Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s Central Asia Outreach: Its Potential Fallout on China
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Issue Vol. 38.1, Jan-Mar 2023 | Date : 29 Apr , 2023

In the last few years, Chinese interests in Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region have come under repeated terrorist attacks. These attacks have not been carried out by the East Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIM) as feared by China, but by other groups that are opposed to the ruling governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. China’s rising political and economic interests in the Af-Pak region has placed China as a viable target for many jihadist outfits who are opposed to the local governments. These attacks have come after some of the most feared groups in Af-Pak region such as such as Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), Al Qaeda and Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) have declared China as their enemy and have threatened to target its interests. The treatment meted out to the Uyghurs by China appears to be the prime reason for such hostility. As the new hegemon in the Af-Pak region, China has also played a role in driving the sentiment against her as some groups perceive China as an enemy of Islam. But interestingly, and more importantly, China appears to have been trapped in the turf war between the Taliban and ISKP, ominous signs of which are already visible on the ground in Afghanistan.

Increasing Attacks on Chinese Interests

There has been an uptick in the attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last few years. Since 2018, at least five attacks have been carried out by groups such as BLA and TTP against Chinese interests inside Pakistan that are as follows:–

    • August 2018 suicide attack at Dalbandian by BLA injuring three Chinese nationals.
    • November 2018 attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi by BLA killing four Pakistanis.
    • June 2021 attack on a bus in Kohistan, Northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province killing nine Chinese workers
    • April 2021, suicide bomb attack by TTP on a hotel in Quetta where the Chinese ambassador was staying, killing five Pakistani nationals.
    • April 2022 suicide attack by BLA on a van carrying employees of Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi killing three Chinese and one Pakistani national.

Majority of these attacks inside Pakistan were carried out by the BLA as China is spearheading the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Balochistan. These attacks are not new. The BLA carried out the first car bomb attack as early as in 2004, in which three Chinese engineers were killed. BLA has time and again warned China to stay out of Balochistan. However, these attacks appear to have spilled over into neighbouring Afghanistan now, which has kept the Chinese worried, prompting the Chinese foreign ministry to express “grave concern”, which has further stated “The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain and those behind this incident will surely pay the price.”

While the BLA’s and the TTP’s hostility towards China is known to arise due its closeness to the Pakistani government and its involvement in CPEC, attacks on the Chinese interests in Afghanistan in recent times appear to be driven more by religious and possibly ethnic considerations which appears to be the cornerstone of the ISKP’s strategy to regain lost ground from the Taliban.

ISKP’s Central Asia Outreach

On December 12, 2022, two men attacked a hotel located in Shahr-e-New area in Kabul killing and injuring several people. At least five Chinese nationals were injured in that attack possibly indicating that the Chinese nationals who were inside that hotel were the actual target of that attack. The ISKP, which later claimed responsibility for the attack, has now revealed that the attack was executed by a Tajik national Jabbar Abdul Jabbar. This is not the first time a Tajik ISKP member has been involved in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan. In June 2022, another Tajik national known as Abu Muhammed Al Tajiki, attacked a Sikh Gurudwara in Kabul killing one person. According to Uran Botobekov, an expert on Central Asian jihadists, Tajik nationals have carried out at least seven attacks in Afghanistan since 2017. These incidents possibly indicate the growing importance given by the ISKP to Central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan.

In line with this thinking, the ISKP has also stepped up its propaganda activities to recruit Tajiks and Uzbeks, writes Dante Schulz.1 Experts have pointed out the surge in propaganda from the ISKP aligned social media channels targeting Tajiks and Uzbeks. According to Schulz, ISKP has started several Telegram channels in Tajik language that too in Cyrillic alphabet indicating that the propaganda is aimed at Tajiks living in Tajikistan. He further states that, ISKP aligned Uzbek channel, Aqida Darsliklari, is publishing speeches from leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which has pledged allegiance to the ISKP.

