The Aug 30 suicide bombing at the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan injured three local staff workers, and damaged embassy buildings. The Kyrgyz National Security Committee announced afterward that the terrorist attack was planned and executed by the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement”, and financed by the Syrian terrorist group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly “Jabhat al-Nusra”, the Syrian branch of al-Quaeda).
Despite the relatively small toll, this was the first suicide car bombing against a Chinese diplomatic establishment overseas. Given its ETIM background, international terrorist organization financing and barbaric means, however, it deserves to be taken seriously.
First, the incident points to a change in the source of terrorist threats to China. Since the 1990s, the ETIM has had connections with international terrorist organizations, and some of its members have fled China to receive training in foreign countries, even carrying out attacks locally. However, their influence has been relatively limited. Unlike for the United States, which has engaged in a high-profile “war on terror” overseas in the wake of 9/11, terrorist threats to China have been mainly from the terrorist acts of ETIM forces at home. Therefore, although China has had some degree of anti-terror cooperation with the US and Pakistan, managed to repatriate a number of terrorists from foreign countries, and killed some terrorists overseas, the focus of China’s anti-terror campaign has been at home, particularly in southern Xinjiang. But the recent attack in Kyrgyzstan, along with the attack on the hotel hosting the Chinese Embassy to Somalia in July 2015, the November 2015 killing of Chinese citizen Fan Jinghui by ISIS, all remind us that, besides troubles at home, China will face increasing terrorist threats overseas.
Second, ETIM is going global, and becoming a global terrorist organization. Previously, ETIM’s overseas connections had mainly been limited to such international terrorist groups as al-Qaeda in South and Central Asia and the Uzbek Islamic Movement, and its international operations had largely been confined to South and Central Asia.
According to statistics, in the 1990s, more than 1,000 ETIM members fled to Afghanistan and received al-Qaeda training. Now, ETIM’s international links have re-oriented toward the Middle East: More than 300 people have reportedly gone there to fight for ISIS. Some details of the latest attack – the suspects received funds from “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham”, their accomplices hid in Turkey – indicate that ETIM activities are expanding beyond South and Central Asia, reaching the Middle East and the rest of the world. Southeast Asia has become the main corridor for their escape from China. Its international connections are extending from South and Central Asian terrorist groups to such international terrorist organizations as ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham active in the Middle East. This is evidence that ETIM is no longer a merely Chinese terrorist group, but evolving into a worldwide phenomenon.
Third, Chinese diplomatic missions, firms, and citizens will face increasingly prominent terrorist threats overseas. The latest attack, along with the murder of a Chinese diplomat (in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 2002), the attack on a tour bus carrying Chinese nationals (in Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan, 2003), and the afore-mentioned ISIS killing of Fan Jinghui, reminded us that Chinese diplomatic presences, firms and citizens overseas have become targets of attacks by ETIM and other international terrorist forces. In the future, with the progress of the “One Belt and One Road” initiatives, more and more Chinese firms and nationals will go abroad, including to places where terrorist activities are rampant, like South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Against such a background, Chinese diplomatic establishments, firms and personnel will face increasing terrorist threats.
It is thus obvious that in step with the rise of ISIS, changes in the international campaign against terror, and ETIM global expansion, terrorist threats to China have also changed quietly. Besides domestic terrorist threats, international terrorism, ETIM-related international terrorist forces in particular, have become critical potential threats. Under such circumstances, China should not only continue strengthening anti-terror and stability-preservation efforts at home, but also pay greater attention to overseas terrorist threats, and improve its overseas anti-terror capacities in an all-round manner.
A top priority for China is to cut off links between ETIM and international terrorist forces through enhancing border control as well as entry and exit examination, especially the channels through which ETIM elements flow back from foreign countries. Second, in order to upgrade overseas anti-terror capabilities, the country should not only come up with a clear picture of sources of overseas threats, but also consolidate protection for diplomatic missions, firms and personnel overseas. Third, enhance international anti-terror cooperation, especially with major countries, neighboring countries, as well as with countries along the “One Belt and One Road”, in such fields as intelligence sharing, border control, port and airport security checks, and “de-extremization”.