May 28, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: China’s Escalating Terrorism Concerns
China is facing an increasingly active and lethal terrorist threat in its Xinjiang province. This week, government authorities announced the seizure of 1.8 metric tons of explosive precursor materials from Hotan, southern Xinjiang. This comes on the heels of last week’s attack and bombing in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, that killed over 40 people and injured 90. The violence by suspected Uighur extremists is one of the worst terrorist assaults in recent Chinese history, and is the latest in a string of attacks carried out by alleged operatives from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) aka Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), based in Xinjiang. The TIP wants a Uighur state in what it sees as its Muslim ethnic-Turkic homeland of western China. Their actions in pursuit of this goal represent one of China’s most serious internal security challenges. The group is exhibiting a rapid progression in the lethality of its attacks: evolving from an October 2013 speeding car in Tiananmen Square that killed two and injured 40 (the three car occupants died after setting themselves on fire) to coordinated violence such as the March 2014 attack on the Kunming train station that killed 29, to last week's grenade attack in Urumqi.
China is highly sensitive to internal tensions, let alone terroristic violence, and has vowed to crush the movement. Several factors make this difficult to achieve. The Xinjiang region borders Central Asian countries like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan-operated Kashmir, regions struggling with their own security concerns. Making matters worse, TIP militants are based in Pakistan, where they train in terror camps and conduct attacks in Xinjiang as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. China has been direct in its accusations over the last few years to Pakistan about Uighur fighters in Pakistani camps, but has been rather restrained in taking action. Perhaps most importantly, the Uighurs can tap into a region already ripe with ethnic and religious violent extremism. Much of the international counterterrorism focus has understandably been on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in Central Asia, borders do little to stem the spread of violence.
China’s primary dealings with Central Asia have been in the acquisition of natural gas and oil to meet growing demands, to include last week’s $400 billion deal with Russia. But an important secondary interest for China is to lessen the threat of ethnic and religious violence coming from western neighbors into Xinjiang, and then pushing further outside the province. Both Russia and China have serious concerns about ethnic violence and will likely work together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to keep tensions in countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in check.
China will likely crack down harder in Xinjiang and other provinces in an attempt to weaken Uighur networks, but this runs the risk of creating additional extremists if it is done indiscriminately and heavy-handedly. Much less certain is China’s ability to lessen the risk emanating from neighboring countries, including Pakistan. China is Pakistan’s most important ally and it has a vested interest in making sure Beijing doesn’t sour on the relationship due to TIP in terror camps. And yet TIP remains active in parts of Pakistan, enjoying the same de facto sanctuary that has bedeviled Afghanistan and NATO in their fight against the Taliban and other groups. Such sanctuaries with training and fighting opportunities mean TIP can become a real problem for Chinese interests not just in China but also across the region, including within Pakistan where China has significant ongoing investments. Though the Pakistani military launched ground operations backed by air support on “foreign militants”—reported to be Uighur sanctuaries—in North Waziristan last week, Islamabad is unable to fully meet Beijing’s demand to crush TIP within its borders, and China’s restraint over the issue suggests it knows this.
In a March 2014 public statement after a TIP-suspected attack in a Kunming, China, train station killed 29, Abdullah Mansour, the head of TIP in Pakistan, said his group had plans for “plenty of attacks in China.” Mansour and his followers hide out in the tribal areas of Pakistan such as South and North Waziristan, where the Pakistani government has little to no control. It is unclear how much operational control the extremists in Pakistan actually have over attacks in Xinjiang, or how much control would be necessary, since the attacks are usually low-tech affairs involving knives and small bombs. Still, with the seizure of 1.8 tons of precursor material, it is obvious more attacks were in the works.
What China does as it confronts the growing threat is important not just for China but also for the region as a whole. Economies will increasingly depend on natural gas from Central Asia, and a growing terrorist threat there could threaten pipelines and infrastructure, creating economic and political tensions across the globe. At present, the Uighur issue is not yet at that level but the coming years will be crucial for China and its neighbors to address the problem before it metastasizes.
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