On October 28, an Islamist suicide bomber struck Tiananmen Square in Beijing and killed two tourists. The Chinese government says that Islamist terrorists are its greatest threat, but Israeli intelligence found that Hamas has found China to be friendly territory.
China says that the bombing was carried out by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) that is based in China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang Province. It is populated by Uighurs, a minority that does not identify as Chinese and speak Turkic. The ETIM says it is fighting for independence.
The U.S. says it considers ETIM to be a threat because of its affiliations with Al-Qaeda. Two of its top leaders, including its founder, were killed in Pakistan in 2003 and 2010 by Pakistani soldiers. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, hundreds of Uighurs were hosted by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and 22 were captured by U.S. forces.
The United Nations says it has been led by a member of Al-Qaeda’s Shura Council and that ETIM has targeted U.S. interests in the past, including the embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The U.N. estimates its strength to be only around 200 members.
China expert Gordon Chang, however, told the Clarion Project to be skeptical of Chinese claims about the group.
“Except for spontaneous street fights between Han and Uighurs, mostly Uighur act of violence in Xinjiang has been directed against the Chinese authorities and not civilians,” he said in an interview prior to the suicide bombing.
The Council on Foreign Relations echoes his concerns that most information about the group comes from Chinese authorities and is not substantiated.
“Although the ETIM seeks to establish an independent Islamic regime, the majority of Uighurs do not support an Islamic state,” the Council on Foreign Relations says.
The Chinese government’s response to the bombing could result in renewed ethnic violence and open up a new battlefield for jihadists around the world.
Around 100 have been killed in fighting between Uighurs and Chinese security personnel this summer. Ethnic violence led to the deaths of 200 people in Xinjiang Province’s capital in a round of violence in 2009.
Islamists have condemned China for its oppression of the Uighurs, but there hasn’t been a rallying call like has been seen in countries like Syria. In 2009, a senior Al-Qaeda leader who has since been killed solicited Muslims to wage jihad against China.Al-Qaeda’s branch in North Africa threatened to attack Chinese workers.
In April 2012, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan made an unprecedented visit to the Turkic-speaking Xinjiang Province, raising the profile of the conflict there. He said the Chinese government’s oppression amount to “almost genocide.” The Turkish Islamists’ neo-Ottoman aspirations will require him to take up their cause in the future.
The Chinese government says it is threatened by Islamist terrorists, but has been lax in handling Hamas, another Islamist terrorist group with the sake aims as the ETIM and Al-Qaeda.
Israeli intelligence has found that “China is a central financial channel for funding Hamas activity worldwide.” The Bank of China is singled out as a partner in Hamas’s financial transfers, some of which goes to the families of Hamas terrorists that are locked up.
Some family members of Hamas’s victims are suing the Bank of China for $1 billion. They claim that Bank of China branches in the U.S. knowingly transferred millions of dollars to an account in China that was owned by a Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader.
“Beijing supports Iran to the hilt, so it supports those organizations that Iran wants it to support,” Chang told the Clarion Project. He listed five reasons why China courts Iran this way:
1. China wants Iran’s oil and gas.
2. It sees Iran as a market for is manufactured goods.
3. It wants Tehran as an ally in what the Chinese perceive to be a war of ideas with the West.
4. It desires Iran’s vote in the U.N. General Assembly and its support in U.N. bodies such as the Human Rights Council.
5. It wants to make sure Tehran does not support the Uighurs; Muslims that China once conquered and now rules harshly.
Hopefully, the suicide bombing causes China to reassess its attitude towards Hamas. The ideology promoted by Hamas and the Iranian regime drives the violent jihad to institute Sharia law. And, if the global Islamist movement mobilizes for a jihad in Xinjiang Province, Hamas will be obligated to contribute.
These are points that American diplomats need to be making to their Chinese counterparts.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.