Security analysts are reporting an increase in chatter in communications among Islamic terrorist groups in recent days calling for attacks on the Chinese working in Africa and the Middle East because of the repression of Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs. However, there is as yet no indication that al-Qaida's main leadership is involved.
The story began with a report by the London-based security analyst Stirling Assynt indicating that an Africa-based al-Qaida group has vowed to avenge the deaths of Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province by attacking Chinese and Chinese projects around the world. This would include the numerous Chinese oil and gas projects in the Middle East and Africa as well as Chinese construction and aid programs.
The most aggressive group appears to be the Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which has influence in northern and western Africa. Partly because of these threats, Algeria has tightened security around foreign oil and gas operations, with a special emphasis on Chinese interests.
But the threats against the Chinese may not represent anything new, according to Scott Stewart, Vice President of Tactical Intelligence for the Austin, Texas-based Stratfor global intelligence company. He says terrorist groups usually do not give authorities advanced notice of their plans.
"If you were al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb and you wanted to attack Chinese, certainly you would not want to place security forces on the alert before you did it," he said.
According to Stewart, many extremists in the Middle East view the Chinese the same way they view westerners, whom they regard as infidels who have come to exploit their resources. But Stewart says it is possible that Islamic jihadists will see the Chinese as particular enemies now because of the treatment of the Uighurs. Although there has been no official statement to that effect from anyone in the al-Qaida hierarchy, he says that could come soon.
"It is possible that we will see some statements come out of the al-Qaida leadership. Remember that there is a little bit of a lag time, so it is quite possible that within a week or so we could see a statement coming out of al-Qaida, their core leadership, bin Laden or Al Zawahiri-type people, saying something about the Uighur uprising," he said.
But Stewart says the Chinese working in Islamic nations are already well aware of the risks they face since there have been numerous attacks on them and the operations they direct.
"The Chinese have been hit by the jihadists in various parts of the Islamic world. We have seen Chinese targets hit in Pakistan, Afghanistan," he noted. "We saw a Chinese oil company get hit with a mortar attack in Yemen and then, just last month, a Chinese engineer working at a construction project east of Algiers was killed in a roadside ambush that also took the lives of 18 paramilitary police in Algeria," he said.
China has been aggressively pursuing oil contracts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in an effort to provide sufficient energy to power its fast-growing, manufacturing based economy.
The Uighurs are Chinese Muslims who say Beijing represses their religious practices and in other ways discriminates against them. On July 5 police tried to break up a Uighur protest in Xinjiang province that erupted into a violent confrontation. The Chinese government said there were 180 deaths, but Uighurs claim the death toll was much higher.