Over al-Qaeda’s more than 30 years of existence, the organization’s public stance on China has changed quite dramatically. Al-Qaeda has moved from trying not to agitate Beijing, to fleetingly listing “East Turkestan” (i.e., Uyghur-dominated lands, primarily China’s Xinjiang province) amongst a host of other locations where Muslims are oppressed, to directly criticizing, and at times even threatening, China for its domestic security measures in Xinjiang as well as its foreign policy actions in the Islamic world. Furthermore, al-Qaeda’s grievances against China have become markedly more numerous and nuanced and purveyed by a wider range of individuals, branches, and publications in recent years.
China’s rapid global ascent in the 2000s and 2010s, combined with its intensified security crackdown against its Muslim populations in Xinjiang as well as its expanded influence in the Islamic world around this same time, attracted an increased level of attention from al-Qaeda and allied movements. Such hostile sentiment has become particularly perceptible in South Asia and East Africa, both regions where China has drastically expanded its politico-economic footprints in the 21st century. This resentment has gone beyond rhetoric at times, as al-Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in Somalia and Kenya have targeted Chinese nationals in several attacks.
After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, al-Qaeda’s central leadership has adopted a relatively cautious approach to the international theatre, particularly with respect to the countries neighboring Afghanistan. Indeed, the latest United Nations Security Council report on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda states that al-Qaeda remains close to the Taliban but limits itself to advising and supporting the new Taliban government in Afghanistan, thus avoiding putting Kabul in a difficult situation by criticizing its relationship with other governments.1 Nonetheless, al-Qaeda affiliates or aligned actors who enjoy freedom of movement outside Afghanistan, including al-Shabaab (which operates in East Africa), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, which operates in Yemen), and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), do not necessarily need to be so cautious in their approach towards Asian geopolitical realities and are thus free to target China in their propaganda.
China-Related Discourses in the 1990s and Early 2000s
Though the founding date of al-Qaeda is somewhat contested among scholars, there is a consensus that by around 1990, there existed a loose network of veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad close to, if not explicitly loyal to, Osama Bin Laden. The broader jihadist network in which al-Qaeda operated showed little interest in Chinese affairs in these early years, at least publicly. The global jihadist movement was more focused on fighting local regimes in the Middle East and broader Islamic world (and, in bin Laden’s case, eventually the United States) in the wake of the successful anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Jihadists generally perceived US foreign policy as more militaristic and interventionist within Muslim lands than China’s despite the latter’s much closer geographic proximity to al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan. However, as al-Qaeda developed into a more coherent network in the 1990s and 2000s, its views on China changed in accordance with the group’s international vision.
There were some notable exceptions to this early trend of jihadists ignoring China. Notably, the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the al-Qaeda theorist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri both took adversarial stances towards China, as described below. However, on balance, the level of jihadist focus on China was marginal. The United States, due to its vast global influence and activist policies in the Islamic world during the “unipolar moment” of the 1990s, was the subject of a much greater share of al-Qaeda’s scorn compared to the much weaker (though rapidly rising) China. In fact, after assuming control of the majority of Afghanistan in 1996, the Afghan Taliban, which was hosting al-Qaeda at the time and was therefore one of the group’s closest allies, pursued relations with Beijing. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, even forbid Uyghur exiles from using Afghan territory to attack China.2
Al-Qaeda’s initially favorable position towards China was made quite clear in a series of media interviews with Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Following the 1997 Urumqi bus bombings, in which Uyghur separatists detonated explosive devices on three public buses in the capital of Xinjiang, bin Laden accused the CIA of conducting the attacks as a ploy to stoke hostilities between China and the Muslim world. Bin Laden even proposed something akin to an alliance with China, saying at the time that “if Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China get united, the United States and India will become ineffective.” He therefore advised Beijing to avoid conflict with Muslims and to instead focus on America, which he referred to as the “the real, big enemy.”3
China’s repression of Uyghurs in the northwestern part of the country, a region which Uyghurs generally refer to as East Turkestan, accelerated in the 1990s following the Tiananmen Square events of 1989 and the accession to independence of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, events that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities feared could portend a similar balkanization of China. Coupled with rising ethnonationalism and anti-government sentiments among Uyghurs, these factors pushed the Chinese government to tighten its grip over society by carrying out several police operations against Uyghur populations in 1996, 1997, and 1999.
