International Link (Hong Kong)
“Terrorism in China is starting to look more like what is seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Middle East,” said Andrew Small, a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Such a statement would have been unheard of a decade ago, even a year ago, especially outside of Chinese officialdom. But over the past year the frequency of terrorist attacks, albeit low level, has increased in the country, particularly in Xinjiang province in the far West. Police stations have been attacked, officials stabbed, and there was a double-suicide bombing at the Urumqi railway station on the final day of President Xi Jingping's visit to Xinjiang – where he was focusing, ironically, on counter-terrorism – in April, 2014. There have also been attacks in cities around the country, with one of the most high profile in Tiananmen Square in October, 2013.
Such attacks have a commonality – they have been carried out by Uighers, the ethnic, predominantly Sunni Muslim minority from Xinjiang. As a result, Beijing has stepped up its counter-terrorism, or counter-insurgency (COIN), policies in Xinjiang, with President Xi calling for “nets spread from the earth to the sky” as part of a year-long crackdown to curb terrorism.
“(The situation) has turned from a local threat to a more State stability threat over the last year, which is what has been so significant. It is raising a lot of fundamental questions on Chinese foreign policy and counter terrorism strategies. There is a lot that was taken for granted about how they did these things, and these are up for grabs now,” said Small, who is also a contributor to the European Union Institute for Security Studies. “China wants to import counter-terrorism experts from elsewhere to re-think approaches, as they see they are dealing with a different problem (from the past), and have not figured out yet if it is a regular low-level insurgency campaign, or a subset of Uighers connected to a wider (Sunni) Jihadi network and a qualitatively different threat to the last few decades.”
Until this past year, external observers and Western states downplayed attacks by Uighers, being almost dismissive of China facing terrorism threats, evidenced by the stance of the US, which has not blacklisted organizations deemed terrorist groups by China, and provided minimal cooperation despite the overarching international support for Washington's “global war on terrorism.”
As the attacks have increased, it has become apparent that China is facing an issue not confined to Xinjiang alone, perhaps reflecting what is happening globally. As Raffaelo Pantucci, a senior researcher on counter-terrorism and Chinese diplomacy at Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), has observed, China faces “a dual track problem.” There is disenfranchisement within Xinjiang towards Beijing that erupts in occasional violence on one hand, notes Pantucci, and on the other external Uigher communities that are pursuing a radical Sunni Jihadist agenda. The fear is that such elements have already carried out terrorist activities within China, and that external support will push the Uigher issue, or elements of the Uigher community, into becoming a Jihadist one.
“I think Uigher grievances are the regular ones: the loss of identity, homeland, and to elevate Uigher Islam identity over Chinese communist identity. However, militant operations have been less about these grievances but people from outside providing the ideology and the means to attack,” said Jacob Zenn, an analyst of Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation and an expert on Islamic terrorism.
It is the uncertainty as to whether external factors were directly involved in attacks that the West has not labeled them as terrorism, Islamic terrorism in specific, implying solely domestic Chinese issues.
China itself shoulders some of the blame for this. “If the Chinese do a better job to distinguish between legitimate political activities and terrorist activities, there would be greater scope of cooperation with the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU on these issues. Because China blurs the lines so much, it creates a problem for countries that might be more helpful on the issue,” said Small.
That said, while Western states have reportedly had a high degree of success at preventing terrorism domestically, further afield COIN efforts have not been as successful, notably in Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq, as seen with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the wake of the US withdrawal in 2011, and in Syria, where Western states and Gulf allies backed “moderate” rebels against Damascus that morphed into the militant Jihadist variety. The same can be said of Libya following Western intervention to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
Indeed, it is predominantly countries with significant Muslim populations in the Middle East, Africa, Central and Southeast Asia that have cumulatively been the main targets and victims of radical Islamic terrorism, rather than the West itself. As such, Beijing would do well to look at the successes and failures of states that are dealing with terrorism on a more regular basis with similar circumstances, such as Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Arab states.
While China is ramping up its domestic COIN strategies, it is also focusing on external influences, such as cracking down on Uigher language websites to prevent Uighers from being ideologically radicalized and recruited online.
“What has shifted in thinking has been more of a focus on propaganda support and the ideological influence of the Jihadi groups. Chinese counter-terrorism experts are now placing more weight on the international dimension, to squash some of the external support that is actually accessible, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in Pakistan,” said Small.
Beijing pressured ally Islamabad to ban certain Central Asian Jihadist groups, such as the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and TIP. According to reports from Reuters, there are an estimated 400 Uigher fighters in Pakistan and 250 in Afghanistan. In May, the Pakistani military struck targets connected to the Uigher-led TIP.
Preventing neighboring Central Asia from providing safe areas for Uigher militants to operate from is slated to become a top priority for Beijing. “Pakistan and Afghanistan are hell holes right now, and these extremists thrive in such basket cases. China needs to do more outreach to Central Asia to not let it become a sanctuary for these guys. The other thing, if it doesn't want to help the US, China needs to do something about shoring up Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Ahmed Salah Hashim, Associate Professor at the military studies program at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The Pakistani 'badlands' of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North Waziristan have been the refuge for TIP and other Uigher-linked groups. But it is not just Uigher Jihadists that consider China a target. The TIP is linked to the IMU, which is pushing for the jihad to go beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan into China, and its mufti, Abu Zar al-Burmi, has reportedly become a prominent Jihadi leader in Pakistan with an anti-China message that is gaining in popularity, according to Zenn.
