Entrenched in secret mountain bases on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Uighur fighters are gearing up for retribution against China. They seek to avenge the deaths of comrades killed during Beijing’s crackdown on the Uighur separatist movement, their leader told reporters.
China, Pakistan’s only major ally in the region, has long urged Islamabad to weed out what it describes as militants from its western region of Xinjiang, who are holed up in a lawless tribal belt. A lethal mix of militant groups are present here, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
A mass stabbing at a train station in the Chinese city of Kunming two weeks ago, in which at least 29 people were killed, has put a new spotlight on the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority from Xinjiang. Beijing says armed groups seek to establish an independent state called East Turkestan in the province.
Beijing has called the Kunming bloodshed a “terrorist attack” carried out by militants, and says separatists operate training camps across the rugged border that abuts Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In a rare, but brief interview, Abdullah Mansour, leader of the rebel Turkestan Islamic Party, said it was his holy duty to fight the Chinese.
“The fight against China is our Islamic responsibility and we have to fulfill it,” he said from an undisclosed location.
“China is not only our enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims... We have plans for many attacks in China,” he said, speaking in the Uighur language through an interpreter.
“We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge,” he added.
Mansour spoke on a crackly line using a mobile phone with an Afghan SIM card in a brief statement which gave reporters no chance to ask about the Kunming attack.
The separatists hide mainly in the troubled North Waziristan region, where they are treated by their Pakistani Taliban hosts as guests of honor, say militant and Pakistani intelligence sources.
The Turkestan Islamic Party, which China equates with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, keeps a low profile in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban, it very seldom posts videos promoting its activities or ideology. Its exact size is unknown and some experts dispute its ability to orchestrate attacks in China, or that it exists at all as a cohesive group.
Getting hold of leaders such as Mansour is almost impossible and interviews are usually very brief and conducted from undisclosed locations through a Pashto-speaking translator.
Pakistani intelligence sources say they number about 400 fighters, and are clustered around the remote Mir Ali area, sharing bases with other foreign insurgents, particularly Uzbeks, who speak a similar language.
In Afghanistan this year, two security reports sent to expatriates working there warned of planned attacks on a Chinese hotel, Chinese companies and other targets in Kabul. There have been no attacks so far.
According to Afghan Taliban sources, there are about 250 Uighur militants in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces.
“They live here with us, but are always concerned about their people and mission in China. They are nice people, good Muslims and the best fighters,” a senior Taliban commander said.
He added that Uighur militants were not fond of guns, and preferred to use knives and daggers.
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.”