Al-Qaeda's China problem
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 grudgingly.
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 Xinjiang.
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 ever".
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.
(Used by permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)