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Al Qaeda Leader: China, Enemy to Muslim World

6 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

On Oct. 7, a top-ranking al-Qaeda leader issued a call to the Islamic world to battle a great nation of infidels. Through a video posted on the internet, Abu Yahya al-Libi condemned this superpower for perpetrating “injustice and oppression” against Muslims and “looting their wealth” — a script similar to others read out from secret hideouts over the course of post-9/11 American-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the country in the crosshairs of al-Qaeda’s latest diatribe was not the U.S. or any of its allies in the West. It was China.

Libi, a Libyan national and al-Qaeda suspected third in command, railed against China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group in the country’s far west who chafe under Beijing’s rule. Uighurs complain of government discrimination, from being frozen out of jobs to having their language and religion suppressed. Those grievances and frustrations seemed to boil over this summer, when ethnic riots city of Urumqi left nearly 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, and were answered by a ruthless state crackdown. The Chinese hope, said Libi, “for [the Uighurs’] demise and destruction so that their numbers would decline and Islamic identity would be dissolved.” He exhorted fellow Muslims to rise up and aid militant Uighurs, a sign, suggest some observers, that a new arena may be opening for al-Qaeda’s project of global jihad. “The threat of terrorism is very real for China,” says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of the best-selling book, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. “More than other powers on its borders, this is China’s number one national security concern.”

(See pictures of Xinjiang.)

The Chinese government has yet to make an official statement reacting to Al Qaeda’s provocative remarks. Beijing has remained on the sidelines in the war on terror, watching the U.S. and other European nations become mired militarily in Afghanistan. But China’s profile in the Muslim world still grows with its economic ambitions and interests. China’s bottomless appetite for oil has led to its companies investing in every country along the Persian Gulf and other Muslim states. Chinese funds and labor are behind oil and gas fields from Sudan to Turkmenistan and are shaping lucrative megaprojects like the massive Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan.

This expanded global reach, designed to bolster China’s sense of security, has put Chinese citizens and enterprises in harm’s way. “China is now widely exposed around the world,” says Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the transnational threats program at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-think tank. Chinese engineers have fallen prey to kidnappers in the cities of Pakistan and the Nigerian river delta. Violent protests against an enclave of Chinese workers in Algiers — resented for depriving locals of jobs and being insensitive to Muslim customs —convulsed the Algerian capital in August. Before the riots, a decree by a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African off-shoot of the terrorist organization, urged attacks on Chinese nationals across the region as revenge for China’s heavy-handedness with the Uighurs. “An ideology is being built by the Al Qaeda leadership,” says Gunaratna, “to create an image of China as an enemy of the Muslims.”

In his telecast, Libi predicted China’s fall, likening it to the similarly atheist and communist USSR. Some of the impoverished former Soviet states that border China’s Xinjiang region — where the majority of Uighurs live — are a potential powder keg for insurgency. Suspected Uighur terrorists operating along China’s borderlands allegedly have ties to Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Central Asia, who, according to observers, are consolidating in remote parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan after setbacks in Pakistan reportedly saw many foreign jihadis return to their homelands.

Still, most Central Asia watchers doubt the capabilities of militants there, whether connected to al-Qaeda or devoted to more local struggles. Both Moscow and Beijing have wielded their influence among Central Asia’s authoritarian governments to ensure that radical strains of political Islam get largely quashed. Uighur dissidents in exile have also repeatedly rejected any connection with terrorist activity and argue that, despite a few incidents of bombings and attacks in China, China exploits the specter of a terrorist threat to further repress Uighur rights. Al-Qaeda’s recent statement does their cause few favors. “China could use it to shine a light on the Uighurs,” says Sanderson, “and say, ‘Look what you have brought upon us.'”

But while al-Qaeda’s support may not be welcomed by many Uighurs, no other nations in the Muslim world beyond Turkey — whose people see the Uighurs as a kindred community — have offered much solidarity. As China’s economic ties to the Middle East grow stronger, few governments can risk Beijing’s ire. Its traditional image in the region as a remote and non-interfering member of the third world is shifting toward that of a more influential power, but it remains far from generating the kind of animosity and suspicion that the U.S. attracts. Instead, “China is perceived as a bulwark,” says Ben Simpfendorfer, author of The New Silk Road, published earlier this year, which details the burgeoning links between the Middle East and China. “It can be a useful ally to push back against the United States.”

(Read “In the Middle East, Little Outcry Over China’s Uighurs.”)

Outside the halls of power, most Arabs regard China with little apprehension. In his book, Simpfendorfer points to the growing population of tens of thousands of Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni and other Arab merchants now permanently settled in sourcing and supply hubs in China. Their presence in East Asia has led to an influx of Chinese products in their home countries. This booming trade has “effectively raised the purchasing power of the average Arab household,” says Simpfendorfer. To many Arabs, he suggests, China is less a geo-political bogeyman and more just a purveyor of cheap and handy goods.

But analysts believe there will be a tipping point. With its vast stake in the region, China inevitably will have to pronounce clearer positions on a whole sticky set of conflicts — from the massacres in Sudan that Beijing has so far studiously ignored to the Israel-Palestine conflict to tensions between Iran and its neighbors. Missteps could fan popular anger and play into the hands of groups like al-Qaeda, ever eager to channel the discontent of the street. And with what many perceive as the steady decline of U.S. power and influence, China will only cast a longer shadow on the global stage. “In the coming years,” says Simpfendorfer, “China will have to walk a very thin line.”

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