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A Uygur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary police officers travels along a street in Urumqi, capital of China’s far western Xinjiang region in this file image. Photo: Reuters

China saw 16-fold increase in returning jihadists in 2017, analyst says

Beijing must continue to tighten security as terrorist groups gain footholds close to its borders


China is facing a growing threat from trained jihadists re-entering the country, security and diplomatic analysts warned, after it was revealed that the number of such people intercepted by the authorities in 2017 was 16 times as high as the year before.

The size of the increase was revealed by Ji Zhiye, head of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, though he did not provide absolute figures.

The steep rise in the number of people apprehended might have been a result of China tightening its border controls, but the complicated geopolitical situation in neighbouring countries had heightened the risk, he said.

Jihadists could return to China via Russia or central Asia, and their options had been increased as a result of Beijing’s growing ties with the latter through its “Belt and Road Initiative”, Ji said.

Li Shaoxian, director of the China-Arab Research Institute at Ningxia University, said there were multiple channels that jihadists could use to get back into the country and that authorities needed to remain on high alert, even for those travelling with genuine documents.

Many of the people arrested in police crackdowns on terrorism suspects in Xinjiang, a restive region in China’s far west that is mostly populated by people from the Uygur ethnic group, were found to have returned from Syria with legal visas, he said.

Xinjiang has increasingly tightened its border controls, including its visa management procedures, since late 2016.

“Beijing should work with other countries in the region, and Russia, to crack down on terrorism near its border”, Li said.

Since the second half of 2015, the extremist group Islamic State has established new strongholds outside Syria and Iraq, including ones in Afghanistan, Libya and on the Sinai Peninsula in northeastern Egypt.

Beijing has accused IS of recruiting Uygurs from Xinjiang and blamed forces such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for plotting deadly attacks within China that have claimed hundreds of lives.

Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to China, said in November that an estimated 5,000 Chinese militants, mostly Uygurs from Xinjiang, were believed to have been trained in Syria.

The Kabul-based Pajhwok Afghan News reported over the weekend that two Chinese militants were killed in an anti-terrorism operation on Friday in Afghanistan’s northeast Badakhshan province, a volatile region close to the border with Xinjiang. An estimated 21 militant groups, including ETIM, have set up training camps in the country.

The United States military is also targeting militants in northern Afghanistan. According to a Nato statement released in early February, US troops had conducted air operations to strike at Taliban training facilities in Badakhshan, preventing the planning and rehearsal of terrorist acts by groups including the ETIM near the border with China and Tajikistan.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said that while Beijing needed to be aware of the potential threat posed by jihadists returning to the country, there was nothing yet to suggest that any of them actually had.

“While China clearly has something to worry about given the numbers of jihadists with links to China who have fought in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, it is worth pointing out that so far China has not shown any evidence of foreign fighters making it back home,” he said.

“Rather, we have seen these individuals killed abroad, or launching attacks against China abroad, suggesting that it is very difficult for people to return to China to try to launch an attack”.

As part of its efforts to counter the threat of terrorism, Beijing has increased its engagement with Afghanistan, and in recent months sought to ease tensions between the war-torn country and its neighbour Pakistan.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing ‘facing security risk’ from returning jihadists