On February 28, a 40-year old Chinese female was shot dead in Peshawar, Pakistan along with her male interpreter. According to various news sources, she was a “tourist,” which is surprising considering that the Chinese are famous for group tours and that even the boldest of female travelers is unlikely to engage in tourism in Pakistan’s most Talibanized city. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Operations, Tahir Ayub, confirmed that she entered Pakistan on a tourist visa and that she was taking pictures in the bazaar when she was killed. She was a student of Beijing University, so her bold travel plans may have been related to her studies.
The murder of this lady and her interpreter is unique because the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it was in retaliation for “atrocities” by Chinese security forces in Xinjiang. While this not the first time Chinese nationals have been murdered in Pakistan, this is the first time the Taliban has claimed responsibility for murdering a Chinese national.
This murder in Peshawar occurred within 24 hours after a group of around ten Uyghurs armed with knives and axes attacked a market in Yecheng County in Xinjiang, near Kashgar, killing as many as 20 people. The Chinese security forces responded by arresting more than 80 Uyghurs. There is no proof that the Taliban actually carried out the murder in Peshawar or that the murder was related to the events in Yecheng, but it is possible given the claim of responsibility and the timing.
Why might the Taliban have an interest in killing this woman and claiming credit for it, regardless of the possible relationship to the Yecheng incident? One possibility is that members of the Pakistani Taliban have been influenced by Uyghur militants from Xinjiang who are based in the tribal regions on Pakistan. A jihadi group claiming to be called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has released more than a dozen videos of Uyghurs in the tribal regions of Pakistan engaging in military training with other Central Asian militants. One video featured Chinese Uyghur Memtieli Tiliwaldi, who was later killed by Chinese security forces in Kashgar after he participated in attacks on Chinese civilians in Kashgar on July 30 and 31, 2011.
A set videos called “Tourism of the Believers” has featured a preacher speaking in Uyghur to approximately 30 listeners about jihad and other Islamic issues. It can be assumed that the videos were shot in Pakistan because of the mountainous terrain in the background and the listeners’ traditional Islamic clothing which is commonly worn by men in Pakistan. It can also be assumed that the listeners actually understand the preacher and are not just props for the video since they respond in unison to the speaker’s cues. These videos give good cause to believe that there are at least a few dozen Uyghur militants in Pakistan.
Although Xinjiang and China are not a top priority for the Taliban on par with the U.S. and NATO, some Taliban and Central Asian militants may have been influenced by their Uyghur brethren in Pakistan and taken up the TIP’s cause. This unfortunate lady may have been the victim of a revenge act by such members of the Taliban. Since the attackers have not been caught, they may even have been Uyghurs or Central Asians in Peshawar themselves.
Another motive for the Taliban in killing Chinese nationals in Pakistan is related to China’s developing infrastructure, such as roads, tunnels and bridges in Pakistan which facilitate trade and commerce between the two countries. The Taliban may feel threatened by China as a positive development actor in the country, which is helping to spur Pakistan’s economic development. It serves no benefit to the Taliban if people have more jobs and trade opportunities, especially with an “infidel” country like China. If anything, a better economic condition as a result of trade with China could deter people from joining the Taliban.
By killing Chinese nationals the Taliban may hope to deter Chinese nationals from working in Pakistan and therefore stunt Chinese influence in Pakistan and add friction to the China-Pakistan relationship. The Taliban may also be trying to provoke a response from China through an aggressive reaction or rhetoric to portray China as an enemy since the U.S. is soon leaving Afghanistan and terrorist groups always benefit from having new enemies to justify their existence.
China and Pakistan have been quick to affirm their mutual interest in finding the murderers and respecting each others’ sovereignty, but the overarching issue is whether this incident will become part a larger trend of attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan. Thousands of Chinese nationals are working to develop Pakistan’s infrastructure and their projects could get sidelined if the Taliban and other allied extremists succeed in carrying out more of these types of attacks.