"Experts say the Chinese government, like the US after 9/11, is trying to stop the terrorism by militant Islamic groups."
We've been tackling mainly domestic developments in this space since December 2018. But occasionally we also cover foreign issues, particularly when these involve human rights, peace, and sustainable development from which we can draw lessons.
Last month, for instance, we wrote in this space about the claim by the United States, United Kingdom and a few other countries that the Chinese government has been engaged in genocide against the Uighur people in the Xinjiang region.
In that column, we reported that Jeffrey D. Sachs, a world-renowned professor of economics, leading advocate of sustainable development, and senior UN advisor, along with another prominent academic, had debunked the genocide claim as baseless.
While there may be credible charges of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the two prominent academics emphasized, these "do not per se constitute genocide.
The two pointed out that "until late 2020, the US classified the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist group, battled Uighur fighters in Afghanistan, and held many as prisoners. In July 2020, the United Nations noted the presence of thousands of Uighur fighters in Afghanistan and Syria."
What is happening today in Xinjiang, they said, is that the Chinese government, like the US after 9/11, is trying "to stop the terrorism of militant Islamic groups."
An article by Melissa Harrison and Rachel Douglas titled, “‘Afghan’ jihadist terrorism comes to Xinjiang" published by the Australian Alert Service traced the origins of separatist moves by the Uighurs in northwest China to as far back as May 1981, when a small group called the East Turkestan Prairie Fire Party raided a government weapons depot in Jiashi, 60 kilometers east of Kashgar, but were soon caught and suppressed.
The group claimed they were “fighters for the jihad who were going to drive the Chinese out of Eastern Turkestan”.
In the late 1980s, there were scattered incidents of unrest by students and other sectors in Xinjiang, coinciding with similar events elsewhere in China, leading up to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989.
A sharper turning point in Xinjiang was an insurgency in Baren Township, south of Kashgar, in April 1990. In the so-called Baren Riot, two hundred Uyghur militants armed with weapons and explosives attacked local government offices and fought government troops. There are various reports on how long the siege lasted (from “several days” to “nearly three weeks”), who its leaders were, and where the Uighur insurgents obtained their weapons (whether locally, or across Xinjiang’s nearby short border with Afghanistan).
The Baren rebellion was a serious incident, with at least 22 people killed and that its participants viewed it as a “jihad” event coherent with the Afghanistan mujaheddin’s fight.
It was also in connection with the Baren Riot that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) began to be mentioned. This is the entity that in 2002 would be listed by the United Nations as terrorist. The US listed ETIM in 2002 as a supporter of terrorism, upgrading it to the Terrorist Exclusion List in 2004. But ETIM was de-listed in November 2020 by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the height of the anti-China frenzy in the final months of the Trump Administration. Pompeo claimed that ETIM did not exist.
In 1998, a Chinese government report said that “dozens” of ETIM members trained in Afghanistan infiltrated back into Xinjiang and set up secret training cells for bomb-making. Some of the resulting ETIM weapons depots were raided by police.
Western nations’ intelligence reports in 1996 already indicated that veterans of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan were training scores of Uyghur militants in Xinjiang.
In 1999, it was reported that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was training Uighurs in its schools. After the USA invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and bombed Taliban and al-Qaeda locations there in the Global War on Terrorism, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as many as one thousand ETIM cadres escaped and retreated mainly to Pakistan.
In 2014 a retired American intelligence official told journalists that the Pakistan-based Lashkar e-Tahibi (“Army of the Good”), a militant Islamist group behind the training of terrorists for attacks inside India, had been continuing to train Uyghur jihadists in Pakistan as well.
The Chinese government has reported that between 1990 to 2016, more than one thousand civilians were killed in thousands of terrorist attacks, committed by “East Turkestan” groups in Xinjiang. These attacks included bombings, assassinations of government officials and Uighur and Muslim religious leaders, mass murders, and attempts to hijack and blow up planes. After the Baren Riot and subsequent crackdown, there were isolated bombings in Urumqi, northern Xinjiang, in 1992 and 1997.
Another strong crackdown on unrest, called by Beijing the Strike Hard measures, brought the number of attacks down to very few in the early 2000s, only for it to surge again a decade later. Isolated knife attacks occurred in or near Kashgar and Urumqi in 2011-12.
In 2013 a terrorism specialist at Georgetown University enumerated five incidents in four Xinjiang cities during March-June of that year where several dozen people were killed at that time in ethnic (Uyghur vs. Han Chinese) street fighting, a police station bombing, a raid on a bomb factory, and knife attacks on police.
Three attacks committed in March-May 2014, this time not in Xinjiang alone, were an escalation to a new level of expertise, timing and coordination. On 1 March eight attackers wielding knives and machetes killed 33 people and injured more than 140 at the railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming, Yunnan Province.
Two months later, on 30 April, a knife attack and bombing at the Urumqi railway station left three dead and 79 hurt. And on 22 May terrorists drove two SUVs through a marketplace crowd in Urumqi, killing 39 and injuring nearly 100 people.
These incidents prompted Xinjiang Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian to announce in May 2014 an intensive counterterrorism and anti-extremism campaign, warning that “Violent terrorist attacks have become the most immediate and realistic peril to social stability in Xinjiang.”
Here, we have a homegrown terrorist threat in our own southern shores supported by the Islamic State that's yet to be completely resolved, requiring decisive counterrorism and anti-extremism measures.