In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.
China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.
There’s very little evidence that happened. The tolerance China appeared to show in the late 1990s toward al Qaeda figures who occasionally used Chinese territory for transit and support operations was more likely due to ignorance than to plotting. By 2004, this dynamic had changed, and Chinese intelligence was willing to work with Western services to hand over suspected terrorists who passed through China’s airports.
During the first Taliban-led government in the 1990s, Chinese officials were hesitant but willing interlocutors with Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime. China was never a full-throated Taliban supporter but instead preferred to find ways of working with the group in the background. This mostly took the form of China providing limited investment and support that was encouraged by Pakistan, with the expectation that the Taliban would restrain the Uyghur groups that had established themselves in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar’s protection from attacking China. Beijing didn’t seem to be very concerned about what the Taliban’s larger goals were, as long as Afghanistan’s leaders acted on this key request. Still, there is little evidence that Beijing linked this domestic problem to a broader international terrorist threat.
With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the problem of international terrorism took off globally, with groups targeting an expanding range of countries. Yet China’s successful push to get some of its own domestic Uyghur groups added to the United Nations and U.S. roster of terrorist organizations did not bring the country much international jihadi attention. Meanwhile, in the years immediately after 9/11, China became wary of the Taliban. A Uyghur group reportedly fought alongside the Taliban for years, as a video by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri highlighted in 2016 and as U.S. intelligence information from Guantánamo Bay indicated earlier.