The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) has emerged, in terms of both words and actions, as the foremost anti-China force within jihadist circles. Photo supplied.

ISIS-K Is Waging a New War in Afghanistan—This Time Against China

The Afghanistan arm of the Islamic State is targeting Chinese nationals in a bid to “avenge” Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU

By the time the bombs went off inside the Kabul Longan Hotel on the afternoon of Dec. 12, 2022, the armed insurgents had already filmed their last words. Cradling pistols and posing beside a lounge chair heaped with ammunition, grenades, and explosives, two young militants, dressed inconspicuously in a hooded sweatshirt and a brown sherpa jacket, pointed to the sky and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.


Since the Taliban reclaimed leadership over Afghanistan in 2021, this hotel, located in the central district of the Afghan capital of Kabul, had become well-known for its popularity among a growing number of Chinese businessmen who’d started visiting the country, offering investment and financial support to an increasingly embattled administration. What ensued on that midwinter afternoon was a violent siege that resulted in at least 21 casualties—three dead and 18 injured—as the gunmen detonated two bags filled with explosives and opened fire on Chinese guests.

The insurgents were eventually killed by local security forces, according to the Taliban-run administration, and the next day China urged its citizens to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. For the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), a regional affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) that later claimed responsibility for the incident, it was a success.

Later that week, the official IS newsletter Al-Naba celebrated the Longan Hotel attack as an onslaught that “spread terror and panic among the ranks of the communist Chinese,” “put threats towards China into action on the ground,” and “[initiated] the journey of vengeance” against Beijing.

Its supposed crimes? Supporting the Taliban government and “killing, arresting, and torturing Uyghur Muslims.”


In recent months, ISIS-K—otherwise known by the initialism ISKP—has adopted an increasingly bellicose position toward China. What started as a campaign to undermine Chinese support for the Islamist group’s Taliban rivals has transformed into targeted condemnation of the East Asian superpower itself. Now that vitriol has boiled over into violence. And with targeted attacks against Chinese citizens in Afghanistan likely to continue, Beijing’s prospects in the country are looking more and more perilous.

ISIS-K’s strategic shift was ratified on Feb. 19, when the group collated all of its developing anti-China narratives into one comprehensive document: a 117-page propaganda pamphlet, focussed on China and the oppression of Uyghur Muslim minorities, that experts say is intended to be a guidebook for all jihadist groups. The day before, ISIS-K had released a 48-minute video that declared the liberation of Uyghurs as “one of our greatest objectives.”

This is How ISIS Militants Broke Out of a US-Funded Jail

Whereas previously the group’s animosity was focused almost exclusively on the Taliban, the United States, and the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ISIS-K media machine is now turning its crosshairs toward Beijing, highlighting allegations of genocide against Uyghurs and encouraging supporters to retaliate by committing violence against Chinese interests.


In Afghanistan, those calls are being answered.

On January 11, ISIS-K militants followed up on the Longan Hotel siege and killed at least 20 people in a failed suicide bombing targeting the Afghan foreign ministry facility in Kabul, where a Chinese delegation was reportedly due to meet with the Taliban sometime during the day. Weeks later, in their nearly hourlong video titled “We Killed Those Whom You Protect,” the group warned of further attacks against Chinese nationals, diplomats, and aid workers in Afghanistan, claiming to be the only jihadist organisation that is actually fighting back against Uyghur oppression.

“We will not only terrorise and kill the Chinese infidels but also ensure the freedom and happiness of all the Muslims of East Turkistan,” said the narrator of the video, referring to the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is thought to have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said constitutes serious human rights violations and potential crimes against humanity.

Lucas Webber, co-founder and editor of the Militant Wire research network, has been noticing this trend in the Islamist group’s messaging. Following the fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban to power, he watched closely as ISIS-K emerged, in terms of both words and later actions, as the foremost anti-China force within jihadist circles. As their propaganda apparatus became more centralised and focussed, members of the group started looking beyond China’s foreign relations with the Taliban and digging deeper into the nation’s domestic policies and history, particularly in relation to Uyghurs in Xinjiang. What they found there, said Webber, was an opportunity.


While it might seem improbable that an extremist organisation as notorious as ISIS-K would peg their flag to a globally recognised human rights cause, Webber noted that the group has realised the potency of Uyghur oppression as a recruitment tool, as well as a way to promote their brand on an international scale: by tapping into one of the most infamously grotesque cases of human rights abuses facing Muslims anywhere in the world.

“The Uyghur issue is one of the bigger issues of Muslim oppression,” Webber said. “And so they [ISIS-K] have been looking to exploit this and leverage it to grow their appeal and to essentially show that ‘we’re the only group taking action, we’re the only group consistently speaking out… We’re going to keep issuing threats, criticisms, launching attacks, and focusing on this issue.’”

Webber described the Longan Hotel siege as a “turning point”: the first time ISIS-K militants put their words into action and launched a direct attack against Chinese interests. It was also likely an augury of things to come. Given the recent escalation of the group’s hostile rhetoric, Webber wagered “very good odds” that ISIS-K violence against Chinese people will continue.

“They’re making their strategy explicit in ramping up attacks against diplomatic missions, foreign nationals, and they’re threatening foreign humanitarian NGOs,” he said. “So I think you’ll see more attacks on these types of targets.”

isis-k propaganda

ISIS-K propaganda has increasingly targeted China as one of the group's main enemies, celebrating past attacks on Chinese nationals and threatening more to come. Image supplied.