Nevertheless, in an interview with the Pakistani press in the late 1990s, Osama bin Laden claimed ignorance of the plight of the Uyghurs and events in Xinjiang, saying, “I often hear about Chinese Muslims, but since we have no direct connection with people in China and no member of our organization comes from China, I don't have any detailed knowledge about them.”4 In the same interview, bin Laden cautioned Beijing to beware the United States, remarking that the “Chinese government is not fully aware of the intentions of the United States and Israel . . . [to] usurp the resources of China.” Bin Laden further advised China “to be more careful of the US and the West” while urging the country to “use its force against the United States and Israel” and requesting that China “be friendly towards Muslims.”5 In one later speech, bin Laden stated that “every rational individual today is aware that Crusading America, backed by Britain, Germany, France, Canada, and Australia, poses a greater danger and greater animosity to the Muslims than do Japan, both Koreas, China, and others.” Additionally, in a September 28, 2001 interview, bin Laden included China among a shortlist of ostensibly anti-imperialist nations, that included Iran, Libya, Cuba, Syria, and “the former Russia” [sic]. Per bin Laden, these nations were “upholding their freedom” and refusing to become “slaves” to American hegemony.6
There were two notable dissenters within the al-Qaeda network to the prevailing soft-on-China sentiments of jihadists in the 1990s: Abu Mus`ab al-Suri and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Notably, al-Suri’s 1999 book, titled The Muslims in Central Asia and the Upcoming Battle of Islam, included a detailed survey of the geography, history, religion, and culture of the Central Asian ex-Soviet republics as well as East Turkestan.7 Al-Suri was comparatively hostile towards China and made frequent reference to the Chinese “occupation” of East Turkestan throughout the text, in which he traced a history of Chinese aggression and subsequent Muslim revolt in Xinjiang. Al-Suri argued that Central Asia offered the ideal geography for jihad and viewed the region as a weak point for the enemies of Islam as well as an area of strength for Muslim resistance.8 In the book, al-Suri stated that he had once mulled the possibility of an alignment with China but ultimately concluded that China would “conspire against us at the appropriate time and circumstances.”9 In the case of Jalaluddin Haqqani, Raffaello Pantucci has described how the militant championed the Uyghur cause in the early 1990s and even boasted of hosting Uyghurs at his training camps in Afghanistan.10
A Turning Point in the 2000s
In the mid- to late-2000s, anti-China narratives gained a markedly increased level of traction within global jihadist discourses. By 2006, Osama bin Laden had adopted a discernibly more critical tone regarding China. That year, he criticized Beijing’s role as an influential actor within the United Nations (UN), which he referred to as a “hegemonic organization of universal infidelity.”11 He claimed that the UN “exists in order to prevent rule by sharia and to guarantee submission to the rule of five of the greatest criminals on earth,” a reference to the UN Security Council nations. Bin Laden further stated that “Crusader International and pagan Buddhism” dominate the UN Security Council, elaborating that “America and Britain represent the Protestant Christians, Russia represents the Orthodox Christians, and France represents the Catholic Christians, while China represents the Buddhists and pagans of the world.”12 Also in 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the deputy emir of al-Qaeda, began to sporadically make reference to “East Turkestan” in his statements.13
