Page 1 of 2 ISIS tentacles reach toward China
By Peter Lee
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", ie ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now the Islamic State. "Video to be uploaded soon". 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; Uyghur 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 Uyghur extremism, demanded action. The then president, General 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 that he was cut loose with the hope that he would smooth the way in peace talks between the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistani government.
The TTP is reportedly a willing host to Uzbek and Uyghur 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 mujahideen 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 Uyghur 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 Uyghur security policy, and its diplomacy with Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, and its interlocutors among Islamic radicals in Pakistan's borderlands.
What follows to the end of this article is an excerpt from "In the Shadow of Lal Masjid", a piece I wrote in 2007 on the siege, and the important role that the PRC played:
The provocative kidnapping of 7 PRC nationals compelled Musharraf - reportedly under heavy Chinese pressure - to abandon a policy of appeasement and compromise with Islamic militants at the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad and, in July of this year , launch a bloody assault that revealed the extent of the security crisis at the heart of the Pakistani military regime and displayed to the US Musharraf's - and Pakistan's - wholehearted reliance on China.
In the speech announcing the state of emergency, Musharraf broke into English to tell us what he hoped we wanted to hear, evoking Lincoln as he tried to justify his move to the United States, the EU, and the Commonwealth as a response to judicial activism.
On the other hand, in his remarks in Urdu directed to the local audience as translated by Barnett Rubin, Musharraf cited the Lal Masjid mosque crisis - not the pursuit of al-Qaeda and its allies in the border regions - as the primary instance of terrorism and extremism afflicting Pakistan.
And when he commiserated with the victims of terrorism, he took the opportunity to give a heartfelt shout-out to the Chinese, not to the United States:
Now. We saw the event of Lal Masjid in Islamabad where extremists took [the] law into their own hands. In the heart of Pakistan - capital city - and to the great embarrassment of the nation around the world... These people - what didn't they do? - these extremists. They martyred police. They took police hostage. They burned shops. The Chinese, who are such great friends of ours - they took the Chinese hostage and tortured them. Because of this, I was personally embarrassed. I had to go apologize to the Chinese leaders, "I am ashamed that you are such great friends and this happened to you".
Now, about the standoff at the mosque.
One could describe it as Pakistan's Waco - if Waco had taken place in the heart of Washington, DC.
It didn't get the attention it deserved. As the Times of India dryly observed of the attack that claimed at least 100 and perhaps 1000 lives:
... the week-long stand-off that ended in a massacre on Tuesday attracted little attention in the US, where focus is more on the debate over a pullout from Iraq. In fact, a news channel on Tuesday cut into a story on Lal Masjid to bring breaking news of a small airplane crash in Florida.
Lal Masjid was controlled by militant clerics who not only proclaimed their interpretation of sharia law - they enforced it.
One cannot have any objection to the Lal Masjid just preaching implementation of Sharia in Pakistan. So many organizations are doing so, one more cannot be objected to. The right of any Muslim to preach adoption of Sharia is one thing but to take the powers of implementing his own version of Sharia is another, and the latter is a function of the State. ...
Lal Masjid stands in revolt when it establishes its own Sharia courts, it passes judgments, and imprisons Pakistanis and foreigners.
Musharraf's administration had its hands full with the militant, confrontational, and well-connected (to the intelligence services) cleric who ran the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz.