The Xinjiangistan Connection

With terror attacks on the rise, officials in Beijing are increasingly worried that Pakistan is an incubator of Islamic radicalism across China.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

When the Pakistani army launched its campaign in the militant-riddled tribal region North Waziristan in June, it was tempting to attribute the operation to U.S. pressure. For many years, Washington has been urging Pakistan to move against this terrorist haven, situated in the northwest corner of the country on the Afghan border. Indeed, only weeks earlier, the U.S. Congress made the initiation of operations there — which involved tens of thousands of Pakistani troops and the evacuation of nearly half a million people — a precondition for future military assistance. But the security needs of China, Pakistan’s "all-weather friend," probably proved even more important than Congress in Islamabad’s calculations.

China is struggling with its worst series of terrorist attacks in decades. Xinjiang, a Muslim region in China’s northwest bordering Pakistan, has long been wracked with tension between the Chinese government, the swelling ranks of Han Chinese migrants, and the native population of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people. Especially over the last year, disgruntled Uighurs — often acting in armed groups demanding greater autonomy or a fully independent state of East Turkistan — have been a thorn in Beijing’s side. Chinese state media reported that on July 29, dozens of people were killed or injured after a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station in Xinjiang — only the latest in a long series of deadly incidents in that region.

Worryingly, the violence has started to spread to China’s urban centers. In October, a suicide attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square killed six and injured 39; in March 2014, black-clad, knife-wielding assailants killed 29 and left scores more injured at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming. An April visit to Xinjiang by President Xi Jinping, intended to show China’s resolve in the battle against terrorism, was punctuated by a bomb attack on Urumqi’s railway station.

While the Uighurs’ closest ethnic and political links are with Central Asia and Turkey, Pakistan is their connection to militant Islam. And ground zero for Uighur militants is the anarchic Pakistani tribal areas. For years, Beijing has been pressing Pakistan to take action against Uighur militants and their Central Asian supporters, the militant group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), for whom North Waziristan has been an operational hub. The recent campaign notwithstanding, Pakistan’s failure to deal with Uighur militants operating from its territory has become the single greatest sore point in the relationship.

It’s a potentially expensive problem for Pakistan: since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power in June 2013, China has vastly increased its level of economic commitment to the country, from 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants to major infrastructure projects connecting Xinjiang to the Chinese-run port at Gwadar. The scale of the ambitions, which run to tens of billions of dollars, is potentially transformative. Yet realizing these projects — and maintaining the deep trust that has been built over decades — hinges on Islamabad handling its militancy issue in a way that successfully accommodates Chinese concerns. The Chinese political and military leadership has decided to expand investments in Pakistan, but security is still a big problem, explained one Chinese official who works on counterterrorism issues. Earlier this year, Islamabad reportedly decided to provide "army-backed security" for Chinese companies working in Pakistan. It is the Pakistan-linked threats to the Chinese mainland, however, that are Beijing’s greatest concern.

The rise of the Pakistani tribal areas as an incubator of Uighur militancy is a relatively new problem. Until roughly 2008, Islamabad generally responded with alacrity to Beijing’s requests, whether deporting Uighur students, closing down Uighur community centers, or killing purported terrorists. Despite the presence of a well-established Uighur population of roughly 3,000 in Pakistan, the East Turkistan cause there has at best been a peripheral one — even sympathetic religious parties have relegated it to the margins for the sake of the country’s relationship with China. And unlike the United States, which wanted to see action against a long list of extremist groups — some of which Pakistan’s intelligence services viewed as strategic assets — China’s limited objectives were relatively comfortable for Islamabad to accommodate.

The threat to China, in any case, was minimal. Although Beijing continued to invoke the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" (ETIM), which the United Nations listed as a terrorist organization in 2002, it was unclear that such an organization even existed after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Dozens of Uighur militants had arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas among the wave of foreign fighters who fled the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but it was a sorry band, entirely dependent for survival on larger, more capable Central Asian outfits such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 2003, the Pakistani army killed ETIM’s long-time leader, Hasan Mahsum, and in 2007 one of the Waziri tribal leaders expelled the Uighurs and their Uzbek hosts, after growing tensions over their tactics. China had by then gone nearly a decade without any notable militant attacks.

