Fears are rising in China that the weekend violence in Xinjiang is but the first skirmish in a larger war ahead.
Thirteen months before a missile fired from a Predator drone ended his life, the head of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) videotaped his final testament at his base in Pakistan's troubled North Waziristan.
“My Muslim brothers in East Turkestan,” said Memtimin Memet in a January 2009 address released on jihadist websites linked to al-Qaeda. “We failed to follow the tenets of our faith, and instead supported our enemies — who enforced communism upon us, raped our women, violated the sanctity of our homes, invaded our land, and stole our wealth.” “Preparing to fight these atheist communists,” a narrator continued, “is an obligation upon every Muslim.”
Last week, members of Memet's jihadist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Party, drove a hijacked truck into a crowd in downtown Kashgar, before jumping out and hacking at passers-by with knives. Later, another group set fire to a restaurant in the city, and again carried out knife attacks. Fourteen people were killed, and at least 41 injured. Kashgar's administration said that one of four captured attackers had trained at a TIP camp in Pakistan.
For China, the killings are troubling news. Ever since 9/11, the TIP, like its sister-organisations targeting central Asia, has struggled to survive in the face of relentless assault by the United States and its allies, But, as the U.S. prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, Pakistan has ever-diminishing incentives to continue with its fitful — and destabilising — war against jihadist bases in North Waziristan. Fears are rising in China, as in much of central Asia, that the weekend violence in Xinjiang is but the first skirmish in a larger war ahead.
Of strategic importance
Perched at Asia's crossroads — with western borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — Xinjiang is of enormous strategic importance to China, and the region. Pipelines carrying Kazakh gas to feed China's rapidly-growing eastern seaboard traverse Xinjiang; the region itself is the site of some of the country's most ambitious developmental projects. For centuries a protectorate of distant emperors in Beijing, Xinjiang became part of modern China in 1949 after decades of violent rebellions and wars.
Xingjian's Uighur community is estimated to make up eight to 10 million of the region's 21 million population — a population that includes a welter of ethnic groups, including other Chinese Muslims like the Hui, as well as clusters of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Founded in 1993 — then known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement — the TIP was the product of the same local and global forces which gave rise to jihadism elsewhere in Asia.
Like other regions in China, the modernising impact of the order saw enormous cultural and political dislocations after the revolution — among them, the removal of traditional feudal élites and the marginalisation of powerful Muslim clerics. The Soviet Union's intelligence services are also said to have backed East Turkestan separatists after the superpower's 1961 rupture with China.
But the birth of the modern Islamism in Xinjiang, as opposed to the traditionalist-leaning secessionists, was forged in another crucible: the great anti-Soviet Union jihad that tore Afghanistan apart from 1979. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs are reputed to have participated in the jihad, returning home empowered with the belief that a superpower could be successfully defeated through insurgent warfare. In 1993, Hasan Mahsum and Abdukadir Yapuquam, both residents of the town of Hotan, founded the ETIM to spearhead this cause. Both men are known to have met Osama bin Laden; their cadre fought alongside the Taliban.
In February 1997, Xinjiang's jihadists took centre stage. Nine Uighurs were killed when police fired on violent mobs protesting the execution of several secessionist activists — a clash now known as the Ghulja incident. The TIP carried out its first major terrorist operation, bombing three buses in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi — killing nine people, including three children, and injuring dozens.
Hasan Mahsum had, by this time, relocated the TIP's headquarters to Kabul, under the Taliban's patronage. In the wake of 9/11, though, much of the organisation's infrastructure was wiped out — and it retreated into North Waziristan. Even though Mahsum died in combat with Pakistani troops in 2003, that country's intelligence services have estimated that upwards of a 1,000 operatives remained in camps under the patronage of jihadist warlords like Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri.
From January 2007, evidence began to emerge of the lethality of the Pakistan-based jihadists' ambitions. That month, a raid on a training camp inside Xinjiang claimed the life of 18 insurgents. Investigators found an hour-long videotape, which included a call by the Syrian al-Qaeda ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasar mentioning China as a target for the global jihadist movement. The video also contained footage of Uighur jihadists training with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and shoulder-fired missiles.
