Tag Archives: East Turkistan Islamic Movement

China’s Domestic Counterterrorism May Fail Against Global Jihadis

‘RESTIVE’ IS THE adjective favoured in the popular prints to qualify Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping’s call for the far western autonomous region to be surrounded by a ‘great wall of iron’ suggests the presence of a greater threat.

As does Cheng Guoping, state commissioner for counterterrorism and security.

He says that the Uighur separatists that comprise the East Turkestan Independence Movement are the China’s ‘most prominent challenge to social stability economic development and national security’.

Xi and Cheng’s comments follow the most recent show of force in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and other cities such as Kashgar, involving some 10,000 paramilitary police with accompanying armoured vehicles and attack helicopters.

China has been fighting a sporadic and low-level civil war with Uighur separatists for decades that on occasion erupts into deadly terrorist attacks across China. These attacks, usually involving a car bomb or knifings, have become more frequent, dispersed and indiscriminate since 2012, though the number, as far as can be determined, is small.

A May 2014 attack in Urumqi killed 43 and wounded 90. The province simmers with unrest as the now minority Muslim population bristles under what it considers to be culturally and religiously repressive government by ethnic Han Chinese.  Yet there is little on the surface to suggest that the local threat level has suddenly escalated to the degree these actions and Xi and Cheng’s comments would imply.

However, Beijing now sees external as well as internal threat. That is challenging its notions of how to deal with ‘terrorists’.

Three recent videos, purportedly made by the Islamic State group and an al-Qaeda affiliate, raise the spectre that China could import the radical Islamic extremism that it has so far avoided. Beijing has long used the bogeyman of radical connections between Xinjiang separatists outside and the Muslim Uighur minority within to exert repressive domestic control.

The 30-minute video that surfaced in February, in particular, gives some weight, at last, to those warnings. It shows Uighurs training in Iran and threatening that blood would ‘flow in rivers’ in China — although also in Russia and the United States.

There are well-documented reports of Uighurs having gone to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to fight for radical Islamic groups. The numbers of Chinese ones — 100-150 on the estimates we have seen — scarcely seem to justify the extraordinary reaction of authorities, although one of the Islamic State videos includes what is thought to be the first instance of Uighur-speakers declaring allegiance to Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate.

One question is whether Beijing’s fears are overblown and its response proportionate; another is whether it can adapt a counterterrorism approach developed in response to domestic concerns to international terrorism.

China, unlike the United States and Russia, has little by way of a military footprint in West Asia thanks to its profession of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. It is not involved in either the US or Russian/Iranian-led actions against Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, the usual prerequisite of Islamic State acts of terror against a country.

A hostage taking and killing in 2015 is the sole known case involving targeting a Chinese citizen, although seven Chinese were among the 20 killed in a bomb attack on Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine and three Chinese citizens were among the 27 who died during an attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, both the same year.

However, China’s growing global footprint and expatriate labour force, and especially the expansion of ‘One Belt, One Road’ across Eurasia, makes it almost inevitable that it would eventually be unable to avoid coming into harm’s way from international jihad.

As we noted recently, China and Afghanistan share a short border through which the forces Beijing so fears could enter the country directly. China border-police controls are keeping it under close surveillance in the event that, as Islamic State loses territory in Syria and Iraq, the group falls back to being an insurgent guerrilla force and its leaders and others of global jihadist movements relocate to Central Asia and Afghanistan, far too close to China for Beijing’s liking.

However, the capacity of Islamic State to coordinate and stage large-scale attacks inside China will be limited. Furthermore, Beijing’s already-fierce repression in Xinjiang and tight censorship everywhere mitigates the caliphate’s strategy of inspiring lone wolves and affiliated terror groups through a radicalising narrative of domestic marginalisation of Muslim minorities.

This has had some success in Europe and the United States, but beyond the difficulty in having the message penetrate the Great Firewall, disaffected Muslim minorities do not exist in China in the widespread urban pockets they do in, say, France, Belgium and Germany.

Hitherto, China has dealt with the threat of domestic terrorism, which it considers one and the same as separatism and extremism, with a three-pronged strategy: enhancing regional economic growth; stronger internal security; and strict controls over ethnic and religious activities. All have been heavily applied in Xinjiang with the additional factor of ethnic Han inward migration.

Beijing’s likely response to the new external threat that it sees to its emerging core national interests will be to crack down even harder on the one place it knows there are a lot of Muslims. Already law regulates and constricts religious practices and public life in Xinjiang, such as growing beards, wearing the veil and fasting during Ramadan — all symbols, the authorities say of “Islamic extremism” (like in the US, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ will quickly become conflated).

Since last year Xinjiang residents who have a passport are required to turn it into local police, to whom they must reapply for its return if they want to travel abroad. There were reports last year of another Muslim minority, Kazakhs living in border districts of Xinjiang, being told to give DNA samples and fingerprints when applying for travel documents. Uighurs who speak in favour of greater political freedoms risk imprisonment.

