Al-Qaeda in Xinjiang Autonomous Region?

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On Monday an SUV carrying three individuals drove through Tiananmen Square, killing themselves and two others while injuring scores more.

It was initially unclear whether the incident was an accident or a deliberate attack. Although China has kept tight-lipped about the incident, Reuters is reporting, citing unnamed Chinese officials, that Beijing now believes that it was a suicide attack. Reuters asserts that Chinese authorities believe the assailants were from China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and they are currently searching for two Uyghurs in connection with the attack.

Although violence has long plagued the ethnic conflict, there are a number of reasons why Beijing is especially worried about this purported attack. First, the incident occurred in one of the most heavily guarded areas of the capital. Although there were major bombing attacks in Beijing in the 1990s that the Chinese government attributed to Muslim separatist groups, according to Reuters this was the first major suicide attack on Beijing. Some terrorism scholars, notably Robert Pape, claim that suicide bombing campaigns are a particularly effective method of terrorism.  

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Second, the attack took place just weeks before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convenes its third plenum. This is significant because it means the attackers had to contend with increased state security. Furthermore, some observers are wondering whether this attack was an isolated event or foreshadows a larger campaign meant to coincide with the third plenum. If additional attacks are successfully carried out, they could prove extremely embarrassing for the CCP.

Third, and most importantly, anxious leaders in Beijing are likely asking themselves whether this attack was linked to al-Qaeda.

Inspire Magazine is an English-language publication  by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen branch. The publication seeks to inspire Muslims in English-speaking countries to carry out lone wolf or small cell attacks against the countries in which they live. The magazine contains stories glorifying Jihad as well as ready-made instructions for carrying out attacks.

For some time now, the authors of Inspire Magazine have been encouraging readers to carry out vehicle-borne attacks. For example, the second edition of the magazine encourages prospective terrorists to turn a pickup truck into a human lawn mower by placing large steel blades on the vehicles.

“The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah,” the article reads. It adds: “The ideal location is a place where there are a maximum number of pedestrians and the least number of vehicles. In fact if you can get through to ‘pedestrian only’ locations that exist in some downtown (city center) areas, that would be fabulous.”

China has long worried that foreign Islamist terrorists would radicalize its own Uyghur population. Indeed, one of the objectives behind China’s more active Central Asia policy is to lessen the possibility that radical Islamists in these countries will radicalize individuals in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This principle has grown all the more important to the Chinese leadership in light of its desire to use the XUAR as a central transit point in its new Silk Road regional economic integration strategy.

Still, experts on China’s Uyghur population have long been skeptical about this danger. They point out that Uyghurs are by and large moderate Muslims who abhor religious extremism. Furthermore, experts contend that most Uyghurs fear that any perceived links to international terrorist organizations will succeed only in provoking Chinese authorities to extend and deepen their crackdown on the region.

In speaking with The Diplomat via email, Julia Famularo, an expert on ethnic minorities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), cautioned against making broad assumptions about isolated incidents.

“The international community needs to exercise caution when analyzing protests and violent incidents occurring in the PRC. State censors are extremely deliberate about which and how much information is released to the public, and Beijing attempts to shape the news in ways that suit particular political objectives,” Famularo said.

“Foreign journalists are severely restricted in their attempts to independently research and verify information. Thus, as we attempt to understand patterns over time or ascertain new trends, we need to recognize that the information which we’re presented with is incomplete.”

When asked directly about the possibility of the Uyghur population taking cues from al-Qaeda, Famularo stated: “The assertion that Uyghur separatist or religious extremist groups have definitively linked up with Al-Qaeda is a controversial one. In the long-term, it’s more productive for us to think critically about the roots of unrest in Xinjiang, namely the cultural and religious policies that are a source of major tension in the region. If the Chinese government can think creatively and constructively about how to address the grievances of the Uyghur people, then these tensions will decrease dramatically.” 

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