Following the 1 March Kunming train station attack in which 29 people were killed, Uighur attacks are likely to continue as resentment against the Chinese government rises.
Chinese authorities promptly condemned the Kunming attack on 1 March, in which 29 people were killed and 140 injured, as a well-organised and premeditated terrorist attack by militants linked to the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). While similar mass attacks had occurred before, the Kunming attack was the first of such scale to take place outside of Xinjiang.
As more facts come to light, it became clear that the Kunming attack was largely an opportunistic attack by a group of desperate fugitives foiled in their efforts to flee the country. In all likelihood, the attack did not involve detailed planning and co-ordination beforehand, and the attackers' exclusive reliance on knives revealed a lack of sophistication and lack of access to external assistance.
Due to its idiosyncratic nature, the Kunming attack is unlikely to signal a significant change in the threat profile posed by Uighur militants. Attacks by militants are likely to remain mostly limited to Xinjiang, and most attacks will continue to target government personnel and facilities, as well as public spaces. However, the attack has led to tighter security restrictions on Uighurs travelling and living outside of Xinjiang, and these new measures will likely remain in place.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kunming attack, speculation focused on the involvement of a well-organised terrorist group, possibly the Uighur separatist militant group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (see China: 3 March 2014: Kunming attack signals increasing Uighur separatist militancy heightening risk to Chinese city-centre transport and tourism assets). Due to the timing of the attack, occurring just before the annual session of the National People's Congress, many observers initially believed that it was symbolic. The location of the attack, a predominantly Han-Chinese region far from Xinjiang, was thought to have been chosen to signal ETIM's reach. Many observers also assumed that such an operation could not have been carried out without an extensive support network and careful prior planning, and the attack was frequently interpreted to imply a significant increase in the capabilities of Uighur militant groups.
Causes of the attack
IHS assesses that it was unlikely that the attack was planned far in advance. Of the five individuals involved in the attack, four were killed by security forces and one – a woman – was arrested. The perpetrators were most likely attempting to flee the country, although they probably did not have the proper travel documents because access to passports is tightly controlled for the Uighur population. The group had been turned back at the border, and after several additional failed attempts at other border crossings, three of the group were arrested near Kunming on 27 February. Two days later, the remaining five members of the group launched their attack at the train station. The group is believed to be fugitives from a police crackdown in Hanerik, a town in Hotan prefecture in the far west of Xinjiang, following an incident in June 2013. The incident had been triggered by the arrest of a vocally critical young imam in Hanerik, whose followers organised a march to the prefecture seat of Hotan to demand his release. Paramilitary police opened fire on the protesters, leading to several people being killed. As police began to round up the protest participants, some of these individuals decided to leave China for Southeast Asia, via Yunnan. However, the police followed them to Yunnan, and scores of the fugitives were arrested around the province. The Kunming group had evaded capture for months, moving between Yunnan and Guangdong.
Chinese authorities claimed that the group was on its way to join the global jihad. More likely, the members were merely planning to seek asylum abroad. In any event, it has been noted, for instance, that the attackers used conventional kitchen knives, rather than the ornate, heavily decorated Xinjiang knives. The captured female attacker was reportedly five to six months pregnant, and would have been an unlikely choice for a purpose-planned attack.
Chinese policies and rising Uighur extremism
For the Uighurs, government policies aimed at maintaining stability are only deepening their longstanding grievances. A major trigger for much of the violence since 2009 has been tight restrictions on religious practices. According to IHS sources, these include forbidding civil servants from fasting during Ramadan, the forced closure of religious schools, and campaigns against women wearing head scarves. In Hotan, fines were reportedly imposed against taxi drivers who picked up veiled women, and doctors were allegedly forbidden to treat women who refused to remove head scarves.
Nonetheless, the attacks over the past decade have been low intensity and low capability. Most incidents pre-2010 were generally ad hoc and lacked co-ordination and planning. However, over the last few years, the spate of attacks has displayed a bolder propensity to target government facilities and personnel in a more concerted fashion. There has been a noticeable spike in the frequency of incidents and the number of attackers involved. The vast majority of attacks have been carried out with knives, rather than firearms or explosives. In many instances, it appears the attackers did not expect to escape and dying was an accepted part of the "mission". Therefore the transition to far deadlier suicide bombing attacks at this juncture is probably prevented only through the lack of resources and knowledge, rather than the lack of willing volunteers. However, at present, militants in Xinjiang are unlikely to receive much assistance from abroad.
Other than issuing occasional statements and videos, including one released by Abdullah Mansour, the head of ETIM, soon after the Kunming attack, the group's actual ability to provide logistical support, weapons, or training to residents in Xinjiang remain limited. IHS monitoring of Jihadist social media indicates that the Uighur militants in North Waziristan number about 400, clustered mostly around the Mir Ali area. Another 250 are based in Afghanistan's Nuristan and Kunar provinces. The ETIM militants in Pakistan are said to be settled there with their families, "mostly focused on Afghanistan" and their own survival. The ETIM cause does not seem to have yet become a big enough priority for jihadist groups in Pakistan to assign extra resources to it, although Jihadist social media is increasingly highlighting alleged atrocities committed against the Uighur population in Xinjiang.
An increase in the activity of jihadist groups in Gilgit-Baltistan, the region that neighbours Xinjiang, would potentially increase the likelihood of militants being able to smuggle weapons or trained personnel into Xinjiang. The Pakistani government has made it clear that it will work closely with its Chinese counterparts to prevent the ETIM from linking up with militants in Xinjiang, and there is intense monitoring by Chinese and Pakistani security forces of all major routes into Xinjiang, including the Karakoram Highway. The fact that militants in Xinjiang have not been able to graduate to more sophisticated weapons, indicates that so far, this policy seems to have been successful.
Outlook and implications
In short, the Kunming attack is unlikely to signal a significant change in the threat profile posed by Uighur militants. Attacks by militants are likely to remain mostly limited to Xinjiang, and most attacks will continue to target government personnel and facilities, using relatively primitive methods. In the short term, the main effect of the attack in Kunming is likely to be further measures against Uighurs in Xinjiang as well as the rest of the China. In practice, tighter travel and lodging controls have already been imposed on Uighurs around the country. The National People's Congress is also considering new counterterrorism legislation, and the Kunming attack will likely further enhance the provisions of the new law.
The risk of an exponential increase in ethnic divisions is already emerging as a consequence of the Kunming attack. Public calls for more armed police and suspicion of Uighur communities in different cities around the country have generally increased. Another major attack, although possible, would almost certainly alienate the attackers from the local Uighur communities, who would have to bear the brunt of any increase in the government's restrictive measures towards the community.