In July 2011, two violent incidents in Hotan and Kashgar of China’s Xinjiang Province highlighted the combustible relationship between Uighurs[1] and Han Chinese. A comparison of the two incidents also shows why assessing terrorist acts in Xinjiang requires a nuanced understanding of the security threat in the province. A number of violent incidents in Xinjiang are homegrown and related to Uighur grievances about the Chinese government’s policies, while other acts of violence show a stronger relationship between the attackers and jihadist ideology and operational tactics from abroad.

The Chinese government almost always attributes attacks in Xinjiang to jihadist ideology and foreign-linked terrorist groups, while pro-Uighur organizations almost always explain violence in Xinjiang as a local byproduct of the government’s policies. For example, the Chinese government called the Hotan incident a “severe terrorist attack,”[2] while the World Uighur Congress[3] blamed the violence on Chinese authorities forcefully breaking up a “peaceful demonstration.”[4]

As for the Kashgar attack, both sides disagreed over whether it was terrorism. China alleged that Pakistani-trained Uighur terrorists from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)[5] were responsible, while the World Uighur Congress argued that if the attacks were conducted by Uighurs, then it was only because they were brought to despair by “years of repression by the Chinese government” and without any other peaceful way to oppose the government.[6]

The two incidents, which show no relationship to each other besides the fact that they took place in the same month, are significant for two reasons. First, they represent the first extended outbreak of violence in Xinjiang since the Urumqi riots in July 2009.[7] The only other terrorist attack in Xinjiang between July 2009 and July 2011 was in August 2010 when three Uighur men drove an explosive-laden tricycle into a patrol of police officers in Aksu, killing seven.[8] Second, China’s naming of Pakistan is the first time it has cited a specific country as a source of terrorism in Xinjiang.[9] In the past, China blamed Xinjiang’s violence on ETIM, Hizb al-Tahrir (HT), and World Uighur Congress leader Rebia Kadeer, but China never implicated other countries, and especially not its “all weather friend.”[10]

Most violent incidents involving Uighurs attacking Han Chinese or Chinese institutions reflect varying degrees of both the government’s and pro-Uighur groups’ claims and often fall somewhere in the middle. As China develops Xinjiang as a Central Asian economic, trade and transportation hub while maintaining travel restrictions on Uighurs and assimilatory in-migration, language and cultural policies, local and external factors—including influences from Pakistan and Afghanistan, which border Xinjiang—will play a part in Uighur militancy.

Hotan: A Protest Gone Wrong
If what happened in Hotan on July 18 was an act of terrorism, the attackers chose a new target and strategy. In contrast to the Kashgar attacks on July 30-31, which involved multiple explosions and coordinated attacks on pedestrians at dining areas frequented by Han Chinese, the Hotan incident took place at a police station[11]—although some sources suggest it was at a local neighborhood affairs office.[12]

While police stations are generally considered terrorist targets anywhere, this would be the first time terrorists in Xinjiang have made a police station the main target in an attack. In the past, attacks have only targeted police in the field, such as in Aksu in 2010 and Kashgar in 2008. The attack is also unusual because—as both the Chinese government and pro-Uighur groups agree—it began as a protest, with the World Uighur Congress alleging that the protestors were calling for the release of Uighurs who were already detained at the police station.[13] The protest then evolved into a drawn-out hostage crisis in which as many as 14 of the Uighur protestors and two Han Chinese hostages, one security officer, and one policeman were killed.[14]

Rarely does a protest spiral into a hostage-taking incident without some prior planning and coordination. The presence of an alleged group of 14 protestors, however, does not match a typical terrorist operation considering the chief of the police station’s account of the incident. He said that he “shouted in Uighur, asking the rioters to stop…and to settle their dispute peacefully…But they kept throwing home-made Molotov cocktails and rocks at us.”[15] This implies that there was indeed a dispute before the attack, after which the situation became violent. In normal terrorist attacks, the terrorists would not have engaged the police in a dispute before the attack, and would have stormed the police station immediately to gain the element of surprise.

