Is China Making Its Own Terrorism Problem Worse?

Beijing says radicalized members of its Uighur minority are terrorists with ties to the Islamic State and al Qaeda, but its repressive policies may be helping to fuel the violence.


When an SUV crashed through a crowd at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in late 2013, killing two bystanders and injuring 40, it didn’t take Chinese officials long to name culprits. The attackers, they said, had been members of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, with “links to many international extremist terrorist groups.” Police said they found a flag bearing jihadi emblems in the crashed vehicle and blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, a group named after the independent state China says some Uighurs want to establish in the far-western region of Xinjiang. After the attack, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called ETIM “China’s most direct and realistic security threat.”

Beijing has long characterized cases of Uighur violence as organized acts of terrorism and accused individual attackers of having ties to international jihadi groups. Back in 2001, China released a document claiming that “Eastern Turkistan” terrorists had received training from Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and then “fought in combats in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan, or returned to Xinjiang for terrorist and violent activities.” Since then, China has frequently blamed ETIM for violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

But scholars, human rights groups, and Uighur advocates argue that China is systematically exaggerating the threat Uighurs pose to justify its repressive policies in Xinjiang. The region’s onetime-majority Uighur population of roughly 10 million, which is ethnically Turkic, has been marginalized for decades by ethnic Han Chinese migrants that Beijing has encouraged to move there in the hope that they’d help integrate the restive region into China.

The repression has been getting worse. Since the region’s bloody ethnic clashes in 2009, the government has increased regulations on Muslim practices, restricting veils and beards and strictly enforcing rules that prohibit many from fasting during Ramadan or visiting mosques. Heightened security operations have led in some cases to imprisonment, executions, and suspected torture. Government materials about how to spot extremists (hint: they tend to look like Uighurs) elide religiosity with terrorism.

Now, with the rise of the Islamic State, China has again ramped up its claims  about Uighurs waging international jihad. Chinese government-run Global Times asserted in December that about 300 Chinese “extremists” were fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and in January  that another 300 had traveled to Malaysia en route to joining the group. The reports suggested that many were “terrorists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” On Thursday,  Global Times said ISIS had executed one of these Uighur recruits in September and two in December when they tried to flee its control, attributing the information to an anonymous Kurdish official.

Many experts dismiss Global Times’s numbers. “I assume there are Uighurs joining ISIS, but I also assume the numbers are quite small in comparison to other groups throughout the world,” said Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor who studies the minority group. “We’re probably talking about 20 to 30 people max.” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong-Kong-based senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, called Chinese media’s figure of 300 “implausibly high.”

It’s likely that the rise of the Islamic State has given a­ few disenfranchised young Uighurs a cause to fight and potentially die for. Still, experts say any increase in Uighur extremism is largely due to the fact that the very policies China says are meant to combat terrorism have actually made the threat worse.

Chinese reports about hundreds of Uighurs fighting with the Islamic State are likely “intended to make the Uighurs look as if they’re a threat, an Islamist terrorist organization,” said Dru Gladney, an anthropologist who studies ethnic identities in China. Several international media outlets have repeated the numbers from Chinese media. But China’s inflated claims are ultimately counterproductive, Gladney said. “They create more fear and marginalization, which exacerbates the problem.”

China isn’t wholly inventing the threat. Propaganda material from a group China links to ETIM that calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) suggests there are at least 30 to 40 Uighur jihadis in Syria and Iraq, according to Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Aaron Zelin, who runs the website TIP has an increasingly active online presence that includes footage of young children firing guns in mountain valleys. In recent years, it has also claimed responsibility for attacks like the Tiananmen Square SUV incident via videos in which its purported leader, Abdullah Mansour, has called for more attacks.

But many researchers doubt TIP’s claims, as its accounts of attacks often contradict facts on the ground that don’t seem to indicate the sophistication of internationally organized terrorist operations. The general consensus, according to Georgetown professor James Millward, is that radicalized Uighur expats, who mostly seem to be based in Pakistan rather than Iraq and Syria, haven’t provided any operational support for recent violence in China, but rather just propaganda. And any who are fighting with Middle Eastern jihadi groups don’t seem to be rising very high in their ranks, said Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at London’s Royal United Services Institute.

China, however, has been quick to label moderate Uighurs who speak out as radicals. Last year a Xinjiang court sentenced Uighur professor Ilham Tohti to life in prison on charges of “separatism,” for running a website that discussed Uighur experiences in the region. The United States condemned Tohti’s sentence, with Secretary of State John Kerry warning that silencing moderate voices “can only make tensions worse.”

Indeed, acts of apparent Uighur terrorism within China have risen sharply over the past couple years. An attack last March by eight knife-wielding men and women at a train station in Yunnan province’s city of Kunming left 29 dead and at least 130 wounded. In April, people armed with knives and explosives killed three and injured 79 at the railway station in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. The next month, attackers crashed two cars into shoppers at an Urumqi market and set off explosives, killing 31 and injuring more than 90.

The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, the leading advocacy organization for the minority (which uses an alternate spelling of the group’s name), condemns violence but says China uses the threat of terrorism to stifle peaceful dissent as well. Alim Seytoff, the Washington spokesman for the group, told Foreign Policy by email that he didn’t know whether any Uighurs had joined ISIS, but if they had, “they by no means represent the vast majority of peace-loving Uyghur people, just as those who joined ISIS from the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Europe by no means represent the freedom-loving peoples of America, Great Britain, Australia and Europe.” In order to deflect criticism of its Xinjiang policies, China is “conflating the Uyghur people’s legitimate demands for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy with international Islamic terrorism,” he said.

