Islamist terrorism and extremism in China is a very difficult subject to research. A general sense of paranoia casts a shadow over the it and a great paucity in direct and accurate information means that people often have very little that is empirical or tangible to add.
None of this is to say that the problem does not exist. Recently a video emerged on the forums that by my count is the first to be released that is primarily in Chinese (Mandarin that is, the main Chinese language) – previous videos have been later translated into Chinese, but this is the first one to boast a speaker clearly using Chinese. Others have been released threatening China ahead of the Olympics, anda video from April 2008 showed three Chinese men being executed, most likely somewhere in Waziristan. There have also been a number of half-formed plots, including an attempt to bring down a plane going from Urumqi (a regional capital) to Guangzhou (a regional the capital) using a petrol bomb, a series of bus bombings for whom no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided and aseemingly suicidal attack against security forces in Aksu, Xinjiang in August last year.
In all of these cases, the Chinese authorities blamed what are called East Turkestan groups. East Turkestan refers to what China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is considered by those who call for independence of their province. These people tend to be Uighur, a Turkic minority mostly resident in China that used to be the most populous in that province: Han Chinese migration has completely changed the ethnic demographics of the province. This migration has been accompanied by what is seen locally as a slow erosion of Uighur culture and a general sense that Han China is taking advantage of the province’s considerable natural resources with little benefit to the locals. Uighur’s are a predominantly Muslim minority and some splinters of the al-Qaedaist narrative have managed to find a home amongst the disaffected communities. And these groups are either referred to as, or self-call themselves, East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP).
But whether these attacks are actually carried out by organised groups is very hard to confirm. Some individuals have in the past made connections with al Qaeda and affiliated networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and broader Central Asia. According toCamille Tawil’s recent authoritative book Brothers in Arms, in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 ETIM “pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and stopped all paramilitary activity against China (which the Taliban could ill-afford to upset), as requested.” And the existence of the connection is further confirmed by a quick review of the Chinese listed Wikileak’d Guantanamo detainee files that show a whole series of Uighur men who left China for reasons mostly to do with what they felt was Chinese oppression and ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether they were all connected to terrorist groups is unclear, but certainly the path they took seems to have been a well-trodden one. There are regular reports that the Pakistani government trumpets of “Turkestan” fighters being killed in operations in Waziristan. And last May, interior minister Rehman Malik referred to the back having been “broken” of the “East Turkestan” groups. He was rewarded with substantial contracts and investment from China.
More recently, while the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was undertaking one of its joint counter-terrorism exercises, Chinese minister Meng Hongwei declared that, “signs are the ‘East Turkestan’ terrorists are flowing back.” But while this declaration sounded like it was founded in some sort of direct threat intelligence, nothing has since materialized. This could of course be due to the fact that it is sensitive information and consequently suppressed, but at the same time, Chinese authorities like to trumpet success in counter-terrorism operations.
But now we have had what seems to be a genuine expression of violence in Xinjiang, with the news that a mob of “thugs” attacked a police station in Hotan, one of the few majority Uighur cities left in the province. While this attack does not seem on the scale of the grim July 2009 riots that led to around 200 deaths, reports indicate that at least a handful of people have been killed. So far blame has not been attributed to the East Turkestan groups, but the local information bureauhas already referred to the event as “an organised terrorist attack.”
The East Turkestan groups and the threat from them are also often quoted as one of China’s driving motivations behind engagement with Central/South Asia. But what is interesting is that there is often little evidence of a successful terrorist attack being carried out in China. Consequently, there is a certain amount of skepticism about the size and nature of the threat. Curious, I recently asked a series of high profile researchers and officials what size they considered the threat to be and got broadly similar responses, though very different senses of how dangerous the ETIM/TIP groups are.
One told me that in the past year some 100 had been killed in Afghanistan/Pakistan and that he estimated there were some 1,000 more. Someone affiliated with a research institution linked to the state security ministry played the threat down, declaring that there were some 100/200 people and that the networks had been largely disrupted. The only reason he thought they would be able to make a turn-around was if things in Afghanistan got a lot worse providing the group with a new space to operate in. In a larger conference space I posed the same question to a University academic who had just given a very doom and gloom assessment of security in Central Asia and he guesstimated numbers were in the “hundreds” and that they were very active in the “border regions.” He expressed particular concern about Tajikistan and the porous borders that the nation had as a potential conduit for terrorist networks in the region.
Often, however, the bigger threat that is referred to are groups like Hizb ut- Tahrir, whom are present in Central Asia and apparently amongst the communities of cross-border traders that go back and forth between Xinjiang and the bordering states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One high estimate that was given me was of some 50,000 HuT members in China spread out from Xinjiang all the way down to Sichuan province with people seeing the group as part of a dangerous Islamicization that is taking place in broader Central Asia and consequently in China too. More conservative estimates say there are some 20,000 HuT members in China.
It seems that there is some sort of a terrorist threat to China from violent Islamist networks. But what remains unclear is to what degree this threat is able to conduct any sorts of operations within China or to what degree al Qaeda and affiliate networks are able (or want) to manipulate it for their own ends. Currently, the jihad in China seems more aspirational than operational. At the same time, if events in Hotan are confirmed, it looks like the tinderbox of ethnic friction and disenfranchisement that might offer an outlet for such extremism to latch on to continues to exist.