Chinese interests in Pakistan are facing threats from an array of militant groups, posing a collateral risk to other foreign businesses. What can corporations do to mitigate against these?
• On 23 November, three suspected Baloch separatist militants attacked the Chinese consulate-general in the Block 4 area of Clifton, Karachi, Sindh province, in Pakistan, killing four people. No Chinese citizens were killed, but two police officers and two Pakistani civilians were among the fatalities.
• A Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) first information report (FIR) stated that the three attackers were met by security guards at a checkpoint. A gunfight ensued, leaving one militant dead, while the remaining two tried to infiltrate the consulate. The two accomplices fired on the building and threw hand grenades, damaging two police vehicles, one armoured personnel carrier and six other vehicles outside the consulate. As they moved into the reception area of the visa section, they killed the two Pakistani civilians. The militants were finally killed by security personnel as they tried to open an armoured gate with C-4 explosives.
• A spokesman for the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – a secessionist non-state armed group – identified as ‘Jihand Baloch’ claimed the attack, allegedly during the operation. A BLA Twitter account also claimed responsibility.
• Follow-up reports revealed that the attackers were fidayeen – (suicide) members – of the BLA’s Majeed Brigade, which is a specialist unit tasked with carrying out attacks against Chinese interests.
• This was the second BLA-authored attack against the Chinese this year, driven in large part by the group’s opposition to the USD60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a network of agricultural, energy, industrial and transport infrastructure projects that connects China’s north-western Xinjiang region to Balochistan’s port city of Gwadar.
• On 11 August 2018, a BLA fighter detonated his suicide-vest IED, killing three Chinese workers in Dalbandin, approximately 340km south-west of Quetta, Balochistan province. The workers were being transported on a bus from the Saindak Copper-Gold Mines project to Dalbandin Airport (DBA), Chagai district. A BLA spokesman warned of further attacks if ‘Beijing continued exploiting Balochistan’s resources’.
• The 23 November incident should therefore not be interpreted as an outlier but a continual trend against Chinese interests by a wide array of militant threat actors, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda and Islamic State, among others, opposed to Beijing’s treatment of China’s Uighur Muslim population.
• The Pakistani security forces have increased their anti- and counter-terrorism operations in Balochistan in recent years in order to boost the confidence of Chinese investors; however, these operations, including some allegedly involving Chinese military personnel, are not endearing themselves to locals. Furthermore, animosity between Balochs and the Chinese has grown exponentially with the latter’s increased presence. Balochs strongly believe that China’s presence is inimical to their interests, and this sentiment is propagandised to spur the insurgency.
• For Islamabad, CPEC is fundamentally critical to improve Pakistan’s unstable financial position. Foreign exchange reserves were at USD8.5 billion as of 4 October, down from almost USD14 billion a year previously, and still declining. This has forced the state bank to depreciate the Pakistani rupee amid concerns that it will not be able to finance a hefty import bill and meet debt obligations in the coming months. Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Beijing this month to reassure China that its investments were safe, but the lack of success in securing more finances is telling of the two countries’ increasingly frosty relations.
• The attack is also likely to serve as an exemplar of the BLA’s reach and capabilities, particularly in an area of Karachi that is considered heavily guarded. Clifton, as well as neighbouring Defence Housing Authority (DHA), hosts several diplomatic missions, international schools and foreign businesses. It is also an area where Pakistan’s military, political and business elites reside, presenting an array of high-value and symbolic targets for the BLA and like-minded groups.
• Given the importance of CPEC to both China and Pakistan, long-term commitment to maintain the course is almost guaranteed. Due to this, geography-dependent terrorism and insurgency risks for Chinese businesses and nationals will likely remain moderate to high for the medium to long term outlook. A significant restrainer to these risks would be if Islamabad and Beijing were more inclusive of Baloch stakeholders, but at present, these two parties are narrowly viewing the situation through a security lens.
• The latest attack illustrated some important features that pose a collateral (or incidental) risk to non-Chinese interests and nationals, namely the use of a mobile strike squad, suicide vectors and explosive weapons. Businesses and personnel within relatively close proximity are at significant risk.
• In light of this recent development, foreign businesses are advised to review risk management plans to ensure that they are fit-for-purpose.
• Carry out a threat identification and site assessment that should entail blast and explosion analysis, structural stability analysis and a CBR threat assessment.
• Design a risk management programme aimed at protecting the office/accommodation and its occupants as well as putting together crisis- and disaster-recovery plans.
• For business travellers, reducing the risk through an effective journey management plan is essential. Have a meet-and-greet service upon arrival at the airport and use vetted security-trained drivers for movements inside and outside the city.
• Keep a low profile, maintain good situational awareness and minimise exposure by avoiding high-risk areas and situations such as crowded public venues or visit these areas during off-peak hours. Minimise the exposure to police and the security forces as these groups are often targeted. Avoid chokepoints, such as narrow streets and bridges, and be aware of any potential egress points.