China has stepped up security in Xinjiang after a vehicle ploughed into tourists on the edge of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in October last year, killing the three people in the car and two bystanders. China labeled it a suicide attack by militants from the region.
Mansour released a Uighur-language video weeks after the Tiananmen incident, calling it a “jihadi operation” by his group’s holy warriors.
For Pakistan, China is a valued friend in a region it views as potentially hostile. It is keen to demonstrate a commitment to weeding out what Beijing calls separatists, but its security forces are already stretched fighting Taliban militants in Pakistan.
Former Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik said that about 20 Uighur militants were captured and handed over to China on his watch between 2008 and last year.
“Pakistan and China are great friends. There are no secrets between us. When I took over as interior minister, I took on this subject in close association with my partners in China,” he said. “The present government is also aware of the whole thing.”
Many Uighurs in the energy-rich Xinjiang region, which borders ex-Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, accuse Han Chinese of stifling their culture and religion. More than 100 people have been killed there in unrest in the past year, according to Chinese state media reports.
However, the Chinese government has provided little evidence that the killings in Kunming or any other incidents that Beijing has labeled terrorist attacks have been linked to forces based outside China.
Some experts have suggested that the low-technology nature of the weapons the assailants used in Kunming, as well as the location of the attack, point to a weak organization and lack of external backing, as opposed to internationally coordinated terrorism.
The Kunming attack has put China on edge and prompted concerns over rising discrimination against Uighurs across the country.
Exiled Uighur groups have repeatedly called for transparent investigations into such incidents and say they should not be used as excuses for further repressive policies on Uighur communities.
Hundreds of Uighurs migrated to the lawless areas of Pakistan about five years ago after they were squeezed out of their homeland by a Chinese crackdown, Pakistani security sources say. Their numbers are believed to be much smaller now.
“The Chinese militants in the tribal areas are mostly clerics and fighters. They have their families here and are mostly focused on Afghanistan,” one Pakistani Taliban commander said.
Saifullah Mahsud, head of the Pakistani think tank FATA Research, which has extensive sources in Pakistan’s tribal areas, agreed their power and capacity to carry out major attacks are exaggerated by China.
“It’s survival, basically. They can’t go back,” he said. “This is the only place where they are welcome.”
Yet attempts by Taliban insurgents to carve out new hideouts in northern areas of Pakistan near the border with China have helped create a new corridor for Uighurs which leads into their homeland.
“In the last couple of years, Taliban militants have got nearer and nearer to the Chinese border,” Mahsud said. “There has been a lot of movement there. Perhaps that gives them the logistical support that they require to cross over into China.”