By Sajjan M. Gohel for CTC –
On October 28, 2013, a new phase of terrorist violence emerged in China. On that day a man drove a jeep packed with explosives and carrying his wife and mother into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, in the country’s capital Beijing. Two civilians were killed in the incident along with the driver and the two other passengers, the latter of whom were all ethnic Uighurs from China’s western province of Xinjiang. Following the attack, Abdullah Mansour, the leader of the Pakistan-based and Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a propaganda video praising the plotters and warned of future attacks.
The attack carried enormous symbolic significance as it took place meters from the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong that hangs outside the main entrance to the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. On the west side of the square stands the Great Hall of the People, where a meeting of the plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party was planned.
Chinese authorities believe that since 1990 there have been “six stages” of terrorism in Xinjiang and that over this time period the TIP’s capabilities, to include its tactics, target selection, geographic reach, and international connections, have evolved and grown, as has the danger it poses in the country. It is the opinion of the author that this Tiananmen Square attack served as the initiation of the “seventh stage” of Uighur-linked terrorism, a stage that will now include attacks outside the traditional area of Xinjiang.
This article explores recent trends in Uighur-linked militancy and terrorism. It specifically assesses the security threats on China’s critical national infrastructure, primarily its railways, that emerged in 2013 and 2014 and how the violence that had previously been contained in Xinjiang has started to spread across the country. The article will also assess the evolution of the TIP and its media, and the role a small number of radicalized Uighurs have played in plotting terror attacks outside China and taking part in global theaters of conflict.
The term ‘Uighur’ refers to the Turkic, predominantly Muslim people who are concentrated in Xinjiang, which is China’s largest administrative region. Uighurs constitute 45% of the region’s population whereas 40% are Han Chinese.
Under the chairmanship of Mao Zedong, China revived the term ‘Uighur’ as part of a broader initiative to manage ethnic tensions. Under Beijing’s policies, minority ethnicities received special recognition and limited discretion in governing specifically designated autonomous areas. This was intended to encourage them to support the Chinese state in the future.
For the Uighurs, however, China’s minority policy ironically created a sense of shared identity in a historically divided people. Xinjiang has rarely constituted a unified political entity but instead has been a collection of rural oases separated by mountains, clan conflicts, and clashes between farmers and nomadic herders.
Kashgar – A Front Line for Conflict
Kashgar is the birthplace of the short-lived Islamic state of Turkestan, led by Islamic scholar Sabit Damolla in 1933, and the cultural center of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, as well as the stronghold of the Uighur anti-state resistance activity. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, returning Uighurs from Kashgar who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan were emboldened by the Soviets’ departure and believed that they could also weaken Communist rule in China through violence. These issues came to a head in April 1990 when a violent and bloody uprising started in Baren, a township in Aktu County in close proximity to Kashgar.
Since that time Kashgar has played an important role for a variety of anti-state Uighur militants. For example, Kashgar was the scene of one of the biggest attacks in China when on August 4, 2008, two men crashed a dump truck into a group of police officers before throwing five homemade explosive devices into their barracks. Sixteen policemen were killed and 16 injured in the attack. The incident occurred four days before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. The timing of the attack was strategic and was likely designed to embarrass China on the eve of the much anticipated Olympics.
Kashgar’s significance as a center of gravity for Uighur-linked militancy is reflected in a statement made by Chinese President Xi Jinping this past July, in which he called Kashgar the “front line” for counterterrorism and asked for more local Uighurs to play a role in security operations.
Ironically, perhaps as a sign of the challenge Beijing faces, the next day Jume Tahir, the imam of the historic Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar and a deputy of the National People’s Congress, was stabbed to death just after leading early morning prayers. While the exact motivation for Tahir’s death is not known, one possible explanation suggests that the killing of Tahir served as a warning to other local Uighurs who side with or associate with Beijing that there could be costs attached to maintaining such associations.
Targeting China’s Critical Infrastructure – The Railway Attacks
On March 1, 2014, a Uighur gang of eight knife-wielding attackers targeted commuters at the Kunming Railway Station in Yunnan province killing 31 and injuring 141. The operatives, who were dressed in black, stormed into the railway station and began slashing and stabbing people randomly. This incident illustrated that the October 2013 Tiananmen Square attack was not an isolated incident of terrorism outside Xinjiang. During the Kunming attack, police shot and killed four of the attackers and later apprehended several others. Two of the perpetrators were women. One woman was killed by police, while the other was captured. All of the suspects were Uighurs from Hotan in Xinjiang, although it is not clear what type of organizational connection – if any – they had to TIP.
