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Belt and Road

Pakistani militants shift focus to cities in targeting of Chinese

Recent attempts hint armed groups opposing Belt and Road set sights on Karachi

Special combat police conduct an exercise in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in January 2016. Security forces in Pakistan increasingly see a need to train for urban-focused operations.   © Reuters

KARACHI -- Recent attacks on Chinese citizens in Karachi show that Pakistani militant groups opposing China's Belt and Road Initiative have changed their strategy -- focusing on the country's urban centers and targeting Chinese nationals and investments.

On Tuesday, a Chinese citizen and his interpreter survived a gun assault on a car showroom in the outskirts of Karachi, the country's key port city and economic hub. A week before, another Chinese national survived an attempt to blow up his vehicle outside the restaurant he owns in Karachi's upscale Clifton area.

The Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army insurgent group claimed credit for both attacks. "China and Pakistan have forcibly been occupying the land under the projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and we will continue our attacks to target them," the SRA said in a statement.

The CPEC -- which involves $50 billion worth of infrastructure projects in Pakistan -- is part of the BRI that is aimed at developing land and sea trade routes in Asia and beyond.

Ethnic militant groups in Balochistan and Sindh provinces that have been fighting security forces for years over what they see as unfair exploitation of the regions' vast mineral wealth have also been attacking projects linked to the CPEC.

Security experts believe that the groups are now choosing major urban centers, mainly Karachi, to target Chinese nationals and investments in addition to Pakistani state institutions and personnel, their traditional focus.

Paramilitary soldiers stand guard at the site of a deadly attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi on June 29.   © Reuters

In June, four militants belonging to the Baloch Liberation Army attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building, located in the heart of Karachi's main corporate district, killing two guards and a policeman and wounding seven others before being shot dead.

The Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and China Financial Futures Exchange are the cornerstone investors in the bourse and secured management control of it after acquiring a 40% stake in 2017.

"Militant outfits regularly target Chinese interests and Pakistani security personnel in the country's mountainous and rural areas," said Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a Singapore-based security think tank. "But carrying out attacks on them in major urban centers, such as Karachi... they want to grab global attention and publicity."

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S. based nonprofit organization conducting real-time data collection, analysis and crisis mapping, has recorded an increase in organized violence by groups opposing the BRI since the beginning of 2020. The ACLED said that the formation of a trans-province alliance between militants has given new life to their insurgency that had weakened steadily after 2015.

In July, the SRA made an operational alliance with the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar, or BRAS, a consortium of four Baloch militant organizations that was formed in late 2018.

Experts believe that uniformity in their opposition to the BRI has brought the armed groups together and the alliance has helped them to coordinate around identifying strategic targets and expanding operational areas.

"The operational alliance between militant groups is likely to deprive counterterrorism forces of a major advantage they had over the militants, i.e., tackling a fragmented insurgency," said Tariq Pervez, former head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, a governmental counterterrorism body.

Karachi was for years rife with political, sectarian and ethnic militancy. A crackdown by security forces started in 2013 has brought a lull in violence in recent years, but scattered attacks still occur.

In the third quarter of 2020, the SRA and BLA have remained active in Karachi and involved in terror acts, including on paramilitary Rangers, said a report by the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based security think tank.

Security agencies have also intensified their crackdown on the groups. Karachi police on Wednesday claimed to have arrested two SRA militants in the city for alleged involvement in terror activities.

Although Chinese authorities did not issue any reaction to the recent attacks on their nationals in Karachi, China's diplomatic mission in Islamabad regularly advises its citizens in Pakistan to be on alert after receiving intelligence reports about possible attacks targeting Chinese.

A shoe lies amid broken glass and blood stains outside the security post at the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi after it came under attack.   © Reuters

In July, senior Karachi police officials met a delegation from the Chinese Consulate and companies to discuss steps to ensure better security for Chinese people in the metropolis. That same month, a similar gathering was held in Lahore, another large city, where officials from both countries agreed that the consulate there would "ensure that their nationals extend cooperation to law enforcement agencies in security measures."

However, law enforcement personnel complain that Chinese nationals do not follow security protocols. "They [Chinese] roam freely and do not adopt security measures in the city's sensitive areas, and because of their carelessness they become targets of attacks of the militant groups." said a Karachi security official.

"We also fear that militant groups may target Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Chinese American, etc., unknowingly, because it is hard for Pakistanis to differentiate among the Asian communities," the official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told Nikkei Asia.

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