Assessing Recent Militant Attacks in China

MIN READMay 29, 2014 | 08:01 GMT


By Scott Stewart

Police in Xinjiang arrested five suspects and seized 1.8 tons of explosive material on May 26, according to Chinese media. The arrests and seizure were made in the city of Hotan in southwestern Xinjiang. Police said the suspects intended to build bombs to attack crowded locations in the city.

The operation in Hotan was reportedly connected to a yearlong nationwide counterterrorism operation recently launched by the Chinese government that was prompted by a string of terrorist attacks. These attacks have been simple, using edged weapons, small explosive devices and vehicles driven into soft targets such as the crowds outside train stations and markets. If the media report of 1.8 tons of explosives being seized is true, it would signify that someone was planning a much more spectacular attack. This would be unprecedented inside China, where the hallmark of the long-simmering Uighur militancy has been smaller attacks.

Recent Attacks

The arrests in Hotan came on the heels of the May 22 attack in Urumqi, Xinjiang, where assailants drove two off-road vehicles into an outdoor market near People's Park, tossing explosives into the crowd of morning shoppers before one of the vehicles exploded. The attack, which has yet to be claimed, killed 31 and injured scores more.

On April 30, a suicide bombing against a train station in Urumqi killed three and injured dozens. That attack was claimed by the Turkistan Islamic Party, which posted a video of the purported suicide bomb used in the attack being constructed, followed by a lengthy statement threatening additional attacks.

On March 1, eight knife-wielding assailants attacked people in the Kunming railway station in Yunnan, China. They ultimately killed 29 people and wounded 130. No group has claimed responsibility, but police showed the media a hand-painted black East Turkistan flag allegedly found at the scene, indicating the involvement of Uighur militants. (The Turkistan Islamic Party released a video praising the attack but did not claim responsibility for it.) The Kunming incident was significant not only in that it occurred in the remote Yunnan province, but also in that it targeted civilians rather than security forces, which had been the most common target in past Uighur militant attacks. The incident highlighted the possibility that Uighur militancy was continuing to expand its geographic reach.

At this point, it is unknown if the Kunming attack can be linked to the Xinjiang attacks, or even if the same group conducted the two recent Urumqi attacks. However, if all four events were related and can be connected to the same organization, it would have different implications than if they were conducted by independent organizations acting on central guidance or merely general principles.

Uighur Separatism

Uighur separatism has deep roots. Nationalistic sentiment is ingrained in the Uighurs by their ties to the historical broader Turkistan, which stretched through much of what is today Xinjiang (so-called "East Turkistan") and into Central Asia. The Qing Dynasty conquered East Turkistan in the mid-1700s and, after decades of struggle, China annexed the territory, renaming it Xinjiang, or "New Territories." A polity calling itself East Turkistan arose in Xinjiang amid the chaotic transition from imperial China to Communist rule, lasting for two brief periods from 1933 to 1934 and from 1944 to 1949. Since that time, Xinjiang has been, more or less, an integral part of the People's Republic of China.

Historically, Chinese security forces have been fairly heavy-handed in their efforts to keep Uighur separatism in check — in part out of the fear, often justified throughout the Cold War period, that local separatist movements enjoyed the backing and support of the Soviet Union (or the United States in the case of Tibet) and thus represented a strategic threat to Han Chinese rule, not just mere internal dissent.

The persecution experienced by the Uighurs has not been unlike that experienced by Tibetan nationalists, and many Uighur separatists have been imprisoned or have fled into exile. Some non-violent separatists have undertaken political action for their cause from the United States, Europe, Turkey and Central Asia. Many militant Uighur separatists have also migrated to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have found refuge, training and support from groups such as the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. 

Indeed, militant Uighurs have had a long history of collaboration with the international jihadist movement. For example, shortly after Hasan Mahsum founded the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in 1997, he moved it to Kabul, where he enjoyed the protection of the Taliban, and came into contact with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Mahsum was killed by the Pakistani military during a raid on an al Qaeda facility in South Waziristan in 2003.

Mahsum was not the only high-profile Uighur militant to have contact with al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party, was also a member of al Qaeda's executive leadership council and was designated as an international terrorist by the U.S. government and the United Nations. Haq was killed in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan in February 2010. Another leader, Abdul Shakoor al-Turkistani, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in August 2012 along with three of his deputies. Shakoor was also closely aligned with al Qaeda, and reportedly commanded al Qaeda's forces in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 

The alignment of the Turkistan Islamic Party and figures such as Mahsum, Haq, Shakoor and the party's current emir, Abdullah Mansour, with the global jihadist movement has been reflected in their Arabic-language magazine "Islamic Turkistan" and in videos released via the organization's media arm, Islam Awazi. In the video claiming responsibility for the April 30 attack in Urumqi, Mansour began speaking in Arabic before switching to Uighur. The video feels similar to those released by al Qaeda, with similar religious content.


