- The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) militant group in Pakistan opposes Chinese investment projects in Balochistan province, viewing China as complicit in Pakistani government oppression of their people. The BLA has carried out multiple attacks against Chinese nationals and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) installations since 2018.
- The BLA ambushed a convoy of 23 Chinese engineers in August 2023. The group stated that it would increase attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan after 90 days unless China withdrew from Balochistan entirely.
- While the BLA’s 90-day ultimatum came and passed without a major attack, competition among various Baloch militant groups could drive new attacks in early 2024 by the BLA or other allied Baloch separatist groups.
As China’s global political, economic, and security influence expands, groups ranging from al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) to the communist Philippine New People’s Party (NPP) are showing hostility toward Beijing and, in some cases, calling for the targeting of Chinese nationals and interests (Nikkei Asia, February 21, 2023). Armed separatists in the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) in Pakistan’s southern province of Balochistan—as well as militants in parts of neighboring countries, such as areas in Iran’s Sistan-ve-Balochistan Province or Kandahar Province in Afghanistan—have rapidly become the most violent anti-China guerilla force in Asia (The Economic Times, August 15, 2023). Although the BLA is fighting for Baloch secession from Pakistan, it views Beijing as Islamabad’s primary international backer and, by extension, an oppressor of the Baloch people (Global Times, April 28, 2022).
The BLA’s anti-China militant campaign hinders Islamabad’s efforts to strengthen its economy because the targets include assets and personnel belonging to the Belt and Road Initiative’s flagship regional project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which spans from the northernmost part of Pakistan down to the Arabian Sea port city of Gwadar in Balochistan (Dawn, July 8, 2023). The BLA’s stated goal is to disrupt and undermine CPEC, which alone is estimated to comprise $65 billion in Chinese investment, through a linked anti-China media and militant activity strategy (Arab News, August 14, 2023). Given the high value of CPEC, and in response to the string of attacks in the past few years, Pakistan has taken counter-measures against the BLA—sometimes in coordination with China—to protect Chinese nationals and interests (South Asia Monitor, March 1, 2021).
Despite an increase in the number of security forces assigned and resources allocated for this purpose, Baloch militants successfully continue to strike at CPEC and Chinese nationals. As Pakistan’s security environment, political situation, and economy continue to deteriorate, a surge in Baloch separatists’ attacks in Balochistan may disrupt CPEC projects, the main reason for China’s continuous economic support in Pakistan. Moreover, Chinese nationals may be increasingly exposed to attacks, possibly bolstering Baloch separatist groups’ popularity among militant circles and enabling and/or incentivizing further attacks on Chinese personnel and interests in the country.
History of Anti-China Operations
One of the BLA’s first major anti-China attacks was on the Chinese consulate in Karachi on November 23, 2018. Three BLA gunmen attempted to enter the building, shooting two police officers to death (Hindustan Times, December 27, 2020). This operation was a warning sign that greater troubles were coming for China in Pakistan. The BLA’s more recent attack targeting Chinese workers on August 13, 2023, however, sent the message that its operatives could strike anywhere at any time. This is because it flew in the face of Pakistan’s bolstered counter-terrorism campaign against Baloch separatism and China’s heightened security support to Pakistan (Dawn, August 14, 2023).
On August 13, a convoy of three SUVs and a truck carrying 23 Chinese engineers was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED) and repeated gunfire near the police station in Gwadar (The Balochistan Post, August 17, 2023). Although there were no deaths among the Pakistani security forces or Chinese citizens, the attack was celebrated in BLA propaganda as a success. The BLA stated that its Majeed Brigade attacked a convoy and emphasized that Chinese nationals were the target (The Balochistan Post, August 13, 2023). A second statement put out by the BLA even offered the names of the two Majeed Brigade operatives who had led the attack: Naveed Baloch (Aslam Baloch) and Maqbool Baloch (Qayim Baloch).
In a third and final statement, the BLA also outlined the details of the operation. The group stated that two-hour operation had long been planned by the Majeed Brigade. Similarly, they claimed that the execution of the attack had been overseen by the BLA’s intelligence services (X/@upuknews1, August 13, 2023). At the end of the ambush, two BLA militants committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of Pakistani forces. At the end of the final communiqué, the BLA issued a 90-day ultimatum toward China. The group declared that the BLA’s attacks would escalate unless China fully withdrew its citizens and dismantled its economic projects in Balochistan. In particular, several “sensitive” Chinese facilities in Balochistan—places already allegedly monitored by BLA intelligence services—were threatened (X/@Bahot_Baluch, August 13, 2023). Officially, the ultimatum ended in mid-November. Since then, no major attack has been registered against Chinese installations, even though the similarly minded Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and BLA have claimed small attacks against machinery used for CPEC projects.
