Terrorism and the Beijing Olympics: Uyghur Discontent

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 8

A suicide bomb attempt on a plane from the restive western region of Xinjiang in China en route to the home of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing highlights a key security dilemma for Beijing: The Olympics have become a stage to showcase political grievances and a challenge for the host to combat violent political agendas. While the Tibetan riots capture the attention of the Western media, Chinese officials say Uyghur militants are entering the far western province of Xinjiang—particularly across the isolated Pamir Mountains in the south that separate China from Tajikistan and Afghanistan—from training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The well-funded and well-schooled militants allegedly obtain money and plans directly from sponsors and from their involvement in smuggling opium and heroin from Central and Southeast Asia (The Sydney Morning Herald, March 15; Terrorism Monitor, April 21, 2005).

Uyghurs are the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang and also have a large diaspora community in the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the West. While there is no uniform Uyghur agenda, the desired outcome by groups that use violence is broadly a separate Uyghur state, called either East Turkestan or Uyghuristan, which lays claim to a large part of western China and some territory in neighboring Central Asian republics. As with many of these disputes, the root causes of the problem are a complex mix of history, ethnicity, and religion, fueled by poverty, unemployment, social disparities, and political grievances.

The Uyghur Diaspora community portrays the ongoing incidents as the oppressed Uyghur community versus an oppressive and unaccountable Chinese government, but reality lies somewhere in between. While it is true that Uyghurs are at a disadvantage in China, it is also a fact that a small number of Uyghur militants are linked into the transnational Islamist network contaminating the image of the majority of the Uyghur movement. The Chinese government’s aversion to give media attention to terrorism is a reaction to the modern media obsession with covering terrorist events, which—like many experts—Beijing believes contributes to terrorism’s effectiveness. China believes that it is an active participant in the war on terrorism, although the Chinese domestic focus on militant groups is much more on police response than on military action. This practice, however, allows voices such as Rebiya Kadeer, head of the Uighur American Association, to pronounce the recent incidents as having been fabricated by the Chinese government, despite Western intelligence agencies’ knowledge of an al-Qaeda cell in Xinjiang as well as camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan that trained Uyghur militants since the 1980s. There are also well-known links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and perhaps lesser known links to current camps north of Kabul. Unfortunately, some Uyghur militants in Xinjiang and the diaspora community have linked into the Islamist network, which operates within a corridor that overlaps drug trafficking routes and facilitates the movement of militants, weapons and explosives (China Daily, January 8, 2007).

Some in the Uyghur community see the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to draw attention to their causes, whether it is nationalist activists nonviolently or violently agitating for a Uyghur state, or the cultural community asking for more opportunities within the Chinese state or the militant community looking to the Islamist network to further their cause—this is a thin but bold line to draw between these groups for the Chinese government.

Four recent incidents highlight the problem for China regarding Uyghur groups: First, a January 5, 2007 Chinese raid on a training camp in Xinjiang that killed 18 militants and one policeman and led to the capture of 17 suspects and seizure of explosives seemingly provided new evidence of ties to “international terrorist forces” [1]. Apparently an hour-long video entitled “Jihad in Eastern Turkestan” was found in the raid. Mentioned in the video was the book The Call for Global Islamic Resistance by al-Suri, which includes China as a target for jihad. The video, believed to be the work of the overseas-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), now internationally identified as a terrorist group, illustrates Uyghur militants displaying their weapons and combat training prowess with rocket-propelled grenades, M-16s, AK-47s, detonators and small rockets and is obviously inspired by the transnational Islamist network. In a dramatic conclusion, the video showcases the faces of their enemies—the Chinese leadership [2]. Moreover, Dr. Ayman Muhammad Rabaie al-Zawahiri, the prominent al-Qaeda leader, also mentioned China in a speech he made in December 2006 (Agence France Presse, March 9). Clearly there are some militants that have decided to take an extremist stance against China and it is not a great stretch for them to look at the Olympics as a possible venue to showcase their cause.

In the second incident, almost exactly a year later, the Chinese police raided an apartment in Urumqi and killed two Uyghurs during the shoot-out on January 27, 2008. Fifteen Uyghurs were arrested and, according to the official report, five police officers were injured when three homemade grenades were thrown. Chinese authorities claim that the raid had uncovered materials indicating plans to attack the Beijing Olympics (Washington Post, March 10). More facts on this raid will likely be forthcoming over the course of the next year.

