China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Posted: March 26, 2017 in Australian Strategic Policy Institute
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Going to catch up on a batch of belated posting today, starting with a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) annual counter-terrorism yearbook looking in particular at what China has been up to in 2016.

China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Raffaello Pantucci

Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

In August 2016, China experienced what appears to have been the first targeted terrorist attack against one of its embassies.1 A Uygur suicide bomber drove a car into China’s diplomatic compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, exploding it outside the ambassador’s residence; the attacker was the only fatality, but three Kyrgyz employees were injured. While Kyrgyz authorities were quick to link the attack to a Syrian-based network—although publicly available evidence to date has been limited—for Beijing the attack was the manifestation of an increased threat from Uygur groups, which had now spread beyond China to threaten Chinese interests abroad. Clear and substantial connections between Uygur groups and international terrorist networks were also confirmed in 2016.

During the year, China increased its external security presence to mitigate these threats, while attempting to balance this against its longstanding practice of non-interference. At home, it has continued a hardline approach to managing the Uygur issue in Xinjiang, and 2016 marked a new level of regional control in the region, including an almost complete halt to media reporting of security-related incidents.

China’s terrorist threat comes primarily from the divisions in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, where a Uygur minority resents rule from Beijing.2 That resentment has expressed itself through social tensions, an exodus of Uygurs from the country and violence against the state. Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the problem. In the rst instance, it has invested heavily in the region economically (including the‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which has opened Xinjiang to regional trading markets), but at the same time launching regular ‘strike hard’ campaigns deploying heavy security measures to control the region and enacting new regional and national CT legislation.

Beijing’s focus on terrorism is primarily concerned with Chinese Uygurs, something that has attracted some international and human rights concern as potentially unfairly dealing with its own minority citizens.3 The national CT legislation has similarly attracted criticism for not balancing strong CT measures with transparent and fair judicial process, as well as for a broad de nition of terrorism that may be at odds with international law standards for free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful protest.

Reported terrorist incidents within China decreased in 2016, and then-regional Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian stated in March that ‘violent terrorist incidents have dropped signi cantly.’4 Indeed, only one incident was reported: an attack on 29 December in Moyu (or Karakax) County in southern Xinjiang, where a group drove explosive-laden cars into a local Communist Party office. Reporting on casualties was mixed, although o cial sources reported that three attackers, one security official and one bystander were killed.5 The explosives, while rudimentary, appeared to demonstrate an increased level of sophistication for attacks in the region.

While this incident capped an otherwise quiet year, non-state sources suggest that more was going on but not being publicly reported. The day after the incident in Moyu/Karakax County, a report published by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, claimed that more than 1,000 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year weren’t reported in the press.6 The precipitous drop in reported incidents is indeed surprising, given previous levels of violence, which had been variously estimated at between a few hundred and 2,000 fatalities per year since 2013, but is difficult to evaluate due to the difficulties of undertaking independent research in the region.7

The reported decrease in incidents may be a product of a more aggressive government security posture in the region. In August, the regional government passed CT legislation supplementing national legislation passed earlier in the year. The local legislation was seen as far more wide-ranging than the national laws, focusing in particular on recruitment and radicalisation, the dissemination of extremist material (the definition of which was also expanded) and the deradicalisation of prisoners.8 Soon after its passage, a large CT exercise was undertaken in southern Xinjiang—the part of the region that remains majority Uygur—involving around 3,000 personnel and testing 21 new types of ‘high-tech equipment, including drones, assault rotorcraft and all-terrain assault vehicles’.9

The security approach was further sharpened during the year through changes to the regional party leadership. Leader Zhang Chunxian was moved to the post of Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building and replaced by Chen Quanguo, the former party chief in Tibet. Upon arriving in the region, Chen immediately introduced hardline policies re ecting those used in Tibet, including establishing a region-wide network of ‘convenience’ police stations, providing increased state presence and surveillance. Recruiting drives for security officers were launched in Xinjiang and neighbouring regions to increase the number available for deployment.10 The importance Chen attaches to shows of strength was demonstrated in the wake of the Moyu/Karakax County attack, when he hosted a large public oath-taking ceremony and CT exercise in Urumqi.11 Nevertheless, this heavy approach to security appears to be unable to completely address the region’s problems, and the attack at the end of the year showed that local anger can still erupt into violence that gets to public attention despite the government crackdown.

Outside China, Beijing has also faced an increasingly worrying threat picture. The August attack in Bishkek followed a growing number of worrying indicators that Uygur militant groups outside the country were gaining strength.

