As China emerges from decades of self-imposed isolationist foreign policy, transnational extremist groups are increasingly seeking to forge alliances with Chinese domestic terrorist organizations. In July 2014, ISIS declared that the western province of Xinjiang, with a large Muslim Uighur population, is a legitimate region to be “liberated.” A Chinese citizen was executed by ISIS in November 2015, and ISIS looked to ramp up recruitment in China with the release of a Mandarin-language “nashid” the following month. According to Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “Terrorism has well and truly arrived” in China.
For a long time, China’s comparatively narrow foreign policy aims had the by-product of shielding it from international jihadism. Transnational extremist groups like al-Qaeda did not target China, nor did they develop strong links with domestic Chinese Muslim terrorist organizations in its western regions. However, extremists’ disregard of China is receding as China emerges from relative isolationism to global engagement, projecting presence and power in historically off-limits regions like the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic extremist groups see its foreign presence in Arab regions as a particularly serious offense and some have labeled China as the new ‘head of the snake.’ ISIS, for instance, has cited China as a legitimate target of attack, although China has declined to join the U.S.-led coalition against the terror group.
Internally, China’s northwest province of Xinjiang is home to 10 million Muslim Uighurs, an ethnically non-Han Turkic people. According to China expert Philip Potter, the Chinese authorities’ “ongoing security crackdown in Xinjiang has forced the most militant Uighur separatists into volatile neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, where they are forging strategic alliances with, and even leading, jihadist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” The resulting “cross-fertilization” is likely to “substantially increase the sophistication and lethality of terrorism in China.” As of December 2014, around 300 Chinese nationals have joined ISIS, according to China’s state-run newspaper Global Times.
ISIS has cited China as a legitimate target of attack.
2014 was the worst year for terrorism in China, both in terms of the number of attacks and fatalities suffered. Such attacks are no longer limited to China’s western region, as illustrated by the March 2014 railway station attack in the southern city of Kunming, in which 29 civilians were killed. China has responded to these developments by significantly expanding its domestic counterterrorism strategy and seeking enhanced international cooperation, especially with the United States.
In November 2015, ISIS published images of executed Chinese hostage Fan Jinghui, under the title “The Fate of the Two Prisoners” in their magazine, Dabiq. This represented the first known instance in which a Chinese citizen was killed by ISIS. President Xi Jinping claimed China would “certainly bring the criminals to justice.” However, in the wake of Fan Jinghui’s execution, NPR described China’s overall response as “muted,” and China remains outside “anti-ISIS operations in the Middle East.”
In December 2015, the ISIS foreign-language media arm Al Hayat published a Mandarin-language “nashid” (chant) exhorting Muslims in China to “wake up” and “take up weapons.” The step appears to represent an effort to step up recruitment among Chinese Islamists, and “could be aimed at placing China in the cross hairs,” according to a report in the New York Times.
On December 28, 2016, a year of relative calm in Xinjiang province was punctured when four men drove a vehicle into the premises of a government building in Karakax county, Xinjiang. The attackers, described as Islamist militants by Chinese state media, exploded a device and killed one person, before being shot and killed by police. Weeks before the attack, China’s head of religious affairs warned that extremist thought was now penetrating central parts of China, in “inland provincial areas” beyond Xinjiang and the western region.
