Chinese authorities conducted mass parades of thousands of security personnel and military equipment in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on February 16 and 17.
The parades, conducted in the major southern cities of Kashgar and Khotan, as well as the provincial capital, Ürümqi, were described by state media as anti-terrorism “oath-taking rallies.” Chinese Communist Party deputy secretary Zhu Halian asserted that the rallies demonstrate China’s resolve to use “thunderous power” with “guns by our bodies, knives unsheathed, fists out and hands extended” to “strike hard” at Uyghur terrorists throughout the region.
The rallies follow a wave of terrorist attacks in the region over the past year and mounting evidence of Uyghur militant involvement, not only in historical hotspots such as Afghanistan and Central Asia, but also Syria and Iraq.
Illustrative of the extent of this latter dynamic have been three developments over the past year.
First, on August 30, 2016, a Uyghur suicide bomber with links to Syria drove a Mitsubishi Delica multi-purpose van packed with explosives into the security gates of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Second, the gunman responsible for the New Year’s Eve 2016 Istanbul nightclub attack was identified by Turkish authorities as an ethnic Uyghur with links to jihadist groups in Syria. Finally, on February 27, Islamic State militants released a slickly produced propaganda video detailing for the first time “scenes from the life of immigrants from East Turkistan [Xinjiang] in the land of the Caliphate.”
These events suggest that China’s long-standing problem with Uyghur terrorism is metastasizing beyond the confines of its restive far northwestern province of Xinjiang.
Some see this as an inevitable byproduct of China’s growing presence in regions long beset by terrorism. A Global Times editorial following the embassy attack in Kyrgyzstan simply noted that as “China has become a major power” it is increasingly likely that “China will get dragged into international disputes” and become a terrorist target.
Yet this ignores the role that China’s own policies—both within Xinjiang and in Central Asia and the Middle East—have played in stimulating the threat of terrorism to China’s interests.
Within Xinjiang, China has pursued a muscular strategy of integration defined by tight political, social and cultural control, which includes Han Chinese domination of the regional government, regulation of religion and outright suppression of dissent, and encouragement of Han Chinese settlement. This agenda has been underpinned over the past two decades by a state-led economic modernization program aimed at making Xinjiang a major hub of trans-Eurasian economic connectivity.
Although yielding economic development, this strategy has also stimulated sometimes violent opposition from the Uyghur population who bridle against demographic dilution, political marginalization and continued state interference in the practice of religion. These factors have also played a role in motivating large numbers of Uyghurs to migrate in recent times, either legally or illegally, from China.
Externally, the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led “war on terror” also enabled Beijing to link incidents of Uyghur opposition and antistate violence to the Al Qaeda jihadism.
This tactic was successful with the United Nations recognizing the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM)—a group Beijing claimed was “supported and funded” by Osama bin Laden—as an “international terrorist organization” in 2002. While ETIM did have a presence in Afghanistan from the late 1990s onward, its connection with Al Qaeda until the events of 9/11 was limited.
After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, however, the group shifted its base operations into Waziristan where its leader, Hasan Mahsum, was killed during a Pakistani military operation. And it was in this post-9/11 “Af-Pak” context that links with Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers were consolidated. Here, the “Turkestan Islamic Party” (TIP) emerged as a successor organization to ETIM in 2005, aligned with Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Taliban.
Significantly, as TIP’s leader, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, became part of Al Qaeda’s majlis al-shura, or leadership committee, the group’s propaganda became more sophisticated. It began releasing videos on YouTube threatening the 2008 Beijing Olympics and publishing an online magazine in Arabic rather than Uyghur.
Since its emergence, Chinese authorities have blamed TIP for numerous attacks, including the October 28, 2013, SUV attack in Tiananmen Square, the March 1, 2014, attack at Kunming Railway Station, and a September 18, 2015, attack on a coal mine near Aksu.
The increasing capacity of TIP to undertake such attacks may be correlated to its shift from the “Af-Pak” region to the wider Middle East, particularly with the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. As Al Qaeda became active in Syria with the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra as its affiliate in January 2012, TIP also began to release videos about the Syrian conflict and articles in its magazine.
