A China Threat from Pakistan?

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Shen Qiao / Xinhua / Reuters

The scene of a bombing in Kuqa county in Xinjiang region

A second deadly attack by suspected Muslim separatists in China's far west has sparked fears that what had until very recently been a largely dormant militant insurgency has undergone a significant revival. The Aug. 10, 2008, bombings at multiple locations throughout the city of Kuqa in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region also heightened concern among security analysts that a slew of recent attacks was carried out by fighters trained and equipped by jihadist groups in neighboring Pakistan.

According to official media reports, a series of 12 bombings took place at approximately 3 a.m. on Aug. 10. At one blast site, attackers drove an explosives-packed tricycle into the courtyard of a police station. Government buildings, a bank and a shopping center were also targeted, killing 10 assailants and a security guard and injuring several others in an attack of unprecedented scale for China.

Clearly aimed to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Beijing Olympics, the attack was the second to strike the region in less than a week. On Aug. 3, Chinese media reported that two men had driven a stolen truck into a group of border-police recruits, killing 16 and wounding a similar number before being apprehended. The ferocious attack, in which the attackers also set off homemade grenades and hacked the recruits with knives, was the first against a government target since the early 1990s. In 1997, nine died when bombs attributed to separatists exploded on two public buses in the regional capital, Urumqi. But although there have been sporadic protests against Chinese rule since then by the ethnic Uighurs, who make up the majority of Xinjiang's population, analysts say Beijing's increasingly tight control of all aspects of daily life in the region, including the appointment of clerics at mosques and vetting of educational curriculums, was assumed to have effectively wiped out the separatist threat.

The new attacks signal a major change in the nature of Uighur resistance to Chinese rule, says Rohan Gunaratna of the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. "Although the Chinese have been capable of disrupting groups operating inside the country, these new attackers are trained and equipped outside and come into China to carry out operations. This is a new capability that Chinese security forces have to deal with, and they are finding it difficult." Gunaratna and others estimate that about 40 fighters from Xinjiang have been training in camps in the virtually lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, working with and under the sponsorship of groups that have direct links to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Two videos have been released in recent weeks by a group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which threatened attacks on the Olympics and took responsibility for explosions on buses in Shanghai and the southern province of Yunnan in recent months that left five dead. Chinese officials have denied that the bus explosions are connected to the Xinjiang separatist movement, and some analysts are also skeptical of the claims. Though exact relationships are murky at best, the TIP is believed to be the military arm of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing has identified as posing the single greatest threat of terrorism to the Games.

Gunaratna predicts the Aug. 10 Kuqa attacks are just the beginning. "For the moment the heightened security because of the Olympics is stopping them from attacking in Beijing, so they will strike elsewhere in Xinjiang and China," he says. "This new threat is enduring and will continue long after the Olympics are over."