Gladney, the anthropologist, said any Uighurs with ties to ISIS were more likely driven by resentment of China than by aims of global jihad. They may want militant training to fight China and even to establish a Uighur state, he said, but they’re less interested in creating  a global caliphate. Analysts also note that those who do desire a global caliphate seem to have little more than a passing interest in Uighurs’ relatively parochial aspirations, despite some token gestures, such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s reference to Chinese violations of Muslim rights last July, and exaggerated claims about such abuses made last fall by an al Qaeda-run magazine.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear if the group Beijing singles out as the greatest threat, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, comprises a distinct, self-identified terrorist entity or a looser grouping of individuals. The Chinese government first mentioned ETIM in a vaguely sourced document in 2001, shortly after then-U.S. President George W. Bush announced his “global war on terror.” In it, China called the group “a major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.”

United States seemed to agree that ETIM posed a real threat, listing the group as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group in 2002 and detaining 22 Uighurs captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan at Guantánamo Bay. Some were held for more than a decade, though the United States later acknowledged that it didn’t have adequate evidence against them. Just over a year ago it sent the last three to Slovakia — one of a handful of small countries that agreed to host them.

But George Washington University’s Roberts concluded in a 2012 paper titled “Imaginary Terrorism?” that Washington also may have inflated the Uighur threat. The Uighur detainees at Guantánamo who said they’d received jihadi training described a training camp in Afghanistan that amounted to a small, run-down shack. The highlight, in Roberts’s words: “A one-time opportunity to fire a few bullets with the only Kalashnikov rifle that was available at the camp.” Although detainees expressed anger about Chinese rule, they all denied belonging to ETIM, and many said they’d never heard of the group.

Roberts has argued that the United States may have backed China’s claims about ETIM in order to cement China’s support for the occupation of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq. Nevertheless, various international terrorism analysts continued to perpetuate the allegations about ETIM in work that cited government statements as their primary sources. According to Georgetown’s Millward, China uses this echo chamber of supposed evidence about ETIM to keep alive the idea of an international Uighur threat, conflating ETIM with the newer, propaganda-producing Turkistan Islamic Party.

A U.S. State Department official told Foreign Policy that the United States designated ETIM a terrorist group “after careful study,” having concluded that its members were responsible for terrorism in China and were planning attacks on U.S. interests abroad, but declined to specify the sources of this information. The official added that the government still maintains this listing. Officials at Washington’s Chinese Embassy and China’s State Council didn’t return repeated calls and emails seeking comment.

What worries Human Rights Watch’s Bequelin, as several countries including the United States move to scale up counterterrorism cooperation with China, isn’t so much that other countries believe China’s inflated claims. It’s more that the need to cooperate on security and other goals may mean de facto acceptance of, or even practical assistance for, China’s repressive policies.

The State Department official said the United States hopes to discuss how to enhance counterterrorism cooperation with China at an upcoming White House summit on countering violent extremism in February, and appreciates China’s aid to Iraq and support for U.N. resolutions aimed at stopping foreign fighters from joining extremist groups. “At the same time we continue to urge China to take measures to reduce tension and reform counterproductive policies in Xinjiang that restrict Uighurs’ ethnic and religious identity,” the official said.

But for now, there aren’t too many promising signs from Xinjiang. And China isn’t the only place taking a hard line. Over the past year, governments from the U.K. to Kosovo to Jordan have been accused of clamping down on civil liberties or political opponents in the name of counterterrorism, some basing their actions to seize passports and detain suspects on the U.S.-backed U.N. foreign fighters resolution. Several Xinjiang experts draw parallels between radicalized Uighurs and young men from other countries drawn to extremism in part due to Islamophobia or alienation at home.

So far, the one Chinese national known to have been captured  while fighting for ISIS appeared to be Han Chinese — despite initial Chinese allegations  that he was Uighur. But some Uighurs still face particular suspicion about their aims. In March, Thailand detained more than 200 Uighurs within its borders, and although the group comprised families with several young children, Thai police asserted that they were headed to fight in Syria.

The families were among growing numbers of Uighurs seeking to flee Chinese repression via Southeast Asia. Their ultimate destination is usually Turkey, where many sympathize with Uighurs because they are also a Turkic people. In recent years, Uighur emigrants skirting tightened border regimes in Central Asia and Pakistan have turned up in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well as Thailand. The Kunming train station attackers may have been provoked to violence in part because Chinese officials thwarted their attempt to cross into Laos.

It’s possible that reasons other than Chinese influence caused Thai authorities to conclude that the apprehended migrants, who claimed to be Turkish, were headed to Syria, said Pantucci of London’s RUSI. “The problem now is that Turkey is the staging point for Syria, so the perception is if they’re trying to go to Turkey, they must be trying to go to Syria.”

Although some escaped from custody, many of the families detained in Thailand are still in limbo. China demands their repatriation and rejects Turkey’s offer to take them in; human rights advocates warn that China is likely to mistreat them — the same reason the United States didn’t send the Gitmo detainees back to China.

As for Xinjiang, Gladney said, there are “growing concerns at all levels of Chinese society” — even among some government wonks — that China’s policies aren’t working. Many believe the “western development” strategy meant to lift minorities out of poverty and integrate them into Chinese society, as well as the “strike hard” campaign of the past several years, have only stoked further resentment and violence, spread alarm through the population, and drawn more international attention to Uighurs’ plight. As scholars long predicted, China’s actions against a perceived Uighur threat seem to have actually made that threat more real. “Twenty years ago people thought I was crazy talking about Uighurs,” Gladney said. “Now there’s lots of interest.”

Despite increased attention at home and abroad, Gladney didn’t see China making significant changes to its Xinjiang policy any time soon. “But they may tweak it,” he said, “and that will be the thing to watch.”

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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