June 10, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Beijing Cracks Down on Terrorism as Violence Spreads
Before October 2013, there had never been a confirmed terrorist attack in China involving car or suicide bombings. Though the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) had claimed a number of bus bombings in several cities in eastern China in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese officials attributed those attacks to local miscreants and TIP showed no proof it was behind them. Three years later in 2011, TIP presented video evidence that its members, trained in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, rammed trucks into Han Chinese pedestrians in Kashgar, killing more than ten people.
In 2012 and early 2013, there were more than ten incidents of mass stabbings in several cities in Xinjiang involving Uighurs and Chinese police or Han civilians. Although TIP praised several of those attacks, there was no evidence it was involved, nor was it clear whether these were isolated incidents or the work of an organized network. The attacks in China since October 2013, however, show not only that the tactics of suicide and car combings have been “imported” to Xinjiang from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also that there is likely a network of cells in China activated to carry out the attacks.
The recent series of attacks started on October 31, 2013, when a Uighur man, with his wife and mother in the passenger seats, intentionally drove into a gate near Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square, detonating explosives and killing tourists, his wife, mother, and himself. While TIP praised this attack, it was unclear at the time whether the car-bombing was a sign of new extremist tactics being introduced in China. Several months later, in March 2014, ten Uighur militants, including two women, carried out mass-stabbings at a train station in Kunming, southwestern China that killed 29 people and was praised by TIP. This violent event was significant because, like the Beijing attack, it was executed outside of Xinjiang and also saw a higher death toll than most previous mass-stabbing incidents.
In April 2014, there was yet another unprecedented attack, this time in Urumqi, when at least two men carried out suicide bombings possibly by detonating improvised explosive devices contained in briefcases. The TIP responded days later with a video praising the attack and—becoming a more common part of its narrative—showed militants in a mountainous area likely in Pakistan demonstrating bomb making skills, not coincidentally, with a briefcase bomb device. After another stabbing attack in Guangzhou’s train station on May 6, the most significant terrorist attack in Chinese history took place on May 22 in Urumqi, corresponding with the final day of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang. In this attack, at least two Uighurs rode in cars down a market street in a mostly Han Chinese area of the city, throwing explosives and detonating bombs in their cars, killing themselves and more than 30 people on the street.
In an apparent effort to reach broader international extremist appeal, TIP released within the last week an Arabic language propaganda video made in Syria. The TIP has also shown increasing use of the Internet for promotional purposes. It recently set up a website and issued a video of fighters in Pakistan donning apparently new uniforms with a new logo.
Beijing Policy and On-the-Ground Changes
As a result of the recent terrorist attacks in China, President Xi ordered "one-year crackdown [in order to] prevent terrorism and extremism from spreading to other regions [from Xinjiang]." The most visible change as a result of this policy in Urumqi is the show of force of the military in the streets. Previously, Kashgar—Xinjiang’s westernmost city—frequently saw armed personnel carriers and uniformed soldiers occupying the central plaza and other public spaces in the city. Now in Urumqi, APCs are stationed outside of many shopping centers and on street corners with heavy pedestrian traffic. Uniformed soldiers also carry out patrols through the city streets and alleys, and traffic police have set up random checkpoints to inspect vehicles for explosives.
The increased military presence has turned some school parking lots and playing fields into temporary camps in order to accommodate the influx of personnel and equipment. The soldiers also organize emergency drills resembling those in the US, where they instruct teachers, students and parents on how to respond in the event of a terrorist attack. Teachers are also receiving training in martial arts as a measure to fend off potential attackers. This is assuming that the attackers could get past the four to five security officers now positioned outside of schools in Urumqi, though often with non-lethal weapons, such as Tasers and clubs.
In smaller towns in Xinjiang, such as in Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, the new crackdown was accompanied by a mass trial held in a stadium where 55 people were sentenced to prison, with several receiving the death penalty, on terrorism-related charges. At the same time, in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there are now 30-minute lines to enter subways stations because of stricter security checks for daggers and other possible weapons. Meanwhile, Xinjiang authorities have promised "lenient punishment" to anyone involved in militant groups if they surrender to the authorities within a month.
China’s one-year terrorism crackdown will likely force militants to reconsider operations in major cities and public areas like train stations, but they can still find numerous soft targets such as small parks or restaurants in mid-size cities or towns. Even if China’s crackdown is successful domestically, the overall counter terrorism strategy will still depend largely on how well China coordinates intelligence collection with countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan and Syria, where Uighur militants networks have been or are currently active.
The increasing public awareness of terrorism in China and high-profile announcement of the one-year crackdown speak to government accountability and pressure for success. If terrorist attacks continue, however, the legitimacy of the government will suffer and cause people to question its ability to protect them.
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