Xinjiang, a mineral-rich desert "autonomous region", has seen a history of ethnic tensions between the native Uighur Muslims and majority Han Chinese migrants.
Thursday’s bomb blast targeting a market in China’s western Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, which left at least 31 people killed and 94 injured, was only the latest of a series of daring and brazen attacks by Islamist groups that are, according to analysts in Beijing, demonstrating increasing willingness and capabilities to carry out high-profile attacks in major cities.
Thursday’s incident follows three attacks on railway stations since March 2014, which left more than 30 people killed and several hundred injured. On March 1, at least 29 people were killed when a group of apparently trained assailants, armed with long knives, attacked passengers in Kunming railway station, in southwestern Yunnan Province. The Kunming attack was blamed by authorities on Uighur extremist groups, who are campaigning for independence in Muslim-majority Xinjiang.
Xinjiang, a mineral-rich desert “autonomous region” that borders Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Central Asia has seen a history of ethnic tensions between the native Uighur Muslims and majority Han Chinese migrants since it came into the People’s Republic of China’s fold six decades ago.
Intermittent ethnic riots have broken out every few years. In 2009, at least 197 people were killed and more than a thousand injured as Uighur and Han clashed in Urumqi. While China has long blamed Uighur separatist groups for fomenting unrest, many Uighurs have pointed to rising disparities and restrictions on religion as fuelling anger and ethnic distrust.
What has dramatically changed in recent months, according to Pan Zhiping, a terrorism expert at the government-run Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi, is that some Uighur extremist groups have decided to take their fight outside of Xinjiang, targeting Chinese cities.
In October 2013, three Uighurs drove a explosive-laden vehicle into a crowd of tourists in the heart of Beijing — right on Tiananmen Square — killing two tourists.
The Kunming attack, according to Mr. Pan, also showed an altogether new level of organisation: eight attackers appeared well trained, he said, and by carrying out an attack in far-away Yunnan province demonstrated increased capabilities.
The timing of the spurt in attacks, and what has suddenly emboldened and enabled groups, is unclear. Chinese officials have blamed Uighur groups operating overseas for leading the attacks. Some officials believe leaders of the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) are hiding out in Pakistan, near the Afghan border.
On Thursday, visiting Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain, in Shanghai for a regional security summit, in strong terms pledged support to China and “combat the terrorists”, describing the ETIM as “a common enemy of Pakistan and China”.