But since 2008, a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), largely based in North Waziristan, has claimed the ETIM mantle. After announcing itself with a series of video messages threatening attacks on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it has maintained media visibility ever since. According to sources present at the conversations, Chinese officials have told their Pakistani counterparts that they estimate TIP’s numbers to be as little as a few dozen, though some Pakistani sources put it at a few hundred. While TIP has eagerly claimed responsibility for several bombings in China, even officials in Beijing — normally eager to pin the blame on nefarious overseas forces — have refused to give the group credit for probably unrelated incidents. 

With the scale of the terrorist violence escalating, however, Chinese officials have started to point to the pernicious influence of jihadi ideology and tactics, even in the absence of operational support. Since 2008, TIP’s training camps have released a worrying amount of jihadi propaganda, including videos and statements. Beijing has also grown concerned about the degree to which TIP has become networked within the array of organizations operating in North Waziristan and beyond. The propaganda material from TIP is notable for being coordinated by Al Fajr, the jihadist media forum run by al Qaeda, giving them a reach — including Arabic translations — they had previously lacked. Beijing’s fear is not just for the impact in Xinjiang, but that the Uighur cause will attract support from a wider array of jihadi sympathizers. TIP leaders are already believed to have taken leadership positions in al Qaeda, and Uighur fighters have reportedly shown up as far afield as Syria, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.  

As the Uighur militant movement has assumed greater prominence over the last few years, Pakistan has grown less successful in addressing their operations. While Islamabad continues to hand over low-level operatives to the Chinese, TIP’s top leadership has gone virtually untouched since the killing of Mahsum more than a decade ago. In fact, the deadliest threat to Uighur militants has not been the Pakistani army but U.S. drones, which thinned out TIP’s top ranks during a series of missile strikes in North Waziristan between 2010 and 2012.

China understood Pakistan’s hesitation to launch a full-scale assault in North Waziristan — the presence of militant groups backed by its intelligence services, the risk of blowback, and the sheer numbers of troops required weighed heavily in Islamabad’s calculations. But Beijing has started to question whether the resilience of the Uighur militant groups might also be tied to religious sympathies among Pakistan’s armed forces.

Beijing appears to trust the top ranks of the Pakistani army — including the new Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif — but worries about the younger generations that have come through the system since the "Islamization" of Pakistani society and the army over the last 35 years. "We’re not worried about the generals, we’re worried about the brigadiers," one Chinese analyst put it. In other words, top officers are sufficiently secular for Chinese tastes; the lower ranks are not.

Privately, Chinese officials and experts complain that the Pakistanis have given Uighur militants a heads-up. "When we provide them with intelligence on ETIM locations they give warnings before launching their attacks," groused a Chinese analyst familiar with intelligence issues. Foreign intelligence services have even provided material to Chinese officials that purports to show Pakistani intelligence agents at TIP training camps. "We certainly think there’s a strong chance [Pakistani intelligence] has contacts and relationships with ETIM and the Uzbeks," said a Chinese official familiar with intelligence issues.

In public, Beijing has been careful not to blame Pakistan for recent developments in Xinjiang. Only officials in the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar — many of whom are seeking to deflect responsibility from their own political failings — have directly criticized Pakistan. But behind closed doors, there have been serious tensions.

During Sino-Pakistani military exchanges, while the public announcements focused on new defense deals, Chinese demands for further moves against ETIM took up a large part of the bilateral agenda, according to several current and former Chinese officials familiar with the talks. And Chinese analysts note a visible lack of willingness among some Pakistani officers to respond to Beijing’s requests. "We see it in their eyes when we’re sitting in the meetings," said a Chinese analyst with ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). "They’re not comfortable with what we’re asking."

The campaign in North Waziristan will help remedy China’s concerns. The Pakistani press has been full of stories about IMU and ETIM fighters killed in the first wave of attacks, and Pakistani lawmakers and officials have directly linked the operation to Chinese security interests. The plans for a longer-term army presence in the tribal agency mean that the prospects of militants re-establishing their training camps there in the next couple of years are slim. But China may be realizing — as the United States has over the last decade — that partnering with Islamabad in a war against terror is a frustrating process.

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