Chinese state media is reporting that the Wednesday explosion at the Urumqi South Railway Station was, in fact, a deliberate terrorist attack. Xinhua reports that three died in the explosion, including two suspects. Another 79 were injured, with four of those reported as serious injuries. The incident marked the first bomb attack in Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) since 1997.
According to Xinhua, one of the suspects killed in the attack was Sedirdin Sawut, a 39-year old resident of Asku in southern Xinjiang. The other suspect was not identified by name, but Xinhua said that “the two have long been involved in religious extremism.” No other details on the suspects’ affiliations or past activities were provided. Xinhua does not mention the involvement of any other suspects in the attack, although the investigation is still ongoing.
In addition to setting off the explosives, the two suspects were alleged to have used knives to stab civilians on the scene. As of this writing, there are no details as to how many injuries resulted from knife attacks versus the explosion itself. It’s also unclear if the suspects were intentionally acting as suicide bombers. Earlier, the People’s Daily microblog had reported that the suspects were carrying “bombs on their bodies.” However, the official reports in Xinhua did not use the term “suicide bombing” or otherwise imply the suspects were carrying the explosives.
In response to the attack, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for increased counterterrorism efforts. “The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum,” Xi said.
Xi had just finished an inspection tour of Xinjiang when the attack in Urumqi occurred. While in Xinjiang, Xi visited Chinese military and paramilitary outposts and called for troops to strike at terrorists with a “crushing blow.” Those comments were rerun by Xinhua in the aftermath of the Urumqi attack.
Call for China to step up counter-terrorism efforts have followed an increase in terrorist activity. Pan Zhiping, formerly a scholar at Xinjiang’s Academy of Social Science, saw a marked change in the type of violence undertaken by Xinjiang separatists. “There was a time last year when they were targeting the public security bureau, the police stations and the troops,” he told Reuters. “Now it’s indiscriminate – terrorist activities are conducted in places where people gather the most.”
This particular attack seems to have been timed for the maximum effect. The attack took place on the evening before China’s May 1 holiday, a time of especially heavy travel across the country. The attackers may also have wanted to send a message in the wake of Xi’s visit to Xinjiang and his strong words against terrorism and separatism.
In other words, China is now facing a full-fledged terrorist threat wherein civilians are targeted. Writing for The Diplomat after the March attack at Kunming railway station, Nicholas Dynon noted that the “random, indiscriminate gruesomeness” of that attack made it “China’s most chilling textbook act of terror yet.” In turn, the paradigm shift on the part of the attackers necessitated a shift in the security measures Beijing uses to protect its citizens.
Since the Kunming attack, there’s been little news on either the investigation (including information on the three suspects captured by security forces) or on plans to increase security in China’s public spaces. After the second attack in two months at a railway station, China’s government will likely look to upgrade security at its public transit centers.
However, internal security is only one part of the equation. China has long believed that unrest in Xinjiang is directly tied to interference from external militant groups. Some critics argue this divests China of any responsibility for its internal policies towards Uyghurs, especially those residing in Xinjiang. At the same time, it seems naïve to assume that Xinjiang’s militants are not reaping the benefits of connecting with other terror organizations in their region.
The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has been recognized by both the U.S. State Department and the UN as having ties to Al Qaeda. A 2009 State Department report noted that Abdul Haq, then the leader of ETIM, “has sent operatives to the Middle East to raise funds and buy explosive materials for terrorist attacks.” The UN’s 2011 report on ETIM noted that the organization “set up bases outside China to train terrorists.” The same report noted that ETIM has grown in both size and “operational capacity” since 2007, thanks in part to its connections with Al Qaeda.
The current iteration of ETIM, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is led by Abdullah Mansour, who is known to be based in Pakistan. In online videos, TIP claimed responsibility for the October 2013 car crash in Tiananmen Square and offered praise and support for the March 2014 attack in Kunming railway station. Reuters, which conducted an interview with Mansour in March 2014, noted that Mansour and TIP are based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, along with “a lethal mix of militant groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda.” In the Reuters interview, Mansour vowed that “Muslims will take revenge” on China and promised future attacks.
With three high-profile attacks since October 2013, it seems clear that China is facing a new sort of threat from militant groups like the TIP. Fighting that threat will require not only increased domestic security, but cross-border cooperation in combating the increasing trend of multinational terrorist organizations. As of now, China hasn’t shown any inclination that it will take matters into its own hands and conduct its own counter-terrorism activities on foreign soil as the U.S. does. But the current security situation is also intolerable for Beijing, and it’s clear something will have to change if China is to truly deal “a crushing blow” to terrorism.