Regardless of the identity and goals of the Uighur protestors, who are believed to have been from out of town based on their accents,[16] the choice to protest at or attack the police station hints of local concerns, rather than an attack orchestrated in the name of Uighur independence or with backing from foreign jihadist organizations. This incident also resembles the two-day demonstrations in Hotan on March 23-24, 2008 that China blamed on the “Three Evil Forces (terrorism, separatism, and extremism)”[17] and Hizb al-Tahrir (HT),[18] but that were largely about local concerns, such as government campaigns to abolish the wearing of headscarves and the arrest and killing of a prominent Uighur man.[19]

The Hotan incident should be viewed in perspective. While the protestors may have been influenced or even inspired by foreign jihadist organizations, any associations were probably indirect. This incident is best seen as somewhere between criminal violence stemming from a protest over rational concerns and “an organized and planned violent terrorist attack aimed at a police station,” as Xinjiang’s chairperson asserted in the media.[20]

Kashgar: “Crying Wolf” No More
The attacks in Kashgar on July 30-31, 2011 have the signature of previous terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, notably in Kashgar in 2008 and Aksu in 2010. While the details of the latest attack in Kashgar are hard to corroborate, what is clear is that the attackers chose a purely civilian target: Han Chinese diners and pedestrians.

The attack began on the evening of July 30 when a car bomb detonated on a street lined with pedestrians and food stalls frequented by Han Chinese. Shortly after, two Uighur men hijacked a truck, killed its driver, and then steered the truck onto the sidewalk and into the food stalls and then stabbed people at random.

On July 31, another attack occurred on a popular dining and shopping street for Han Chinese. After two blasts at one restaurant, as many as 10 Uighur men shot and stabbed people indiscriminately, including the firefighters who came to the rescue. Overall, more than 10 civilians and eight attackers were killed and more than 40 others wounded in the two days.

The attacks coincided with the two days prior to the start of Ramadan and are strikingly similar to an attack in Kashgar in August 2008. In that attack, two Uighur men from Kashgar armed with explosives, machetes, and a gun rammed a dump truck into a line of 70 Chinese police officers jogging near a police compound and then attacked the officers with machetes.[21] The two men were arrested during the fight after killing 16 officers.[22]

In the 2008 attack, China did not lay blame on anyone but the two men from Kashgar and only mentioned that it had received intelligence reports about potential ETIM attacks in the lead up to the Olympics.[23] After the July 2011 attack, however, China stated clearly that terrorists trained in ETIM camps in Pakistan were responsible[24] and that the attackers adhered to “extremist ideology” and advocated “jihad.”[25]

Based on China’s prior allegations of HT’s connections to Hotan protests in 2008 and that Rebia Kadeer masterminded the July 2009 riots in Urumqi—which were actually sparked by a mobile phone video that showed two Uighur men being beaten to death by Han Chinese men in a Guangdong toy factory—China’s claims about training camps in Pakistan cannot be taken at face value.[26] Yet this time the benefit of the doubt swings in China’s favor. The timing of the attacks on the eve of Ramadan; the “ramming” method, which is typical of attacks in Xinjiang; the civilian targets; and especially a corroborative post-attack video from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)[27] point to a terrorist attack and the likelihood of a connection to Pakistan-based militants. In fact, targeting civilians—instead of police—for the first time may be the result of more extreme elements from Pakistan influencing terrorist operations in China.

The video, which was released by the TIP in late August, shows one of the Kashgar attackers, Memtieli Tiliwaldi, in a Pakistani training camp wrestling with other fighters. Tiliwaldi was killed by Xinjiang police in a corn field days after the attack.[28] This is the most concrete evidence ever introduced that links attacks in Xinjiang to the ETIM or TIP in Pakistan.

In the past, TIP videos were largely an attempt to establish a pedigree for the group, which may have been incapable of actually carrying out attacks in China. In 2008, a TIP commander, Seyfullah, claimed in a video that the TIP carried out a spate of bombings in China in the run up to the Olympics, including on buses in Kunming and Shanghai and a building in Wenzhou.[29] A Chinese man, however, confessed to the Kunming bombings,[30] the Shanghai bombings were reportedly caused by a passenger’s inflammable goods,[31] and the Wenzhou attack was reported to have taken place at the site of a gambling ring and carried out by a man angry over his gambling debt.[32] While the previous TIP claims may have been true and the Chinese cover-up brilliant, the TIP still provided no concrete evidence of it carrying out the attacks. The video with Tiliwaldi, however, provides a high level of certainty of TIP involvement that is unmatched by prior videos.

