Is China in Al Qaeda’s Crosshairs?

Mar 11, 2014 at 4:42 PM ET

Two weeks ago, 34 people were killed and 130 injured in a mass stabbing attack at the Kunming railway station in Yunnan, China. Reports said as many as 10 black-clad assailants wielding knives and machetes attacked people at random. The event caused shock in China and around the world, with many referring to it as the “Chinese 9/11.” Just days before, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group released a video threatening China. And this week, that video gained much greater significance, when Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared without a trace.

The Chinese government officially placed the blame for the attack on Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang, China’s largest province, traded hands repeatedly over centuries before becoming part of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The enormous region borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and sits atop huge reserves of oil and gas, making it very important to China. The province is predominantly Muslim, and foremost among its many ethnic groups are the Uyghurs, 10 million of whom make up 46 percent of the population.

Separatist Uyghur groups claim that the region is not legally part of China and refer to the region as East Turkestan. The Turkestan Islamic Party (also known as the East Turkestan Independence Movement), a U.S-designated terrorist organization, is the primary group leading the separatist movement against Beijing and has been accused of perpetrating several terrorist attacks in China.

According to the Chinese State Press agency, flags of the “East Turkistan Forces” were found at the scene of the Kunming railway station attack. Five days prior, the Turkestan Islamic Party published a video titled “We Are Coming O Buddhists,” in which Abu Zar Azzam, the spiritual leader of an Al Qaeda offshoot based in Waziristan, threatened Chinese nationals and Buddhists.

Azzam warns that the Chinese will be punished for their crimes against Muslims and Islam, and says that killing them and shedding their blood is “good.” Azzam has previously published videos in which he claims that after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, China will become the “number one enemy.”

Following the stabbing attack, Zhang Chunxian, the Xinjiang Communist party chief, blamed the act of terrorism on the spread of information through Internet videos.

Claims that the Uyghur Separatist group was behind the bloody attack has spurred a resurgence in anti-Uyghur sentiment in China. On Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo, several Uyghurs reported that they were experiencing discrimination.

In the above post, which was censored by the Chinese government, a user by the name Shi Shi Qiu Shi reports that a Uyghur Chinese student was refused accommodations in Shenyang and was almost forced to sleep outdoors and that Internet cafes were prohibiting him from using their computers.

Hong Qi, a renowned Uyghur folk singer and influential Sina Weibo user with more than 185,269 followers, posted that in Guangzhou he was “[playing] hide and seek with the motherland” because of his Uyghur nationality and that he had to take refuge in a hotel room. “I’m a legitimate citizen of this country,” he said. The post was also censored by Chinese authorities.

Chinese rights activists also reported similar instances of discrimination and anger directed at the Uyghur community since the train station terrorist attack.

This trend is coming under increased scrutiny because of the disappearance on Saturday of the Boeing 777 MH370 somewhere over the South China Sea en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with more than 150 Chinese nationals on board. Chinese social media networks were immediately abuzz with speculation over the possibility that that Uyghur separatists are responsible. This time, however, the Chinese government is cautioning the public over drawing such conclusions.

The Uyghurs have been implicated in a previous hijacking attempt. In June 2012, the Chinese government claimed that six Uyghur men attempted to hijack a Chinese domestic flight. The World Uyghur Congress rejected the government’s account and claimed that the incident was in fact a dispute that broke out over seating arrangements.