The following year, the Jordanian professor Akram Hijazi, whom Brian Fishman has described as “a major intellectual figure for jihadi strategists,” wrote a three-part analysis dedicated to warning of the specter of China supplanting American primacy to become the new “head of the snake.”14 Hijazi’s detailed work has proven to be successful and enduring seeing as jihadists have continued to translate and republish it up to the present day. For example, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) featured a translation of the work in its magazine, Hitteen, in 2017. Similarly in 2007, al-Qaeda’s chief propaganda organ, as-Sahab Media, released a video in which Abu-Umar al-Baghdadi, the then-leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (the Islamic State predecessor that was then loyal to al-Qaeda), promoted the establishment of an Islamic state spanning from Spain to China.15 In fact, bin Laden had similarly hinted at an interest in expanding al-Qaeda’s influence into China in the early 2000s when his rhetoric towards China was limited or otherwise conciliatory. In 2003, bin Laden celebrated anti-American jihadist activity around the world, exalting the militants of the day as the successors to an earlier generation of Islamic warriors, “those great knights, who carried [the message of] Islam eastward until they reached China.”16
The mid- to late-2000s also saw nascent anti-China narratives emerging among al-Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan. The siege of Lal Masjid, a notoriously radical mosque in Islamabad run by two brothers associated with jihadist organizations such as al-Qaeda, by Pakistani forces in July 2007 was a galvanizing event for the country’s Islamists. In the wake of the assault, the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf, who was widely seen by Islamists as a US puppet, was certainly the object of the most direct jihadist scorn. However, there was also some chatter on the margins regarding a perceived Chinese role in the operation given that the siege had been sparked by the kidnapping of Chinese sex workers by students of Lal Masjid’s female seminary. The scholar Andrew Small, for instance, describes how, in 2008, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman justified the kidnapping of Chinese nationals in Pakistan as a response to “Chinese pressure to launch Operation Silence [the name of the Lal Masjid operation]” back in 2007. Similarly, Jacob Zenn notes how Abu Zar al-Burmi, the former spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-aligned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), often criticized Beijing for its alleged role in supporting the Musharraf government’s raid on the mosque.17
These trends were bolstered by the rise of the al-Qaeda-aligned Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) as a militant vanguard for the Uyghur cause and prolific media producer in the late 2000s. The TIP first made international headlines for its bellicosity in threatening the 2008 Beijing Olympics and claiming various attacks in Xinjiang around this time.18 The TIP’s ascent represented a new dynamic within the global jihadist movement. It marked the first time in contemporary history that an explicitly jihadist Uyghur militant group had achieved such a robust media apparatus and level of organized fighting capacity outside of China, predominantly by operating alongside al-Qaeda and its allies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and later in Syria (which saw an influx of foreign fighters around 2013). Although al-Qaeda had been fairly restrained on the China question prior to 2009, the organization had strengthened ties with the TIP and provided some level of support for the group’s media operations in the 2000s. Around 2009, the TIP began releasing videos through the al-Qaeda-linked al-Fajr Media Centre.19
Al-Qaeda’s shift towards more explicit and frequent criticism of China, including direct threats of violence, and its more direct support for the TIP were spurred, in large part, by the outbreak of the 2009 Urumqi riots and Beijing’s subsequent crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. The Urumqi riots actually began in coastal Guangdong Province after several Uyghur men were accused of sexually assaulting ethnic Han women. The incidents in Guangdong sparked several days of ethnic clashes in Xinjiang which resulted in at least 200 casualties. In response, the Chinese government expanded its security and policing apparatuses in the province, relying heavily on the aggressive tactics that then-Party Secretary for Xinjiang Chen Quanguo had previously used during his service as Party Secretary in Tibet.20 The riots and subsequent crackdown attracted widespread media attention and jihadist organizations began to increasingly link “East Turkestan” to the plight of Muslims around the world.
