BACKGROUND: The motive of the March 1 train station attack in Kunming may be related to an incident in October 2013, when several dozen Uighurs were arrested at the border between Yunnan and Laos. They were most likely trying to seek asylum or escape arrest in China because several of them were involved in a June 2013 clash in Hotan, Xinjiang. In that clash, several dozen Uighurs were killed and several Chinese police officers stabbed to death after the officers arrested an imam, which led to large protests.
Less than two weeks after the attack in Kunming, the TIP released a statement through its media wing, Islom Awazi [Voice of Islam], featuring an Uighur commander and two armed and veiled fighters. The commander called the attack an “expensive offer” to China and warned China to end its “cruelty” in “East Turkistan,” which is the name that Islamist militants use to refer to Xinjiang. The style, quality and message of the video were consistent with previous TIP videos, and the commander has appeared in other videos. This suggests the video was authentically from the TIP.
Like the Kunming attack, the attack in Tiananmen Square in October 2013 was likely motivated by personal grievances. The father who drove the car into the gate in Tiananmen Square, for example, reportedly paid for the construction of a new section of local mosque near Kashgar. However, he failed to obtain the necessary permits, so the government tore it down, which fed his desire for revenge. TIP leader Abdullah Mansour praised the Tiananmen attack in a video from Islam Awazi, calling it a “jihadi operation” and the result of an Uighur “awakening” after 60 years of Chinese oppression.
In addition to the Islom Awazi’s release of the TIP statements on Kunming, Tiananmen, and dozens of other attacks, it has also released videos of the religious leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Abu Zar al-Burmi. In 2013, al-Burmi sat with Kazakh and Russian-speaking TIP militants and warned in fluent Uzbek language (with a Fergana dialect) that China is the next “number one enemy” after America. More recently, in February 2014, al-Burmi also said it is acceptable to behead “Chinese Buddhists.”
IMPLICATIONS: The expansion of attacks from Xinjiang, where in 2013 more than 150 people were killed in about 10 violent incidents, to Yunnan and Beijing shows that tensions in Xinjiang are not staying confined to that province any longer. Rather, Uighur militants are applying pressure on the Chinese government by carrying out attacks in eastern China that have a greater effect on China’s national economy, including tourism, and that reduce the sense of security of the Han Chinese population and create mistrust between Hans and Uighurs. In addition, the increasing numbers of attacks that gain international media coverage provide the TIP with more opportunities to be heard, while marginalizing mainstream Uighur organizations that publicly disavow violence.
The Tiananmen and Kunming attacks also show distinct similarities. The attackers in both incidents came from the two most violence-ridden regions of Xinjiang – Kashgar and Hotan – and were likely motivated by revenge. While the two attacks are exceptional because they took place outside of Xinjiang, the style of attacks resembled other attacks in Xinjiang in 2012 and 2013 that the TIP claimed and that involved suicide bombings on three-wheeled carts and mass stabbings. This suggests a possible link between the TIP, the recent attacks in Tiananmen and Kunming, and other attacks in Xinjiang.
The Abu Zar al-Burmi videos also raise the possibility that the TIP and IMU will not only coordinate propaganda, but also attacks in Afghanistan, Central Asia and China. For the last decade, the IMU leadership has been based in Pakistan, but in recent years it has carried out complex and large-scale bombings and assassinations in northern Afghanistan, including Panjshir, Faryab and Takhar Provinces. Al-Burmi, who is an ethnic Rohingya but a Pakistani national, could reinforce his militant credentials by claiming an attack on the Chinese government, which he blames for the Myanmar government’s mistreatment of Rohingyas.
Meanwhile, a Reuters journalist interviewed TIP leader Abdullah Mansour in March 2014 via satellite phone in Pakistan. He reported that Mansour told him that the TIP would carry out attacks using weapons more complex than daggers in the future. The journalist also cited Pakistani experts, who say that the TIP’s 200 to 300 militants are now based in areas of northern Pakistan and northern Afghanistan very close to China’s borders with those two countries, which may facilitate TIP attacks in China.
CONCLUSIONS: With the help of the TIP, the Uighur secessionist movement has developed both the propaganda machine and attack strategy of other Islamist insurgencies that model themselves on al-Qaeda, such as the IMU. There remains a strong likelihood that there will be more attacks in China outside of Xinjiang, especially on symbolic targets or public places such as train or bus stations or airports. Future attacks may also involve more sophisticated weaponry than the attacks that have employed daggers as the primary weapon since 2012.
However, the increasing number of civilian deaths in attacks that the TIP praises and claims may necessitate the TIP and other Uighur militants to carry out more precision and targeted operations, such as assassinating government officials – both Uighur and Han – or citizens who they perceive are “collaborating” with the government. The overall trajectory of the TIP and its future strategy may also depend on TIP coordination with other Central Asian militant groups, especially the IMU. Abu Zar al-Burmi, in particular, appears to have taken a particular interest in the TIP.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.