During the roughly six months since China suffered its first-ever car bombing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 31, 2013, China has witnessed a series of other terrorist attacks on its territory. Such attacks included a mass stabbing at a train station in Kunming that killed 29 people, a double suicide bombing at a train station in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s capital of Urumqi and a mass stabbing at a train station in Guangzhou that injured six people. The car bombings in Urumqi on May 22 made it all the more clear that the recent attacks in China are part of coordinated militant campaign against China, which is likely organized from outside China and that employs the tactics of jihadists in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One connection between these recent incidents is that they were carried out by Uighurs, members of a Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang. Xi Jinping and his counter-terrorism strategists are faced with the task of identifying the foreign and domestic forces behind these attacks—and around 15 other mass-stabbings and car-rammings in Xinjiang since 2011—and developing a program to counter such violence. The internal network of such militant cells is likely already in place and possibly expanding, which will provide more opportunities for the Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and its closely allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to expand their jihad across the border from Afghanistan and Pakistan into China.
This article analyzes the political nature of the recent attacks in China, with an emphasis on operational connections between the attackers and international jihadist groups like the TIP and IMU.
The TIP’s Spokesman Role
The TIP has approximately 300–500 militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also a network in Turkey and possibly Central Asia (Author’s field research in northwest Pakistan, 2012). With such numbers, it is limited in its capacity to launch an insurgency in China, which has a population of well over one billion people. The only attacks in China for which the TIP showed evidence of its responsibility were the Ramadan-eve car rammings in Kashgar in July 2011, which killed 12 pedestrians. The TIP has also claimed several cart-bombings near Xinjiang’s border with Pakistan in 2012, which were likely carried out by its cells in Xinjiang (See Terrorism Monitor, Volume 10, Issue 8).
The TIP’s main “value added” in Xinjiang is mostly providing training to Uighurs who travel abroad or, likely more importantly, the clandestine distribution of jihadist ideological and training materials in Xinjiang by way of various Uighur, Pakistani or Central Asian traders.
On the international front, the TIP has become an influential promoter and “spokesperson” for Uighur militants in China and issues praise of virtually every violent incident between Uighurs and Chinese police or Han civilians. TIP leader Abdullah Mansour is a relative novice among more experienced international jihadists, but has raised the TIP’s profile among al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Mansour was the editor from 2008 to 2013 of the TIP’s roughly quarterly publication Islamic Turkistan, which laid out Uighur grievances against China and compared Xinjiang to other areas of the world where jihadists are fighting, such as Palestine, Kashmir and, more recently, Syria (On Mansour, see Terrorism Monitor, Volume 9, Issue 11 and Militant Leadership Monitor, February 2014). Mansour’s ascendancy to the TIP’s leadership last year was likely related to his media and marketing skills, which is reflected in the TIP’s continued sophisticated activity on jihadist forums.
Al-Qaeda leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, now usually mention “East Turkistan” among other jihadist battlegrounds, while jihadists in Syria have proudly featured Uighurs and Han converts to Islam among their fighters. Meanwhile, the TIP has praised the “jihadists” in Syria, and responded directly to Chinese accusations that the TIP is sending fighters to Syria with the help of Turkey-based Uighur human rights organizations. In the 12th edition of Islamic Turkistan, for example, the TIP wrote, “If China has the right to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria, we have the full right to support our proud Muslim Syrian people” (Islamic Turkistan, Volume 13, March 2013; Chinese Uighur fighting with FSA,” YouTube, March 29, 2013; “Chinese Man Joins FSA,” YouTube, March 18, 2013; Global Times, October 29, 2012).
IMU: ‘Go After Pakistan’s Mother’
While the TIP is still a relative newcomer to the jihadist scene—having only announced its formation around 2008, despite the presence of Uighur militants in Afghanistan since before 2001—it has benefited from the support of other well-known jihadist leaders. In particular, the emergence of IMU mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi as a prominent anti-Chinese jihadist leader in Pakistan has led to Xinjiang gaining more attention among jihadists. Al-Burmi started gaining prominence around 2011, several years after Xinjiang—which Uighurs who seek independence from China call “East Turkistan”—gained attention in jihadist media after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi. At that time, al-Qaeda affiliates and leaders such as Abu Yahya al-Libi demanded retribution against China and called for attacks on Chinese citizens abroad (China Daily, July 15, 2009). Other al-Qaeda leaders gave occasional talks on Xinjiang (Khalid al-Husaynan, “‘Purpose’ of Jihad,” Sawt al-Islam, May 4, 2013; Abu-Yahya al-Libi, “The Forgotten Wound,” as-Sahab, 2009).
Yet al-Burmi, unlike other al-Qaeda leaders, regularly issues anti-Chinese sermons in Pakistan and, perhaps because of his Burmese background (he is an ethnic Rohingya) seems to hold a personal vendetta against China. He said in a sermon called “A Lost Nation” that “mujahidin should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims” and blamed “Burma, China and Germany and the interests of the United Nations for supporting these massacres and mass killings [of Rohingyas] in Arakan (“A Lost Nation,” a speech for Abu Zar-Azzam, Mufti of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, 2013).”
In a sermon in Ladha, South Waziristan, in September 2013, al-Burmi, declared it obligatory for Muslims to kidnap and kill Chinese people and attack Chinese companies, which Abu Zar says have “conquered” Pakistan like the British East India company did in India (including Abu Zar’s native Burma) in the 1800s (Bab-ul-Islam, in Urdu, April 25). He blames Pakistanis for their “mantra of Pak-China Friendship,” including purchasing “infidel” food and goods from China as if “drinking milk from the Chinese government” and selling the Gwadar Port in Karachi to China (Ibid).