These attacks including the one on the Chinese by a Tajik national and propaganda blitz should not be seen in isolation, but as part of a larger game plan by ISKP to persuade Central Asian jihadists to move away from the Taliban joining ISKP, eventually to regain its lost control. The strategy to recruit Central Asian jihadists and target foreign interests especially of China, appears to be ISKP’s core strategy which could be beneficial to its position in the following ways.

Firstly, as experts have pointed out, the ISKP has been targeting foreign nationals and their interests to project the failure of the Taliban government to provide security to foreign investments and nationals. The ISKP is believed to have launched rockets attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in April and May 2022, possibly to undermine the security under the Taliban regime. On June 17, 2022, the ISKP in its mouthpiece the “Voice of Khorasan” magazine has eulogised the attacks on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan which was the first of its kind for the ISKP. In the same breath, it had claimed, “…after the turn of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it will be the turn of China and Iran” and that “the dark days of deadly attacks and blood sheds are knocking at their doorsteps.”2

Though China has not officially recognised the Taliban regime, it has still drawn up substantial investment plans in Afghanistan and is touted to be the dominant investor in the years to come. For instance, China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company has signed a deal with the Taliban estimated to be $540 million for oil exploration. “The oil deal could be the fundamental test for the future of Afghanistan-China cooperation,” writes Kabir Taneja.3 Likewise, China is planning to invest in mining and logistics. Again, by targeting Chinese interests in Afghanistan, the ISKP is trying to emulate the BLA to create fear among prospective investors like China. In September 2022, the ISKP released a propaganda article castigating the Taliban for its association with China. The ISKP in this article has invoked the Uyghur angle stating “…red atheists whose hands are soaked with the blood of innocent Uyghur Muslims.”4 The ISKP’s anti-China rhetoric has become noticeable in recent times and has increased since the Taliban regime came to power, claims Lucas Weber.

This threat comes closely on the heels of a threat in the ISKP aligned Uzbek Channel Tawhid News which had threatened to target Chinese BRI and gas infrastructure in Central Asia. By targeting foreign interests in Afghanistan, especially singling out China, the ISKP appears to dent the confidence placed by the Chinese on the Taliban regime.

Secondly, using ethnic members from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to launch such attacks will only embolden the ISKP and help in its recruitment. By launching rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in April and May 2022, the ISKP is possibly trying attract more Uzbeks and Tajiks into its fold. Though these attacks were symbolic in nature, yet could be effective in bringing sympathisers in Central Asia closer to the ISKP. The sudden surge of Central Asian jihadists in its ranks may possibly translate into a security situation which could threaten Chinese investments not only in Afghanistan, but also inside Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. China is the second largest trade partner for Uzbekistan next only to Russia.

Uzbekistan plays an important role in the development of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway which is key to the success of China’s connectivity policy in Central Asia. Uzbekistan provides an alternative route for China to access European markets. Likewise, China has also invested in gold mines and power projects in Tajikistan. Though the Chinese investments in Tajikistan are smaller compared to its investments in Uzbekistan, it nevertheless assumes importance as China contributes to 60 percent of Tajikistan’s total debt in 2022, worth $1.98 billion.

Thirdly, by luring cadres from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the ISKP is trying to build its alliances and regroup by poaching some of the Taliban aligned groups such as ETIM, Jamaat Ansarullah and remnants of the IMU. It is reported that the Taliban has relocated ETIM members from Badakhshan province near the Chinese border. ETIM is estimated to have at least 1,000 fighters who have entrenched themselves into the Afghan society by marrying its cadres to Afghan women and relocating Uyghur women to Afghanistan. After Taliban’s takeover, there were reports that the ETIM could switch sides and align with the ISKP as it has been restrained by the Taliban in view of its bonhomie with the Chinese. However, ETIM still appears to remain under the Taliban. But some individual ethnic Uyghurs have already joined the ranks of the ISKP not appreciating Taliban sharing space with the Chinese. The attacker on a mosque in Kunduz in October 2021, by the ISKP was carried out by an ethnic Uyghur. According to a United Nations report, at least 40 to 50 Uyghurs are already part of the ISKP.5 By targeting Chinese interests in Afghanistan now, the ISKP may be hoping to pull ETIM out of the Taliban hold and realign with itself.

