Attacks put Muslim Uighur minority under the spotlight

BEIJING - A string of deadly attacks by suspected Uighur separatists in big cities has brought the issue of Xinjiang's Muslim Uighur minority from its regional backseat to the fore in China, experts say.

The attacks drew much attention both in China and abroad, which is the intention of the assailants who want the western region of Xinjiang carved out as a separate state, Singapore-based international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said.

Increasing attention means Beijing's policies in Xinjiang also face growing scrutiny. Beijing also faces pressure to get things right to prevent more violence from spilling outside the restive region.

"But China has acted quickly and decisively and shown that it is ready to fight," Professor Gunaratna told The Straits Times.

The attacks - a suicide car crash near Beijing's Tiananmen Square last October, a knife attack at the railway station in south-western Kunming on March 1, and last Wednesday's attack involving knives and explosives at the railway station in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi - have left 32 dead and over 240 injured.

Yesterday, six people were slashed and hurt in a similar attack outside Guangzhou's railway station.

Beijing has yet to confirm if it is a terror attack.

These attacks have stoked jitters about personal safety and also fanned fears of a rising jihadist movement in the country.

Beijing, often ready to link trouble in Xinjiang with global terrorist movements, has labelled them "terrorist attacks" perpetrated by Uighurs with cross-border links.

Yet experts are divided on whether the global jihad has indeed reached China or whether it is domestic factors, such as low employment rates, that are driving isolated groups of Uighurs to violence.

Some noted that while past conflicts in Xinjiang had to do with riots and personal vendettas, the modus operandi and increased sophistication of recent incidents - targeting of innocent civilians and the use of suicide attacks - are emblematic of global jihadist movements.

Mr Jacob Zenn, a Eurasia analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, said Xinjiang has featured increasingly in jihadist rhetoric by global terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda factions in North Africa and Pakistan since the Urumqi ethnic riots in July 2009.

"The attacks are also happening (frequently) enough that they are no longer isolated incidents. There is definitely an organised trend emerging," he said.

"There is some evidence that the TIP (Turkestan Islamic Party) and Al-Qaeda are involved in China, but the extent is unclear."

With the United States withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, there is less pressure on Central Asian jihadist groups, and they will likely be able to recruit more Uighurs in China to carry out more attacks, Mr Zenn said.

Other experts, however, say that while the attacks might be influenced by Islamic extremist ideology, it is unlikely that they were carried out by them.

Mr Raffaello Pantucci, a counter-terrorism researcher from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a London think-tank, noted that the targeting of civilians is a new trend.

"(But it) reflects a growing anger and desperation within China rather than the global jihad reaching China," he said.

But that is not to say that a group of Uighurs angry at China and with links to global jihadist movements does not exist, he added.

They call themselves the TIP and regularly produce videos to show their existence.

"TIP operates in Pakistan... and is connected to other Central Asian groups, but there is little evidence they are able to launch attacks within China," Mr Pantucci told The Straits Times.

Dr James Leibold, a senior lecturer in Chinese politics at La Trobe University in Australia, said the Tiananmen, Kunming and Urumqi attacks were likely spurred primarily by domestic drivers - such as socio-cultural and religious marginalisation - with possible inspiration from global jihadist propaganda.

"There is no evidence thus far of Uighur groups in Xinjiang being directly funded, trained or orchestrated by outside jihadist groups or individuals," he added.

But experts agree the rising threat from Islamic extremists is one that China cannot ignore.

Said terrorism expert Yang Shu of Lanzhou University: "China cannot just focus on hardline policies to bring down terrorists. Prevention and tackling Islamic extremism are the most important aspects of this (campaign)."

This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.

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