While the world is particularly worried about the Ukrainian crisis and the possibility of the return of the Cold War, China suffered probably the most traumatic terrorist attack in its recent history. On March 1, 2014 at least 29 people were killed and more than 140 wounded by knife-wielding assailants at Kunming train station in the Yunnan province.

Some dozen attackers dressed in black, according to eyewitness accounts, went on the rampage in the busy railway station, hacking and stabbing passengers and passers-by at random, including children and the elderly. The weapons they used were 60 centimeter-long hacking knives and 30 centimeter-long daggers.

Four assailants — three men and a woman — were shot dead by police. One wounded female terrorist was arrested while police hunted for an unknown number of attackers thought to have fled the scene.

Xinhua quoted Kunming officials as saying that initial investigations suggested the deadly attack was “planned and organized by separatist forces from Xinjiang province.”

It should be noted that the attack came ahead of the opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on March 3 and the National People’s Congress on March 5, traditionally the most politically sensitive time of the year. China has been hit by a series of violent incidents in recent months, but most of them were in Xinjiang, with authorities blaming Uyghur separatists

In a high-profile incident in Beijing on October 28, 2013, three Uyghur family members set their car on fire at Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of the Chinese state, killing themselves and two bystanders, the first time a suicide attack took place in such a sensitive place, weeks before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had to convene its third plenum.

The previous violent terrorist attack that caused many civilian deaths occurred in June 2013 in Lukqun Township in Xinjiang, where a group of Uyghur men armed with knives attacked a local police station killing 24 and injuring 23 others. Police responded by opening fire on the attackers, killing 11.

It should be noted that on February 28, 2012 rioters armed with knives killed 12 people in Yecheng, Xinjiang while police shot two of the attackers dead.

In September 2009, Chinese Han residents of Urumqi protested for days over a wave of syringe stabbings by “ethnic [Uyghur] separatist forces” in the Xinjiang capital which the government claimed wounded some 500 people. However, the Kunming horrid attack is remarkable from the point of view of its location and its modus operandi.

Location

Kunming is the capital city of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, some 1600 km. from Xinjiang. Yunnan has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in China, belonging to the Hui ethnic minority. China is home to approximately 10.5 million Hui people, the majority of whom are Chinese-speaking, ethnically similar to Han Chinese, practitioners of Islam.

640,000 Muslims live in the Yunnan province and 140,000 in Kunming. There are 136 mosques in Kunming, including in the surrounding rural districts. In the nearby Shadian city, a small town with a population of about 15,000 Hui Muslims, stands the magnificent Grand Mosque, the biggest in China, large enough to hold 20,000 people.

Local Muslims in Kunming and Shadian are well known for doing business and many are owners of mining fields, “so they are rich enough,” according to one Chinese official.

Modus operandi

While it is true that there were previous terrorist attacks using knives or even syringe stabbings, this attack was a well-organized operation by a relatively important 10-12 member team, on a very high profile target where it was sure to find numerous civilian victims and also high media coverage.

The participation in the assault by at least two women and possibly more is also significant. Are the Uyghurs imitating the Chechen women active in terrorist attacks against Russia? Are these women widows or parents of dead or arrested terrorists?

The use of bland weapons can be explained first by the difficulty in smuggling firearms into a secured perimeter, but also by the hint of symbolism in jihadists’ ritual slaughtering of the enemy and the courage of the assailants.

In a sense, this tactic is an imitation of the November 2008 Mumbai attack in India and the September 2013 Nairobi mall attack in Kenya. The timing of the attack, close to an important national Chinese political event is also remarkable.

The incident has fueled massive anger among the people across China, with netizens severely condemning the violent attacks on social websites. Chinese netizens are spreading the word in the hopes of stopping the circulation of bloody photos on the Internet “because that’s just what the thugs want” and in order “to avoid more panic.”

It is important for the understanding of this important incident to know the true origin of the terrorists.

If they are Uyghurs originating from Xinjiang it means possibly the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) succeeded in mounting a complex coordinated operation far away from its natural territory. One goal of the attack could be to provoke retaliation by the authorities and riots by the Han people against the local Muslims and thus lead to their radicalization.

If they are local Hui people it means the salafist/jihadist spirit has penetrated into the local Chinese Muslim community which until now seemed to be immune to the extremist ideologies from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.

A more remote possibility would be an operation by an Uyghur team trained in Syria which succeeded in returning undetected to China in order to stage such a daring and sophisticated attack.

Chinese Uyghurs in Syria

The Chinese government has claimed since 2012 that Uyghur militants from Xinjiang are fighting alongside the rebels in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

On July 1, 2013, 23-year-old Memeti Aili, an Uyghur who studied in Istanbul, Turkey and fought with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo returned to Xinjiang and was arrested while planning to carry out “violent attacks” in China. He was recruited by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) through the East Turkistan Education and Solidarity Association (ETESA), an Istanbul-based exile group. According to a Chinese counter-terrorism official, about 100 Uyghurs have travelled to Syria to join the fighting alongside Syrian rebels since 2012.[1]

The role of jihadist videos in inspiring attackers and the similarity in attacks, which often feature vehicles ramming into Han civilians, suicide operations using bicycles or carts, suggest that some groups in Xinjiang are in coordination with each other and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, another name for ETIM). Thus far attacks in Xinjiang have not employed guns, possibly because of the inability of militants to acquire them.[2]

Although there is no verifiable information about the number of Chinese Muslims fighting in Syria, the numerous Chechen and other Caucasians present in the Syrian rebel camp suggest that Uyghur/Chinese Muslims are already there, receive training, combat experience and high motivation to expand jihad to their homeland.

The investigation of the Kunming attack is therefore extremely important to understand how far the success of the Salafist/jihadist groups taking roots in Syria, the Sinai, Iraq or Yemen can expand this threat beyond the Middle East.


[1] Lin Meilian, “Xinjiang terrorists finding training, support in Syria, Turkey,” Global Times, 2013-7-1, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/792959.shtml#.UxL-o61WF1s

[2] Jacob Zenn, “China claims Uyghurs trained in Syria,” Asia Times Online, July 15, 2013.

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