Security officials cordon off an area after a bomb blast in Quetta, Baluchistan in August last year. Photo: iStock
Quetta, Balochistan in August last year. Photo: iStock

Any claims that China might have cleared Islamist militants away from its economic corridor to Pakistan were ended on November 23 when Baloch separatists attacked the Chinese embassy in Karachi.

While the raid was foiled by police, it is the first time Chinese interests have been targeted by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) outside China itself, lifting security concerns in its restive western provinces.

Pakistan may also be unnerved by the work that went into the attack. Investigations have revealed that the three militants planned the raid for 8-10 months from hotels in Karachi’s Lyari and Saddar areas and that they conducted reconnaissance of the consulate beforehand.

Balochistan is at the center of a multi-billion-dollar economic corridor that China is funding in its bid to secure access to deepwater ports in Pakistan. Baloch separatists call it “colonization” of their land.

The BLA emerged from the 1973-77 insurgency that focused attention on the Balochistan struggle, though some trace its origins to an earlier ethnic-nationalist movement. Regenerated in 2000, it led a movement against alleged central government misappropriation of provincial resources.

Initial operations by the BLA were against security officials and others from outside the state, but the group came into direct confrontation with the Pakistani authorities after attacking Chinese workers at government-sponsored development projects in 2004.

Security forces responded by despatching a reported 20,000  additional troops to Balochistan, though they failed to prevent an escalation in car bombings and other improvised explosions. These  included an attack on Camp Kohlu against then military ruler Pervez Musharraf that led to the BLA being designated a terrorist organization in 2006.

Separatists becoming more brazen

The Pakistani army then launched a sweeping operation against Baloch separatists in the province, eliminating nationalist leaders Nawab Akbar Bugti and Mir Balaach Marri in 2006-07.

Around the same time, the government began discussing a handover of the strategic port of Gwadar in southern Balochistan to China on a 40-year lease, in what was seen by the Baloch nationalists as another attempt by Islamabad to deny local control over the region.

Separatist leaders living abroad have been behind an offensive aimed at driving out non-Balochs. In 2009, militants systematically killed at least 500 Punjabis, and they have since taken their operations outside the borders of Balochistan.

One of their most prominent attacks was the kidnapping of 19 Pakistani policemen in Sui in 2009. They destroyed the historic Ziarat residence of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 2013, killed 16 army personnel in Marwar and Chamalang in 2015, and shot dead 10 Pakistani laborers in Gwadar last year.

The BLA said the Gwadar attack was a response to the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the region. In the aftermath of last month’s attack on the Chinese consulate, the group  expressed similar sentiments, calling China an “oppressor”.

Baloch separatists see China as the latest of several “occupiers” of their land and an attempt to alter the demographics of the province.

“[China] plans to house 500,000 Chinese people in Gwadar, which means the local Baloch population, which is less than a 100,000, will be outnumbered, marginalized and eventually may well be pushed out of Gwadar,” said United Kingdom-based Baloch separatist Faiz M Baluch, who is the editor of Balochwarna News.

Missing persons issue inflames tensions

“[The BLA’s attack] is a natural reaction to China’s complicity with Pakistan to colonize Balochistan. The CPEC in Balochistan is considered death and destruction. It has greater negative implications for Baloch because China, which is behind this project, has military interests. It wants to build a naval base in Jiwani,” he added.

One of the biggest concerns for many Balochs is the rising number of people reported missing in the province: the Pakistani security agencies have been linked to tens of thousands of abductions.

A Baloch activist on the issue, Mama Qadeer, launched a 2,800-kilometer march from Quetta to Islamabad to highlight the problem in 2014. He said the abductions carried out by the army and security agencies were a major reason for the tensions in Balochistan.

“There are over 45,000 missing persons and around 10,000 mutilated corpses have been handed over to families in Balochistan, including that of my own son. There’s no better way for the Pakistani state to win back the locals’ support than returning these missing persons, even if they initiate legal proceedings against them,” he told Asia Times, adding that they were a recruiting tool for the BLA.

“The BLA showed one of the Chinese consulate attackers, Abdul Raziq, was someone from the missing persons list. During our meeting with the home ministry and in our investigations, we found that the Raziq who has been missing was from Mastung, while the person who carried out the attack was from Kharan,” he said.

Baloch men aged between 18 and 24 years confirmed in multiple interviews with Asia Times that they had been approached by separatist groups, providing evidence that the missing persons issue and China’s growing influence are pushing youths toward militancy.

Leadership gaps weaken BLA’s influence

“The BLA’s recent literature is all about missing persons and China, and how the CPEC will expel the Baloch from Balochistan,” admitted Azaad. Hayat said he had been recruited by the BLA: “Anyone would be willing to take up arms when you’re told it’s a matter of survival.” The names of both youths were changed to protect their identities.

But while it exploits anger over the missing persons and uncertainty that locals will benefit from the CPEC, the BLA still struggles to muster enough fighters to pose a more serious threat. The group  boasts on its Twitter account that it has over 5,000, but the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups estimates it had only 500 in 2015.

One reason may be a lack of leaders capable of playing up the growing nationalist sentiments. Unlike the Taliban and other militant groups, the BLA does not disclose its leadership, though analysts believe that the organization comprises members of the Marri and Bugti tribes. They also believe it relies on arms sales and financial contributions from the Balochi diaspora to stay in business.

“Globally, the Baloch political parties like Free Balochistan Movement headed by Hyrbyair Marri, Baloch Republican Party headed by Brahumdagh and Baloch National Movement headed by Khalil Baloch are promoting the Baloch struggle,” said Faiz M Baluch.

“The political parties believe in a political and peaceful solution to the  Baloch and Pakistan conflict [while] armed organizations are defending their people on the ground against Pakistani state atrocities,” he claimed.

Islamabad denies the BLA even exists in Balochistan: it maintains  that the group is being funded by intelligence agencies in India and Afghanistan.

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