The killing of Chinese border police ahead of the Beijing Olympics by a group seeking to emulate the broader global trend of Islamic extremism, now presents an ill-defined yet pernicious threat throughout China.
Alex Neill, Head of the Asia Programme, RUSI
It would seem that East Turkestan separatists have delivered on their promise to bring bloodshed and violence on the eve of the Olympics. Sixteen members of China’s paramilitary border police were killed in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) early on 4 August when two ethnic Uighurs crashed a vehicle into a group of border police during their morning exercise routine and then detonated explosives. The attacks took place on China’s far western periphery bordering central Asia near the city of Kashgar, a historic centre of China’s eight million strong Uighur ethnic minority. While the security measures in place in Beijing will make it difficult for Uighur separatist groups to stage similar attacks in the capital, it is likely that further violence will result in Xinjiang itself and in other cities within the Chinese heartland.
In a new development however, there appear to be two distinct threat strands from militant elements within the East Turkestan movement. The first strand is the purely separatist threat which has caused so much trouble for Chinese authorities over the last two decades, relating to the broader East Turkestan independence movement which seeks to establish a republic in the XUAR. The second and newer strand is the Islamic extremist threat from radicalised Uighur separatist groups. Following bus bombings on 21 July in Kunming, the provincial capital of China’s south western Yunnan province, a group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) issued a video claiming responsibility for the bus attack and other incidents elsewhere in China, including attacks in Shanghai. The video has all the trappings of Islamic militant zeal and threatens violence in Beijing during the Olympic Games.
In the wake of a crack-down by Chinese authorities on militant cells throughout the XUAR in April, for the first time Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party) has demonstrated the extent of its network in Xinjiang and possibly beyond. From 22 to 23 March, HUT staged protests in Xinjiang's Hetian County, Kashgar Prefecture, Urumqi City and in the Kizilsu Kyrghyz Autonomous Prefecture, distributing reactionary leaflets and posters and organising street protests. Three demonstrations took place in Hetian city on 23 March but they were suppressed by Chinese authorities. Very little further information has emerged; suffice to say that a logical link could be made between the burgeoning influence of Hizb ut-tahrir in Xinjiang and the militant Islam of the TIP.
These two spheres of militancy with the Turkestan independence movement are manifest on two fronts in China. Firstly, it exists in the long-standing violent campaign against Han Chinese occupation of the Uighur heartland where militant cells have perpetrated attacks from inside Xinjiang and from across the border. Chinese security officials have also been assassinated whilst travelling on delegations in the neighbouring Central Asian republics. The new Islamic militant strand of the East Turkestan movement now presents an ill-defined yet pernicious threat throughout China and seeks to emulate broader Islamic extremism as part of the global Jihad. The Olympics naturally present a lucrative yet hard target for this group and it may be that an attack on a highly symbolic yet less well protected target during the forthcoming games is possible.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.