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China Mulls Terror Response After Islamic State Threat

  • Henry Ridgwell

FILE - A Chinese Embassy employee examines broken windows at the embassy after a suicide bombing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Aug. 30, 2016. The bombing highlighted the expanding threat of an ethnic Uighur militant group that has sought for decades to establish an independent state in China’s far west for the repressed Muslim Uighur minority.

The Islamic State terror group released a video earlier this month explicitly threatening China with attacks on its soil. Analysts say that as China seeks to expand influence across central Asia, the Middle East and Africa, its nationals are being exposed to a greater terror threat — and Beijing is having to adapt its response.

The Islamic State video purports to show Chinese ethnic Uighurs fighting for IS militants in Iraq. They threaten to return home and shed “rivers of blood.”

Analyst Raffaello Pantucci of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute says the propaganda is part of Islamic State’s attempt to fight back in the face of heavy losses in Iraq and Syria.

“If it’s able to say it’s fighting forwards, it’s got these groups of people from all over the world who are there fighting alongside them to ultimately return home and do horrible things there, then you’re painting a much stronger narrative, and one which the group wants to project,” he said.

Watch: China Mulls Response After Islamic State Terror Threat

Uighurs in China

The video invokes the perceived persecution by Beijing of majority-Muslim Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang. China tightly controls access to the region, Pantucci said, and verifying reports of attacks there is difficult.

“This year at least two potential attacks so far and a number of other odd incidents taking place,” Pantucci said. “And we’ve seen the governor in Xinjiang province actually having a very heavy clampdown and a very visible escalation of the security presence in the region, all of which suggests that China is increasingly concerned about the problems related to terrorism and extremism, and clearly IS is part of that picture.”

Common enemy

Islamic State may be a common enemy, but there has been little coordination between China and the global coalition fighting the group, says Mathieu Duchatel of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“China wants support from Western states on its policies in Xinjiang. China considers that the anti-terror efforts that it is leading in Xinjiang are not being endorsed by countries in the West and the response in Europe at least is that there is a lack of transparency,” Duchatel said.

Human rights groups accuse China of oppressing its Uighur population. In turn, Beijing accuses the West of double standards, he said.

“China has a category which it calls the three evils. Terrorism, extremism and separatism are put together in the same basket,” Duchatel said.

China adopted a law in 2015 allowing military deployment overseas on anti-terror missions. But Duchatel says working alongside Western or Russian forces against Islamic State remains unlikely.

“The long-standing approach to terrorist risks for China has been to avoid attracting too much attention and becoming a target,” he said.

That approach may change as Chinese nationals are exposed to a greater terror risk across the globe.

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