On Tuesday, an Indonesian police official said two suspected Uyghur militants from China had been killed during a manhunt for jihadist Abu Wardah Santoso. The two men were shot by police in Central Sulawesi province, where Santoso is believed to be hiding out.
China has long warned of the danger posed by separatist terrorist groups among the ethnic Uyghur population, particularly a group labeled the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Beijing links nearly all unrest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, the traditional homeland of the Uyghur ethnic group, to ETIM – even incidents that alternative sources categorize as peaceful protests broken up violently by police. Despite the lack of clarity surrounding ETIM and its size and influence (details that remain fuzzy, in part, because of Beijing’s extreme secrecy on the subject), it’s indisputable that the prevalence and type of terrorist attacks in China have shifted in the past few years.
There are also signs that Uyghur militant groups may be spreading abroad – albeit slowly and in small numbers. Indonesian authorities believe a handful of Uyghur militants have joined Santoso, who himself has links to Islamic State. Last December, Indonesian police announced they had arrested an ethnic Uyghur from China, who was allegedly being trained to carry out a suicide bombing in Indonesia. At the time, Indonesia officials believed that there were three Uyghurs among Santoso’s East Indonesia Mujahidin network.
On Thursday, police upped those figures, saying that a total of six Chinese Uyghurs had travelled from Xinjiang in China to join Santoso’s group in Central Sulawesi. Two of those six were the men killed on Tuesday; police have added the remaining four to a most-wanted list. Central Sulawesi Police chief Brig. Gen. Rudy Sufahriadi told reporters that the Uyghurs had taken a circuitous route to reach their destination, travelling from Bangkok to Malaysia and on to West Java, where they were met by contacts.
When asked about the latest reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that “terrorist forces of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have been intensifying their efforts to infiltrate Indonesia.” The militants seek to “collude with terrorist extremist groups in Indonesia to open channels for personnel transfer, and take part in international terrorist activities,” Lu continued, adding that China was willing to bolster its counterterrorism cooperation with Indonesia to confront the issue.
Indonesian police in January said they were cooperating with Chinese authorities to investigate the alleged would-be suicide bomber from Xinjiang. China’s Foreign Ministry declined to confirm those reports, however.
From 2011 to 2014, China and Indonesia conducted an annual joint counter-terrorism drill known as “Sharp Knife.” However, overall defense and security relations remain limited, including counter-terrorism cooperation.