XINJIANG INSURGENTS AND CHINA-PAKISTAN RELATIONS
Following an attack on February 28, 2012 at a market in Yecheng, near China’s border with Tajikistan, the Chairman of the Xinjiang Regional Government said that extremists in East Turkistan and terrorists in neighboring states have one-thousand and one links. On April 6, China’s Ministry for Public Security posted on its website profiles of six Uighur terror suspects who operate in “South Asia” with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The Ministry said it “hopes foreign law enforcement agencies will help arrest the six men and hand them to Chinese authorities.” China saved some face for its all-weather friend by not naming “Pakistan” directly, but China is increasingly concerned about militants in Pakistani territory.
BACKGROUND: Anti-Chinese fighters have operated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region since the mid-1990s. When the Taliban gained control of most of Afghanistan, it allowed al-Qaeda to fund and train militant groups on Afghan territory, including the ETIM, which was led by Hahsan Mehsum, an Uighur from China who had been imprisoned in Xinjiang in the early 1990s. However, after Mahsum was killed by Pakistani troops during a raid near the Afghan border in 2003, the ETIM was never heard of again in Jihadi media, although the Chinese government still blames attacks on “the ETIM.” In late 2007, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) emerged under the leadership of Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who was later killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in 2010. The TIP endorsed the same objectives as the ETIM—to “liberate” Xinjiang (which both groups refer to as “East Turkistan”) from the Chinese “occupiers.”
The TIP’s propaganda is more impressive than its resume in carrying out attacks. For instance, in 2008, a TIP commander claimed in a video that the TIP carried out bombings in the run up to the Olympics on buses in Kunming and Shanghai and a building in Wenzhou, but in all three cases there were plausible other reasons for those explosions. The TIP also claimed an attack in Hotan on July 15, 2011, which involved as many as 18 Uighurs who allegedly used homemade materials to set off explosions in a local police bureau where they attempted to take people hostage and attack people with axes and knives. However, there was no clear evidence to prove that this was the work of the TIP and not a protest turned violent.
In July 2008, the TIP began publishing a 50-plus page Arabic-language online magazine replete with articles about the “crimes” of the Chinese Communists and other issues related to jihad. Called Islamic Turkistan, the tenth edition appeared on the Shmukh al-Islam online forum in April 2012. The TIP has also posted dozens of videos of its leaders giving sermons in Uyghur language — sometimes dubbed in Arabic, Turkish and Russian language — and of its fighters training in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. One video released in September 2011 was notable for showing one of the fighters from an attack in Kashgar on July 30 and 31, 2011, training with the TIP in the mountainous areas of what appears to be Pakistan.
The TIP’s most recent written statement was posted in Arabic language on the Ansar al-Mujahideen online forum on April 23, 2012 in response to the Ministry of Public Security’s posting of the profiles of six alleged Uighur terrorists on its website. The TIP statement said, “the jihad of Turkistan … is a legitimate right for the Muslims of Turkistan;” “The purpose of the Chinese government from these lists is to cut the link between the mujahidin and the Muslims morally and materially and safeguard its rule in Eastern Turkistan;” and, in a reference to Pakistan, “[anyone] who has one iota of humanity won’t accept handing over the Mujahidin of East Turkistan…”
IMPLICATIONS: The February 28 attack in Yecheng was not claimed by the TIP, showed no signs of having been orchestrated from abroad, and would have been extremely rudimentary for a foreign-orchestrated attack given that no firearms or explosives were used. According to Chinese sources, around ten Uighurs rushed into a commercial market and stabbed 13 people to death with axes and knives, after which security forces shot several of the attackers dead and arrested several others, including the alleged “mastermind.”
By calling out Pakistan after the Yecheng attack, China shows that even when attacks in Xinjiang are not directly linked to Pakistan on an operational level, it still holds Pakistan at least partially responsible. The jihadist ideology that festers in Pakistan’s tribal regions may embolden Uighurs in Xinjiang to challenge Chinese authority through violence, as opposed to remaining passive or engaging in protests which — as in Urumqi in 2009 — are unlikely to affect change on some of the religious, cultural, language or economic issues that Uighurs care about. China is concerned that the few Uighurs who have trained in the tribal regions in Pakistan may return to Xinjiang and influence locals to carry out jihad. After the Kashgar attacks on July 30 and 31, 2011, China said that “the heads of the group had learned skills of making explosives and firearms in overseas camps of the ETIM in Pakistan before entering Xinjiang to organize terrorist activities” and that they then recruited locals who “adhered to extremist religious ideology and advocated jihad.”
On a broader level, the TIP’s prevalence on online jihadist forums heightens the risk that “East Turkistan” will become recognized as part and parcel of the global jihad movement along with other theatres, such as Chechnya. The TIP leader who claimed responsibility for the 2011 Hotan and Kashgar attacks, Abdul Shakoor al-Turkistani, is also on the Shura Council of al-Qaeda and has close ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Pakistani Taliban. In a post-2014 security environment in which the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is reduced, China will be the most powerful adversary for Turkic Jihadis in Central Asia, more than Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are also the targets of groups like the IMU and Jund al-Khilafa.
Ultimately, TIP propaganda presents a direct threat to China’s sovereignty over Xinjiang, and the attacks that it either directs or influences undermine stability in Xinjiang by hurting trade and inter-ethnic relations. China’s placing blame on Pakistan is likely intended to force Pakistan to crack down on Uighur militants in the tribal regions or grant concessions to China on Pakistani territory. Chinese officials have warned that China could intervene in Pakistan or Afghanistan if “violent forces in Xinjiang gain ground,” but this is a stretch. More likely, Pakistan would allow China to have military bases or intelligence facilities in its tribal areas, though not necessarily publicly announced. This higher level of military cooperation would allow China greater ability to prevent anti-Chinese militants in the tribal areas from entering China, while also allowing China and Pakistan to counter-balance against their regional rival, India.
CONCLUSIONS: China and Pakistan’s five decades of shared strategic interests will withstand any friction that develops between the two countries over Pakistan’s inability to root out militant groups like the TIP. The TIP is more of a thorn in the side of China than a real military threat given that at best it has orchestrated only a few unsophisticated attacks inside of Xinjiang. China’s “strike-hard” campaign to combat “imported” and homegrown terrorism in Xinjiang has already led to the deployment of some Chinese forces in remote areas of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. This may very well be the beginning of expanded security ties between China and Pakistan not only to combat terrorism, but also to counter-balance against India and to prepare for the eventuality of a power vacuum in Afghanistan with the impending reduction of U.S and NATO forces there.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation who specializes in insurgent movements in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Nigeria. He studied at Xinjiang University in 2010 and works as a legal advisor and international security analyst in Washington, DC. gin with depoliticizing the debate.