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” i.e. ISIS. “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; Uighur 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 Uighur extremism, demanded action. 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 he was cut loose with the hope that he would smooth the way in peace talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government.
The TTP talks don’t seem to be going anywhere, which is bad news for the PRC.
The TTP is reportedly a willing host to Uzbek and Uighur 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 mujihadeen on the CIA’s behalf during the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan).
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 Uighur 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 Uighur security policy, and its diplomacy with Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, and its interlocutors among Islamic radicals in Pakistan’s borderlands.
Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote in 2007 on the siege, and the important role that the PRC played.
In the Shadow of Lal Masjid (excerpt)
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 U.S. 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 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, D.C.
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.
An otherwise sympathetic observer declared:
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.
The difficulties involved can be seen from this excerpt from a timeline of the mosque crisis compiled by B. Raman, an Indian China-watcher who is assiduous in washing Pakistan’s dirty linen on the site Intellibriefs:
January 22, 2007: Female students of the Jamia Hafsa madrasa attached to the Lal Masjid in Islamabad occupied a Children’s Library adjacent to their madrasa to protest against the demolition of seven unauthorised mosques constructed on roads in Islamabad by which President Pervez Musharraf often travels. The mosques were demolished on the advice of his personal security staff.
February 13, 2007: The authorities agreed to rebuild one of the demolished mosques to end the library standoff, but the students refused to vacate the library.
March 27, 2007: The female students, along with their male colleagues from the Jamia Faridia, another madrasa attached to the mosque, raided a house near the mosque and kidnapped a woman, her daughter-in-law and her six-month-old granddaughter for allegedly running a brothel. They were released after they “repented”.
March 28, 2007: Some students of the two madrasas took three policemen hostage in retaliation for the arrest of some students by the police. The hostages were released on March 29.
March 30, 2007: Some madrasa students visited CD and video shops in the capital and warned the shop owners that they should either switch to another business or face the “consequences”.
April 6, 2007: The Lal Masjid set up its own Sharia court. The mosque’s chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, warned of “thousands of suicide attacks” if the Government tried to shut it down.
April 9, 2007: The Sharia court issued a fatwa condemning the then Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar after newspapers pictured her hugging her parachuting instructor in France.
You get the picture. Escalating confrontation, with the government conciliating, accommodating, and backing down.
After exposing the skydiving outrage, the students of Lal Masjid turned their attention to another font of impurity—a Chinese-run massage parlor in Islamabad.
The epic was reported in great detail in Pakistan Today:
First, the abduction:
Male and female students of Jamia Faridia, Jamia Hafsa and Beaconhouse School System, in a joint operation, kidnapped the Chinese women and Pakistani men shortly after midnight Friday from a Chinese massage centre, working at House No 17, Street 4, F-8/3, alleging that they were running a brothel. …
Riding in three vehicles, the students … raided the massage centre located in the posh Islamabad sector. They overpowered three Pakistani males and guards posted there after thrashing them.
They, later, entered the building and ordered those present there to accompany them. On refusal, the students thrashed them and forcibly took them to the Jamia Hafsa compound. They accused the abducted people of rendering un-Islamic and unlawful services.
Ghazi [of Lal Masjid] said the China massage centre was involved in sex trade and complaints were being received about it since long. “Even housewives used to tell us by phone that the centre charges Rs 1,000 for massage while by paying Rs 500, something else was also available,” he said.
Then the anxious confab with the Chinese:
President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz were earlier given minute-by-minute reports of the negotiations regarding the release of the hostages. … The prime minister was in contact with the Islamabad administration and the Interior Ministry and getting minute-by-minute reports from State Minister for Interior Zafar Warriach.
The Chinese ambassador contacted President Hu Jintao two times during the 15-hour hostage drama, sources said. The ambassador called his president while holding talks with Pakistan Muslim League chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain at his residence.
… Sources quoted President Hu Jintao, expressing shock over the kidnapping of the Chinese nationals, has called for security for them. The ambassador informed his president about his talks with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. The PML leader also got telephonic contact established between the hostages and the ambassador.
