This year has seen a steady up-tick in violent attacks in Xinjiang, Western China’s restive Uyghur autonomous region that borders on Pakistan, Afghanistan and six other countries.
The Uyghur are a Turkic people who share close cultural and linguistic affinities with neighbouring populations in Central Asia. Almost all are Sunni Muslim.
Uyghur made up roughly 80% of Xinjiang’s population prior to the founding of the PRC. Since then their demographic dominance has waned; ethnic Han Chinese have migrated en masse to Xinjiang and now total 40% of the region’s population, up from 6.7% in 1949. Violence in Xinjiang is almost exclusively played out between Uyghurs and Han.
On 7 March five people were killed in a fight between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Korla. China Daily reported 21 killed in Kashgar on 23 April when a community patrol uncovered a group of Uyghurs making explosives. On 26 June 46 people were killed in Turpan Prefecture after what the Xinhua state news agency described as “knife-wielding mobs” attacked police stations and other sites in Lukchun Township. Two days later up to 15 Uyghurs were killed and another 50 were injured in Hotan when police fired on crowds that had gathered in the town’s main square to protest the closure of a local mosque and the arrest of the imam.
Behind the violence, an information war rages.
The Chinese government says groups “representing the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism” are responsible for many of the attacks. Uyghur exile groups maintain violent outbursts are the inevitable result of government policies designed to suppress religious freedom and marginalize the Uyghur language. In mid-August the authorities in Kashgar announced that two Moslems were due to be executed for their part in the killings in that city and three other were sentenced to long gaol terms.
“It is very difficult to definitive about causes underlying the tensions in Xinjiang, especially since the state media does not faithfully report on outbreaks of unrest,” said Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
“Some outbreaks of unrest may stem from local problems associated with land disputes or excessive regulation on religious beliefs and practices. In other cases, frustration over economic discrimination may be the root cause. What connects many of the sparks for unrest in the region are heavy-handed state policies,” Szadziewski said.
Security officials blamed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, for the 26 June incident in Turpan. ETIM is routinely denounced in Chinese state media as an international terrorist organization with links to Al Qaeda that seeks to “split the motherland.”
“It [Turpan] is a serious violent terrorist attack. China is firmly opposed to any terrorism. The collusion between ETIM and relevant forces poses great threat to the country,” said Hua Chunying, foreign ministry spokesperson, on 1 July.
There’s only one problem with this explanation: ETIM hasn’t existed for more than a decade.
Listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization in 2002 as the result of Chinese cooperation in the ‘War on Terror,’ ETIM first emerged among Afghanistan’s Uyghur exiles in the 1990s. The group is said to have built up infrastructure along Pakistan’s border. This infrastructure was crippled by the American invasion and bombing campaigns against Al Qaeda bases in the area. The group’s leader, Hasan Mahsum, was killed in 2003.
Since then next to nothing has been head about ETIM in Jihadist media, despite Chinese state media’s continuing to employ the acronym.
In 2007 another jihadist organization did emerge that espoused the same goals as ETIM, namely liberation from Chinese rule for ‘East Turkistan’ and, more broadly, the establishment of a Central Asian caliphate. Known as the Turkistan Islamic Party, or TIP, the organization is based in Waziristan in Pakistan and has claimed responsibility for attacks in recent years in both Xinjiang and East China, including a series of bus bombings in 2008.
The acronym TIP has never appeared in Chinese state media. Even as the TIP openly claimed the bus bombings were its work on YouTube, Chinese officials were denying the explosions had links to terrorism – most likely because they took place in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics.
“While the Chinese government continues to equate the TIP with ETIM, TIP leaders have come out and emphatically stated they have no relation to the now-defunct latter organization,” said Jacob Zenn, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation, in Beijing.
Zenn says China’s seeming insistence on using ‘ETIM’ in English-language reports could be down to simple linguistic confusion. “In the Chinese-language name for ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement,’ Dongtu Isilan Yundong, it is not clear whether ‘movement’ is being used in the singular or the plural. If the Chinese is referring to ‘movements,’ then this is accurate. The TIP is an Islamic movement, and there are others.
But if the Chinese is referring to one specific movement then the term is out of date, or perhaps represents a will in China to deny the TIP exists for propagandistic purposes.”
The TIP, however, has its own propaganda avenues through which to push its message. It continues to upload videos onto You Tube and jihadist forums. Jihadology.net recorded four new TIP videos in July, which make up part of a ‘Military Quick Guide’ to train up views in the use of arms – which are yet to be used in attacks in Xinjiang.
While these videos are unable to be viewed by Uyghurs inside Xinjiang, jihadist propaganda of some form likely flows across the Pakistan-China border. China has arrested Uyghurs who were said to be in possession of “extremist material,” though such materials have never been shown to the media or public.
The TIP has also published since 2008 a 50-page quarterly magazine called Islamic Turkistan. It features TIP claims of responsibility for various attacks in Xinjiang. For instance, in this year’s March edition the TIP said it was behind a motorcycle-borne suicide attack in Yecheng on 1 October 2012. It also runs opinion columns by renowned global Jihadists, biographies of martyrs and stories of religious repression in China.
The immediate purpose of Islamic Turkistan is not to trigger an uprising in Xinjiang, but rather to spread cognizance of ‘the Chinese occupation of East Turkistan’ among the global jihadist community. To this end, it is only printed in Arabic. The TIP hopes that in the future Xinjiang will be mentioned alongside Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir as hotspots for global jihad, said Zenn.
It seems the TIP might be succeeding.
China has for the last year has claimed that members of ETIM (read: TIP) have been receiving training in Pakistan to join, via passage through Turkey, anti-government forces in Syria. It further claims some of these fighters are returning to Xinjiang and perpetrating attacks there.
Chinese state media also reports that the East Turkistan Educational and Solidarity Association (ETES), based in Istanbul, has been pushing Uyghurs temporarily in Turkey to join the Free Syrian Army. ETES strenuously denies these claims, though sections of its Arabic-language website mirror content found only in Islamic Turkistan magazine, published by the TIP.
China worries that “terrorists are flowing back,” having shared news of the ‘occupation of East Turkistan’ with fellow jihadists on the battlefield.
Until now, the threat posed to Chinese sovereignty of Xinjiang by the TIP and other Islamist groups has been minor. But as sympathy for the Uyghur cause spreads in the global Islamist community – and as the U.S. contemplates a total troop pull-out from Afghanistan next year – Xinjiang could become the regional focus of Central Asian jihadists.