Shortly after the Urumqi riots, al-Qaeda officials and affiliated jihadists changed tack and began criticizing or directly threatening China. Hostile remarks were issued by a global range of the network’s leadership figures, regional branches, and allies. To take a few examples from 2009 alone: Senior al-Qaeda official Abu Yahya al-Libi urged Uyghurs to wage war against China in October of that year, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatened attacks on Chinese workers in Algeria as reprisal for the Urumqi riots, and the Islamic State in Iraq released a video promoting the Uyghur cause and threatening Beijing.21 Additionally, Hani al-Sibai, a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and an alleged associate of al-Qaeda whose speeches have occasionally been featured in TIP publications, railed publicly against the “massacres against the Muslims of East Turkestan” committed by the Chinese state. The influential Salafi cleric Hamid al-Ali of Kuwait, who was designated by the US Treasury Department as an al-Qaeda financier in 2006, wrote in 2009 about the “duty to stand with the plight of the Uyghur Muslims against Chinese repression.”22 Relatedly, one group of researchers has detailed how, following the riots in 2009, “a number of extremist Islamic websites affiliated to al-Qaeda called for the killing of Han Chinese in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern states” in retaliation for China’s clampdown.23
Al-Qaeda's Global Alliance Network: The Internationalization of the East Turkestan Cause
By the start of the 2010s, a broader range of al-Qaeda figures, branches, and aligned groups were publicly voicing anti-China grievances in their propaganda. Online magazines such as AQAP’s English-language Inspire, AQIS’ Resurgence, and a magazine linked to the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), Azan, helped to globalize anti-China narratives.
The 2010s saw an unprecedented volume of anti-China rhetoric and propaganda from a linguistically and geographically diverse range of prominent officials within the al-Qaeda network. For instance, AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki accused the Chinese of occupying Muslim lands in a 2010 edition of Inspire magazine. In 2011, Dokku Umarov, the Chechen leader of the Caucasus Emirate (an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group that later fought in Syria), and the prominent blog Kavkaz Jihad published messages of solidarity with the Uyghurs.24 Additionally, in 2012 the TTP murdered a Chinese tourist in revenge, per the group’s official statement, “for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers in the Xinjiang province.”25 The following year, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, released a video identifying with the Uyghur cause. That same year, the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti appeared posthumously in a video in which he gave advice to the Uyghurs and Abdullah Mansoor, a prominent leader of the TTP, wrote about the history of the Chinese occupation of East Turkestan in the magazine of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a former splinter faction of the TTP headed by veteran leader Omar Kahlid Khurasani that has since been reabsorbed into the TTP.26 In 2014, al-Qaeda’s Global Islamic Media Front referred to Xinjiang as a jihadist battlefront and the TTP/JuA spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan wrote critically of China. Most notably, in 2015, al-Shabaab claimed to be intentionally targeting Chinese nationals after killing a Chinese security guard in an attack on a hotel in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.27
The TIP also became a more notable presence in the jihadist landscape in the 2010s. Some of the group’s leadership reportedly has longstanding ties to al-Qaeda dating back decades, and, in a 2016 audio address, TIP emir and reported member of al-Qaeda's Shura Council Abdul Haq al-Turkistani reaffirmed the alliance between the two groups.28 Al-Zawahiri responded to the 2016 statement by commending the Muslims of East Turkestan for waging jihad around the globe and referred to the Chinese government as “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders.” In a separate video series of al-Zawahiri’s speeches released in July 2016 titled the “Islamic Spring” series, al-Zawahiri exalted the founding leader of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), argued by some to be TIP's predecessor group, and placed him among the pantheon of all-time jihadist legends.