There is further evidence that ETIM or the TIP is actively plotting attacks like the one in Kashgar. A string of plots uncovered in 2010 include: a three-person ETIM cell with one Uighur man that was broken up in Norway; two Uighurs who were sentenced to 10-years imprisonment in the United Arab Emirates for plotting to blow up a dragon statue outside of a Chinese-owned retail shopping complex in Dubai in 2008;[33] and Chinese authorities reported that they arrested 10 members of an ETIM cell in Xinjiang that was responsible for the 2008 Kashgar attack, as well as attacks in Aksu, Kucha, and Hotan.[34]

The similarities between the terrorist attacks in Kashgar in 2008, Aksu in 2010, and Kashgar in July 2011 show that the attacks were probably not isolated incidents, and the TIP video suggests that the most recent attack was likely connected to TIP or ETIM cells in Pakistan. While China’s claims about terrorism and foreign links are probably correct with regards to the July 2011 Kashgar attacks, not all acts of violence by Uighurs should be considered terrorism or linked to the TIP, ETIM, and other Pakistan-based groups. As the July 2011 Hotan protest-turned-hostage-taking and the earlier March 2008 Hotan protest show, Uighurs frustrated by China’s policies will organize and protest, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently.

It may be impossible to know whether in Hotan the protestors were provoked by authorities to violence, intent on the hostage-taking from the start of the protest, or whether they were affiliated with domestic or foreign-based terrorist groups, but one way to assess violent incidents in Xinjiang is to look at the target location and victims, the method of attack, the timing, the attackers’ identities, and whether any group issued a credible statement claiming responsibility. In Hotan, the evidence is not definitive that the protestors were intent on a terrorist hostage-taking. The Kashgar attack, however, has all the hallmarks of a terrorist act.

Jacob Zenn is an international security consultant and graduate of Georgetown University Law Center’s Global Law Scholars Program and the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. He has also studied Uighur at Xinjiang University in Urumqi and was based in Kashgar at the time of writing this article.

[1] The Uighurs are a Sunni Muslim and ethnic Turkic people whose language is similar to Uzbek. Since 1949, the unprecedented rate of Han Chinese migration to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has altered the demographic balance of the province in favor of the Han, such that any future independent Uighur state in Xinjiang will be virtually impossible to achieve. Despite the province’s economic boom since the 1990s, the loss of the Uighur and Sunni Muslim character of the region and the relative prosperity of the province’s Han compared to the less wealthy Uighurs has caused some Uighurs—perhaps influenced by the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), al-Qai`da, and other jihadist groups—to embrace terrorism as a means to expel the Chinese from Xinjiang.

[2] Shao Wei, “Attack on Police Station was Long-Planned,” China Daily, July 21, 2011.

[3] The Munich-based World Uighur Congress (WUC) was formed in 2004 from a collection of various Uighur groups in exile, including the Uighur American Association (UAA). Its leader since 2006 has been Rebia Kadeer, a prominent businesswoman from Xinjiang. China labels the organization as “splittist” and accuses it of being linked to terrorist groups with aims in Xinjiang, while the WUC maintains it is dedicated to promoting peaceful, non-violent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkistan.

[4] “Uighurs to Stage Demonstration in Vienna to Protest Hotan Incident,” press release, World Uighur Congress, July 28, 2011.

[5] The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was founded in 1993 by ethnic Uighurs, and its earliest members are believed to have received protection and training with the Taliban and al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan. The ETIM is also believed to have been responsible for several small-scale attacks within China in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the bombing of a bus in Beijing in 1997. The ETIM was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in 2002 for plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. After its leader Abdul Haq al-Turkistani was killed by a suspected CIA drone strike in Miranshah of Waziristan in Pakistan in 2003, the ETIM may have faded into extinction since no terrorist has claimed an attack under the name of ETIM since al-Turkistani’s death. The ETIM, however, may have reemerged in 2008 under the new banner of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a group which has the same goals for the “liberation” of Xinjiang from Chinese control and has claimed attacks in China and issued propaganda videos starting in 2008.

[6] “Uighur Leader: Hotan Incident Was Not a Terrorist Attack,” World Uighur Congress, July 21, 2011.