Then, in 2008, startling evidence emerged during the trial of Malika el-Aroud — the wife of the assassin of the anti-Taliban Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud — and her new husband, Moez Garsallaoui. In 2008, in proceedings in a Belgian court, a witness — identified, for legal reasons, only by the initials ‘WO'— stated that the largest group of jihadists in Pakistan's north-west was from China.
Evidence of the TIP's intentions became increasingly clear in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics. In March 2008, crew on a Beijing-bound China Southern flight foiled an attempted mid-air suicide bombing by 19-year-old Guzalinur Turdi — trained, it emerged, in Pakistan. There were successes for the jihadists, too: in August 2008, terrorists killed 16 police officers in a raid in Kashgar, following that up by crashing a truck laden with explosives into a police station in Kuqa.
Killings like these were likely intended to precipitate a civilisational rupture between Muslims and non-Muslims in a country that has one of the largest Muslim populations, and vibrant Islamic traditions. In a six-minute video released in 2008, the TIP commander Emeti Yakuf warned Muslims not to bring their children to the Olympics, saying “do not stay on the same bus, on the same train, on the same plane, in the same buildings, or any place the Chinese are.”
Large-scale communal riots broke out in Xinjiang, the worst ethnic-sectarian violence China had seen in decades — a sign. More than 192 people were killed, about two thirds of them from the country's ethnic-Han majority; thousands more were injured. The violence had begun after two members from Xingjian's Uighur Muslim community were killed in a factory brawl in south-eastern China's Guangdong province — sparking off violent protests in their home province.
Libyan-born Muhammad Hasan Abu Bakr, al-Qaeda's top ideologue issued a videotaped declaration in response to these events. “This massacre,” he said, “is not being carried out by criminal Crusaders or evil Jews.” But it was, nonetheless, “a duty for Muslims today to stand by their wounded and oppressed brothers in East Turkestan and support them with all they can.”
For three reasons, China's intelligence and security services are taking these threats seriously. First, as an increasingly global actor, China has become evermore vulnerable to transnational terrorism. Last summer, authorities in Dubai convicted Pakistan-trained Xinjiang resident Mayma Ytiming Shalmo for planning to bomb a shopping mall selling Chinese products.
Chinese nationals working overseas have increasingly been attacked: in 2007, three workers were assassinated in Peshawar, while al-Qaeda's regional franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, killed a Chinese engineer in a 2009 ambush. There have been attacks too, on Chinese workers in Pakistan's Baluchistan province and Afghanistan's Faryab region.
Second, ETIM and its affiliates are a regional concern — threatening the arc of States to China's west which are crucial to its energy security. The TIP is known to have worked closely with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has waged brutal campaigns in the country of its birth, as well as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Back in 2002, Uzbek President Islam Karimov bluntly said the “Pakistani authorities have done nothing to detain bandits from Uzbekistan who were trained in Afghanistan and took part in the al-Qaeda.”
Third, there is the obvious: unlike India, China has succeeded in averting large-scale communal strife, using its rapid economic growth to defuse the ethnic-religious tensions which have, inevitably, arisen in times of momentous change. Events like the 2009 riots, though, drove home the point that terrorism posed a real threat to internal peace within China.
Role of Pakistan
Pakistan holds the key: but a decade's worth of experience has made it clear to the world just how difficult it is to compel it to act. Now, China faces the strategic challenge of balancing its durable strategic relationship with Pakistan against the costs of its ally's profound unwillingness to confront Islamist violence.
In a recent paper, scholar Mohan Guruswamy noted that Chinese strategists were increasingly worried “about the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets and fear the takeover of Pakistan by fundamentalist elements.”
In 2009, Pakistani diplomat Masood Khan had gushing words of praise of his country's relationship with Beijing: it was, he said, “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, stronger than steel, all-weather and time-tested.”
How much longer that holds true will depend on how well the world's two pre-eminent powers are able to work together to find solutions to what is, without dispute, emerging as the world's principal shared security challenge.