First published on Times of Israel Ops & Blogs website
While it is true that there were previous terrorist attacks using knives or even syringe stabbings, this attack was a well-organized operation by a relatively important 10-12 member team, on a very high profile target where it was sure to find numerous civilian victims and also high media coverage.
The participation in the assault by at least two women and possibly more is also significant. Are the Uyghurs imitating the Chechen women active in terrorist attacks against Russia? Are these women widows or parents of dead or arrested terrorists?The use of bland weapons can be explained first by the difficulty in smuggling firearms into a secured perimeter, but also by the hint of symbolism in jihadists’ ritual slaughtering of the enemy and the courage of the assailants.
In a sense, this tactic is an imitation of the November 2008 Mumbai attack in India and the September 2013 Nairobi mall attack in Kenya. The timing of the attack, close to an important national Chinese political event is also remarkable.
The incident has fueled massive anger among the people across China, with netizens severely condemning the violent attacks on social websites. Chinese netizens are spreading the word in the hopes of stopping the circulation of bloody photos on the Internet “because that’s just what the thugs want” and in order “to avoid more panic.”It is important for the understanding of this important incident to know the true origin of the terrorists.If they are Uyghurs originating from Xinjiang it means possibly the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) succeeded in mounting a complex coordinated operation far away from its natural territory. One goal of the attack could be to provoke retaliation by the authorities and riots by the Han people against the local Muslims and thus lead to their radicalization.If they are local Hui people it means the salafist/jihadist spirit has penetrated into the local Chinese Muslim community which until now seemed to be immune to the extremist ideologies from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.A more remote possibility would be an operation by an Uyghur team trained in Syria which succeeded in returning undetected to China in order to stage such a daring and sophisticated attack.
The Chinese government has claimed since 2012 that Uyghur militants from Xinjiang are fighting alongside the rebels in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad.On July 1, 2013, 23-year-old Memeti Aili, an Uyghur who studied in Istanbul, Turkey and fought with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo returned to Xinjiang and was arrested while planning to carry out “violent attacks” in China. He was recruited by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) through the East Turkistan Education and Solidarity Association (ETESA), an Istanbul-based exile group. According to a Chinese counter-terrorism official, about 100 Uyghurs have travelled to Syria to join the fighting alongside Syrian rebels since 2012.The role of jihadist videos in inspiring attackers and the similarity in attacks, which often feature vehicles ramming into Han civilians, suicide operations using bicycles or carts, suggest that some groups in Xinjiang are in coordination with each other and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, another name for ETIM). Thus far attacks in Xinjiang have not employed guns, possibly because of the inability of militants to acquire them.Although there is no verifiable information about the number of Chinese Muslims fighting in Syria, the numerous Chechen and other Caucasians present in the Syrian rebel camp suggest that Uyghur/Chinese Muslims are already there, receive training, combat experience and high motivation to expand jihad to their homeland.The investigation of the Kunming attack is therefore extremely important to understand how far the success of the Salafist/jihadist groups taking roots in Syria, the Sinai, Iraq or Yemen can expand this threat beyond the Middle East.
 Lin Meilian, “Xinjiang terrorists finding training, support in Syria, Turkey,” Global Times, 2013-7-1, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/792959.shtml#.UxL-o61WF1s Jacob Zenn, “China claims Uyghurs trained in Syria,” Asia Times Online, July 15, 2013.