In recent years, the TIP has leveraged its ties to al-Qaeda to call increased attention within the broader jihadist movement to Chinese policies in Xinjiang. In March 2019, for instance, TIP’s Abdul Haq al-Turkistani put out a call for leading jihadi figures, including leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to pledge more public support for the Uyghur cause and to be more vocal about China’s domestic security clampdown on Muslims.29 Shortly thereafter, al-Qaeda’s central leadership released a statement of solidarity through as-Sahab Media and asked readers to support TIP.30
China’s Rise, Growing International Influence, and Foreign Policy Actions
Beijing’s security crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang has certainly been the most stated China-related grievance among al-Qaeda and its allies, which have by now published a number of statements of support for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and called for Muslims to oppose the Chinese government. However, as China’s global rise became more prominent throughout the 2010s, the global al-Qaeda network also notably increased its criticism of Chinese foreign policy and expanded its litany of grievances regarding China’s actions and influence abroad. Al-Qaeda has begun to perceive China as a rising imperial or colonial power that is growing its political, economic, and military footprint abroad, supporting repressive governments, exploiting natural resources, corroding (Islamic) culture, and committing blasphemy. Abu Zar al-Burmi of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has even compared China’s international commercial activity to that of the British East India company.31
China’s rapid ascent and expanding global influence have raised numerous concerns for Islamist thinkers and members of al-Qaeda’s broader network and allies. In 2007, the Jordanian professor Akram Hijazi referred to China as a “brutal and colonizing power … [that] drained the resources of the weak countries.”32 Similarly, in 2013, al-Burmi anointed China as the “new superpower” and predicted it would surpass the United States as “number one enemy.”33
China has been increasingly linked to and listed among jihadists’ other major global enemies. In 2018, al-Burmi lumped China in with the alleged great-power enemies of Islam, saying, “our war is against the Russians, Chinese, and Americans.”34 In 2015, AQIS published a posthumous interview with one of its former members, the Jewish-American convert to Islam and prominent media operative Adam Gadahn, in which he placed China among the “major global enemies of the Ummah [community of believers]” alongside the United States, Israel, and India and accused Beijing of being part of a “new regional alignment against Islam and Muslims.”35 Relatedly, in a 2018 issue of the AQIS magazine Hitteen, Ustad Usama Mahmood, the AQIS’s current emir, called China the worst enemy of Islam after the United States and said that China should also be attacked like the United States.36
The 2010s also saw an increased level of encroachment anxiety within the al-Qaeda network regarding China’s growing military might and expanding global security footprint. Abu Zar al-Burmi warned in 2013 that “the coming enemy of the Ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.”37 In 2007, Akram Hijazi surmised that “China is about to sit on the throne of the world power” and “will have the upper hand when it comes to hegemony, and global interventions currently dominated by America and partially by Europe.”38 Likewise, the prominent AQIS writer Sibaght ul Haq in a 2012 article in the al-Qaeda-linked Urdu-language magazine Nawai Afghan Jihad fretted about China’s reported attempt to set up a military base in Pakistan’s Waziristan region to hunt ETIM militants.39 More recently, in October 2021, Moinuddin Shami, a prominent AQIS writer and disciple of the group’s former deputy emir, wrote in the group’s official magazine that while China and the US are enemies in the competition between global powers, they are united in their war against Islam.40
South Asia as an Engine of Narrative Creation
South Asia’s jihadist ecosystem has been central to creating and purveying anti-China narratives. This is due to the region’s proximity to China and these jihadists’ intimate familiarity with Chinese policies and influence in the region. South Asian jihadists have described their opposition to China with great nuance and have identified a diverse range of alleged Chinese transgressions in the region. In terms of national character and ideological essence, China is framed differently depending on context: it is sometimes referred to as atheist, communist, Buddhist, Confucius, or some combination of these.
One of the sources that has produced many pieces of propaganda against China over the years is the al-Qaeda-linked Urdu-language magazine Nawai Afghan Jihad. While its first issue was released in August 2008 as an independent outlet covering jihadist activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, AQIS acknowledged Nawai Afghan Jihad as its official magazine in August 2019. Then, in April 2020, Nawai Afghan Jihad rebranded as Nawai Ghazwa-e Hind, shifting its focus from Afghanistan to the Indian Subcontinent and neighboring regions.41 Nawai Afghan Jihad articles which mention China are of two types: those which focus on China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and those which criticize China and Pakistan for their mutual relations.