The decision to target the Yunnan transportation system was certainly significant. China’s rail network is a cornerstone of its economy and Beijing views Yunnan as one of China’s three key bridgeheads (qiaotoubao) into other provinces and nations. The other two bridgeheads are Xinjiang to Central Asia and Heilongjiang to Russia.
Similar to the Tiananmen Square attack, the incident in Kunming was timed just before a major political meeting. China’s leaders at the time were gathering in Beijing for the opening of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPCC) conventions.
There also appears to be some other unique logistical factors that made Kunming an attractive target. For example, Kunming is the closest major city to Yunnan’s border with Laos. Criminal networks have in the past operated out of Boten city in Northern Laos, where there is a casino north of the Laotian immigration and customs post. According to a Laotian official interviewed for this article, Chinese visitors do not have to pass through a Laotian checkpoint to access this city. Given these reportedly weak security measures, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Kunming plotters – just like criminal actors – could have also used Boten city as a safe-sanctuary before the attack.
Several days after the Kunming attack, Mansour, the TIP leader, released a video from his Pakistani base in which he expressed support for the attack saying the “blood of those who are killing themselves is not being spilled for nothing, for their blood will bring tens of more to carry out jihad.” Mansour went on to add that “China is not only our enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims….We have plans for many attacks in China.” What is significant about Mansour’s comments, compared to previous statements, is that in the video he threatens to conduct attacks across China rather than confining them to Xinjiang, as had been the group’s previous narrative.
One month later, in April 2014, the TIP took responsibility for a bomb and knife attack at the South Railway Station of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The timing of the attack coincided with a trip Chinese President Xi Jinping made to the province to discuss counterterrorism matters. Similar to the Kunming attack, the TIP terrorists slashed commuters with knives. Unlike that previous attack, however, they also detonated several explosives. Two TIP fighters died in the blasts and one civilian was also killed. Seventy-nine people were injured. All surviving members of the cell that conducted the attack were arrested by the Urumqi police.
On May 6, 2014, there was another stabbing attack at Guangzhou train station by a single perpetrator. The timing of that attack could have been symbolic as the incident occurred just before the K366 train arrived from Kunming, where the first train stabbing attack took place.
Urumqi and the Issue of Communal Violence
Despite the violent incidents across China, Urumqi remains the primary center for terrorism in China. Urumqi holds such a distinction because it is the axis of Xinjiang’s cultural melting pot where Uighurs and Han Chinese live and work side-by-side. Due to this mix, there is a perennial fear in Urumqi of ethnic tensions spilling over violently into broader communal conflict, potentially provoked by attacks that aim to ignite such violence. On July 5, 2009, violent riots erupted in Urumqi which caused the deaths of 184 people and seriously injured more than 1,000. According to press reports, Uighur rioters attacked Han Chinese businesses and people on the streets. Significant numbers of Urumqi’s Han population then took to the streets in retaliation. While ethnic tensions eventually receded, they remained an issue in the ensuing months.
The Urumqi riots attracted international attention and became a propaganda battle between the TIP and separatists led by World Uighur Congress (WUC) president Rebiya Kadeer. Kadeer’s reputation as a moderate leader of the WUC was tainted during the Urumqi riots when she appeared on international news channels holding a large photograph that she claimed was evidence of a harsh police crackdown on the Uighur protestors. However, it later emerged that the photograph was taken by Nanfang Weekly at another unrelated protest in Shishou, Hubei province on June 26, 2009.
Rabiya’s misrepresentation of events provided the TIP with an opportunity to seize the narrative and call for broader violence. In the words of then-TIP leader, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, “[The Chinese] must be targeted both at home and abroad. Their embassies, consulates, centers, and gathering places should be targeted. Their men should be killed and captured to seek the release of our brothers who are jailed in Eastern Turkistan.”
Al-Turkistani’s ominous warning has manifested itself several times since then but perhaps most violently on May 22, 2014, when Uighur terrorists driving two vehicles crashed past barriers and rammed down shoppers while setting off explosives at a bustling outdoor street market in Urumqi. The cars then crashed head-on and exploded. At least 39 people died in the incident. The death toll from this act of violence was the highest in Xinjiang since 2009.
The TIP and its Media
The TIP has approximately 300–500 fighters in Pakistan and also a network in Turkey and Central Asia. The TIP claims to be the successor organization to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which had been led by Hasan Mahsum, an Uighur militant who had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was part of the Baren Riots. The ETIM agenda, which has been continued by the TIP, has been to forcibly separate Xinjiang from China and to create an independent Islamic state called East Turkestan. Although the ETIM has never formally declared a change in name, the TIP is believed to be a continuation of ETIM after the coherency of the latter group faded in the early 2000s.
Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, a former leader of ETIM and TIP fighters, was killed in a February 2010 drone strike operation in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Abdullah Mansour subsequently took over the TIP leadership. Despite the removal of several of TIP’s leaders, the group has still been able to regenerate and foment broader violence in China.
Al-Turkistani formed and developed the TIP’s media wing, Islom Awazi (Voice of Islam). Since 2012, the TIP has also co-issued videos with the media wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jund Allah Studios. In 2008 the TIP also began publishing a quarterly Arabic-language publication called “Islamic Turkistan,” a product designed to reach a broader audience in the Muslim world. In 2013, Abu Zar al-Burmi, the spiritual leader of the IMU, promised the Uighur militants that China will replace the United States as the “number one enemy.”
The influence of TIP’s propaganda machinery appears to have Chinese authorities concerned. For example, on June 20, 2014, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcaster, released a 24-minute documentary on the connection between online terrorist propaganda and training videos and terrorist attacks within China. The video included footage from a number of terrorist attacks within China, including in Tiananmen Square, the Kunming railway, and the Urumqi market.
The documentary claims that the number of videos posted online by the TIP has sharply risen over the last few years and that the increase in online material is directly connected with the escalation of attacks executed inside China. The documentary also emphasized the international dimension of the problem, noting that much of the TIP propaganda is located on servers outside of China. Indeed, the TIP shows no signs of inhibiting its new media profile.
Involvement of Radicalized Uighurs in Other Conflicts
In an August 2012 video, a Turkish TIP militant issued a video statement explicitly warning of attacks in China’s major cities, illustrating that the TIP’s agenda was no longer just locally-oriented. The militant, ‘Nururddin Mehmet’, boasted in the video that “Islamist flags will soon be raised at the White House and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.” In May 2013, Mehmet carried out an attack against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The TIP posted a video of his attack.
Radicalized Uighurs have begun to take part in terrorist-related activity beyond the confines of China. For example, on January 30, 2012, a Norwegian court convicted Mikael Davud, a Norwegian Uighur, for planning to attack the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten because it printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Davud was sentenced to jail for seven years. The judge in the case said that Davud had planned the attack together with al-Qa’ida, as representatives of the group trained him in the use of explosives at a camp in Pakistan. Davud admitted he was planning to attack Chinese interests in Norway.
History has also illustrated that networks of fighters forged together in conflicts abroad often do not remain silent in the years to come, and the potential of blowback from the conflict in Syria will be an ever-growing concern for China, just like there has been blowback from conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On September 3, 2014, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense revealed that the Iraqi Army captured a Chinese Uighur who was fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Subsequently, it emerged that four Uighurs were arrested on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi where they were intending to link up with the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT). MIT’s leader, Santoso, has reportedly sworn allegiance to ISIL. It is yet to be established if the Uighurs had been sent by ISIL leaders to Indonesia, but this issue does show the broadening of the Uighur jihadist movement.
Uighur extremism is no longer confined to Xinjiang alone. It has now become a nationwide Chinese problem following the terrorist attacks that took place in the country in 2013 and 2014. These attacks are symptomatic of new trends in Uighur militancy. Three targeting trends in particular stand out. First, Uighur militants have recently illustrated a preference for attacking soft, symbolic civilian targets where security is minimal, lax or non-existent. Second, the attacks are designed to cause maximum panic in an area with large crowds of people. Third, targeting of commercial and logistical facilities illustrates that groups like TIP want to damage, destabilize, and paralyze China’s economy. Taken together, all of these trends aim to undermine the confidence people have in the Chinese government and its ability to keep its people safe.
One of Beijing’s problems has been its inability to successfully articulate to the West the problem and threat of terrorism it faces. The reality is that there is an active Uighur terrorist movement that has developed an ideological agenda that is not dissimilar to that espoused by al-Qa’ida, and that has the ability for small cells to conduct operations throughout China. In order for the West to meaningfully engage Beijing on counter-terrorism issues, it must understand the TIP’s capabilities and intentions, as well as the growing international dynamic of independent Uighur fighters travelling abroad for conflict.
To tackle this problem Beijing needs to step up pressure on the Pakistani military to play a more active role in rooting out TIP and other Uighur terrorists training within its borders. Such concerns will also be foremost on Beijing’s mind after U.S. and NATO troops transition from Afghanistan. If China is not successful in pressuring Pakistan to act there is a danger that the TIP could possibly refit and expand its training and operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which could lead to a new wave of attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.