Operations by the ISKP against Tajikistan like the rocket attack in May 2022, may have been conducted to lure another group called Jamaat Ansarullah or Tajikistan Taliban Movement (TTM). The TTM aims to overthrow the Emomali Rahmon government in Tajikistan. The TTM is estimated to have around 300 cadres in Badakhshan province close to the Chinese border consisting mainly of ethnic Tajiks. According to the UN report, TTM cadres are believed to have participated in the border operations against Tajikistan alongside Taliban Special Forces unit in 2021 in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar provinces. Given this, operations by the ISKP against Tajikistan may have been aimed at bring the TTM under its umbrella.

Similarly, the rocket attack on Uzbekistan in April 2022, may have been conducted to attract remnants of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which was allied with ISKP since 2014. IMU which was based in Zabul province of Afghanistan, was wiped out by Taliban in 2015. Under the leadership of Usman Ghazi, IMU fought the Taliban in which around 150 Uzbek cadres were killed. Usman Ghazi was captured and was later executed by the Taliban. Remnants of IMU are believed to be active in Badakhshan and Badghis provinces in Afghanistan. Propaganda by the ISKP and action against Uzbekistan appears to be aimed at these remnants of the IMU and their sympathisers in Uzbekistan.

Given the above, Chinese reactions for any future attacks may possibly be centered on two threads, political and kinetic. China would exert pressure on incumbent governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Already, Pakistan, which is reeling under severe economic crisis, appears to be failing to protect Chinese nationals. On the other hand, Taliban with a ragtag army stands no chance to protect Chinese investments. In such a scenario, one could witness militarisation of the region by the Chinese army initially at the periphery of North Western Afghanistan and later into troubled provinces where its investments are made, much to the chagrin of the Taliban. Any direct kinetic measure by the Chinese may not be welcomed in Afghanistan which could turn the population hostile.

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On the other hand, China along with the Taliban could use proxies on the ground to protect her assets. Chinese vetoing listing of senior leaders of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) may possibly be linked to the current ground reality.6 One should not be surprised if the Chinese use LeT and JeM to protect its projects in Afghanistan. The UN report claims that JeM maintains eight training camps in Nangarhar, three of which are directly under the Taliban control and the LeT is believed to maintain three camps in Kunar and Nangarhar all of which are directly under Taliban control.


To conclude, the ISKP through these calibrated actions matched with propaganda, aims to establish a network consisting of ethnic Uyghurs, Tajiks and Uzbeks not only in Afghanistan but across the border in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and further in China’s Xinjiang. In the fight for survival with the Taliban, the ISKP aims to bring various ethnic nationalities in Central Asia under one banner, using anti-China propaganda and activity as a bait which is the core of the ISKP strategy. One should not be surprised if Chinese interests are targeted by the ISKP in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, given the huge economic presence in both the countries. The grand vision of the ISKP appears to be to drag China into the war against itself, hoping that this would be viewed as a war on Islam and not against the ISKP. If such an event were to occur, it would possibly unite Islamic groups in Central Asia and South Asia under the ISKP against the Taliban and China which would make Afghanistan as the next Hijrah destination relegating Syria.


  1. Dante Schulz (Oct 2022), ISKP’s Propaganda Threatens Asia’s Security Apparatus,
  2. Lucas Weber (June 2022), Islamic State in Afghanistan Promises Attacks on Chinese and Iranian Cities, Threatens Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,
  3. Kabir Taneja (January 2023), China’s oil gambit in Taliban’s Afghanistan,
  4. Lucas Weber (Sep 2022), ISKP’s China threats surge, become more nuanced,
  5. The United Nations (May 2022), 13th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2611 (2021)
  6. Abdul Rahman Makki, whose designation in UN was put on “Technical Hold” for 7 months by China was listed on 17 January 2023.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr V Balasubramaniyan

is a subject matter expert on terrorism and terrorism financing, He is the co-author of Terror Funds in India (Lancer 2017). He is author of upcoming books on Islamic State in South India and threat financing in India.

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