Al-Qaeda threat to China a worry for Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 October, 2009, 12:00am

Following the much-publicised unrest earlier in the year in Xinjiang , and accusations of Chinese state repression of Muslims there, it was only a matter of time before the al-Qaeda leadership made dramatic threats against China.

That time has come, and it should have caused genuine concern in Beijing that the threat has come directly from a senior al-Qaeda figure. Hong Kong leaders should also watch developments closely.

Last Friday, a video emerged featuring Abu Yahya al-Libi, a militant preacher, fighter and high-ranking al-Qaeda leader. He called for Xinjiang's Uygurs to 'prepare for jihad' against China, and declared: 'The state of atheism [communist China] is heading for its fall. It will face what befell the Russian bear' - a reference to the 1980s Soviet defeat by the Afghan mujahedeen.

It is the same tired, old rhetoric we have been hearing from al-Qaeda for more than a decade directed at more familiar enemies of radical Islamists. Yet, while such statements about China have been made before - by al-Qaeda affiliates and on Islamist web forums - this was the first from a senior figure. So, is this latest statement little more than al-Qaeda muscle-flexing? Or, is it a genuine call to arms for a concerted assault on China?

On the one hand, al-Qaeda has made hundreds of statements against Israel without ever attacking it (though it has attacked Jewish targets abroad). Many other states have remained untouched after being threatened in al-Qaeda pronouncements. In part, this is because, globally, al-Qaeda's ability to act has been severely limited in recent years and, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, its impact remains low.

On the other hand, historically, we have seen a direct correlation between such statements and attacks based on the countries and targets they mention, and al-Qaeda increasingly influencing militants in Iraq and Africa.

In recent years, al-Qaeda has co-opted groups of previously limited influence in Iraq and North Africa, and what followed was a dramatic increase in attack frequency and potency. Can al-Qaeda do the same with groups in the midst of 10 million Muslims in Xinjiang, and more than 20 million Muslims in China as a whole?

There is little to suggest there is a major threat to China yet, but the fact cannot be ignored that there was no threat to the US either until al-Qaeda declared war on it.

Al-Qaeda attacks in China remain unlikely in the short term. Most likely are Islamist attempts to hit soft Chinese targets abroad. There have already been a small but noticeable number of Chinese nationals targeted in Africa, and such attacks may now become a specific tactic of al-Qaeda affiliates and sympathisers. What should concern Hong Kong in particular is that al-Qaeda has, for more than a decade now, made clear its intent to target centres of the global economy.

This was demonstrated all too starkly in December 2001, just months after the devastation at the World Trade Centre, when al-Qaeda and its regional affiliate Jemaah Islamiah almost succeeded in bringing similar destruction to Singapore.

The Singapore plot came frighteningly close to hitting one of Asia's economic 'Tigers'. The only reason counterterrorism experts discounted the likelihood of a similar attempt on Hong Kong was a belief that al-Qaeda did not yet want a fight with China. The concern is that this may now have changed because of Xinjiang.

There is certainly no reason for major concern yet, especially while al-Qaeda's bark is worse than its bite. But, if Beijing overreacts to this video statement, in Xinjiang and across the rest of China, it could be throwing fuel on a fire that al-Qaeda is keen to see burn out of control.

China, and its economic powerhouse centres like Hong Kong, ignore recent history and the US and Singapore experiences at their peril.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle-East specialist, lectures at New York University in London