Dr. Sajjan M. Gohel is International Security Director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation (APF), an independent security and intelligence think-tank based in London. Sajjan is also a visiting lecturer and teacher at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) and serves as the Senior Advisor to the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group, (CTWG). The CTWG is a collaborative research project investigating current trans-national security threats and is comprised of members from over 30 countries and multilateral organizations such as NATO and the OSCE. Jonathan Kaiman, “Islamist Group Claims Responsibility for Attack on China’s Tiananmen Square,” The Guardian, November 25, 2013; “China Sentences Three to Death for Tiananmen Square Attack,” Reuters, June 16, 2014; Police found gasoline, two knives, steel sticks, and a white flag in the vehicle which drew a striking similarity to the one the Taliban used in Afghanistan inscribed with the shahada in black.  “TIP Leader Speaks on Suicide Attack at Tiananmen Square,” Site Monitoring Service, January 15, 2014. For additional background on the organizational evolution of the TIP and its precursor groups see below.  Zhongnanhai, the red-walled leadership compound where the party elite live and work, was also very close to the location of the attack.  Personal interview, official from the Ministry of Public Security, March 28, 2011; Overview of the Stages: Stage 1: Creating an Atmosphere of Terror – On April 5, 1990, violent protests erupted in Baren, a township in Aktu County; Stage 2: Explosive Attacks – February 28, 1991, an explosion at a bus station in Kuqa County, Aksu Prefecture, killing one person; Stage 3: Assassinations – August 24, 1993, two men stabbed and injured Abliz Damolla, an executive committee member of the CPPCC Yecheng County Committee in Kashi Prefecture and imam of the Great Mosque; Stage 4: Attacks on Police and Government Institutions – August 27, 1996, six drove to the office building of the Jangilas Township People’s Government, Yecheng County, where they killed a local administrator and a policeman; Stage 5: Organizing Disturbances and Riots – From February 5 to 8, 1997, rioters calling for a caliphate attacked people and destroyed stores and burned and damaged cars and buses in Yining, Ili Kazakh Prefecture. Seven people were killed, more than 200 people were injured; Stage 6: Poison Attacks – From January 30 to February 18, 1998, Uighur terrorists conducted 23 poisoning cases in Kashgar resulting in one fatality, and four others suffering ill-effects. For a more detailed breakdown of the stages see Justin V. Hastings, “Charting the Course of Uyghur Unrest,” China Quarterly, Volume 208, December 2011, pp. 893-912.  “Xinjiang Profile,” BBC, May 22,2014..  James Millward and Peter Purdue, “Political and Cultural History of the Xinjiang Region through the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland, ed. S. Frederick Starr (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), pp. 27-62.  Ibid.  James A. Millward and Najiban Tursan, “Political History and Strategies of Control, 1884-1978,” in Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland, ed. S. Frederick Starr (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), pp. 76-78; Because of its geographical location and historical role as a trade and cultural nexus, Kashgar is also a target for drug traffickers coming in through the Karakoram Highway. Kashgar is a crucial part of China’s vision for a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that will link China to Central Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, as well as the Middle East. Kashgar is also supposed to be the Chinese hub for the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  J. Todd Reed and Diana Raschke, The ETIM: China’s Islamic Militants and the Global Terrorist Threat (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), pp.42-43.  Ibid, p.47.  Peter Foster and Richard Spencer, “Beijing Olympics: Security Stepped Up After Terror Attack Kills 16 Chinese Policemen,” Daily Telegraph, August 4, 2008.  Shannon Tiezzi, “Counterterrorism, Ethnic Unity the Focus as Xi Visits Xinjiang,” The Diplomat, April 29, 2014.  “Imam of China’s Largest Mosque Killed in Xinjiang,” BBC, June 31, 2014; Jume Tahir’s predecessor, Arunhan Aji, was a target for a failed assassination attempt on May 12, 1996, suffering multiple stab wounds.  “Four Sentenced in China over Kunming Station Attack,” BBC, September 12, 2014.  