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Escalating Islamic Terrorism in Xinjiang: Warning Bells for Beijing; By Jai Kumar Verma

C3S Article no: 0008/2017

China, which vetoed India’s efforts to blacklist Masood Azhar in the counter-terror committee of the United Nations, is itself suffering from Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang autonomous region. Azhar is the founder of UN-designated terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (J-e-M) and also owes allegiance to other terrorist outfits including Harkat-ul-Ansar and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen but China, with the ulterior motive of helping its all-weather friend Pakistan, blocked India’s efforts in the UN.

Pakistan, which is the epicenter of terrorism, created several terrorist outfits as it launched a low intensity war against India and wanted to achieve ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. The architects of these terrorist organisations were officers of the creepy Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and they aroused the sentiments of leaders and workers of terrorist outfits by interpreting Islam erroneously with mala fide intentions. Nonetheless, with the passage of time, the leaders of a few terrorist outfits discontinued obeying ISI and launched terrorist activities inside Pakistan as well as in friendly countries like China.

Xinjiang autonomous region is the largest province of China and shares borders with several countries, including Pakistan, from where Uighur Muslim radicals import the extremist form of Islam. In the top echelon, both China and Pakistan talk about their “irreplaceable” friendship but now leaders of Xinjiang province are worried about the Islamic terrorism perpetrated by Pakistani Taliban.

The majority population of Xinjiang is of Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which is the strongest organisation of Uighurs is fighting for the establishment of an independent East Turkestan. Besides ETIM, other separatist outfits include East Turkistan Liberation Organisation, United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan, Turkistan Islamic Party and Uighur Liberation Organisation.

These secessionist organisations get assistance from Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Although the grievances of Uighurs are age-old and genuine but now separatists are getting financial assistance from Muslim countries while Pakistan is rendering training, weapons, shelter and lessons of Jihad.

Uighurs are more close to Central Asian countries than China but the Chinese government, under a long-term strategy, settled a large number of Han Chinese in the region which changed the demography of the province. According to the 2000 census, the number of Han Chinese rose to 40 per cent of population and besides that there were a large number of unregistered Han Chinese.

In this mineral-rich region, disparity among the local Uighurs and newly-settled Han Chinese is increasing. Han Chinese are working in important developmental projects at senior positions while local Uighurs are doing inferior jobs which generated resentment. Han Chinese had the support of the government hence local Muslims were sidelined and discriminated in their own homeland.

The government has put stern restrictions on religious activities of Muslims, Madrassas were forcibly closed and very few mosques are allowed to function. Fasting is prohibited during Ramadan.  Amnesty International in 2013 reported that even peaceful cultural activities were also restricted.

Muslims complain that there is a systematic attack on their religion and culture with the ulterior motive to destroy Islam hence they have to resort to terrorism and uprising to save not only their religion and culture but also their existence from annihilation.

The national and local media, newspapers, radio and TV channels broadcast against Islamic terrorism and narrate news inimical to Uighurs. The bloggers, netizens and website providers were severely penalised.

Chinese security forces ruthlessly crush any type of protest and demonstrations but rebellion is continuing. In 2009, there were extensive riots in which more than 200 persons were killed and thousands were injured. Security forces penalised Uighurs mercilessly which generated more resentment. The attempt of Uighur separatists to hijack a plane of the Tianjin Airlines in June 2012 was foiled and two hijackers were ruthlessly killed.

The separatists attack security forces including police stations. In April and June 2013, Uighurs attacked security forces and government buildings in Shanshan county in which at least 27 people were killed. In May 2014, in bomb blasts in Urumqi, at least 43 persons were killed and 100 injured. There was large-scale rioting in April at Urumqi Railway station, in July in Yarkant county and in September at Luntai county — in these rebellions, more than 250 persons were killed and several thousands were injured.

On January 8, 2016, three terrorists were shot dead who were involved in a terrorist attack in April 2015 in Moyu county. In December 2016, four separatists rammed an explosives-laden car in a government building killing several persons. There were several other riots, demonstrations, mass protests and terrorist activities which were not reported.

The Uighur separatists are also involved in extremist activities outside Xinjiang region. Chinese security forces tried to stifle the mass movement of Uighurs and initiated a campaign in which security forces conducted military drills, surprise checks, brutal torture during interrogation, mass arrests, and large scale convictions including death sentences, to the leaders and workers of separatists.

On January 9, 2017, the Chairman of Xinjiang region put stringent restrictions in border areas. He emphatically mentioned that the terrorists after getting training in other countries enter illegally and carry out terrorist activities in the province.

The Chinese leaders have not mentioned the name of Pakistan but they clearly indicated that the terrorists are trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan and they infiltrate from these countries. China, by putting stringent restrictions on the China-Pakistan border, gave a stern message to Pakistan that it must stop infiltration and training of terrorists.

The Chinese authorities allege that ETIM leaders based in exile are responsible for terrorist activities in the restive province of Xinjiang but analysts aver that it is a home-grown movement and local Muslims are feeling alienated because of large-scale settlement of Han Chinese, economic deprivation and religious strangulation.

The Uighur separatist outfits also declare that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is not in the interest of residents of Xinjiang and they would obstruct its construction.

The Uighur secessionists claim that in case of a plebiscite in Xinjiang region under the supervision of the United Nations an overwhelming majority would vote for an independent country.

At present, there is neither any cohesion nor combined ideology between various secessionist outfits which are mainly divided in Pan-Turkism, Uighur nationalism and Islam. All these three segments should work together and formulate a joint strategy to achieve their goal.

China must realise that Pakistani Taliban would continue training and infiltrating Islamic terrorists in China hence it must stop assisting Pakistan and help India and the world in curbing the menace of terrorism by controlling Pakistan as without assistance from China, Pakistan cannot survive.

China should stop atrocities on Uighurs and should give them full religious and cultural freedom and should not make efforts to change the demography of the region. Xinjiang region is different from Mainland China hence more autonomy should be given which is essential to restore peace in the region.

The Chinese government must understand that mass movements cannot be suppressed by force. Excessive force would generate more resentment and in future it may be joined by other Muslim extremists who have no link with Uighur separatists or a few Chinese secessionist outfits will also start their own movement against the present communist regime.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst. The views expressed in this article are his own.)

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