Chinese engineers and workers at the Dasu hydropower project in northwestern Pakistan faced another attack on April 5, 2023, as a massive fire broke out at their residential camps. The incident occurred in the Barseen area of Lower Kohistan, with eyewitnesses suspecting the cause to be an act of terrorism rather than a short-circuit, as claimed by authorities. No injuries or loss of life were reported, but the event raises concerns about Chinese interests in Pakistan, particularly given the history of attacks on Chinese assets in the country.
The Dasu hydropower project is managed by the China Gezhouba Group Company, which was awarded the construction contract by Pakistan's water ministry in 2017. The area has previously been targeted by terrorists, with a suicide car bombing in July 2021 killing nine Chinese engineers and three Pakistanis. Although the attack was initially suspected to be a gas leak, later investigations confirmed it as an act of terrorism, with forensic examinations of the suicide bomber's remains revealed that he was not a Pakistani national.
China's ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been a primary target for attacks by ethnic groups in Pakistan, claiming to have been exploited by the Pakistani elite with no economic or livelihood benefits. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an Islamic militant organization, has been responsible for several attacks on Chinese workers and projects related to CPEC, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The group has also targeted Chinese nationals in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan.
The Dassu area surrounding the hydropower project is known to be prone to militancy, particularly Islamic militancy, and has seen a rise in militant groups in recent years. These groups include Jundul Hafsa, Lashkar-e-Islam, Lashkar-e-Khurasan, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, TTP, Tehreek Taliban Balauristan (TTB), Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and more. As the area has a Sunni majority population with almost 80% of the population adhering to the Deobandi School of Thought, which aligns with those having an unyielding ideology to implement Shariah or those who believe that Allah's land shall be ruled by principles set forward by Allah himself, reports or statements from these groups cannot be ignored.
China has previously raised concerns about the security of its interests in Pakistan and has taken up the issue of enhancing security for Chinese assets with Pakistan at the highest levels. The latest incident will undoubtedly increase China's concerns and could lead to a reassessment of its investments in Pakistan. The attack may also impact Pakistan's security calculus and Pak-China strategic landscape, given the importance of CPEC to both countries.
Dassu Fire: Accident or an Act of Terrorism:
As mentioned earlier, the region where the Dassu hydropower project is located has seen several instances of violence and terrorism in the past. The project was attacked by militants in 2018, resulting in four people's death. The Pakistani Taliban, a banned terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the attack. Given this context, it is possible that the recent fire incident at the project site is also linked to terrorism. While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, it is worth noting that in many cases, terrorist groups have used arson as a tactic to attack infrastructure and intimidate foreign investors. For example, in 2018, militants in the Balochistan province of Pakistan set fire to several Chinese-owned businesses, including a Chinese consulate, killing four people.
Islamic Militant Groups and Threats to Chinese Interests:
One such group is Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is an umbrella organization of various militant groups that operate mainly in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The TTP has been responsible for a number of deadly attacks in Pakistan, including suicide bombings and targeted assassinations. Another group is Jundul Hafsa, which is a splinter group of the TTP that was formed in 2007. The group has been involved in several terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the 2007 Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing. Lashkar-e-Islam is another Islamic militant group that operates in the region. The group is primarily active in the Khyber Agency, Chillas and Dassu. It has been involved in a number of clashes with the Pakistani military. There have been reports of these groups collaborating with each other to target Chinese interests in Pakistan. In 2019, the TTP claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Quetta that targeted a convoy of Chinese workers. The attack killed four people and injured several others. Therefore, it is important to take into consideration the potential threat posed by these Islamic militant groups to Chinese interests, including the Diamer-Bhasha Dam project. It is crucial for the Pakistani authorities to take necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of the project and its workers.
Diamer-Bhasha Dam Project and Islamic Militant Groups:
There are several Islamic militant groups operating in the region where the Diamer-Bhasha Dam project is being built, and they pose a significant threat to Chinese interests in the area. These groups have a long history of targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. For example, in August 2018, the TTP claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the southwestern city of Quetta that killed at least 31 people, including several Chinese nationals. The attack was aimed at a bus carrying Chinese engineers working on the Saindak copper-gold mine project.
In November 2018, Lashkar-e-Islam also claimed responsibility for a bombing near the Dera Ismail Khan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which killed at least 31 people, including several Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydropower project.
These attacks highlight the grave security risks faced by Chinese workers and investments in Pakistan. Islamic militant groups in the region are known for their ability to carry out sophisticated attacks on high-profile targets, and they are likely to continue targeting Chinese interests in the region, including the Diamer-Bhasha Dam project. In conclusion, the fire at the Chinese company's residential camps in northwestern Pakistan raises concerns about the security of Chinese interests in the country, particularly given the history of attacks on Chinese assets in Pakistan. The incident highlights the need for increased security measures to protect Chinese workers and assets in Pakistan, and it may impact China's investments in the country, as well as Pakistan's security calculus and Pak-China strategic landscape.