Al-Burmi urges his followers to turn their attention to the “new superpower” and “next number one enemy,” China, now that the Taliban “knocked the wind out” of the United States. This suggests that al-Burmi may see a role for the IMU attacking China or coordinating training of the TIP to attack China after the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. In his Ladha sermon, al-Burmi continues with U.S.-China comparisons: “We should be aware of the fact that while the United States is the father of the Pakistani system and government, China is the mother of the Pakistani government. The Pakistani government drinks its milk from the Chinese government.”
He further claims that “The Pakistani president visits China every four months and goes and bows, kneels and prostrates before those atheists, who do not believe in God, and in return he comes back with aid…. We should all be aware of the fact that there is no border between Pakistan and China…the border that is along the Gilgit-Baltistan region is actually a border with East Turkestan.”
The Homefront: Politicization of Attacks
While the TIP and IMU may be active in promoting jihad from abroad, the key measure of their influence—or that of other jihadists groups—in China is the political nature and style of attacks occurring in China. The section below reviews the most recent major attacks up to the May 22 car-bombing (many details of which are still unclear at the time of publication).
The double-suicide bombing at the railway station in Urumqi occurred on the final day of President Xi’s three-day visit to Xinjiang, where his focus was on counter-terrorism (Xinhua, April 28). The attack, however, also coincided with the eve of the opening of the intercity railway lines linking Urumqi with Kuytun, Shihezi and Karamay, which will be a key route for distributing Xinjiang’s oil throughout China (Times of India, May 1). The attackers did not “succeed,” in that they killed only one person other than themselves, but the media attention given to these suicide bombings received overshadowed Xi’s visit and sent a message that Uighur militants can attack anywhere and anytime.
Moreover, these suicide bombings, which were the first such terrorist attacks in China, were an innovation in Uighur militancy. While no connection to the TIP has been proven, China alleges that the ringleaders trained in Pakistan, which is likely an indication of a suspected tie to the TIP (Al-Jazeera, May 21). The attack would also be similar to the suicide bombings that the TIP and IMU carry out against U.S., NATO and Pakistani forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan (SITE Intelligence Group, May 26, 2013). The beheading of two Han Chinese policemen and stabbing into 31 pieces of a third policeman in Yecheng (Karghlik), which is the closest city in Xinjiang to Pakistan, suggests there may have been a broader attempt by militants to launch attacks during Xi’s visit (Times of India, March 8, 2012; AFP, March 15).
One of the most notable portions of the Damla video includes a scene of militants in a mountainous region resembling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where the militants provide a lesson on making a briefcase-bomb (Reuters [Islamabad], March 14). The TIP has issued a series of 13 videos in Uighur, with Chinese and Uighur subtitles, that teach viewers how to make homemade explosives (http://jihadology.net/2013/12/31/%E1%B9%A3awt-al-islam-presents-a-new-video-message-from-%E1%B8%A5izb-al-islami-al-turkistani-turkistan-islamic-party-the-express-mail-of-the-turkistan-mujahidin-12/). If the TIP can encourage and teach homegrown lone wolves or independent cells in Xinjiang to carry out attacks by distributing these types of videos in Xinjiang, it would allow the TIP to encourage attacks while avoiding the risk associated with sending its militants into Xinjiang.
The car-bombing in Tiananmen Square in October 2013 involved a husband, who rammed a car with his wife and mother in the passenger seats into China’s most symbolic location near Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. The husband’s motive was likely to avenge the Chinese government’s demolition of an extra section of a mosque that he paid to build in Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang without official permission (Radio Free Asia, November 7, 2013). Like the attack in Urumqi, the Tiananmen attack played well into TIP propaganda. Islom Awazi released a video on jihadist websites of TIP leader Abdullah Mansour praising the “jihadi operation in the Forbidden City” and claiming it was the result of an “awakening after 60 years of oppression” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk130qpnhno).
Kunming and Guangzhou
The Kunming and Guangzhou train station attacks in March and May 2014 were distinct from the Urumqi train station and Tiananmen Square attacks, because neither the timing of the attacks nor locations were particularly symbolic. Both, however, were certain to cause deaths because they were in busy public locations. The involvement of two women in the Kunming attack, as well as the choice of a train station, was possibly influenced by militants from the Caucasus Emirate, whose late leader Doku Umarov was eulogized in a TIP video on May 1 (SITE Intelligence Group, May 1, 2014). Vilayat Dagestan, which claimed attacks on a train station in Volgograd and trolley in Pyatigorsk, near Sochi, in the run-up to the Olympics in Russia in February 2014 said those attacks were “because of Umarov’s orders” (The Guardian, January 19).
The recent attacks in Beijing, Kunming, Urumqi and Guangzhou are all victories for the TIP and its allies in the IMU. The attacks help the TIP and IMU promote China as the next frontier for jihadists as the U.S. withdraws in Afghanistan. Meanwhile from Syria and Turkey to the Gulf, there are increasing opportunities for the TIP and its supporters to network with Uighurs in Xinjiang, who hold grievances against the Chinese government. It is possible, for example, that the IMU and TIP could connect with and recruit from underground Islamist organizations in Xinjiang similar to Tablighi Jamaat, such as one called “Hijrah Jihad,” which are inspired by similar Salafist currents.
Moreover, it is likely that Uighur militancy will come to resemble al-Qaeda’s militant operations elsewhere in the world as knowledge-transfer takes place with in-person training in Afghanistan and Pakistan or Syria on simply online or in jihadist videos. The TIP may also follow the Caucasus Emirate’s strategy towards ethnic Russians, attacking Han Chinese in Xinjiang with such frequency that it causes them to leave the region and generates so much Han-Uighur animosity that Han Chinese become less willing to live, work and feel safe in Xinjiang.