(Sources: Potter (Security Studies Quarterly), CNN, Asia Times, Reuters, Clarion Project, Deutsche Welle, International Business Times, National Public Radio, New York Times, CNBC, Reuters, Independent, Reuters)
Radicalization and Foreign Fighters
Since the late 1980s, China’s northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has been plagued by violence stemming from separatist movements and religious fundamentalism. Xinjiang is home to a plurality of ethnically Turkic Muslim Uighurs who follow a moderate version of Sunni Islam. Many Uighurs reject the name and idea of Xinjiang, and some seek to create an independent “East Turkestan” to replace the present-day Xinjiang. Chinese authorities claim that extremist religious ideology, often promulgated over the Internet, has corrupted the Uighurs in Xinjiang, prompting many to pursue separatism through terrorist means. Extremist secessionist and religious groups in Xinjiang have been described as splintering, merging, and collapsing.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is China’s most prominent extremist group. Formed in the 1990s, today ETIM is widely regarded as the most active and well-organized terrorist organization operating in Xinjiang. It seeks to create an independent Islamist state covering parts of China and Central Asia. While ETIM has claimed responsibility for a handful attacks within China, it is best known for its anti-Chinese and anti-American online propaganda. In the past few years, ETIM has begun referring to itself as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP). (Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, BBC News, Reuters, BBC News, Washington Post, Associated Press, Potter (Security Studies Quarterly), APCSS, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst)
Throughout the 1990s, the Chinese government attempted to publically link ETIM to al-Qaeda, citing funding and training links. In December 2003, China designated ETIM as a terrorist group. The U.S. Department of State designated ETIM a terrorist organization September 2002 but “quietly removed it amid doubts that it existed in any organized manner.” The group has also been subject to designations by the U.S. Treasury Department. (Sources: Potter (Security Studies Quarterly), BBC News, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of the Treasury, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Associated Press)
According to China specialist Philip Potter, collaboration between ETIM and high-profile jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban is likely to deepen, moving the lesser-known Uighur separatist movement “[closer] to the center of a dense web of international terrorist relationships that have the potential to increase the capability [of EMIT].” These increased capabilities might include the procurement of technologically advanced weaponry, leading to an increase in the lethality of future EMIT attacks. Furthermore, Chinese Uighurs active in the Afghanistan war may return to Xinjiang, spreading radicalized ideology within China’s borders. (Source: Potter (Security Studies Quarterly))
In December 2014, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times wrote that “around 300 Chinese extremists are fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” and alleged that most of the foreign fighters are affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Many of those who have fled Xinjiang, have reportedly traveled to Turkey, a country with which the Turkic-speaking Uighurs share cultural and religious ties. For some, Turkey has served as a transit route to eventually join with Islamist militant groups in Syria and Iraq. This has led to calls from Beijing for enhanced cooperation between China and Turkey. (Sources: Al Arabiya, Reuters, Reuters)
In December 2016, as part of new statewide counterterrorism measures, Xinjiang’s People’s Congress strengthened rules on border crossings into adjacent countries. The Xinjiang region shares borders with the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the Pakistani-administered section of Kashmir and Jammu. (Source: U.S. State Department)
In January 2015, Chinese authorities arrested 10 Turkish nationals in Shanghai for allegedly helping ethnic Uighurs leave China to fight alongside Islamist militants in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The police also arrested nine Uighurs from Xinjiang and two Chinese citizens who were helping with the illegal immigration scheme. (Sources: Reuters, The Diplomat)
In December 2014, ISIS militants beheaded two Chinese members after charging them with treason and accusing them of attempted escape.
In December 2014, ISIS militants beheaded two Chinese members after charging them with treason and accusing them of attempted escape. In September 2014, a Chinese citizen fighting with ISIS in Syria was “arrested, tried and shot dead” by ISIS militants after he became disillusioned with the group and attempted to flee to Turkey. (Source: Reuters)
Soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, Chinese authorities reported that over one thousand Xinjiang separatists traveled to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. In 2002, the Chinese government claimed to have arrested 100 foreign-trained fighters that had returned to Xinjiang. (Source: Council on Foreign Relations)
Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents
China has suffered an increasing number of violent extremist incidents since the 1980s, most of which have been carried out by ethnic Uighurs within the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. (Source: Potter (Security Studies Quarterly))
The state-led Chinese media accuse ETIM/TIP or associated jihadists of carrying out violence, although independent verification of these claims is not available. According to the U.S. Department of State, China has “restricted the ability of journalists and international observers to independently verify official media accounts.” Human rights organizations maintain that China uses counterterrorism as a pretext to suppress Uighurs. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, Potter (Security Studies Quarterly))
