s no longer willing to pay.

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