Al-Qaeda has a China problem, and no one is watching. Despite al-Qaeda's
significant efforts to support Muslim insurgents in China, Beijing has
succeeded in limiting popular support for anti-government violence.
The latest evidence came on January 5, when China raided a terrorist facility
in the country's Xinjiang region, near the borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to reports, 18 terrorists were killed and
17 were captured, along
with 22 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and material for thousands more.
Chinese reportage on terrorism is notoriously problematic, at times imprecise
or simply fabricated. For the skeptics, photos of a policeman killed in the
raid were also released, showing emotional relatives amid a sea of People's
Armed Police paying their final respects. Ironically, China's ability to kill
or capture militants without social blowback demonstrates the significant
degree to which it has won the population's "hearts and minds", however
China's successful efforts to keep the global jihad from spreading into its
territory present a real challenge for al-Qaeda. The organization reportedly
trained more than 1,000 Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group that is predominantly
Muslim, in camps in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001. In late December,
al-Qaeda's No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for action against "occupation"
governments ruling over Muslims, including reference to the plight of Uighurs
in western China.
Yet despite this commitment of resources and rhetorical energy, Uighurs across
Xinjiang's social spectrum explain that violent resistance is no longer a
viable path. Many in Xinjiang believe that insurgents worsen Uighurs' plight by
making the Chinese more fearful, thereby more repressive. Uighurs today
increasingly participate in the Chinese system as local government and
Communist Party officials, educators, informants and police.
Since the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, China has been confronting the
self-described threats of "extremism, separatism and terrorism" in its
Alaska-sized Xinjiang region in the country's far northwest. Where the region
was once predominantly populated by Uighurs, this group is now a minority in
its own "autonomous region".
The perception of economic discrimination as well as resentment at Chinese rule
have helped fuel a low-level insurgency in Xinjiang for nearly two decades.
Local men who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets returned home with
new skills and attempted to ply their trade. Young Uighurs were inspired by the
power of men, armed with Allah and AK-47s, to defeat a superpower.
Political challenges in Xinjiang took many forms: some Uighurs worked for
greater autonomy, others fought for greater political freedom or democracy, and
still others sought secession from China. As in many similar situations with
Muslims fighting against local regimes, al-Qaeda reportedly attempted to lend
support by training fighters and funding a local affiliate, the East Turkestan
Islamic Movement. Uighur groups fighting against Chinese rule assassinated
local officials and engaged in bombing campaigns that reportedly included a
1997 explosion outside Zhongnanhai, the enclosed compound in Beijing where
China's top leaders work.
This period was separatism's high-water mark. The massive 1997 Yining riot
involving more than 1,000 Uighurs, in which more than 150 reportedly died from
security-force excesses, has not been repeated. While there has been ongoing
low-level violence in Xinjiang since September 2001, Chinese government claims
that this is the result of Uighur separatists.
China's initial actions were brutal, and credible reports of security-force
excesses and torture persist. However, success came as China reduced the
brutality of its repression and pulled the military out of direct confrontation
with society. China built up more restrained, effective, and specialized police
forces and tactics and reinvigorated political and educational projects in
The central government purged separatist sympathizers from local governments
and attempted to remove political dissent from religious worship. At the same
time, availability of Uighur-language education was broadened and Beijing
sought to expand economic development in Xinjiang, which was viewed as the key
to success. Uighurs in Xinjiang repeatedly explained in interviews that these
changes made participation in the Chinese state more attractive, despite
perceptions that economic opportunities primarily benefited ethnic Chinese.
After an initial period of repression, China has used political means to keep
the insurgency in Xinjiang to a remarkably low level. Beyond simply killing or
capturing suspected insurgents, China has created a path for young Uighurs -
one achieved through participation in the system rather than fighting it.
China's proactive approach, reshaping society from the bottom up, has been so
successful that much of the current debate centers on whether China really
confronts a serious threat of terrorism in Xinjiang.
Zawahiri's call to arms in late December and the People's Armed Police raid in
early January highlight what some China-watchers miss in reading the latest
Chinese defense white paper: despite China's more confident role on the world
stage, its primary concern is still internal security. The English-language
China Daily argued that last month's raid in Xinjiang was a "wake-up call that
the threat of terror is not only clear and present but more dangerous than
The raid in Xinjiang on a group taking mining explosives and building IEDs
responded to a threat similar to the attacks of Madrid and London: home-grown
individuals, radicalizing, building weapons with supplies at hand. Yet the most
important fact is that China was able to stop this group before it acted.
According to government reporting, security forces have repeatedly interdicted
arms and disrupted plots in this county, while insurgents have not recently
been able to carry a single plot to fruition. This success is partly due to
China's ability to provide an alternative path for Uighurs that limits their
willingness to support or tolerate violence.
The contrast between China's project in Xinjiang and the United States' actions
in Iraq is stark. Where China realized that local politics was a key factor for
strategic effectiveness, the US has focused on targeting an ever-growing pool
of insurgents and terrorists. China's ultimate success in frustrating
al-Qaeda's designs on Xinjiang rests on its recognizing and responding to the
political nature of the threat.
Dr Martin I Wayne is the China Security Fellow at the National Defense
University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed
in this article are his own and do not represent the views of National Defense
University, the Department of Defense or the United States government. In 2005,
Wayne conducted extensive field work in Xinjiang; his book Understanding
China's War on Terrorism is forthcoming.