The ignominious conclusion:
The release came only after Deputy Commissioner Chaudhry Muhammad Ali and Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Zafar Iqbal, who held talks with the Lal Masjid administration, beseeched it for five hours and even touched the knees of some leading clerics while begging for the freedom of the abductees.
Finally, the tellingly sleazy detail:
The administration quietly let two “big shots”, Pakistani customers, go and released their vehicles, seized from outside the massage centre… The identity of these clients is not being disclosed.
Beyond President Hu Jintao’s tender regard for the security and livelihood of Chinese masseuses, there was obviously a larger issue at stake. China did not want to see its citizens and interests to become pawns in Pakistan’s internal strife.
It’s a non-trivial point for China, which lacks the military reach to effectively protect its overseas citizens itself, but does not want to see them turned into the bargaining chip of first resort for dissidents in dangerous lands like Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, and etc. who are looking to get some leverage on the local government–or Beijing.
It looks like China demanded that Pakistan draw a red line at the abduction, extortion, and murder of its citizens.
A week after the kidnapping incident, Pakistan’s Federal Interior Minister was in Beijing.
Once more from the Intellibriefs timeline:
June 29, 2007: The “Daily Times” of Lahore wrote in an editorial as follows: “During his visit to Beijing, Sherpao got an earful from the Chinese Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, who asked Pakistan for the umpteenth time to protect Chinese nationals working in Pakistan. The reference was to the assault and kidnapping of Chinese citizens in Islamabad by the Lal Masjid vigilantes. The Chinese Minister called the Lal Masjid mob “terrorists” who targeted the Chinese, and asked Pakistan to punish the “criminals”.
One factor that would have intensified Chinese alarm and exasperation was a report that the attack on the massage parlor revealed a tie-up between Pakistan’s Islamic militants and Uighur separatists:
Mr.Sherpao also reported that the Chinese suspected that the raid on the massage parlour was conducted by some Uighur students studying in the Lal Masjid madrasa and that the Chinese apprehended that Uighur “terrorists” based in Pakistan might pose a threat to the security of next year’s Olympics in Beijing.
In early July Musharraf apparently was able to invoke China’s anger to overcome resistance within his armed forces, and move against Lal Masjid.
Even so, he was forced to employ troops personally loyal to him, as the Weekly Standard reported:
China applied enormous pressure to Musharraf. His previous attempts to order military strikes against the Lal Masjid had met with rebuffs. In late January, after the Pakistani army refused to raid the mosque, Musharraf ordered his air force to do so–only to see this order refused as well. Musharraf’s eventual solution was to send in 111 Brigade, which is personally loyal to him.
The mosque was encircled by 15,000 troops and the siege proceeded in a dilatory fashion…until three Chinese were murdered in remote Peshawar, apparently in retaliation for the siege.
China Daily reported:
Police officer Abdul Karim said that it was a robbery attempt.
But one witness said that attackers with face covered were shouting religious slogans when they opened fire on four Chinese nationals in a three-wheel auto-rickshaw factory at Khazana, a town some eight kilometers from Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
The Chinese outlets splashed the story all over the media, including their embassy websites, complete with atrocity photos—a treatment that the unfortunate demise of rickshaw factory employees doesn’t usually attract.
Tarique Niazi describes the denouement:
On July 2, barely a week after the abduction, the government ordered 15,000 troops around the mosque compound to flush out the militants. On July 4, it arrested the leader of the militants, Maulana Abdul Aziz … After apprehending the leader, government troops moved to choking off the militants’ supplies of food, water, and power. But as soon as word of the revenge killing of three Chinese on July 8 reached Islamabad, it created a “perfect storm” for Gen. Musharraf. Embarrassed and enraged, he reversed the troops’ strategy and ordered them, on July 10, to mount an all-out assault at the mosque, in which Aziz’s brother and his deputy, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, together with as many as 1,000 people, was killed.