The Brussels and Lahore Bombings of March 2016 and Their Implications for China’s War on Terror
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Brussels and Lahore Bombings of March 2016 and Their Implications for China’s War on Terror

Mar. 31, 2016  |     |  0 comments

On March 22, 2016, Brussels was struck with a pair of synchronized suicide bombings. The first occurred when Ibrahim el-Bakraoui detonated his bomb at 7:58 AM at the departure hall of Zaventem airport; his brother Khalid detonated his bomb just over an hour later at 9:11 AM on a subway train as it was leaving Maelbeek station. Both brothers had long histories of violent crime in Belgium, but were not recognized by the state as terrorist threats until December 2015. Despite Turkey having expelled Ibrahim in July 2015 for attempting to cross the border into Syria to enlist as a foreign fighter for the Islamic State, Belgian authorities did not attempt to extradite him from the Netherlands, where he had requested to be sent from Turkey. Khalid, in the meantime, was charged with terrorism and had an international warrant issued for his arrest in December 2015 after he was discovered to have rented, under an alias, an apartment that had been used as a safe-house by the terrorists responsible for the November 2015 Paris attacks. Experts suspect that the capture by Belgian police on March 18, 2016 of Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, may have triggered the suicide bombings of the Bakraoui brothers. Abdeslam himself had confessed to his Belgian interrogators that, following the Paris attacks, he had established a new terrorist network in Belgium, drawing on criminal elements to establish spaces for use as safe-houses or bomb-making facilities, and to build up an armoury of weapons, including the low-cost but deadly nail bombs used in the Brussels attacks (Blenkinsop, 2016; Emmott, 2016; Rogin, 2016; “Ibrahim and Khalid,” 2016).

The Islamic State has claimed and celebrated the Brussels attacks, and European security agencies are working to identify the remaining terrorists involved in the attacks on Paris and Brussels, and to prevent them from launching further ones (Cruickshank & Lister, 2016; Leroy & Hiltermann, 2016). As The Economist notes:

Across six European countries 18 jihadists are known to be under arrest, suspected of a hand in the Paris attacks. Even so, IS could muster enough jihadists to mount a complex, co-ordinated operation under the nose of the authorities in Brussels, possibly at short notice. French officials have concluded that IS has learnt how to make bombs from commonplace chemicals such as hair dye and nail-polish remover. They have yet to find any of the group’s bomb makers and struggle to penetrate the jihadists’ communications.” (“Bombings in Brussels,” 2016)

Of particular concern is the threat of nuclear terrorism. Belgian security agencies believe the Bakraoui brothers were involved with the video surveillance of a senior Belgian nuclear scientist, and that the terrorist cell the brothers were working with had been planning to kidnap this scientist in a scheme to obtain nuclear material for a dirty bomb. The murder of a security guard at the Belgian national radioactive elements institute at Fleurus, and the reported theft of his security pass, just two days after the Brussels bombings, have raised concerns that the surviving members of the terrorist cell may have revived their earlier plans for a nuclear attack (Owen, 2016; “Belgian nuclear guard,” 2016). With Belgium’s security apparatus severely understaffed at just half the level of its European peers, and with Belgium having a disaffected immigrant population that has become the largest European source of foreign fighters for the Islamic State, there are fears that Belgium’s overwhelmed security agencies may fail to avert future attacks, just as they had failed to prevent the March 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels (Macdonald, 2016).

The attacks have the potential to sway the shocked governments of Western Europe to offer greater support for China’s ongoing struggle against Uighur jihadists in Xinjiang.

Less than a week after the Brussels bombings, a suicide bomber detonated his bomb at a crowded park in Lahore, where Christian families in particular had gathered to celebrate Easter Sunday, killing over 70 victims and injuring over 300. The Islamic militant group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which had once declared allegiance to the Islamic State, but is currently a faction of the Taliban in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack, its fifth since December 2015, and explained that they had specifically targeted the Christians at the park. The Pakistani government has commenced a full-scale paramilitary operation against Islamic militants in Punjab, and as of this time of writing, paramilitary raids have already been launched against suspected terrorists in the Punjab cities of Lahore, Faisalabad, and Multan. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar in turn has vowed further attacks (Bukhari, 2016; Malik & Bukhari, 2016; “Pakistan bombing,” 2016; “Pakistan Easter,” 2016; “Pakistan launches raids,” 2016).

The Brussels and Lahore attacks have implications for China’s War on Terror. The Brussels attack and last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris have the potential to sway the shocked governments of Western Europe to offer greater support for China’s ongoing struggle against Uighur jihadists in Xinjiang, especially since these militants are increasingly forging operational connections with jihadist groups in the Middle East (Blanchard & Martina, 2015; Hewitt, 2016). While the West has generally been indifferent to China’s War on Terror, due to concerns over possible human rights violations in Xinjiang, their renewed perception of a community of countries around the world facing the threat of terrorist attacks sponsored or sanctioned by groups like the Taliban or the Islamic State could generate greater empathy for China’s struggle. The Bangkok bombing of August 2015, which targeted a shrine popular with Chinese tourists, is currently understood by experts to have been the work of Uighur militants who were retaliating against the Thai junta’s repatriation in July 2015 of 109 Uighur refugees back to China (Cunningham, 2015; Fuller & Wong, 2015). Terrorism experts have also observed that 2015 had seen a spike in Uighur militants joining the Taliban in Afghanistan, the al-Nusra Front in Syria, and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As with foreign fighters from other countries returning home from overseas wars, China fears that these Uighur fighters will return to Xinjiang armed with dangerous military skills, expertise, and experience gained from militant training camps and on the battlefield (Tiezzi, 2015; Volodzko, 2016). This threat can also be seen in the recent arrests and shootings of Uighur terrorist suspects in Indonesia, whom Indonesian security agencies have identified as having joined the Eastern Indonesia Mujahidin, a terrorist group which is affiliated with the Islamic State (Sangadji, 2016; Tiezzi, 2016; “China to,” 2015; “After shootout,” 2016).

Apart from the general danger to life and property posed by terrorist attacks, China’s overseas construction projects, especially those connected with the “One Belt One Road” initiative, are particularly vulnerable. The suicide bombing in Lahore, for example, points to the serious security vulnerabilities faced by Chinese construction firms involved with the ongoing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor megaproject (Lim, 2015). The heightened security risk from international terrorism facing China’s overseas projects was also vividly highlighted in the November 2015 attack in Mali on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako by jihadists from al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in which 19 people were killed, including 3 executives from China Railway Construction Corporation (“Three Chinese executives,” 2015). As the Chinese government and China’s globalizing corporations are not expected to exit their international projects anytime soon, they may expect further confrontations with global terrorism.


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