McClatchy reports a “new, bloodier phase” of the conflict in China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang Province has begun with bombings that killed at least 31 people and injured 94. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is suspected of responsibility for what one expert says is “the single most lethal terrorist attack that China has suffered.”
The blasts took place in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Over 10 million Turkic Muslims live in the province and identify themselves as Uighurs. Two cars drove through people at a market tossing explosives. Some reports say the two cars collided and blew up, while others say only one car exploded. The attack happened one day after President Xi Jinping pledged to “make terrorists like rats scurrying across a street.”
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) sometimes goes by the name of the Turkestan Islamic Party. It killed three last month in an attack involving both explosives and knives at a train station. Prior to that, it killed 29 in a knife rampage at a train station. The escalation began in October when it killed two people by hitting them with a car in Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square.
In February, ETIM released a video where it pledged to behead Chinese Buddhists and to “cut you piece by piece.” The cleric in it even made derogatory racial remarks, insulting the Chinese for their “small eyes, flat noses.” The group stated that it believes its attacks on China would help usher in the fulfillment of Islamic prophecy.
“Judgment day will not come, until we attacked them. Judgment day will not come, until we slaughter them. Judgment day will not come, until our war with them and attacking them,” a translation reads.
ETIM is an Al-Qaeda affiliate largely based in Pakistan that is fighting for the independence of Xinjiang Province as it had from 1644-1991 and 1944-1949. It desires the creation of a new state called East Turkestan.
The Uighur population is hostile to the Chinese authorities, but ETIM has little support among them and is said to have only about 200 members. The Council on Foreign Relations says, “Although the ETIM seeks to establish an independent Islamic regime, the majority of Uighurs do not support an Islamic state.” China expert Gordon Chang says Uighur protests have not been about Sharia and few of them are terrorists.
The United Nations sanctioned ETIM in 2002 because of its close links to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The U.N. says its members have operated in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Chechnya and has at least considered using the neighboring countries of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
The State Department says ETIM fights alongside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2002, two members were deported from Kyrgyzstan as they planned to bomb the U.S. embassy. In August, a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed four terrorists from Turkmenistan that are believed to be part of ETIM. They were working with Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar.
ETIM has been successful in recruiting women and it also indoctrinates children. At least two women took part in its large knife attack on March 1. In July 2013, it distributed a video of its female recruits training, probably in North Waziristan. Another video released in April showed children, some as young as around 6 years old, getting training in Pakistan.
The Chinese government’s oppression hasn’t been a major Islamist cause, but a bloody military response to this latest attack could change that. We may see a call by Islamist terrorists for a jihad to turn Xinjiang Province into a battlefield.
In 2009, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist group’s North African branch, threatened to attack Chinese workers. Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, also encouraged Muslims to wage jihad against China without results.
The Uighurs’ Turkic identity means their cause aligns with the neo-Ottoman vision of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. In 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan condemned the “genocide” against the Muslims in Xinjiang Province/East Turkestan. In 2012, he became the first Turkish Prime Minister to travel to China in 27 years. His first stop was Xinjiang Province, where he was cheered by the locals.
ETIM wants to make Xinjiang Province a battlefield for jihad and this latest bombing may be what sparks it.
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.