On Feb. 15, three knife-wielding Uyghur terrorists attacked a residential compound in Pishan township, Khotan Prefecture, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), killing five people. Immediately after this attack, Chinese authorities conducted mass anti-terrorism oath-taking rallies on Feb. 16 and 17 in the regional capital, Urumqi, and the major southern cities of Kashgar and Khotan.

On Feb. 27 the so-called Islamic State (IS) released a propaganda video portraying "scenes from the life of immigrants from East Turkistan [Xinjiang] in the land of the Caliphate." In the film, an Uyghur militant threatened China with "rivers of blood" to avenge its oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

The juxtaposition of these three events suggests that Uyghur terrorism is now a transnational challenge for Beijing. Ironically, this may, in fact, be a product of China’s own actions with respect to Xinjiang.

Xinjiang's history of autonomy and geopolitical position astride the crossroads of Eurasia has always made Beijing vigilant about Xinjiang’s security and apt to respond with a heavy hand to the sporadic outbursts of anti-state violence and unrest. The region plays a key role in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, making stability in Xinjiang a strategic imperative. President Xi asserted that "long-term stability of the autonomous region is vital to the whole country’s reform, development, and stability, as well as to national unity, ethnic harmony and national security."

This has resulted not only in China’s focus on combating terrorists through the kinetic means on display during February’s anti-terror rallies but also the development of a security state in Xinjiang since the July 2009 Urumqi riots. The state’s various apparatuses of political and social control are increasingly penetrating the region’s society, especially through measures to ensure the comprehensive supervision of stability in Xinjiang. This includes increased police patrols and monitoring of Uyghur neighbourhoods, installation of China’s Skynet electronic surveillance system in major urban areas and installation of GPS trackers in motor vehicles.

The continued centrality of Islam to Uyghur identity has also been identified as a core obstacle to stability by the Chinese government. This has resulted in the jurisdiction of religion whereby the state has more systematically regulated religious practice. The government has promulgated new regulations for monitoring and educating imams and religious institutions, disseminated new guidelines for the identification of potential deviant behaviours among believers, implemented restrictions on wearing burqas, niqabs and hijabs and conducted regular campaigns against religious education.

Beijing has also instrumentalized the threat of Uyghur terrorism and extremism in its Central Asian foreign policy for decades. China’s stability imperative in Xinjiang drove Beijing’s leading role in founding Central Asia’s pre-eminent multilateral organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July 2001. Since then, China has embedded a statist multilateralism within the SCO based on the shared interests of the six member states in the protection of state sovereignty and regime security. This is reflected in the group’s focus on regular joint military and counter-terrorism exercises, judicial cooperation on extradition of suspected terrorists and information sharing.

Post-9/11, China has also consistently blamed two externally-based militant groups — the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) — for attacks in Xinjiang. ETIM had a presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from the late 1990s, but it was only after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the retreat of Al Qaeda and other jihadist fellow-travellers to the Af-Pak frontier that it consolidated its links with these groups. TIP emerged as a successor organization to ETIM in 2005 closely aligned to Al Qaeda, but presented a limited threat to Chinese interests in Xinjiang and the broader region.

But since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis TIP’s capabilities have grown. As Al Qaeda itself developed a presence in Syria from 2012, so too did TIP. TIP now has a well-documented presence on the Syrian battlefield, fighting alongside Al Qaeda’s affiliates.

TIP’s role in fomenting terrorist attacks within Xinjiang remains unclear. But there is evidence linking the group to terrorist attacks elsewhere, such as the suicide attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Aug. 30, 2016, and the 2016 New Year’s Eve Istanbul nightclub attack. The fact that IS has now recruited Uyghurs may also provide TIP and IS-aligned Uyghurs with greater incentives to mount operations against Chinese interests as they compete for both credibility and recruits.

But how can we explain the recruitment of Uyghurs to groups such as TIP or IS based far from Xinjiang? A likely explanation is that the pervasiveness of the security state in Xinjiang has provided a push factor to a significant number of Uyghurs to leave China (often for Turkey). The dynamics of the Syrian crisis have also contributed an important pull factor for a proportion of those fleeing.

Since 9/11 China has claimed that Uyghur militants beyond Xinjiang, and in league with jihadists such as Al Qaeda, have fomented unrest and terrorism in Xinjiang. But it is also the interaction of China’s security state within Xinjiang with the much later crisis in Syria that has provided the necessary conditions for the consolidation and development of trans-national links between Uyghur militants and like-minded groups beyond Xinjiang.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White