Al-Qaeda has issued its first threat against China with a vow to attack Chinese workers in North Africa in retaliation for Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.
The threat, issued by the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), highlights the risks faced by China as it expands its economic investments overseas.
“Although AQIM appear to be the first arm of al-Qaeda to officially state they will target Chinese interests, others are likely to follow,” an intelligence report from Stirling Assynt, a London-based risk analysis firm, says.
The warning followed deadly unrest in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang last week, when 184 people died and 1,680 were injured — most of them Han Chinese killed by Uighurs.
The violence has elicited sympathy in much of the Muslim world for the minority Muslim ethnic group who have long faced tight controls on their religious practices, and discrimination. “The general situation (and perceived plight) of China’s Muslims has resonated amongst the global jihadist community,” the report said. “There is an increasing amount of chatter among jihadists who claim they want to see action against China. Some of these individuals have been actively seeking information on China’s interests in the Muslim world, which they could use for targeting purposes.” Stirling Assynt said that its report was based on information from people who have seen the instruction from AQIM.
The al-Qaeda affiliate pledged to avenge fallen Muslims in Xinjiang by targeting the 50,000 Chinese workers in Algeria as well as Chinese projects and workers across northwest Africa. The group has a presence in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Mali.
Three weeks ago, AQIM attacked an Algerian security convoy protecting Chinese engineers on a motorway project, killing 24 paramilitary police. While the Chinese were not injured, the assessment notes: “Future attacks are likely to target security forces and Chinese engineers alike.”
Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that the Government remained opposed to all forms of terrorism. “We will keep a close eye on developments and make efforts with relevant countries to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of overseas Chinese institutions and people.”
Fears have been mounting among Western counter-terrorism officials that AQIM turned a deadly corner in recent weeks, with a series of fatal attacks on foreigners. Its numbers appeared to have been buoyed by the return of its fighters from Iraqi battlefields, US officials have said.
The Associated Press reported that two extremist Islamic websites affiliated to al-Qaeda had called for the killing of Han in the Middle East, noting large communities of ethnic Chinese labourers in Algeria and Saudi Arabia.
Security remains tight in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after two Uighurs were shot dead by police yesterday and a third was wounded. Officials said that the men tried to incite a crowd to take part in jihad and tried to assault a guard at a mosque. All mosques are carefully regulated by the Government and worship has been restricted since the July 5 riot. Everyone in the city has been ordered to carry identity cards or driving licences or they will be interrogated.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, Washington agreed to a request from China and listed an Uighur group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organisation. Despite the UN also listing the ETIM as a terrorist group, Western experts see scant signs that terrorist cells operate in Xinjiang, where Sunni Uighurs follow a moderate form of Islam.
Chinese workers, particularly those in Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan, may be vulnerable to al-Qaeda attack, forcing China to rethink its strategy in a region where it has expanded its interests rapidly in recent years. Kidnapping could become an even higher risk for Chinese, previously targeted usually by mistake or for ransom.
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