Violent terrorist incidents, which the Chinese government believes are carried out by the Islamist-inspired ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM), have been on the rise in China since at least 2010. Numerous attacks have been carried out in China’s western Xinjiang province in the past few years (see map below), resulting in at least 100 deaths. These attacks culminated in an attempted VBIED (car bomb) attack on Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square, in which 5 people were killed – two in a vehicular collision, and three when the perpetrators self-immolated. Since the attack in 2013, the number and severity of attacks has increased. Methods are evolving, and the death toll (primarily in Xinjiang) is on the rise with more than 300 killed since the beginning of the year. With the populace inflamed at this sudden flare-up of terrorism within Chinese borders, the government was caught unawares. Under intense pressure to protect the interests of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang, they responded with a harsh new policy, which has been labeled the ‘People’s War on Terror’ (反恐怖的人民战争).
Prior to the recent spike in violence, many Western commentators seemed to consider ETIM a negligible threat. The group was labelled a ‘low-level’ threat by anti-terrorism groups, with theories that the threat level was exaggerated by the Chinese government as a way to justify its increasing militarisation of the Xinjiang province. However, upon analysis, and indeed as recent events have conclusively proven, ETIM and other Uighur groups do pose a significant threat to Chinese people. Every major recorded terrorist incident from 2011-2014 is marked on the interactive Conflict News map below.
Two things are immediately obvious – first, the vast majority of these attacks have occurred in a geographically concentrated area. In the south-west of China’s Xinjiang province, in excess of 20 terrorist attacks have taken place since 2011. Xinjiang is a desert region, bordering both the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the volatile regions of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, and also Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
Second, it is obvious that the situation changed considerably at some point in late 2013, with a shift from targets within majority Muslim communities (see key below) to those much further afield (Kunming, Beijing etc.). The favoured method of attack changed from ‘knife attacks’ to vehicular-based attacks and bombings. These recent (post 2013) attacks can seen on the map with orange coloured marker points.