Insurgency in Xinjiang Complicates Chinese-Pakistani Relations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 8

Zhou Yongkang (left), member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), shakes hands with a local Uygur farmer in Kashi. (Xinhua)

China typically exercises caution when making public statements about terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. When China blames attacks on Pakistan-based terrorist organizations, such as the possibly defunct East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), it risks adding tensions to the Sino-Pakistani “all-weather” friendship. [1] However, when China blames attacks on local Uyghurs it is tantamount to an admission that its policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have not created a “harmonious society.”

In unprecedented fashion, China recently pointed the finger at Pakistan after a February 28 attack in Yecheng, a city 200 kilometers from the oasis city of Kashgar, close to the border with Tajikistan. The Chairman of the Xinjiang Regional Government decisively remarked on March 7 that the attackers had “one thousand and one links” to Pakistan (Times of India, March 8). China further implicated Pakistan on April 6, albeit indirectly, when it published on the Ministry of Public Security website profiles of six Uyghurs from China who allegedly operate in “South Asia” as members of the ETIM. [2] Despite these allegations, there is almost no evidence that the recent attack in Yecheng was plotted from Pakistan and there are only inconclusive reports that the two major attacks in Xinjiang in 2011 were planned in Pakistan. there is scant evidence that recent attacks in Xinjiang have actually been plotted from Pakistan. It is possible that China is publically citing Pakistan as the source of terrorism in Xinjiang to put pressure on Pakistan for strategic purposes or to deflect attention from the regional government’s inability to contain outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang.   

One of the strongest pieces of evidence establishing a Pakistan tie to terrorism in Xinjiang comes from a martyrdom video posted on the Shmukh al-Islam online forum in September 2011 that showed Memtieli Tiliwaldi training with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in what appears to be the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan (see Terrorism Monitor, January 26). [3] Tiliwaldi had been killed by Chinese security forces days after taking part in attacks on Han Chinese pedestrians and diners in Kashgar on July 30 and July 31, 2011 that left ten people dead. The video, which was allegedly created by Nurmemet Memetmin, one of the six Uyghurs profiled on the Ministry of Public Security website, seems to prove that Tiliwaldi trained in Pakistan with the TIP and then carried out attacks in Kashgar. However, one of several issues with this video is that it is unclear why the TIP would honor only Tiliwaldi and not the other dozen “martyrs” that took part in the Kashgar attacks if the TIP was indeed responsible.

One explanation of this omission that is consistent with China’s initial probe into the Kashgar attacks is that “the heads of the group [possibly including Tiliwaldi] had learned skills of making explosives and firearms in overseas camps of the ETIM in Pakistan before entering Xinjiang to organize terrorist activities” and that they then recruited locals who “adhered to extremist religious ideology and advocated jihad.” Presumably to assuage Pakistan, the final investigation of the Kashgar attacks contradicted the initial probe and said that there was no evidence that the perpetrators were trained in Pakistan (The News [Islamabad], October 12, 2011). Ultimately, China seemed to absolve Pakistan of involvement in the Kashgar attacks.

The Yecheng attack was carried out on the evening of February 28, when, according to Chinese sources, around ten Uyghurs rushed into a commercial market and stabbed to death 13 people with axes and knives. Chinese police responded by fatally shooting several of the attackers and arresting several others. On March 27, a court in Kashgar sentenced to death one attacker, Abudukeremu Mamuti, for “preaching religious extremism” and recruiting the “terrorist group” (, March 27). However, Mamuti’s trial either ignored his connection to Pakistan-based terrorists or made no mention of it because there was no real connection. Thus, it is surprising that the chairman of Xinjiang’s regional government indicted Pakistan after this attack, but not after the Kashgar attacks, for having “one thousand and one links” to terrorism in Xinjiang.

The Yecheng and Kashgar attacks are notable for the lack of sophistication one would expect from Pakistan-trained terrorists. In Yecheng, for example, none of the attackers used a gun or set off explosives. In the Kashgar attacks there were reports of “homemade” explosives, but there were apparently no guns involved. Knives were the weapon used to cause most of the fatalities in both attacks. A similar incident in Hotan on July 15, 2011 involved a group of as many as 18 Uyghurs who allegedly used homemade materials to make Molotov cocktails to set off explosions in a local police bureau where they attempted to take people hostage and attack people with axes and knives (Guardian, July 20, 2011). Another incident last March involved a Uyghur man, previously imprisoned for discussing politically-sensitive topics, who accidentally set off an explosion at a farmhouse in Korla (Radio Free Asia, March 19). While these activities in Yecheng, Kashgar, Hotan, and Korla may be terrorism, they appear to be predominantly homegrown operations rather than the work of Pakistan-based cells.

In contrast, at least three attacks in Kazakhstan in 2011 claimed by the Pakistan-based Jund al-Khilafa (JaK) show a higher level of sophistication and a more likely tie to Pakistan than the attacks in Xinjiang. The JaK attacks included a series of shootings of policemen by a cell near Almaty, bombings carried out by a cell in Atyrau that had contacted JaK on the Internet and a shooting spree by a lone gunman in Taraz that was planned for months by his cell members (Tengrinews, December 5, 2011; November 1, 2011; November 30, 2011).

One reason for the inconsistencies in China’s statements about attacks in Xinjiang may be the different interests of Xinjiang’s regional government, which seeks to blame Pakistan for attacks to deflect attention from its own inability to preempt attacks, and the central government, which prioritizes maintaining friendly relations despite Pakistan’s failure to root out terrorist training camps in the tribal areas. Another explanation is that China may see a foreign policy benefit in occasionally applying pressure on Pakistan by blaming it for attacks in order to win favorable military arrangements from Pakistan in the future, such as permission to operate bases or intelligence facilities in Pakistan’s tribal regions or to expand China’s naval presence at the Beijing-funded port in Gwadar, Balochistan (Asia Times, October 26, 2011).

Jacob Zenn is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation who specializes in insurgent movements in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. He is a lawyer and international security analyst based in Washington, DC. He runs an open-source research, translation, and due diligence team through and can be reached at


[1] ETIM was founded in 1993 by ethnic Uyghurs, and its earliest members are believed to have received protection and training with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. After its leader Hasan Mehsum was killed by a suspected CIA drone strike in Miramshah, Waziristan in Pakistan in 2003, the ETIM may have faded into extinction since no terrorist has claimed an attack under the name of ETIM since his death. The TIP emerged in 2008 with the same goal of “liberating” Xinjiang from Chinese control and has claimed attacks in China and issued propaganda videos since 2008. China, however, still only references ETIM, not the TIP, in its public statements.

[2] The Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China. April 6, 2012.

[3]: “On the Occasion of the Military Operations in the Prefectures of ‘Hutan’ and ‘Kashghar’ in East Turkestan,” Video message from the Amir of izb al-Islami al-Turkistani [Turkistan Islamic Party] Shaykh Abd al-Shakur Damala, awt al-Islam Media Foundation,  October 15, 2011,