The BLA harbors a range of grievances against Chinese activities in Pakistan (Hindustan Times, April 27, 2022). Several BLA narratives were purveyed in a 2018 interview by a senior commander, who claimed “China has now joined hands with the Pakistan Army, which has been perpetrating brutality on the common people of the region for the last six decades.” He added that “Pakistan is getting intelligence inputs, arms, and ammunition of the best quality from China to use in Balochistan” and “with China’s help, Pakistan is trying to consolidate its military authority in the region” (Business Standard, February 28, 2018). The same commander lamented how “China with Pakistan’s help is strengthening its naval bases” as “the Baloch community and its future is facing existential threats owing to the inhumane activities of Pakistan and China” (YouTube/Times of Pakistan, March 5, 2018).
As previously stated, the August 13 attack was carried out by two members of the Majeed Brigade, Naveed Baloch (Aslam Baloch) and Maqbool Baloch (Qayim Baloch). This was an attempt to further the BLA’s broader campaign to expel Chinese influence from the region (India Today, August 13, 2023). Naveed Baloch joined the BLA in 2019, while Maqbool Baloch had been a veteran of the BLA, becoming a member in 2012. Both began participating in the Majeed Brigade in 2021 after six months of training, after which they then waited two years for a mission assignment.
The Majeed Brigade represents the elite special forces of the BLA, and is composed of either suicide bombers or small commando teams who sacrifice themselves in fights to the death, with permission to return to base only in the rare situation that the enemy is completely annihilated or flees (see Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2019). Two other Majeed Brigade attacks occurred in Karachi, Sindh in April 2022 and in Turbat, Balochistan in June 2023. Both attacks were carried out by female suicide bombers. In addition, the April 2022 attack in Karachi targeted the Chinese Confucius Center, resulting in the deaths of three Chinese nationals (see Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2022).
The BLA and the other various Baloch separatist organizations oppose Chinese influence because they feel that Beijing aims to exploit Balochistan’s resources—to the detriment of the local population. This is, of course, in addition to their objection to China’s financial support of what they view as Pakistani oppression (India Today, April 27, 2022; YouTube/ANI News, August 18, 2023). In particular, the BLA has repeatedly claimed that China is Pakistan’s accomplice in developing the commercial centers of Saindak and Gwadar, which are seen as the hubs of Chinese interests in the region.
Nevertheless, several attacks against Chinese installations in the past have been claimed by groups other than the BLA, including the BLF and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA, Azad faction) (X/@KiyyaBaloch, September 3, 2023). Typically, such attacks produce no casualties. They are instead limited to the sabotage and destruction of machinery, bridges, and telephone towers used by Chinese employees and/or Pakistani personnel involved in Chinese projects.
In the recent past, the BLA has claimed responsibility for the majority of such incidents. Prior to this latest attack, on May 10, the BLA claimed that the group targeted a military camp in Tajeban, which was safeguarding the CPEC route (The Balochistan Post, May 10, 2023). The BLF has also frequently mentioned that its attacks are aimed at disrupting CPEC in particular, as well as Chinese investments and projects more broadly. Between April and July, the BLF issued six statements after carrying out a series of attacks against military convoys along the CPEC route through Gwadar, Kech, and Kharan. In these announcements, the BLF repeatedly threatened to intensify attacks against CPEC-related projects (The Balochistan Post, June 27, 2023; May 11, 2023).
While the August 13 attack claimed by the BLA did not result in the deaths of any Chinese nationals or Pakistani military personnel, the operation itself sent a strong message that the militant group is seeking to increase its prominence as an anti-imperialist, anti-China national liberation group (Dawn, June 30, 2020). The main objective of the BLA is not necessarily to victimize Chinese citizens. Rather, the BLA seeks to undermine relations between China and Pakistan, divert additional resources from the Pakistani security apparatus toward securing Chinese assets, and create a general sense of insecurity around Chinese projects in Pakistani, slowing down their progress and casting doubt on any potential benefits (India Narrative, August 14, 2023).
Conscious of the impossibility of China’s full withdrawal from Balochistan, the BLA is gearing up for a renewed campaign of attacks against Chinese interests, which could take the form of multiple attacks against Chinese installations and machinery interspersed with ambushes against Chinese convoys (Pakistan Forward, August 14, 2023). Furthermore, in the context of competition between different Baloch militant groups for resources, recruits, and public image, the BLA ultimatum appears to be a challenge to other Baloch groups. As a result, it is possible that other groups, such as the BLF and the BLA (Azad faction), could also carry out similar attacks or decide to join forces for targeted operations conducted under the banner of the Baloch Raji Ajohi Sangar (BRAS) coalition.
BRAS is an agglomeration of Balochistan and Sindh independence groups operating together logistically and operationally in Balochistan and Sindh, predominantly in Karachi. For instance, on November 13—referred to as Martyrdom Day by Baloch and Sindh nationalist organizations—the BLF and BLA praised attacks conducted against Chinese nationals. The latter, in particular, eulogized female suicide bombers and the attackers of the Chinese Consulate in Karachi.
Thus, while low intensity attacks targeting CPEC projects claimed by Baloch separatist groups might remain constant but less impactful—and no major attack has occurred since the end of the 90-day ultimatum—a sudden surge of attacks or a single complex operation against Chinese nationals might be unleashed by BLA and/or other groups during the first months of 2024.