Tag Archives: terrorism

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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16 Police Killed In ‘Suspected Terror Raid’

Eighty miles from the point where Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgystan and China meet is about as far as you can get from Beijing. But Kashi, or Kashgar as it is also known, in the west of Xinjiang, is where the terrorist threat to the Olympic games the authorities have repeatedly warned about has materialized.

Two attackers killed 16 police and wounded 16 more on Monday, according to Xinhua. They reportedly drove a truck at a group of 70 police out on a morning jog, lobbed grenades and homemade explosives and attacked with knives. The two attackers, said to be Uighurs in their 20s, have been detained.

They are suspected to have struck in the cause of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or the Turkestan Islam Party, an amorphous organization which claimed responsibility for bombings in Shanghai and Kunming earlier this year, and promised more attacks on the Games. We posted on that last month in “China Probes Beijing Olympics Terror Threat“.

Beijing has been fighting a low-key if heavy handed war against Muslim Uighur separatists for years and has claimed to have foiled in recent months several Olympics-related plots ETIM was said to be planning. The organization has been internationally recognized as a terrorist organization, if somewhat reluctantly by Western nations concerned about China’s treatment of its western minorities.

Kurexi Maihesuti, vice chairman of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, said in Beijing last week that Xinjiang police had uncovered five terrorism groups in the first half of this year, arresting 82 suspected Olympic saboteurs. How much capacity ETIM has to mount a spectacular at or close to an Olympic venue is a moot point, especially with the capital under an intense security lockdown.

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China Probes Beijing Olympics Terror Threat

China says it is investigating a claim by a Uighur separatist group, the Turkestan Islamic Party — better known as the Islamic Party of East Turkestan (ETIM) —  that it was behind several recent attacks, the BBC reports.

The include the May 5 Shanghai bus bombing that killed three, another unspecified Shanghai attack, a tractor-bombing of police in Wenzhou on July 17, a bombing of a Guangzhou plastic factory the same day and the bombings of three buses in Kunming on July 21 that killed at least two that we noted here.

The group has released a video in which Commander Seyfullah said there wold be more to come, according to a transcript from the Washington-based Intel Center:  “Our aim is to target the most critical points related to the Olympics. We will try to attack Chinese central cities severely using the tactics that have never been employed.” Commander Seyfullah said the group would focus on the eight cities that were Olympic venues and might use biological weapons.

ETIM is an ethnic Uighur and Muslim separatist group seeking to create an independent state out of heavily Muslim Xinjiang province. It was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, though somewhat reluctantly and at the lower of its two levels of designation as Washington wants China to recognize the legitimate rights of the Uighur minority.

Authorities have previously denied the explosions were the work of militants but have warned of threats to the Games. We posted about this in March. Earlier this month, officials said they had broken up five terrorist groups in Xinjiang, and that 82 suspected terrorists had been arrested this year for plotting to sabotage the Beijing Games.

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Terrorism Confirmed In China Southern Airplane Incident

As noted on Mar. 9:

No doubt those responsible for the thwarted China Southern airplane attack on Friday will be found by the Chinese authorities to have similar links.

The party-controlled Global Times now says, “This was a well-prepared, meticulously planned, tightly co-ordinated terror attack” and that police are investigating the “terrorist organization backing” the 19-year-old Uighur woman seized after trying to start a fire in a toilet on the China Southern flight.

Mutant Palm has been trying to piece together the twists, turns, rumors and half truths of this confusing tale. Worth a read.

Following the incident, China has tightened its already strict airport security ahead of the Olympic Games. Passengers are now banned from taking any kind of liquid on domestic flights and searches of luggage and passengers are being increased.

Meanwhile, authorities are cracking down on what are said to be the largest protests in Tibet against Chinese rule since 1989. Again, unusually, officials have confirmed that the demonstrations have taken place. There must be purpose to this openness, even if it is far from clear what that purpose is.

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Olympic Terror

It is perhaps no surprise that there should be plots against the Beijing Olympics. It is more surprising that they should become public. China keeps as tight a lid on the appearance of threats of dissidence as it does on the dissidence itself.

State media did report in January 2007 a police raid on a “terrorist training camp” in far western Xinjiang run by a Uighur separtist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, with the death of 18 ETIM members and the capture of 17 others, but there had been no mention until now of any connection with plots on the Olympics. And that only came out following a subsequent raid on January 27 this year in which two were killed and 15 arrested. Even then not much evidence has been presented to support the claim. (Update: Richard Spencer of The Daily Telegraph details how state media have since dial back the Olympics connection.)

China will be unflinching in its response to any challenge to its most important event of the year. Wang Lequan, the Communist Party boss in far western Xinjiang province told Xinhua on Sunday that China would strike first against the “three evil forces” of terrorists, separatists and extremists. Not that it is the first government to see those three as the same.

Beijing has been fighting for years a low-key battle against separatist movements among Xinjiang’s Uighurs, 10 million Turkic-Muslims culturally and ethnically distinct from the country’s Han majority. As in Tibet, iron-fisted rule has largely suppressed violence. No significant bombings or shootings have been reported in almost a decade. Or at least word hasn’t got out if such incidents have occurred.

ETIM was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, though somewhat reluctantly and at the lower of its two levels of designation as Washington wants China to recognize the legitimate rights of the Uighur minority. Some Uighurs have been fighting with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the U.S. is holding 15 Uighurs at its Guantanamo Bay prison. China has sought to have them extradited but Amnesty International has argued they would be safer staying in Guantanamo.

No doubt those responsible for the thwarted China Southern airplane attack on Friday will be found by the Chinese authorities to have similar links.

The Games will be an interesting test of Beijing’s counter-terrorism capabilities. It knows how to do blanket law enforcement and to send in troops, but its intelligence-gathering and analysis is not held to be strong by international standards. And if they are to be used to crack down further on Uighurs and China’s other minorities, they also raise an interesting question about the extent to which the U.S. and the E.U., including their military, should support
security at the games (as the U.S. did with the Athens games in 2004) to protect their citizens and how much they should cooperate with the People’s Liberation Army and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police.

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