The Kunming attackers had in their possession a flag similar to the one that the Tiananmen Square plotters had used which also illustrated their agenda had political and ideological motivations. See Jacob Zenn, “Terrorist Attack in Kunming Reveals Complex Relationship with International Jihad,” China Brief, 14: 5 (2014).  Mimi Lau and Mandy Zuo, “Police Name Kunming Massacre Mastermind as Three Suspected Attackers are Arrested,” South China Morning Post, March 6, 2014.  Xiaobo Su, “From Frontier to Bridgehead: Cross-border Regions and the Experience of Yunnan, China,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37:4 (2013), pp. 1213–1232.  Ibid.  Nicholas Dynon, “Kunming: A New Phase of Terrorism in China,” The Diplomat, March 5, 2014.  Personal interview, official from the Laos Ministry of Public Security, October 30, 2014.  “China Says Uighur Militant’s Support of Knife Attack Proves Terror,” Reuters, March 19, 2014.  Saud Mehsud and Maria Golovnina, “From his Pakistan Hideout, Uighur Leader Vows Revenge on China,” Reuters, March 14, 2014; “TIP Commanders Speak on Kunming Knife Attack,” Site Monitoring Service, March 18, 2014.  “TIP Claims Urumqi Bombing, Video Shows Briefcase Bomb,” Site Monitoring Service, May 13, 2014.  Ben Blanchard, “China Says Three Killed in Attack at Xinjiang Train Station,” Reuters, April 30, 2014.  Blanchard; Stephen Chen, “Seven Arrested in Xinjiang Over Deadly Attack May 1 at Urumqi Train Station,” South China Morning Post, May 18, 2014; Sui-Lee Wee, “Chinese Police Blame Separatist Group for Urumqi Bombing,” Reuters, May 18, 2014.  Ibid.  Charles Liu, “Knife Attack at Guangzhou Train Station Injures Six People,” The Nanfang Insider, May 6, 2014; Tania Branigan and Jonathan Kaiman, “Chinese Police Arrest Man after Six Injured in Train Station Knife Attack,” The Guardian, May 6, 2014; Jacob Zenn, “Beijing, Kunming, Urumqi and Guangzhou: The Changing Landscape of Anti-Chinese Jihadists,” China Brief, 14:10 (2014).  Yan Hao, Geng Ruibin, and Yuan Ye, “Xinjiang Riot Hits Regional Anti-Terror Nerve,” Xinhua, July 18, 2009.  Tania Branigan, “China Locks Down Western Province after Ethnic Riots Kill 140,” The Guardian, July 6, 2009.  Ibid.  Cui Jia, “Using Wrong Photo, Kadeer Pleads Case,” China Daily, July 10, 2009.  Jia; Shishou, Hubei province is some 3,330 km away from Urumqi.  “Militant Urges Targeting China over Uighurs,” Reuters, August 1, 2009.  Andrew Jacobs, “Suspects in China Market Attack Are Identified,” New York Times, May 25, 2014.  Jacob Zenn, “Beijing, Kunming, Urumqi and Guangzhou: The Changing Landscape of Anti-Chinese Jihadists.”  Reed and Raschke, p.46.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Jacob Zenn, “China is Not Used to Dealing with Attacks of the Magnitude it is Witnessing in 2013 and 2014,” Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, February 5, 2014.  Abu Zar al-Burmi, “To the Muslims of Turkistan: We Have To Prove Islam Is In Our Hearts,” Islom Awazi, July 10, 2013.  “China releases Xinjiang terrorists video,” YouTube, June 24, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IByWrxkMOmI;
“China releases footage of terrorist attacks,” YouTube, June 24, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-u0KEO2zvYw#t=14. Ibid.  Ibid.  Lucy Hornby, “Xinjiang Leader Says Online Videos Spark China Separatist Attacks,” Financial Times, June 6, 2014.  “Advice to Our Muslim Brothers in East Turkistan,” Islom Awazi, August 2012; On August 24, 2014, Chinese authorities revealed that three of the “masterminds” of the Tiananmen Square attack had been executed as part of President Xi Jinping’s strategy to create a “wall of bronze and iron” to fight against terrorism.  Jacob Zenn, “On the Eve of 2014: Islamism in Central Asia”, Hudson Institute, June 24, 2013.  “TIP Video Shows Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan, Promotes Jihad,” Site Monitoring Service, May 25, 2013.  “Norway Jails Two for Danish Newspaper Terror Plot,” BBC, January 30, 2012; Lars Akerhaug , Bjørnar Tommelstad, and Tor-Erling Thømt Ruud, “Slik var e-post-kontakten med al-Qaida,” Verdens Gang, January 30, 2012.  See above the example of Uighur suicide bomber Nuruddin Mehmet in Afghanistan.  Jaime A. FlorCruz, “Capture of Chinese National Fighting with ISIS Gives China Jitters,” CNN, September 5, 2014.  Zachary Abuza, “Uyghurs Look to Indonesia for Terror Guidance,” Asia Times, October 10, 2014.  Personal interview, Dr Kirsten E. Schulze, September 17, 2014; See also Evan Jendruck, “OSINT Summary: Indonesian Militant Islamists Pledge Allegiance to Islamic State,” Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor, July 1, 2014; Rendi A. Witular, “Abu Bakar Ba’asyir Calls on Followers to Support ISIL,” The Jakarta Post, July 14 2014.
Source: Combating Terrorism Center