Prior to 2016, the magazine’s anti-China propaganda was limited to covering the history of the Chinese acquisition of East Turkestan and some brief articles about Chinese policies. For example, the magazine’s first standalone article dedicated to Chinese Muslims was published in March 2011, nearly three years after the publication’s founding. While it generally covered the history of East Turkestan going back several centuries, it also mentioned Abu Yahya al-Libi’s video that had been released after the Urumqi riots in 2009 as well as AQIM’s threats against Chinese workers in North Africa from around the same time.42
However, in the period after December 2016, issues of Nawai Afghan Jihad started to increasingly feature content about China. This coincided with a growing interest in the Uyghur cause from important jihadist ideologues in the region such as AQIS emir Ustad Usama Mahmood and from other Urdu-language al-Qaeda outlets such as Hitteen magazine.43 Between September 2017 and May 2019, Nawai Afghan Jihad dedicated several articles to China’s mistreatment of Uyghur civilians and hunt for TIP militants, particularly highlighting the issue of Muslim women detained by Chinese security services.44
The issue of Uyghur women in particular has been exploited by AQIS’s propaganda. Indeed, since 2008, three articles penned by authors with female names have appeared in Nawai Afghan Jihad describing the plight of Uyghur women. In two such articles, which appeared in April 2012 and June 2018, respectively, the authors, who each claimed to be Muslim women who had migrated from East Turkestan, described in detail the suffering of Uyghurs and how the Chinese government is eradicating Islam in East Turkestan.45 Separately, in July 2019, an author with a female name, though apparently not a Uyghur, wrote about a conversation she claimed to have had with the wives of Uyghur militants who had migrated from East Turkestan to Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly Waziristan, where many Arab and Uyghur militants were training in the Mehsud region and staying there with their families around this time.46
Other Nawai Afghan Jihad articles published from 2018 onward refer to China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang as worse than the historical conquests of Chingiz Khan or compare the destruction of mosques in East Turkestan to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India by a Hindu mob in 1992 and the 2007 siege of the Lal Masjid in Pakistan. One article specifically named President Xi Jinping as the main artificer of the plight of Muslims in China with the tacit approval of Pakistan’s elites.47
Pakistan-China relations have been the subject of several Nawai Afghan Jihad articles. The magazine’s authors have criticized China for its economic model and its negative influence on Pakistan’s economy, among other things. Between 2016 and 2017, the AQIS writer Usama Saeed (likely a pen name) repeatedly accused Pakistan of trading support for Beijing’s repressive actions in Xinjiang and its policies in Syria (referring to China’s support for the Assad regime) for economic assistance from China. The author also urged Pakistani society to get rid of Chinese influence in the country.48 Another AQIS media outlet that has frequently featured propaganda against both the Chinese and Pakistani governments is Hitteen. The magazine was established in early 2007 by Ahsan Aziz, an engineer who had served as a member of the Pakistani political party Jamaat-e Islami before joining al-Qaeda in 2002 in support of the Afghan Taliban.49 One Hitteen contributor, Numan Hejazi, has taken a similar tone to Usama Saeed in his articles and pointed to China’s geo-economic strategy as embodied by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as purported evidence of a plot to eradicate all jihadist movements in both Xinjiang and Pakistan.50 In another Hitteen article from 2018, AQIS ideologue Dr. Obaidurrahman Murabati argued that China’s actions in Xinjiang and the pressure it was applying on the Pakistani government to crack down on the TIP in the tribal areas had backfired and led to increasing cooperation between Pakistani and Uyghur militants. Murabati asserted in the same article that China’s actions in Xinjiang were worse than India’s policies in Kashmir.51
Similarly, in Southeast Asia, al-Qaeda, its allies, and its supporters have accused China of both active participation and passive complicity in the atrocities committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population.52 In 2013, pro-al-Qaeda ideologue Abd Allah bin Muhammad accused “Buddhist China” of supporting the actions of the “Buddhist regime in Burma” against Muslims. In 2014, Abu Zar al-Burmi blamed Beijing for “the massacres” that had been “committed by a pagan Buddhist enemy” (i.e., Myanmar) against Muslims and called for more attacks against China.53 Then, in March 2021, al-Qaeda released a video of a speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri titled “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Ummah” in which the al-Qaeda leader lambasted China and claimed that the country bears responsibility for the atrocities against Rohingya by virtue of Beijing being an influential member of the UN Security Council.54 Relatedly, in a 2019 issue of TIP’s Turkistan al-Islamiyya magazine, the group accused China of debt-trap diplomacy through the Belt and Road Initiative and tied this flagship foreign policy scheme to Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions in Myanmar.55