Last year, in a speech called “A Lost Nation”, al-Burmi said the “mujahideen should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah (the Islamic community) is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.” In the speech, al-Burmi stated Muslims should kidnap and kill Chinese people and target Chinese companies, and blasted the Pakistani-Chinese relationship.
Who is funding the Uighers in Central Asia is not clear. “External support is a very sensitive topic, but it is clear that several hundred militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan are receiving funding from Saudi Arabia, or whoever funds the Taliban, which is trickling down to Uighur militants, and they have an increasing sophisticated internet presence to recruit. There are some seriously anti-Chinese organizations in Turkey that don't avow militancy, but know about who the militants are in Pakistan,” said Zenn.
China and the Islamic State
In many ways, China is starting to reap what was sown by the West and its Gulf Arab allies in Central Asia and the Middle East. Islamic terrorism has become a Trojan horse on China's periphery that is being steadily assembled like a gigantic Lego statue, brick by small brick, to be rolled into the mainland.
While contemporary radical Islam has developed over the past 50 years, and gained traction over the past 30 years following US-backed support for the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union, Syria and Iraq have become the new centers for radical, militant Islam, and have attracted Uigher and Chinese Muslim fighters to their ranks.
“Chinese Muslims and Uighers have shown up in videos in Syria, although it is unclear where they come from, from China or from the Uigher diaspora, which lives in Turkey, while Syria is a huge magnet for Muslims across the ethnic divide,” said Pantucci.
The rise of ISIL, or the Islamic State, over the past two years, in particular this year as the group gained international notoriety through taking huge swathes of Northern Iraq and North-West Syria, is fueling a global Jihadist resurgence.
“ISIL has really caught the attention of a lot of young, angry, unemployed types, what I call 'Boutique Jihad',” said Hashim. “Although ISIL is supplanting Al Qaeda, they haven't said much on the Uigher situation. Given their ambitions, and the map of the Islamic State caliphate from Andalusia to beyond the Persian empire, to China, they may say something about this. And given their successes, if maintained, this will gain traction with Uighers; that is a potential scenario. The Uigher situation has become more center stage for Jihadists.”
While analysts consider the risks to the Chinese mainland from Uigher Jihadists minimal, in part due to the difficulties of getting back into China, it is the ideology of ISIL and other Jihadist groups that is of concern at both the internal and external level.
“The most dangerous thing for China from ISIL is the ideology, which is breaking down borders and identity by religion and not nationality. That idea is already catching on in West Africa, with militants going to Boko Haram to destroy colonial era boundaries and create a new political system based on Islam as a common denominator. In Central Asia this idea has not caught on, but could, especially if ISIL is rich and starts funding militants in Central Asia or proxies in Pakistan or Afghanistan,” said Zenn.
At the domestic level, Beijing does not want to give impetus to Uigher grievances by enabling the uprising to turn towards radical Islam, slight though this risk may currently be. It is worth bearing in mind that the initially peaceful uprisings in secular Syria in 2011 for instance became more militant and Islamic - it was co-opted - as did the militant opposition to the US occupation of formerly secular Iraq. Significantly, this did not require huge numbers of Jihadists, with ISIL for example having an estimated 30,000 fighters.
China would do well to study COIN strategies in countries that have struggled to contain insurgencies that were supported internally and externally, such as in India. India is similar in population size to China and also has diverse minorities.
India's COIN approach was characterized by Sameer Lalwani in West Point's CTC Sentinel, as “a strategy of attrition with the deployment of 'raw state coercion' and 'enemy-centric' campaigns to suffocate an insurgency through a 'saturation of forces.'”
In Indian Kashmir this heavy-handed approach has not worked, and neither for other ongoing insurgencies, such as the Naxalites, given that both are decades old conflicts. In part this is due to the lack of a soft policy approach alongside economic development, with brutal crackdowns keeping the conflict going. China should not imitate India's approach.
“China has a lot of resources to deal with the outbreak of terrorism, but it has not been particularly subtle in its approach. A problem is that China does not send crack units to Xinjiang, which cannot provide order without a brutal approach, so keeps the area quiet for a while but feeds into the rage. An effective counter-terrorism approach requires both a soft policy as well as a hard policy approach, and China has not calibrated that properly. A learning process, and the issue is if China can learn faster than the Uighers can,” said Hashim.
Furthermore, there needs to be a strong understanding of what causes terrorism and adjust soft policy accordingly. So far, Beijing has focused on economic development over other issues.
“I think that while a key focus is on heavy economic investment, in reality there is a third way, which is people's sense of alienation. It is not monetary, but cultural, about a sense of belonging, and a lot of people feel they don't have a stake in modern China. They are not going to be swayed by houses, cars and jobs. Look at the UK's four pillar counter-terrorism strategy: Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare, and they've not figured out the preventative side - the social disenfranchisement - and that is what China has also not addressed, the cultural aspect of it, and why people are drawn to these ideas,” said Pantucci.
Ultimately, Beijing needs to develop approaches to its dual track problem of domestic grievances and external Jihadists, and not add fuel to the fire through the two becoming increasingly connected. It is essential, therefore, that Beijing works closer with Central Asian states to contain the problem in these countries, but also pressure the West and Arab Gulf states on counter terrorism issues, including counter terrorism financing.
“By themselves the Uighers cannot cause mayhem; they can cause problems like they've been doing lately - episodic hit and run incidents which are a nuisance rather than a security problem. Right now, China's capacity in Xinjiang is very strong. If (militant) Uighers have a chance of anything, they will have to rely on external sanctuary and support,” said Hashim. “But if relations with China and the West go down hill there is the possibility of using the Trojan horse phenomenon to cause trouble.”