The Tentacles of ISIS Reach Toward China
It’s been reported on the always-reliable Twitter by a Pakistan journalist, Ali Kamran Chishti, that Abdul Maulana Aziz has declared his support for the “Caliphate of Abu Bakar Baghdadi” i.e. ISIS.
If confirmed, this is potentially big and bad news for the People’s Republic of China.
Abdul Maulana Aziz was the radical spiritual leader of Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, in downtown Islamabad.
In 2007, after a prolonged and desultory siege, Pakistan armed forces stormed the mosque, signaling a partial fracture of the de facto alliance between the Pakistan deep state and radical Islam.
The confrontation was little noted in the West, but it was big news in the People’s Republic of China.
Followers of the Red Mosque had targeted Chinese sex workers as part of a purification campaign; Uighur students—“terrorists” according to the PRC–were reportedly ensconced at the mosque; and, as the as the siege muddled slowly on its initial stages, radical Islamists retaliated against Chinese in other parts of the country.
In response the PRC, which at that time relied largely upon the good offices of its local allies and assets to keep a lid on Uighur extremism, demanded action. Pervez Musharraf, torn between his military/intelligence and Chinese constituencies, obliged the PRC by sending troops personally loyal to him to storm the mosque in a bloody, catastrophic attack that probably claimed hundreds of lives.
Aziz had previously attempted to escape the siege by disguising himself in a burka, but was captured and paraded before the cameras in a humiliating fashion. His brother died in the assault.
Maulana Aziz was released on bail in 2009 and spoke to an adoring throng. The Guardian described the scene:
The 2007 siege had been a necessary sacrifice, he told them. “Hundreds were killed, many were injured. But today the whole country is resounding with cries to implement Islamic law. We will continue with the struggle.
“Now Islam will not remain confined to Swat. It will spread all over Pakistan, then all over the world.”
Standing beside him was a senior leader from Sipa-e-Sahaba, a banned sectarian group that kills Shias, and which has close ties to the Red mosque.
In 2013, in another murky episode of Pakistan jurisprudence, the over two dozen legal cases against Maulana Aziz all evaporated without any serious government challenge.
Judging by Maulana Aziz’s subsequent re-emergence as member of the Pakistani Taliban’s negotiation team, one can assume his ties to the ISI intelligence services remain strong, and he was cut loose with the hope that he would smooth the way in peace talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government.
The TTP is reportedly a willing host to Uzbek and Uighur fighters, and does not adhere to the basically hands-off strategy toward the PRC followed by many Islamic militants in the region (China’s links to militants run long and deep, thanks to its central role in funneling hundreds of millions of dollars of materiel to the mujihadeen on the CIA’s behalf during the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan). The TTP talks don’t seem to be going anywhere, which is bad news for the PRC.
Maulana Aziz is apparently residing in Islamabad, so it remains to be seen what caveats or qualifications he places upon his ISIS allegiance in order to dodge legal jeopardy–and if he and the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence) will encourage forbearance in the matter of enabling the training and infiltration of Uighur radicals back into Xinjiang.
Best case for PRC, the bond holds despite Maulana Aziz’s presumably deep resentment against the PRC for its role in the siege and the death of his brother, and his apparent sympathy for the extreme Sunni/sharia stance of ISIS.
Worst case, the ISI exploits radical forces and exacts a terrorist price tag in Xinjiang for PRC attempts to balance its support for Pakistan with its desire to strengthen ties with India, in a recapitulation of the bloody anti-diplomacy inflicted on Mumbai by Pakistan terror assets in 2008.
But in any case, the awareness that the dots are slowly but surely getting connected from ISIS to the TTP and onward to Xinjiang will shadow Beijing’s thoughts, its Uighur security policy, and its diplomacy with Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, and its interlocutors among Islamic radicals in Pakistan’s borderlands.
Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the Chinese military in the June issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.