These measures are likely to be both more tightly enforced and extended, in the name of “maintaining social control” in the resource-rich western marches that give onto the key overland routes through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

However, the One Belt, One Road dimension and the need to protect the growing numbers of Chinese citizens abroad is evolving Beijing’ security interests. Its responses will have to follow suit. It has been exchanging information on Islamic State with the United States, with which it also cooperates on technical matters to counter terrorism such as port security and anti-money laundering.  (Whether and how that will continue with the Trump administration remains to be seen.)

China has also been talking to Pakistan and the Afghan government about ways to promote stability in Afghanistan, and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorism initiative. More controversially, it has also pushed for groups it considers to be terrorist to be added to international and national terrorist watch lists.

Beijing slowly recognises that many of the terrorism challenges that it faces have roots beyond its borders and thus will need it to participate in international counterterrorism efforts. However, its has so far shown that it prefers bilateral attempts to apply its three-pronged strategy with economic, policing and security aid to other countries, but that at best has to be done at arm’s length or get China involved in the internal affairs of countries in ways that run counter to its non-interference doctrine.

As it tries to figure that out, its instinctive reaction will still be to over-react at home by doing more of what it knows how.

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Bangkok Bomb’s Possible Uighur Connection Presages New Crackdown

SUSPICION, IF SCANT hard evidence, is growing that there is a Chinese Uighur connection to the bombing of the Erawan shrine in the Thai capital Bangkok last month.

Thai police say that an alleged accomplice to the still-fugitive bomber had in his possession when captured near the Cambodian border a Chinese passport identifying him as Yusufu Mieraili, born in Xinjiang, home to China’s Turkic Muslim Uighur minority. Unnamed Chinese officials have declared to state media that Mieraili is a member of the Muslim separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Thai authorities said at the weekend that they had issued a warrant for the arrest of the suspected organiser of the plot, whom they named as Abudusataer Abudureheman, a 27-year-old from Xinjiang. He is reported to have fled Thailand.

Muddying the picture is reports of Malaysian police arresting three people suspected of helping the bombers leave Thailand. They are two Malaysians and a Pakistani.

Authorities in Beijing are known to be watching the case closely. If, as it is being suggested, the bombing was retaliation for Thailand’s repatriation to China in July of 100 Uighurs, then it would provide Beijing with vindication — at last — for its long-standing claim that the ETIM is an international terrorist threat.

The group, which Washington, at Beijing’s urging, also put on its list of foreign terrorist organizations post-9/11 but now seems to have quietly dropped, wants an independent East Turkistan state stretching from Xinjiang somewhat indeterminately westwards. Most of the 8 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, but the diaspora spreads to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and a lesser extent beyond.

East Turkistan has had two brief periods as an independent state. Mao’s revolution put an end to that. In 1955, it was declared to be China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Uighur militants have been fighting a low-key war with Beijing for years. More recently, particularly since late 2013, they have been able to extend attacks beyond Xinjiang, despite a hardening security crackdown on Uighurs in the region. The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which may be a splinter cell from ETIM or the ETIM in another incarnation, claimed responsibility for fatal attacks in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and notably Kunming, where 33 people, including four of eight knife-wielding attackers, died at the railway station. In Urumqi, a car bomb killed 42 people including all four attackers, all believed to be Uighurs.

However, the opaque and obscure ETIM, which was first heard of around 1997, has scarcely shown the capacity to operate across international borders with any consistency, if at all. One of its founders, who moved the organization in the late 1990s from Xinjiang to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was reportedly killed shortly after in a U.S. drone strike against al-Qaeda bases; another languishes in a Chinese jail.

Its current leader is reputedly Abdullah Mansour, although little is known about him or the rest of the leadership. Mansour told the Reuters news agency last year that it was his Islamic duty to fight China. However, it seems more focused on the Middle East than the Middle Kingdom. A ‘Turkistan brigade’ of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, is reportedly in Syria alongside al-Qaeda aligned forces, supported by militant Uighurs in Turkey.

It is nigh impossible to know the strength of the ETIM though it probably numbers in the low hundreds. Reuters news agency quoted Pakistan intelligence sources as putting the number at 400. More than 20 Uighurs captured by the U.S. in 2001 in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban were held for several years in Guantanamo Bay. Once released, they were not repatriated to China by the United States. Pakistan, however, has been readier to hand over captured Uighurs to Beijing.

As in other parts of the western Marches, minorities have long complained of the Han colonisation of the regions in which they have traditionally lived, a suppression of their religions and cultures, and a worsening of their economic prospects compared to the newcomers. Shortly after the revolution, in 1953, three-quarters of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were Uighur. In the latest published census (2000) they accounted for barely two-fifths. Beijing says its sole intention is to promote economic development.

If indeed the Bangkok attack is Uighur-related, Beijing is likely grab with both hands the opportunity to jump on any signs of separatism in Xinjiang regardless of whether the ultimate instigators of the Bangkok bombing were the ETIM or sympathizers in Xinjiang or Turkey.

Separatism is a prime fear of Beijing’s and provokes well-armed counterterrorism measures whenever it is perceived. Stability in Xinjiang is a particular concern. The region is not only mineral- and energy-rich, but it is also a critical corridor through which the One Belt (New Silk Road) of the One Belt One Road project passes.

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