The third incident involves a failed female suicide attack apparently planned and implemented in a Uyghur diaspora community. China Southern Airlines Flight CZ6901 left Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on March 7, 2008 and made an emergence landing in Lanzhou, Gansu, where two passengers—a man and a woman—were taken into custody, both carrying Pakistani passports (Sydney Morning Herald, March 21). Nineteen-year-old Guzalinur Turdi, an ethnic Uyghur woman who spent a significant amount of time in Pakistan, confessed to attempting to ignite a flammable substance, perhaps petrol, syringed into a beverage can, in an attempt to blow up the plane. She aroused the suspicions of the crew and passengers when she came out of the toilet smelling of petrol to pick up a second can after the first can failed to ignite. The man arrested with her is from Central Asia and his age is estimated to be in the 30s. A third suspect, a Pakistani, detained a week later, admitted that he had masterminded, instigated and helped carry out the attack (Newsline [Pakistan], August 2007). Pakistan is one of several key locations for militant diaspora communities and has also seen the assassination of Chinese nationals by Uyghurs. For instance, three Chinese nationals working just outside of Peshawar were killed and another seriously wounded as militants fired at the Chinese nationals from two cars, while fellow militants in the third car filmed the action shouting religious slogans; the film was sent to Chinese authorities by Uyghur militants warning that attacks would continue against Chinese in Pakistan if it did not change its policy in Xinjiang. Pakistani officials suggest that nearly a thousand Uyghur militants from Xinjiang region have made their way to Waziristan [3], not far from where U.S. intelligence agencies believe Osama bin Laden is sheltered. The airliner suicide attack, by no means coincidental, occurred on the eleventh anniversary of a bus explosion claimed by ETIM, in Beijing near Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and both happened during the National People’s Congress (NPC) annual session. The carefully planned attack, from using a young Uyghur woman to boarding through the less scrutinized first class, was designed to deliver a clear warning to the Chinese government as the world watched the lead up to the Beijing Olympics (The Associated Press, April 3).

The fourth and most recent incident was a pair of protests in the market town of Hotan, Xinjiang around March 23: One protest was apparently sparked by the death in custody of a prominent local businessman, Mutallip Hajim, and the other protest centered on a proposed headscarf ban in the workplace. While the original protests were based on specific incidents that have widespread appeal among the Uyghur cultural community, the government alleges that several dozen Uyghur militants distributed leaflets calling for demonstrators to follow the lead of the Tibetans in protesting on the eve of the Olympics. Some of those arrested were released after being “educated,” according to Fu Chao, a local government spokesman, but those determined to be agitators were kept in custody (Sydney Morning Herald, March 15). The demonstrations are indicative of the widespread dissent in Xinjiang’s Uyghur community and how quickly that dissent can become explosive with only a little agitation, although it is not clear in this set of protests whether the agitators were Uyghur militants or Uyghur national activists.

The incidents, while indicative of both a small dedicated number of Uyghur militants and a wider sense of oppression and discontent among the Uyghur community, are countered by the most heavily protected Olympics yet. The International Olympic Committee is overseeing the Beijing Games, where the security force will be large. Beijing has nearly 100,000 police, supplemented by paramilitary outfits, private security guards and the country’s military. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new Olympics unit, comprising army, navy and air force personnel, is responsible for border control—to prevent terrorists and others infiltrating during the Games—as well as responding to terrorist attacks. It is enlisting a citizens’ force of a half million civic-minded Beijing citizens, either wearing red or blue Olympic security armbands, who will monitor streets, neighborhoods and public places. Tellingly, Xi Jinping, heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, is in charge of the overall Olympic effort, signaling how seriously the government takes the success of the Games. Professor Zhang Jiadong, counter-terrorism expert at Fudan University, suggested that it is not unexpected for small Uyghur groups based in Xinjiang to undertake some limited action. Interpol’s secretary-general, Ronald Noble, indicated in Beijing in September 2007 that the absence of a terrorist incident or serious criminal activity would be an “important measure” of the success of the Games, and the agency’s website says that the Beijing Games are a “prime theoretical target for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 15]. But both Interpol and the International Olympic Committee have said thus far that they are satisfied with China’s security preparations, and the incidents so far indicate a tangible threat and a real counter effort.


1. Kenneth George Pereire, “The East Turkestan Islamic movement in China: Uighur discontent must be addressed to stem the tide of the jihadi movement in China” Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (June 23, 2006).

2. Realities of the Conflict – Between Islam and Unbelief Full Transcript of Zawahiri Tape December 20, 2006 As-Sahab Media, Dhu Qa’dah 1427 AH / December 2006 CE, Obtained by Laura Mansfield International Institute for Counter-Terrorism https://www.ict.org.il/apage/8215.php accessed April 3, 2008.

3. Fong Tak-ho, “Terror’ attack a warning shot for Beijing” Asia Times Online (March 14, 2008)

https://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/JC14Ad01.html accessed April 3, 2008.

Dr. Davis thanks Ms. Dianna Hummel for her research assistance.