While there is little verifiable information available on the number of TIP militants fighting in Syria, it would appear to be a significant presence numbering in the hundreds. This assessment is informed by viewing the group’s propaganda about its exploits on the battlefield in Syria. These have included the posting of videos that showcase suicide bombings and the group’s significant combat role in battles in Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur and on the Al-Ghab plain. The videos often contain Arabic and English subtitles.
Notably, TIP has remained steadfastly aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra and its successor, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. TIP’s leadership, in fact, released statements in 2016 that strongly condemned ISIS activities and depicted them as “illegitimate.”
Unsurprisingly, given the connections between ETIM and TIP with developments in the Af-Pak region, China’s approach has shifted after remaining aloof about conflict in the country for most of the 2000s. The increased activities of Uyghur militants have encouraged China to reconsider the utility of what Andrew Small has termed the partial “outsourcing” of its security interests to International Security Assistance Force presence in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military.
With respect to Afghanistan, Beijing coupled its attempts to mediate a political agreement between the Taliban and Kabul with greater direct bilateral engagement. Thus, Beijing assisted Kabul in securing the country’s observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and also agreed to a “strategic partnership” agreement in June 2012, part of which was to focus on joint action against “terrorism, separatism and extremism as well as transboundary crimes.” This was followed by the unprecedented visit of Zhou Yongkang, Beijing’s former security czar, to the Afghan capital in September 2012.
More recently, in August 2016, People’s Liberation Army Gen. Fang Fenghui, led discussions with counterparts from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. The discussions focused on developing a “quadrilateral” counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation mechanism.
China has also sought to balance this deeper Afghan engagement with its “all weather” relationship with Pakistan. Historically, Beijing has leveraged its deep ties with Islamabad to combat and deter Uyghur militants from striking Chinese interests in Pakistan or Xinjiang itself.
China’s increasing engagement with Kabul—based on its preeminent concern to ensure the country’s “stability” lest it become a haven for Uyghur militancy—has contrasted with that of an Islamabad that “has been keener to see a level of consistent instability in Afghanistan than a settled government under Indian influence.” Under Chinese pressure, Pakistan more actively sought to combat the presence of Uyghur militants in the tribal areas with Pakistani minister of defence Khawaja Asif asserting in October 2015 that Uyghur militants had been successfully eliminated from the country.
Beijing’s prioritization of the security of its own interests in the region has been underscored by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is a 3,000 kilometer, $46 billion initiative to develop a network of roads, railways and pipelines to connect the deep-water port of Gwadar with Kashgar. CPEC serves two key goals for China: it secures stability along the country’s western frontiers through the provision of economic development and serves as a geopolitical “safety valve” to combat perceived encirclement by the United States and its allies in maritime Asia. Islamabad, desperate to secure Chinese investment, has established a special 15,000-strong CPEC “special security division” to protect Chinese workers and projects.
Beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, Turkey’s long-standing sympathy for the cause of Uyghurs has combined since 2011 with the geopolitical dynamics of the Syrian crisis to produce major issues for Beijing. For example, media reporting from the Middle East have asserted that Turkey has supplied fake Turkish passports to ISIS and other jihadist groups to facilitate recruitment of militants.
Evidence has emerged that Uyghur recruits have been supplied with forged Turkish documents and directed to seek the assistance of Turkish embassies if apprehended in Southeast Asia. Chinese authorities also reported the arrest of a human smuggling ring comprised of ten Turkish citizens and several Uyghurs in Shanghai in January 2015.
This, in combination with the involvement of TIP in Syria, has prompted Beijing to begin to modify what has been a largely “hands off” approach to the Syrian crisis. Most notably, on August 14, 2016, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Adm. Guan Youfei (director of China’s Office for International Military Cooperation of the Central Military Commission) visited Damascus where he attended meetings with senior Syrian and Russian military officials, including Syrian minister of defence Fahad Jassim al-Freij, to discuss increased military cooperation, including intelligence sharing.