Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.11.06

Are Uyghurs Terrorists?

JBPress on November 01, 2013

Around noon on October 29, in front of Beijing's Forbidden City an Uyghur family of three reportedly plowed an SUV into pedestrians and set themselves on fire, killing two innocent passers-by. Although the Chinese public security authorities referred to them as "terrorists," whether they really are or not depends on who you are and how you deal with this tragic incident.

The breaking news reached Tokyo in the afternoon soon after the incident took place. I was supposed to be on a TV news program that evening while the identity of the passengers of the vehicle was still unknown. When asked about the incident, although my first hunch was that it was done by Uyghurs, I was not confident enough to say that live on TV, simply because there was not yet enough evidence.

As I write this two days later, more details about the eight Uyghur suspects have been disclosed. It is rumored that the Chinese authorities have already intensified their crackdown on Uyghur religious extremists and separatist movements in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. However, even now, I am not fully convinced that those Uyghurs are real terrorists. The following are the reasons why.

First of all, the tactics were rather amateurish. The picture of the wreck of the vehicle shows the basic frame of the car intact. The perpetrators only used gasoline and there was no evidence of powerful explosives or IEDs (improvised explosive devises) like I saw in Baghdad back in 2003-4. The suspects are hardly well-trained jihadists. They are most likely desperate protesters.

Secondly, their objective is still unknown. The Chinese authorities reportedly hinted that the incident was the first "pre-meditated suicide attack" in China. Attack against what? Did they target the Tiananmen gate or the gigantic picture of Mao Zedong? There are many precedents for suicide bombings in China but in most cases they have been acts of protest involving strong personal grievances.

Thirdly, the term "terrorists" in Chinese may not be the same as the one we used during the War on Terror. Terrorism is the systematic use of violence, deliberately targeting innocent civilians, as a means of coercion for political or religious purposes. For example, Al-Qaida and its affiliates are professional terrorists by the universal standard; there is no doubt about that.

Are those Uyghurs also terrorists? By the standards of the Chinese Communist Party, of course they are. But, are those Uyghur suspects really terrorists by the global standard? That is another question. There seems to be a fundamental difference between professional international terrorists and those Uyghurs politically or religiously active inside China.

Yes, Al-Qaida and Co., for example, target innocent non-combatants in New York City or in Nairobi to coerce the United States and its friends. However, most of them are no longer in their homeland and do not suffer directly from harsh domestic oppression or persecution against minority groups in their native region under foreign rule.

The Uyghur "terrorists", however, are neither fighting abroad nor operating from safe havens in the mountains. They are living their daily lives in their homeland and there is no other place for them to go. Even if they are called terrorists in China, they are actually home-grown protesters against harsh religious or cultural conditions imposed by non-Muslim authorities.

These Uyghur suspects or "terrorists" were not well-trained. They only used knives and gasoline, but presumably they felt they had to react to the unacceptable cultural or religious environment. Their tactics are primitive and not as sophisticated as those of Al-Qaida soldiers. This does not mean that Uyghurs will never become mujahideen and join international terrorist camps in the future.

In fact, the way the Chinese authorities treat the Uyghurs may eventually make them real die-hard jihadists. The longer Beijing's crackdown goes on, the more resentful the Uyghurs will be and, probably, the more support they will get from the real professional international terrorists in the years to come.

This is a collision course, unless the Han Chinese ethnic majority can realize what is happening. Unfortunately, even if they do it will be too late. Beijing seems to be passing the point of no return and will know they have passed it if and when they lose the hearts and minds of the Muslims in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.