There aren’t many countries that have committed to working alongside the Taliban government, but China is one. Since the official takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021, the Chinese government has publicly engaged in friendly, bilateral interaction with Taliban authorities, even going as far as to lobby for them in international formats like the UN, while providing them with humanitarian and military assistance, according to the Jamestown Foundation.

More recently, Beijing has also shown conspicuous interest in pouring investment into the country in the hopes of exploiting its vast natural resources. Afghanistan boasts an estimated $1 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits, including copper, gold, iron, and lithium—a lucrative bit of pay dirt for anyone who might be able to withdraw the materials safely. In early January, a Chinese firm signed a 25-year contract for oil extraction in the country. Meanwhile, another Chinese state-owned company is reportedly looking to resume a project to mine the world’s second largest copper deposit from a barren region just south of Kabul, after more than a dozen years of inactivity.

These hardening business ties have precipitated an influx of Chinese nationals into Afghanistan, and raised the hopes of a Taliban government that is finding itself increasingly beleaguered by ongoing economic struggles and a spiralling humanitarian crisis. At the same time, however, the country’s security under Taliban rule has started to look increasingly shaky—due in no small part to constant insurrections from ISIS-K, who have entrenched themselves as “the primary rivals” of the Taliban and attacked Chinese targets in a bid to rattle Beijing’s nerves.


“They [ISIS-K] are trying to undermine China’s confidence in the Taliban’s ability to provide security,” Webber said. “They want to undermine, and essentially damage, anything that could strengthen the Taliban's governing position.”

This tactic was applied with devastating success during the raid on the Longan Hotel. The day before the attack, on Dec. 11, 2022, Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu met with Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai at the Taliban-run foreign ministry to express his “satisfaction over the overall security in Afghanistan.” Forty-eight hours later, Chinese citizens were being urged to flee.

Iftikhar Firdous, founding editor of the Khorasan Diary, described the hotel siege as “the most important operation for ISKP in 2022… the apex of a timely and carefully devised terrorist operation.”

“[ISKP] were the first IS branch to harm a significant number of Chinese nationals, potentially having a galvanising effect on other IS branches in other regions,” Firdous told VICE World News. More directly, he added, the siege “visibly expose[d] Taliban’s lack of security and intelligence as well as ISKP capabilities of planning such an operation” against Chinese nationals.


As a scare tactic, it worked.

In response to the attack, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin urged the Taliban to “take resolute and strong measures to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens, institutions and projects in Afghanistan.” In January, following both the hotel raid and the blast outside Afghanistan’s foreign ministry, China again implored the Islamist group to provide greater security to Chinese nationals inside the country, promising to provide them with modern weapons in return. 

It was ISIS-K’s more recent video and propaganda pamphlet, though, both released in the past fortnight, that established the group’s anti-China agenda more decisively than ever before. As Firdous explained, the pamphlet constituted, for the first time, “a whole book featuring China and the Taliban as [ISKP’s] main rivals in Afghanistan, which is set to become one of the main publications in the region and a reference for all jihadist groups.”

As a priority, ISIS-K is now actively addressing and recruiting militants in other such groups, including the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP): a Uyghur Islamic extremist organisation founded in western China. While the two groups have previously been known to work in close alliance—issuing propaganda in the Uyghur language, exchanging personnel and military advice, and planning joint attacks—ISIS-K has more recently started to criticise TIP for what they see as a failure to follow through on pledges of Uyghur liberation.


Firdous pointed out that for ISIS-K, though, the Uyghur issue is just one part of a greater mission, and pretext for the group “to more broadly start its long-lasting campaign against China in Afghanistan and in the region.”

While the group’s terrorist activities are mostly confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan, its vision is global: to support the toppling of what it sees as corrupt governments in Muslim nations, incite terrorist attacks in the West, and reinstate an Islamic caliphate. ISIS-K has emerged as the Islamic State’s strongest proponents of an international jihad. As a result, the scope of their operations has widened.

On Sep. 9, 2022, an ISIS-K media group, Tawhid News, published a statement in which militants threatened to destroy oil and gas pipelines running overland from Central Asia to China in a bid to sabotage the country’s energy infrastructure and cripple its economy. The group has also hinted at future attacks against Russian, American, and Indian targets.

These are just threats. But as Webber pointed out, ISIS-K has form when it comes to putting its money where its mouth is. He cites past instances where he’d noticed an uptick in vitriol against countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, only for militants from the group to strike those targets. The Longan Hotel attack was a continuation of that trend.

If ISIS-K is taken at its word, then the violence is far from finished. China is rapidly losing confidence in the security of Afghanistan, the Taliban are scrambling to repel IS activities within the country’s borders—largely through night raids and extrajudicial detentions and killings—and ISIS-K militants are capitalising on the disharmony to sow further conflict and advance their extreme jihadist agenda.

The resultant chaos has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the stability of Beijing’s prospects in the country. And while it’s difficult to anticipate exactly what the next few weeks and months might hold—the element of surprise is a key part of ISIS-K’s military strategy, after all—both Webber and Firdous seem confident about one thing: There will be blood, and it will more than likely be Chinese nationals who shed it.

“It is reasonable to assess that ISKP is going to attack foreign nationals again,” Firdous said. “And with China being among the most involved countries in Afghanistan, its citizens and interests are primary targets.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.