In February 2015, China announced the establishment of its national anti-terrorism intelligence system, which includes improved intelligence gathering and sharing. It will beef up Internet controls and tighten security measures regarding the transport of dangerous materials and border controls. According to state-controlled media organ Xinhua, serious crimes relating to “promoting terrorism and extremism by producing and distributing related materials, releasing information, instructing in person or through audio, video or information networks” may result in prison terms of more than five years. (Source: Reuters)
Human rights advocates have expressed skepticism about the new laws, claiming they will “[legitimize] ongoing human rights violations and facilitate future abuses…[in a region with] a history of gross human rights abuses committed in the name of counter terrorism.” While acknowledging the Chinese government’s duty to prevent “appalling attacks” perpetrated by extremists, Human Rights Watch proposes radical revisions to the new laws to ensure conformity with international law and human rights standards. Human rights activists are also concerned about China’s nebulous definition of what constitutes ‘terrorism,’ which has led to the conviction of over 8,000 Chinese citizens who “may face up to 10 years in prison.” (Sources: APCSS, GBTimes, U.S. Department of State, Council on Foreign Relations, Reuters, Human Rights Watch)
Since 1996, the Xinjiang government has launched regular “strike hard” campaigns as an attempt to crack down on violent extremism, separatism, and terrorism. As a result, a heavy police presence is a constant in Xinjiang. According to a 2008 Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies report, Chinese strike hard campaigns “[tamp] down violence in the short run but [fuel] a sense of injustice and mistrust among the [Uighurs] in the long-run.” Fresh crackdowns are implemented after outbreaks of violent ethnic tension between Uighurs and Han. For example, in February 2017, Chinese authorities made it compulsory for all vehicles in parts of Xinjiang to be fitted with satellite tracking devices. In the large northwestern autonomous prefecture of Bayingolin, drivers who refuse will not be permitted to purchase gas. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Guardian, APCSS, BBC News)
Under former leader Mao Zedong, China was a key patron of terrorist organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as a significant supporter of state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, Syria, and Libya. As China prioritized economic development over political objectives—seeking acceptance into the established world order—such links were discarded as inconvenient millstones. Today, China has completed its evolution from “open support for terrorist organizations to disengagement… to a position of active opposition.”
China’s about-face on transnational counter-extremism is exemplified by the country’s leading role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional intergovernmental Asian organization formed in 2001. The SCO’s geographical focus of operations is Central Asia. It seeks to combat “the three evils of separatism, extremism and terrorism,” as China’s then-President Hu Jintao proclaimed at a 2004 SCO summit. SCO membership extends to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, while observer status is afforded to Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan. In July 2016, China held joint counterterrorism training with its largest SCO partner, Russia, in Moscow. China conducted similar exercises with Tajikistan later that year in October. Within the Central Asia region, China also hosted the opening conference of the newly formed Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counterterrorism, together with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. The Mechanism seeks to improve coordination between the four countries in “intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training…”
Outside of the SCO, China’s willingness to cooperate with major Western nations on counter-extremism and counterterrorism is more muted. Long-standing skepticism about China’s human rights record has impeded assistance from the West, while China’s propensity for maintaining a low profile on the world stage has prevented its full engagement. Nevertheless, China held bilateral counterterrorism meetings with the United Kingdom and the United States in 2016. In November of the same year, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Security was elected as the president of INTERPOL for a four-year term.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States called on China to play a greater role in combating global terrorism. In 2005, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick urged China “to become a responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Despite China’s voicing of strong support for the United States after 9/11, such calls failed to yield any substantive impact during the 2000s, as China shunned direct involvement in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom against al-Qaeda.
There are specific areas where we could work together, for example in stemming the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and cracking down on terrorist funding networks....
However, as China tackles what it perceives as a surge in domestic Uighur extremism—especially by adopting Western intelligence techniques relying on “big data” collection—opportunities may emerge for enhanced cooperation between the China and the U.S. in particular. The same law that is set to push through domestic changes in counterterrorism policy, for instance, also seeks to increase international cooperation. Indicative of America’s growing willingness to join forces with China was President Obama’s January 2015 statement that “There are specific areas where we could work together, for example in stemming the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and cracking down on terrorist funding networks....” In May 2017, Chinese concerns about Xinjiang fighters joining militant groups in Syria and Iraq via Turkey—with which Uighurs share cultural and religious ties—prompted calls for enhanced cooperation between Beijing and Ankara. (Sources: Congressional Research Service, Shanghai Cooperation Council, U.S. State Department, Hindustan Times, Reuters, Washington Times, Reuters)