A railway station attack in Kunming, China, on March 1 suggests that ethnic Uighur militants, whose attacks in the past mostly targeted police and public officials in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, have shifted to a strategy of seeking to inflict mass civilian casualties anywhere in the country. While these militants may be part of small, disparate cells with a relative lack of central control and training, they have now proved capable of striking in China's far southwest borderlands only months after another Uighur group attacked China's capital, Beijing. This suggests that China's counterterrorism efforts will have to expand nationwide.
A group of around 10 knife-wielding men attacked people in the Kunming railway station in Yunnan, China, stabbing victims indiscriminately, according to eyewitnesses. They ultimately killed 29 and wounded 130, according to the latest reports. Police shot and killed four attackers, arrested one female attacker and are pursuing the other five.
The incident, which Beijing called an "organized, premeditated, violent terror attack" carried out by ethnic Uighur militants linked to the Xinjiang separatist movement, drew a swift and strong political response. Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the capture of the remaining attackers and for the country to maintain a high level of awareness about the dangers of terrorism and the importance of supporting national counterterrorism efforts. Xi also sent two top security officials to Kunming. Meanwhile, Premier Li Keqiang urged police to increase security measures, especially in crowded areas.
The March 1 attack suggests two important developments in Uighur militancy: maximizing civilian targets and expanding the geography of operations.
First, the target set at Kunming rail station — random civilians — differs from most previous Uighur attacks. Typically, militants have attacked police, whether on training exercises, on patrol or at police stations, or have become embroiled in confrontations when police disrupted one of their meetings. While mass civilian deaths occurred during July 2009 riots in Urumqi, they have not recurred. A move to maximize civilian casualties will give rise to greater fears among the Chinese public and is also likely to prompt more unified public demands for a forceful state response. Security attention in mainland cities will now shift toward counterterrorism even as authorities strive to keep social tensions under control.
Second, the location is unprecedented for Uighur militant attacks. Uighur separatism and militancy are based in Xinjiang province in China's far northwest. With few exceptions, this is where attacks have occurred. To give an idea of the distances involved, Kashgar, a frequent site of such violence, is 5,000 kilometers (more than 3,000 miles) from southwestern Kunming.
Yunnan is a poor but rapidly growing, mountainous, ethnically diverse province. It borders ethnic autonomous regions such as Tibet and Guangxi along with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. As elsewhere in China, Yunnan has seen unrest and violent incidents in response to official corruption, land seizures, environmental degradation, unemployment and other grievances. It has more ethnic tension than most of China and has an expansive regional drug trade and black markets because of its position between China and Southeast Asia. Local attacks in Kunming often involve explosives — the large mining sector makes dynamite widely available — such as a bombing that killed 11 people in 2003 and two nearly simultaneous bombings in 2008 of public buses.
Evidence suggests Chinese internal intelligence has perceived heightened threats to Kunming in recent years, whether related to Uighur militants or otherwise. Security forces staged an unusually large show of force in the city in August 2011. This surge suggested that authorities might have received intelligence of an impending attack. The stated purpose was to provide security for Kunming's Communist Party Conference taking place around that time; alternate motives for the surge, if any, were never revealed.
While there has not been solid confirmation of the attackers' backgrounds, it is worth noting that the number of Uighurs living in the province has increased in recent years. Since the 2009 riots in Xinjiang, the government has stepped up relocation policies that have increased the Uighur presence in the rest of China, including Kunming — but this has failed to achieve the intended goal of better assimilating them into mainstream Han Chinese society. Uighurs in Yunnan have been linked to the drug trade in the far west along the border with Myanmar.
Aside from these shifts in target set and geography, the Kunming attack may show another attempt by Uighur militants to increase the national political symbolism of their attacks. The incident occurred at a politically sensitive time as the country prepares for the Two Sessions, the annual meetings of China's National People's Congress and People's Political Consultative Congress. While Chinese security forces have increased their presence and raised their level of alertness in Beijing ahead of the meetings, Kunming lies in a distant border region that is neither the focus of security attention nor as well protected as more central areas. Moreover, railway stations are soft targets that are notoriously difficult to secure. These factors explain how the militants managed to create such a high body count with just knives and handheld tools. While Kunming does not have particular political significance, militants planning to strike at this politically significant time would have known that they had a greater chance of breaching security at soft target far from the country's political and security center.
Kunming is not the first indicator that small cells of Uighur militants have become more active lately in Xinjiang and other provinces. In late October, just ahead of the Communist Party's Third Plenary Session, three Uighurs with a cache of weapons drove a vehicle through crowds near the Tiananmen Rostrum in Beijing. The vehicle burst into flames in front of the portrait of Mao. That incident showed the possibility that Uighur militancy would seek to expand its geographic reach and aim at more symbolic political targets. While militants in the Beijing incident apparently did not maximize civilian deaths, it is not clear whether this was intentional or the result of flawed execution.
The March 1 Kunming attack does not carry anywhere near the political symbolism as the October attack close to the Communist Party's headquarters, but it suggests that Xinjiang militants are improving their ability to operate outside their region. This is of particular concern for China as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and regional militant networks realign their attention toward regional opponents. Unlike other militants in South Asia and the Middle East, Uighur militants in China have not exhibited the trend toward suicide bombings with improvised explosive devices. Attacks like the one in Kunming leave the perpetrators a chance of survival, even if the attackers are likely to die.
Understanding the full significance of the Kunming attack will require determining whether the attackers were based in Xinjiang and orchestrated the attack across vast distances — as in the Beijing attack in October — or whether they were a radical cell already located in Kunming or elsewhere in Yunnan without personal networks across provincial borders, making them harder to detect. The answer will help determine the level of capabilities Chinese security must contend with. Like all others, Chinese security forces will always struggle to prevent small cells of independent militants from using rudimentary tools to attack soft targets. Beyond that, while Uighur militants have shown similar methods of attack, they have generally lacked signs of effective centralized planning and training. While the Kunming incident may have involved a small independent cell, it and the Beijing attack in October raise the question of whether Uighur militants have attained a higher level of interregional planning and coordination.