Does China have itself to blame for the trans-nationalisation of Uyghur terrorism?
On 15 February, three ’knife wielding’ Uyghur ‘terrorists’ attacked a residential compound in Pishan township, Khotan Prefecture, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), killing five people. Immediately after this attack, Chinese authorities conducted mass anti-terrorism ‘oath-taking rallies’ on 16 and 17 February in the regional capital, Urumqi, and the major southern cities of Kashgar and Khotan.
On 27 February the so-called Islamic State (IS) released a propaganda video portraying ‘scenes from the life of immigrants from East Turkistan [Xinjiang] in the land of the Caliphate’. In the film, an Uyghur militant threatened China with ‘rivers of blood’ to avenge its oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang.
The juxtaposition of these three events suggests that Uyghur terrorism is now a trans-national challenge for Beijing. Ironically, this may in fact be a product of China’s own actions with respect to Xinjiang.
Xinjian’s history of autonomy and geopolitical position astride the crossroads of Eurasia has always made Beijing vigilant about Xinjiang’s security and apt to respond with a heavy hand to the sporadic outbursts of anti-state violence and unrest. The region plays a key role in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, making stability in Xinjiang a strategic imperative. President Xi asserted that ‘long term stability of the autonomous region is vital to the whole country’s reform, development and stability, as well as to national unity, ethnic harmony and national security’.
This has resulted not only in China’s focus on combating ‘terrorists’ through the kinetic means on display during February’s anti-terror rallies but also the development of a ‘security state’ in Xinjiang since the July 2009 Urumqi riots. The state’s various apparatuses of political and social control are increasingly penetrating the region’s society, especially through measures to ensure the ‘comprehensive supervision’ of stability’ in Xinjiang. This includes increased police patrols and monitoring of Uyghur neighbourhoods,; installation of China’s ‘Skynet’ electronic surveillance system in major urban areas and installation of GPS trackers in motor vehicles.
The continued centrality of Islam to Uyghur identity has also been identified as a core obstacle to ‘stability’ by the Chinese government. This has resulted in the ‘juridicisation’ of religion whereby the state has more systematically regulated religious practice. The government has promulgated new regulations for monitoring and educating imams and religious institutions, disseminated new guidelines for the identification of potential ‘deviant’ behaviours among believers, implemented restrictions on wearing burqas, niqabs and hijabs and conducted regular campaigns against religious education.
Beijing has also instrumentalised the threat of Uyghur ‘terrorism and extremism’ in its Central Asian foreign policy for decades. China’s ‘stability’ imperative in Xinjiang drove Beijing’s leading role in founding Central Asia’s pre-eminent multilateral organisation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July 2001. Since then, China has embedded a ‘statist multilateralism’ within the SCO based on the shared interests of the six member states in the protection of state sovereignty and regime security. This is reflected in the group’s focus on regular joint military and counter-terrorism exercises, judicial cooperation on extradition of suspected ‘terrorists’ and information sharing.
Post-9/11, China has also consistently blamed two externally-based militant groups — the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) — for attacks in Xinjiang. ETIM had a presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from the late 1990s, but it was only after the US invasion of Afghanistan and the retreat of Al Qaeda and other jihadist fellow-travellers to the ‘Af-Pak’ frontier that it consolidated its links with these groups. TIP emerged as a successor organisation to ETIM in 2005 closely aligned to Al Qaeda, but presented a limited threat to Chinese interests in Xinjiang and the broader region.
But since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis TIP’s capabilities have grown. As Al Qaeda itself developed a presence in Syria from 2012, so too did TIP. TIP now has a well-documented presence on the Syrian battlefield, fighting alongside Al Qaeda’s affiliates.
TIP’s role in fomenting terrorist attacks within Xinjiang remains unclear. But there is evidence linking the group to terrorist attacks elsewhere, such as the suicide attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 30 August 2016 and the 2016 New Year’s Eve Istanbul nightclub attack. The fact that IS has now recruited Uyghurs may also provide TIP and IS-aligned Uyghurs with greater incentives to mount operations against Chinese interests as they compete for both credibility and recruits.
But how can we explain the recruitment of Uyghurs to groups such as TIP or IS based far from Xinjiang? A likely explanation is that the pervasiveness of the ‘security state’ in Xinjiang has provided a ‘push’ factor to a significant number of Uyghurs to leave China (often for Turkey). The dynamics of the Syrian crisis have also contributed an important ‘pull’ factor for a proportion of those fleeing.
Since 9/11 China has claimed that Uyghur militants beyond Xinjiang, and in league with jihadists such as Al Qaeda, have fomented unrest and terrorism in Xinjiang. But it is also the interaction of China’s ‘security state’ within Xinjiang with the much later crisis in Syria that has provided the necessary conditions for the consolidation and development of trans-national links between Uyghur militants and like-minded groups beyond Xinjiang.