The Syria and Iraq battlefields have also provided opportunities for anti-Chinese groups to link with Islamist terrorist groups. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the main Uygur terrorist group.

TIP’s close link with al-Qaeda was confirmed earlier in the year through a series of videos released by the two groups. In May, the leader of TIP, Abdul Haq, who had previously been believed killed, re-emerged and released an audio message in which he attacked ISIS, praised al-Qaeda, and highlighted TIP’s proximity to the latter.12 In July, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video as part of a bigger series called ‘Islamic Spring’ in which he specifically praised the Uygur contribution to the jihad in Afghanistan and beyond and elevated leaders from the group into the pantheon of senior jihadi leaders.13 Both videos carried threats for China, but in many ways the most worrying aspect for Beijing was the clearly warm and public embrace shared by the two groups.

Al-Qaeda has historically had close links with Uygur militants (Abdul Haq was identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or leadership council, as early as 2005 14) but has shown little interest in dedicating resources to the Uygur cause. The videos suggested the possibility of a change.

In Syria, TIP ghts mainly alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham groups and regularly publishes videos showing large numbers of well-armed ghters engaged in combat across Syria, as well as releasing messages condemning Islamic State (IS) activity. While the main body of TIP fighters is engaged in ghting in Syria, Beijing considers that Abdul Haq is hiding in northern Afghanistan. The South Asian wing of the group appears to have moved into Afghanistan in response to the Pakistani Government’s Zarb-e-Azb push that ejected them from their previous base in Pakistan’s badlands.

Evidence from the Middle East shows that a substantial number of Uygurs have joined IS. Leaked IS documents indicate between 118 and 167 IS ghters are identifiably Chinese or Uygur. Additionally, Uygurs appear to have been picked up by Turkish authorities as part of the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul. Yet while IS has added China to its list of enemies, it hasn’t dedicated many resources to attacking it.

The patterns of TIP and other militant Uygur activity in Afghanistan and Syria go some way to explaining increased Chinese security activity in both countries. On 14 August, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Russian and Syrian security o cials in Damascus, where he pledged China’s training support to Syrian medical staff.15 In Afghanistan, building on a long history of engagement, China sought to establish a new regional security subgrouping, bringing together the army chiefs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and regional terrorist groups. Tajikistan has additionally publicly confirmed that China is helping to construct border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.16

Beyond warzones, Uygur militants have demonstrated increased contact with Southeast Asian terrorist groups. In August 2016, Indonesian authorities shot and killed a Uygur linked to the East Indonesia Mujahidin, one of the main terrorist groups in Indonesia, led by Santoso.17 This was the tenth Uygur killed alongside the group. The Uygur group was allegedly seeking training with the East Indonesia Mujahidin before returning to China. In November, Nur Muhammet Abdullah al Faris was jailed in Indonesia for his involvement with a network planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region. The network was also reportedly involved in people smuggling to help Uygurs flee China and in some cases receive terrorist training. Some reports indicate that the group received money from TIP (or, as it was identified in the reports, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which it was using to advance its own goals as well as to support terrorist training for Uygurs.18

These developments indicate increasingly deep and substantial connections between militant Uygur groups and international terrorist networks. This menacing picture for China underscores the increased need for China to act against the networks externally. The 2016 national CT law recognised this, providing a broader mandate for Chinese security forces to act outside national territory to disrupt terrorist networks. And, as discussed above, China is also increasing the substance and visibility of its security forces beyond its national territory.

The question that remains, however, is the extent to which China’s actions may be exacerbating the very threat that it seeks to mitigate. China’s Uygurs see themselves as a persecuted minority that’s subject to restrictive legislation not imposed on any other groups in China, including other Muslim minorities.19 While there’s been substantial economic investment into Xinjiang, it’s unclear whether the benefits are filtering down to the Uygur community or remaining primarily with the politically and economically dominant Han community. And the lack of information coming out of the region means that it’s impossible to independently evaluate whether the ‘strike hard’ campaign has delivered results.