[7] On July 5, 2009, hundreds of Uighurs protested at the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi against the beating to death of two Uighur laborers in Guangdong by Han Chinese co-workers. The incident was recorded on an attacker’s mobile phone and later disseminated among Xinjiang’s Uighurs. The protestors clashed with Chinese riot police, who the Uighurs accused of using excessive force, and for nearly a week violence spread to Han and Uighur civilians in Urumqi who took up arms against each other. Approximately 200 people died as a result of the fighting and China responded with a heavy crackdown on Uighurs involved in the riots, detaining hundreds, issuing long-term prison sentences, and sentencing more than 10 Uighurs to death. China also cut off internet access, mobile phone messaging services, and international phone calls in Urumqi for nearly one year after the riots.

[8] “Xinjiang Continues to Face Threats of Terrorism,” China Daily, September 11, 2010.

[9] “China Blames ‘Friend’ Pak for Terror Attack,” Times of India, August 2, 2011.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Hotan and Kashgar Terrorist Attacks,”, August 16, 2011.

[12] In fact, in a city like Hotan, a police office generally contains a banshichu, which is responsible for registration of identity cards, residence permits, and passports. See “Understanding the Khotan Incident in Local Context,” Xinjiang Review, July 25, 2011.

[13] “Four Dead in Police Station Clash in China’s Xinjiang,” Agence France-Presse, July 18, 2011.

[14] Xi Tianran and Liu Linlin, “14 Uighur Terrorists Killed in Hotan,” Global Times, July 21, 2011.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “14 Rioters Shot Dead in Hotan Attack,” China Daily, July 20, 2011.

[17] “Official Confirms a Separatist Disturbance Incident in March in Hotan, Xinjiang,” China News, April 4, 2008.

[18] “According to the Law Hotan City To Stop ‘Hizb al-Tahrir’s’ Planned Illegal Demonstrations,”, April 4, 2008.

[19] “Muslim ‘Extremists’ Attempt Uprising in Western China: Govt,”, April 2, 2008.

[20] “Details of the Incident in Hotan, Xinjiang: Violent Demonstrators Held Up the Flag of Separation,” July 19, 2011, available at

[21] “Xinjiang Police Informed About the Latest Violent Attacks in Kashgar, Xinjiang,” Xinhua, August 5, 2008.

[22] Andrew Jacobs, “Ambush in China Raises Concerns as Olympics Near,” New York Times, August 5, 2008.

[23] “16 Police Killed in China Border Attack,” CBS News, February 11, 2009.

[24] “Tensions High After Unrest in China,” Dawn, August 2, 2011; “Terrorist Plot Suspected in Violent Attack on Police in West China’s Xinjiang,” Xinhua, August 4, 2008.

[25] “China Blames Deadly Xinjiang Attack on Separatists,” BBC, August 1, 2011.

[26] “Urumqi Riots Force Hu Jintao to Cancel G-8 Trip,”, July 8, 2009.

[27] Although there are no direct links between the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the TIP seems to have formed as a successor group to the now defunct ETIM, or the TIP has at least taken up the cause that the now defunct ETIM has given up. While China and international media still commonly refer to the TIP as the ETIM, since 2008 only the TIP has issued propaganda videos and claims of attacks. The TIP has produced nine editions of an elaborate magazine, Islamic Turkistan, as well as numerous propaganda videos alleging its role in attacks leading up to the Beijing Olympics, condemnations of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, and threats of future attacks in China. The TIP is believed to be based in Pakistan’s tribal areas and to maintain links with the other jihadist groups active along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, particularly the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and al-Qa`ida.

[28] “Video Shows Terrorists in China Got Training in Pak Bases,” Times of India, September 8, 2011.

[29] “Turkistan Islamic Party Releases Olympic Threat Video,”, August 7, 2008.

[30] “Young Man Dies in Suicide Bombing, Claims to Have Been Responsible for the Kunming Bus Explosion,”, December 25, 2008.

[31] “Young Man Who Set Off a Coffee Shop Explosion Admits He Caused the Kunming Bus Explosion,”, December 25, 2008.

[32] “Fatal Explosion Linked to Gambling Debt in Southern China,” China Daily, May 18, 2008.

[33] Raffaello Pantucci, “Uighurs Convicted in East Turkestan Islamic Movement Plot in Dubai,” Terrorism Monitor 8:29 (2010).

[34] “Police Dismantling Terror Group in Xinjiang: Ministry,” People’s Daily, June 25, 2010.

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