While the Afghan Taliban was, for its part, mostly focused on internal issues relating to Afghanistan in the 2010s, the Pakistani Taliban or TTP maintained a more internationalized approach in line with al-Qaeda's, including with regards to China. This was demonstrated in the TTP’s English-language Azan magazine, which ran briefly from March 2013 until the summer of 2014. In several articles, the TTP scorned the Pakistani government for its cordial relations with “atheist” and “Kafir [infidel] communist China.”56 The TTP even confirmed having Chinese fighters among its ranks and among allied groups like the TIP, making a reference to a prisonbreak in which one “Hassan Mehsoon of China” was reportedly martyred.57
Targeting Chinese Interests? An Assessment of Al-Qaeda’s Current Position on China
Over the last two years, as al-Qaeda branches and allies have continued to criticize and threaten China, two groups within the al-Qaeda network have begun conducting attacks against Chinese nationals and interests. Suspected al-Qaeda-aligned militants targeted Chinese nationals in Pakistan in two attacks in 2021. First, on April 21, 2021, the TTP carried out an attack on the luxury Serena Hotel in the city of Quetta, where the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan was reportedly staying at the time. The attack killed five people, although it was later learned that the ambassador had not been in the hotel at the time.58 Then on July 14, 2021, militants bombed a bus carrying Chinese workers in Dasu in Upper Kohat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The attack killed nine Chinese nationals and three Pakistanis. While the attack went unclaimed, the location of the incident possibly indicates collaboration between the TTP and TIP.59
Perhaps most notably, al-Shabaab has emerged as al-Qaeda’s leading anti-China force through its campaign of sporadic attacks against Chinese nationals in both Kenya and Somalia as well as its hostile propaganda directed against China in recent years. There were indications of this trend emerging as far back 2013, when the group pledged solidarity with the Uyghur cause, and then again in 2015, when the group claimed the killing of a Chinese security guard in Mogadishu, an attack which drew the praise of the TIP.60
However, following this 2015 attack there was a lull in al-Shabaab’s anti-China activity until 2019, when the group began releasing propaganda hostile to China and attacking Chinese nationals in Kenya, a trend that has continued until this day. This current campaign in Kenya began with a 2019 attack on Chinese construction workers, an attack against the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) in January 2022, and the killing of a Chinese national in March 2022.61 In more recent months, al-Shabaab’s propaganda operatives have also been active in supporting the East Turkestan cause and criticizing Chinese foreign policy in Africa.
Al-Shabaab’s Shahada News Agency has criticized China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa, Beijing’s alleged intent to establish military bases in Somalia, its donations of military equipment to the Somali government, and its oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Furthermore, in its July 2021 statement congratulating the Taliban on their successes in Afghanistan, al-Shabaab reiterated its support for Muslims in China, India, Myanmar, and elsewhere.
The Covid-19 outbreak provided an unexpected opportunity for jihadists to add a new anti-China narrative. The initial rapid spread of coronavirus in Wuhan Province fueled a surge of anti-China propaganda and sentiment among jihadists. Some of al-Qaeda’s allies described the contagion as divine retribution for China’s policies against Muslims. In February 2020, the TIP released a video through its Islam Awazi media channel titled “The Perspective of the Mujahideen Regarding the Corona Outbreak in China” in which they claimed the virus was God’s “vengeance” in retaliation for China’s actions in Xinjiang.62 The TTP, in its Maktaba-e Umar newsletter, underscored this position in editorials by top commander Mufti Usman Mansoor and leading ideologue and Shura Council member Sheikh Gul Muhammad Bajauri. Usman Mansoor said that Covid was retribution for China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang and its role in the repression of the Rohingya in Myanmar and compared the virus to the seven plagues of Egypt, arguing that both the Pharaoh and China had enslaved believers—Israelites and Uyghurs, respectively—and had subsequently been punished.63 In the subsequent issue, Gul Muhammad Bajauri echoed Usman Mansoor’s words and criticized Pakistani Muslim scholars who had sided with China on various political issues.64 However, as the pandemic spread and lost its element of novelty, the propaganda of the al-Qaeda movement and its allies resumed focus on China’s actual policy actions rather than the coronavirus.
