March of ‘terrorists’: Pakistan confronts deadly threats against Chinese interests | Military Issues

Islamabad, Pakistan: In 10 days between March 16 and March 26, Pakistan witnessed five separate attacks, three in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two in southwestern Balochistan province, which killed at least 18 people.

All five attacks were suicide bombings, in which at least 12 soldiers, five Chinese nationals and one Pakistani national died.

While the country has seen an uptick in violence over the past year, the latest attacks, their motives, and the audacity with which they were carried out could mark a new chapter in Pakistan’s war against militancy, experts say.

The last three attacks, coming in quick succession, seem to be seeking China’s attention in Pakistan. First, armed forces attacked the port of Gwadar in Pakistan Balochistan, which was built with the help of China. Then, the army attacked one of Pakistan’s major naval bases, also in Balochistan, citing Chinese investment in the region as a motivation. And finally, the fighters direct Chinese engineers working on a power plant supplied by China in the north of the country, near the city of Besham.

This has caused concern within Pakistan’s security establishment, which believes that China’s attack on Pakistan is part of a “larger plan” to destroy the country’s economy, as well as damage international relations, said Iftikhar Firdous. security researcher and military researcher.

(Al Jazeera)

‘Iron Brothers’

China is one of Pakistan’s closest allies and has invested $62bn in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a construction project that runs a highway connecting southwest China to the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.

The attack by Chinese workers prompted a strong response from Beijing. “China requests Pakistan to thoroughly investigate the recent incident, hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice. In the meantime, we request Pakistan to take appropriate measures to protect the safety and security of Chinese citizens, organizations and projects in Pakistan,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on March 27. .

In response, the Pakistani government said it would bring “terrorists, their leaders and their supporters”, and announced the creation of an investigation team to continue investigating the incident.

“Pakistan and China are close friends and iron brothers. We have no doubt that the Besham attacks were planned by the enemies of Pakistan-China relations. Together, we will take action against all these groups and defeat them,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement released the next day.

China’s interests have been repeatedly attacked in the past. Two gunmen targeted a group of 23 Chinese engineers in Gwadar in August last year, but their attack was thwarted by security officials.

In July 2021, at least nine Chinese hydropower engineers were killed when a suicide bomber hit their bus, in an attack similar to the one on March 26.

But what differentiates the two terrorist groups is that while what happened in Balochistan was easily claimed by separatist militants, the attack in the north was not claimed by any group.

A larger example of an armed attack

The attacks in Balochistan were claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), one of the most militant militant groups seeking secession from Pakistan.

Balochistan is the largest province in the country in terms of area and the poorest, although it has many resources, such as oil, coal, gold, copper and natural gas. This has led to accusations from many people in Balochistan that successive Pakistani governments have ignored their concerns while exploiting the region to benefit “outsiders”. The region has seen at least five terrorist attacks since the founding of Pakistan in 1947. The government has been accused of inciting violence and killings and genocide. thousands are missing the Baloch who are suspected of being terrorists or supporting the terrorists.

However, a a large increase in violent incidents in the country in the last two years has been associated with the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021. In 2023, 650 attacks killed almost 1,000 people, mainly those associated with security.

The terrorist groups include the regional Islamic State group, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), and other less well-known organizations such as Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) among others.

Pakistan’s biggest challenge, however, has come from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group founded in 2007 that has targeted civilians and law enforcement officials, killing thousands.

Risk of TTP

In alliance with the Afghan Taliban, the TTP wants to reform the annexation of Pakistan’s northwestern provinces and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, and enforce their interpretation of Islamic law in the region.

But the TTP – which called for a ceasefire in November 2022 and has since stepped up attacks on Pakistan’s military – issued a statement after the Besham attack, saying it had no role.

This, Firdous said, could indicate the involvement of religiously inspired militias and people who do not declare their affiliation with established militias.

“Independent jihadists, the Pakistani military believes, are controlled by brutal intelligence agencies, a term often used in neighboring India,” Firdous, who is also the founding editor of The Khorasan Diary, a non-governmental investigative group, told Al. Jazeera.

A security expert has also said that while almost all “jihadist forces” in Afghanistan and Pakistan have become hostile to China over its persecution of the Uighur minority, Afghanistan’s rulers, the Afghan Taliban, have remained silent.

“The Afghan Taliban, after taking over the country, remained silent on the matter, but the groups working under the Taliban umbrella are not united, and they see China as an oppressor of Muslims,” ​​Firdous said. “Therefore, if the people in the main groups attack the Chinese, there is no official claim, which would explain why the TTP refused to intervene.”

Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University in the United States, said that he believed that Besham’s attack was carried out by “TTP allies or ISKP” and was designed to strengthen the Pakistan-China relationship in order to strengthen the investment of foreign governments and companies. private sector to invest in Pakistan.

“Although the TTP has given a statement denying its participation in the plot, I must remember that it has incentives to maintain its denial because of its relationship with the Afghan Taliban, who would oppose fighting the Chinese,” Humayun told Al Jazeera. . “This is in line with the goals of the armed groups to oppose the government and promote internal chaos.”

Anti-Chinese sentiments of the Baloch

At the same time, Firdous said that the Baloch terrorist groups see China as a superpower with an expansionist agenda, which takes away their wealth without their consent.

“These groups are indiscriminately threatening the Pakistani military and foreign investors, especially Chinese citizens, who have been attacked several times over the years,” he said.

With the increased activity the terrorist group is seeing in Balochistan, Firdous said the BLA’s suicide squads have carried out “three major attacks using more than 24 bombers” this year alone, which he says shows a change in tactics.

“They have moved to be beaten and rushed to be beaten by Pakistani security forces. This shows how many people are being recruited into Baloch terrorist groups,” said Firdous.

He says it is “important” for the government to prioritize the development and welfare of Balochistan, to ensure that the region benefits from its wealth and that local people are given the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

“Until these issues are addressed, Baloch insurgency may continue and pose a serious threat to the economic stability and security of Balochistan and the rest of the country,” Firdous said.

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