Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2024.04.10

After Russia, is China the Islamic State's next target?

Beijing's repression of Muslims could put it on a collision course with the terror group

The Japan times on Mar 28, 2024


On March 22, just five days after Vladimir Putin won his fifth presidential election, terrorists struck Russia, killing over 140 people, with many more still missing.

At least four people thought to be members of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), a branch of the Islamic State (IS) group, indiscriminately fired on the crowd at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in a Moscow suburb. Eleven suspects, including four Tajik nationals, were detained.

Putin criticized the attack as a "bloody, barbaric terrorist act," while suggesting that Ukraine was to blame. Kyiv has flatly denied any involvement, and with IS releasing a statement and video connecting its operatives to the attack, Ukrainian involvement seems even more unlikely. Eventually, Putin determined that Islamic extremists were behind the onslaught, though Russian officials insist that Ukraine and its Western backers played a role.

Perhaps because of this sense of crisis, Putin did not appear in public for 19 hours after the assault. Western media have reported that some in Russia criticized the president for his delayed response. The Russian authorities, caught off guard, probably needed time to gather information anyway.

It is not surprising to hear that Putin was also in calls with the leaders of Belarus and other countries until noon on March 23. As one would expect, he must have been stunned by the magnitude of the incident.

While many Japanese and foreign media reports have criticized Russia's response, I have a slightly different view of what we should be focusing on. Perhaps even more stunned than Putin was Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In the past, IS has fiercely criticized Beijing's notoriously heavy-handed repression of Muslims, especially Uyghurs in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Although not widely reported in Japan, Islamic State Khorasan perpetrated an attack on a hotel in Afghanistan in December 2022: Most of the guests were Chinese and, at the time, Beijing called on its nationals to leave the country. China has since become an enemy of IS.

The full details of the recent Moscow attack are yet to be known but, in general, the Tajiks would have had easier access to Russia than China. Moreover, China employs a powerful surveillance system, including facial recognition technology, and it would not be easy to organize attacks inside of it.

That said, one must remain vigilant, as Islamic State's priority is to cause major incidents that will attract global attention and allow it to recruit new volunteers.

The second reason China is IS-K's next potential target is Beijing's recently intensified crackdown on opposition groups.

On March 19, the Hong Kong Legislative Council passed a new national security law at lightning speed. The Safeguarding National Security Ordinance enforces China's repression of dissent in Hong Kong and further criminalizes “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.”

Of particular concern are new types of crimes such as “external interference” and the leaking of state secrets, defined very broadly — offenses that may involve receiving financial support or endorsements from foreign governments, political organizations or even individuals.

The strict application of this provision could result in penalties for many foreign banks and companies, as well as their officials. The Hong Kong authorities say that no one will be punished unless they intend to threaten national security, but, simply put, this means that no one will want to do business in Hong Kong.

In 2022, Europe and NATO failed to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine and in 2023, Israel failed to stop Iran-backed Hamas. Now, in 2024, the world has failed to deter the onslaught of international terrorism, believing that IS had been significantly weakened. This alone is a big enough threat to international security, but it is not the extent of the problem.

There are limits to the deterrence capabilities of the United States and its allies. The American military has reportedly lost its ability to conduct effective two- or three-front operations. In addition to the revisionist forces of Russia, China and Iran, we must deter the old and endless threat of Islamic extremism once again.

Moreover, the reemergence of this threat will further complicate Western deterrence against the aforementioned revisionist regimes, which is already challenging enough. More deterrence failures, unfortunately, are likely to follow.