The Taliban’s successful takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 could have conceivably complicated al-Qaeda’s stance on China: The group’s oldest ally, the Taliban, began courting Beijing for diplomatic recognition and economic assistance and investment shortly after taking power. However, al-Qaeda managed to sidestep this conundrum by continuing its criticism of China even as it praised the Taliban in the lead up to and wake of the Taliban’s successful takeover of Afghanistan. In effect, al-Qaeda has simply avoided mentioning Taliban-China relations. In July 2021, for example, the narrator of an as-Sahab video referred to the “corporate robber barons in … Communist China,” while on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, another as-Sahab production featuring AQAP leader Khalid Batarfi included a pledge of solidarity with the people of “Turkestan.”65 Batarfi again referenced China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs in a November 2021 interview released by AQAP’s official al-Malahem Media outlet, while Ayman al-Zawahiri briefly mentioned Turkestan in a video series in March 2022.66 In this entire time, no senior al-Qaeda official or media outlet has spoken out against the Taliban’s growing relations with Beijing, a pragmatic choice driven by necessity.
Al-Qaeda has grown markedly more hostile towards China over time. Rhetorically, al-Qaeda now fully supports the East Turkestan cause and periodically criticizes and threatens China for its policies in Xinjiang and beyond. However, al-Qaeda’s regional branches vary in their focus on and prioritization of these issues. Most of the group’s affiliates have expressed solidarity with the Uyghur cause at one point or another, but the greatest focus on China has only come from a few branches of the organization, namely al-Qaeda Central, AQIS, and al-Shabaab.
Allies and supporters of al-Qaeda may pose a risk to Chinese nationals and interests, as seen most recently with the TTP’s attacks against Chinese citizens in Pakistan.67 68 There is likewise the specter of al-Qaeda-inspired attacks against Chinese interests by individuals who are not members of the organization, i.e., “lone wolf” attacks. Notably, the September 2021 issue of the pro-al-Qaeda Manhattan Wolves magazine designated China as among “the enemies of Islam” and urged attacks against Chinese nationals and interests.
On balance, it is quite clear that the al-Qaeda organization and broader jihadist movement are decidedly antagonistic of China. However, in terms of the degree of anti-China rhetoric and militant activity, the affiliated branches, groups, and individuals exist on a continuum where prioritization of attacking China is based on factors such as geography, the level of Chinese activity in or near the respective areas of operation, and other strategic considerations such as the Taliban’s relations with Beijing.
On this last point regarding future Taliban-Beijing relations—or even relations between Kabul and New Delhi, which have shown some signs of emerging in recent months—it is difficult at this time to imagine any senior al-Qaeda figure openly criticizing the Taliban’s closeness to China. Al-Qaeda has made such pragmatic compromises before with regards to the Taliban. Notably, al-Qaeda tacitly endorsed Taliban-US talks in 2021 for the greater good of achieving an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. It is likely that for similar reasons, al-Qaeda will continue to avoid mentioning topics that would put their long-time ally and host, the Taliban, in an awkward position. The threat for al-Qaeda, however, could emerge from its own ranks if commanders or militants who might be embittered by the organization’s policy vis-a-vis the Taliban and China might defect and join one of al-Qaeda’s competitors. Notably, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) has emerged as a major insurgent threat to the new Taliban regime and, more than any other jihadist organization operating today, is vocally critical of the Taliban’s relations with neighboring states and other supposedly un-Islamic policies such as the toleration of religious minorities in Afghanistan. For this reason, the group could conceivably attract members of al-Qaeda or affiliated groups.