Certainly, the move of Zhang Chunxian from Xinjiang to Beijing and his replacement by former Tibet party leader Chen Quanguo suggests that the central leadership had mixed feelings about Zhang’s tenure in the region, although it’s hard to discern whether his move was related to failed policies in Xinjiang or his factional connections. Within Xinjiang, it appears that a hard line is taken against officials for failure in areas where attacks occur. A recent report indicated that the party chief in Moyu/Karakax County and the party secretary of Hotan Prefecture (where Moyu/Karakax is located) were both under investigation by the Discipline Inspection Committee for corruption and dereliction of duty, seemingly linking these investigations to the security failures associated with the 29 December incident.20

China’s terrorist problem continues to grow. Last year marked a new point with the attack on the Bishkek Embassy, and the broader threat indicators are not positive. As China continues to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, its nationals and companies are increasingly going to dangerous countries and potentially finding themselves in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups.21 Also, whereas previously China was able to shield itself from attack somewhat because terrorist groups saw the US and the broader West as their targets, this will change as Uygurs rise up the ranks of international terrorist networks and China assumes a more prominent role in international affairs.

Another side to China’s growing outward push reflects the country’s increasing desire to assert itself internationally and become a more normalised security actor in international affairs. While this is reflected in continuing assertiveness in China’s maritime relationships, on land it’s often seen through the lens of CT, on which China finds a more accommodating international consensus. For Beijing, CT offers a more acceptable way to test the limits of its ability to assert its security interests abroad. But the complicated domestic nature of China’s Uygur issue has led to some calls of concern from members of the international community. At the same time, however, Beijing finds an increasingly worrying international terrorism threat picture connected with its domestic concerns, requiring a more assertive posture. In future, it’s likely that these trends mean that Beijing will continue to crack down at home while expanding its efforts abroad.

Notes

  1. Chinese compounds have previously been struck by terrorist or insurgent networks, but the strikes have typically been incidental to being in a warzone and not speci cally targeted, or have been small-scale individual attacks, as seen in Bishkek in 2009.
  2. China has also faced a number of other incidents that have a terroristic aspect to them, including mass stabbings, occasional bombings and shootings, although for the most part those incidents have tended to be linked to individuals’ complaints against the state.
  3. See, for example, Javier C Hernandez, ‘China says 5 killed in attack on Communist Party o ce in Xinjiang’, New York Times, 29 December 2016, online.
  4. ‘“Violent terrorism” in China’s Xinjiang has dropped: party official’, Reuters, 8 March 2016.
  5. Cui Jia, ‘Terrorists strike, but progress made,’ China Daily, 30 December 2016.
  6. Kenji Kawase, ‘More than 1,000 violent clashes in restive Xinjiang this year’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 December 2016.
  7. See, for example, reporting in Richard Finney: ‘As many as 700 died in Xinjiang violence in last two years, rights group says,’ Radio Free Asia, 3 March 2015, online and ‘“At least 2,000 Uyghurs killed” in Yarkand violence: exile leader’, Radio Free Asia, 5 August 2014.
  8. Chong Koh Ping, ‘Xinjiang gets tough on terrorism’, Straits Times, 5 August 2016; ‘Xinjiang issues China’s rst local counterterrorism law’, Xinhua, 5 August 2016.
  9. ‘China’s armed police hold anti-terror exercise in Xinjiang’, Xinhua, 15 August 2016.
  10. James Leibold, Adrian Zenz, ‘Beijing’s eyes and ears grow sharper in Xinjiang’, Foreign A airs, 23 December 2016.
  11. Eva Li, ‘Show of force in Xinjiang sends hardline message’, South China Morning Post, 3 January 2017.
  12. Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, ‘Turkistan Islamic Party leader criticizes the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate’, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016.
  13. Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of “Islamic Spring” series’, Long War Journal, 7 July 2016.
  14. UN Security Council Subsidiary Organs,‘QDi.268 Abdul Haq, reasons for listing’, UN Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning ISIL (Da’esh) Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals Groups Undertakings and Entities, summary published 13 August 2009, online.
  15. Christopher Bodeen, ‘Chinese admiral visits Syria in show of support’, Associated Press, 18 August 2016.
  16. ‘China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan–Afghanistan border,’ Reuters, 26 September 2016.
  17. Ruslan Sangadji, ‘Last Uighur of MIT shot dead’, Jakarta Post, 18 August 2016.
  18. Nivell Rayda, ‘Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia,’ The Australian, 6 September 2016.
  19. Alice Su, ‘China doesn’t mind Islamic extremists’, Foreign Policy, 16 December 2016.
  20. Jun Mai, ‘China probes senior Xinjiang party o cials days after deadly bomb attack’, South China Morning Post, 5 January 2017.
  21. The Belt and Road Initiative, also called ‘One Belt, One Road’, is China’s broad-ranging economic development and trade initiative, aiming to increase prosperity through developing land and maritime trading links. A feature of the initiative relevant to terrorism and CT is infrastructure development across areas in China and neighbouring Central Asia.
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