With the Pakistani military currently conducting a military offensive in North Waziristan, it is quite possible that many of the transnational militants sheltered there will be forced to flee. Some of these foreign fighters could move across the border into Afghanistan, as the U.S. military presence there has been significantly reduced and may be eliminated entirely, though many in the region are concerned that these fighters will return home to wage a wider regional jihad once the Americans leave Afghanistan. 

We are looking into whether the recent attacks in China resulted from a flow of militants returning to Xinjiang from places like Pakistan or whether they have somehow been coordinated by planners in Pakistan. The tactics involved in the recent attacks were not all that complex and would not require any sort of external planning if there were groups of local militants who had been radicalized and decided to conduct such attacks.

As noted above, the Uighurs have long conducted simple attacks inside China. In fact, many of their attacks resemble the types regularly featured in the Open Source Jihad section of al Qaeda's Inspire Magazine. For example, last week's attack in Urumqi using off-road vehicles and small explosive devices was similar to the tactics outlined in the Open Source Jihad sections of the first two editions of Inspire. However, due to the constraints of operating in an environment as hostile as China, the Uighurs were using these types of attacks well before Inspire Magazine was founded in 2010. For example, in August 2008, two Uighur militants in Kashgar drove a dump truck into a formation of police who were running on the road. The militants then reportedly stormed the police barracks, throwing two explosive devices and attacking officers with knives before being shot dead. That attack killed 16 police officers.

If isolated, simple attacks by Uighur militants will not pose a strategic threat to the Chinese government and its control over Xinjiang. Indeed, there has been a long history of isolated attacks involving Uighurs. However, if the recent attacks were coordinated and the beginning of an orchestrated campaign with a higher operational tempo than we've seen in the past, they could pose a much more acute threat by sowing fear in the population and eroding confidence in the government's ability to ensure stability. From time to time, Uighur militants have attempted to launch sustained campaigns, but crackdowns by the Chinese authorities have been able to end them.

A professional terrorist cadre returning to Xinjiang from Pakistan could perhaps make a bit of an impact if it conducted attacks itself, but its numbers would soon be exhausted — especially if it was involved in suicide attacks. The Pakistani government estimates there are only around 400 Uighur militants in Pakistan's badlands. However, the same number of militants could up the ante considerably if they were able to establish bases (or even small cells) in Xinjiang for recruiting and training locals for additional terror attacks, thus multiplying their manpower and passing on knowledge and skills obtained in Pakistan and elsewhere. It will thus be important to watch reports from the region carefully to determine if the militants involved in recent attacks were local grassroots-type operatives, more professional operatives who had returned from Pakistan, or locals trained by professionals.

Of course, establishing cells to conduct sustained operations inside China will prove to be a challenge due to the Chinese government's intelligence and law enforcement operations. The terrain and security operations have also made it difficult for Uighur cadres in Pakistan to communicate with personnel in Xinjiang or to smuggle weapons into the region. The Chinese take this threat very seriously, as seen by their recently launched operation to round up hundreds of suspected militants.

The reports from the region that Chinese police seized 1.8 tons of explosives during the takedown in Hotan are likely very troubling for Beijing. There have been previous attacks in Hotan by militant Uighurs. For example, in July 2011, a group of 18 Uighur militants armed with knives and small improvised explosive devices seized a police station in the city after killing two security officers. The standoff ended when police stormed the building, but two of the eight hostages taken by the militants were killed. Fourteen attackers were killed in the assault, and four others were arrested. But such past attacks would be dwarfed by an attack using a very large truck bomb or several car bombs with nearly two tons of explosives, especially if the militants planned to use the devices against crowds.

China is not used to dealing with attacks of that magnitude, and as seen by large attacks elsewhere, very few countries are prepared for them. One of the ways the Chinese government has limited the size of Uighur attacks has been through its policy of aggressively targeting potential terrorist subjects. According to human rights groups, the Chinese are sometimes a little too aggressive, often arresting innocent people. As seen in places like Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, draconian crackdowns have limits, especially when underlying grievances are ignored. Such approaches can even create more radicals rather than defuse the situation, which is why countries such as Saudi Arabia have launched de-radicalization programs to help reintegrate militants back into society. As China launches this new counterterrorism program, it will be very important to see if it creates more problems than it solves.

There are many unanswered questions regarding this subject, and it will be difficult to forecast the trajectory of Uighur militancy in China until some of them are answered. Given the limits placed on media reporting from China, especially from Xinjiang, combined with the Chinese government's efforts to obfuscate this issue and label all Uighur separatists as terrorists, the picture will remain murky. Unfortunately, this means that we will likely have to wait until there are additional attacks to begin to look for clues that will help us answer some of these questions and help our readers and clients in China better understand what the implications of Uighur militancy are for them.

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