Afghanistan busted Chinese spy ring, kept it a secret. NDS chief explains why
NDS chief Ahmad Zia Saraj told the Afghan parliament on Tuesday that a group of Chinese nationals had been arrested for espionage.
Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security which had busted a Chinese spy ring last month but kept the case a closely-guarded secret has, for the first time, confirmed that the security agency did detain Chinese nationals for espionage.
As first reported by Hindustan Times, the NDS had detained 10 Chinese nationals for espionage. At least 2 of the 10 spies were learnt to have been in touch with the Haqqani Network, the terrorist group backed by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence that is blamed for many bloody attacks and doubles as the sword arm of the Taliban.
The NDS had initially declined comment on the detentions to the media in Afghanistan.
The official confirmation about the Chinese spy ring came on Tuesday after members of Wolesi Jirga, the Afghan House of Representatives, demanded answers on the Hindustan Times report from the National Directorate of Security boss Ahmad Zia Saraj.
Ahmad Zia Saraj confirmed that a group of Chinese nationals had been arrested on charges of espionage in Kabul, according to Afghanistan private news channel Ariana News. But he declined to give any more details.
“Yes, a group of Chinese has been arrested but due to it being a sensitive issue, I cannot share details,” the NDS chief told the lawmakers, according to the news channel.
The official confirmation, however, comes after Afghanistan came under pressure from President Xi Jinping’s government in Beijing and allowed the 10 Chinese nationals to leave the country. The 10 were flown out of Afghanistan on Saturday in a special aircraft arranged by the Chinese authorities.
Diplomats and security officials in Afghanistan believe that the 10 were linked to the Chinese intelligence agency, Ministry of State Security.
President Ashraf Ghani was briefed about the detentions right in the beginning in view of the sensitivities involved. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former NDS chief who is credited with rebuilding the intelligence agency, was tasked to oversee the investigation and engage the Chinese.
Amrullah Saleh, who met the Chinese envoy to Kabul, Wang Yu, in this context, had initially conditioned their release on an official apology from Beijing.
The terms of the arrangement between the two countries are not known.
A diplomat in Kabul said President Ashraf Ghani may have been keen to wrap up the case as soon as possible, before it lands in a position where Beijing’s adversaries such as the US use the case to fire at China from his shoulders.
There was a view within the Afghan government that the 10-member Chinese module may have been attempting to create a fake East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) module in Afghanistan to entrap ETIM operatives in Afghanistan.
ETIM is a small Islamic separatist group alleged to be active in Xinjiang province, home to China’s ethnic minority Uighur Muslims. The United States last month revoked the terror tag slapped on ETIM although the group continues to be designated by the UN Security Council. Rights groups say China uses the ETIM threat as an excuse to impose restrictions on Uyghurs and discredit human rights activists outside China.
Chinese officials, however, suggest that Beijing was concerned that Afghanistan, which shares borders with the volatile Xinjiang province, could become a breeding ground for Uyghur Muslim militants.