China’s supposed fight against terrorism a lesson in how not to fight terrorism

You would think that doing something to combat terrorism but only creates more terrorism would make you stop doing that, right? Tell China.

This piece appeared in The Epoch Times on January 13, 2023.

That terrorism is real should not be in question. Even if we cannot agree on what terrorism is (“one man’s freedom fighter…”), let alone the distinction between it and hate crime, it is very true that there is such a thing and it warrants monitoring and action to stop it before it occurs (and kills/injures innocent civilians).

As a consequence, many, if not most, nations have developed over the years some kind of counter-terrorism policy or program. Some of these are predominantly military in nature (such as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001), some are security service/law enforcement-led, and others are civil society focused (the plethora of PCVE—preventing and countering violent extremism—initiatives). Whatever the approach, the end goal is the same: prevent and stop terrorism.

So what if the chosen response results in MORE not LESS terrorism? Why would any country opt for that idea? Well, you may want to ask the People’s Republic of China that!

Over the past few years we have all heard how the authorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang Province have in essence locked up more or less a million Uyghur Muslims in euphemistically called “re-education camps” (how Orwellian/communist a phrase!). For their own good, of course. This move was made after a series of attacks carried out in the mid-2010s by Uyghur Islamist terrorists, some of which were part of the so-called East Turkestan Islamic Movement. One particularly violent act in 2014 at a train station in Kunming left 29 dead and 140 wounded (I discuss this group and many more in my 2017 book “The Lesser Jihads”). That was merely the worst of several events.

As a result, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided in 2014 that ALL Uyghur Muslims are terrorists and cracked down viciously. Not only have the aforementioned citizens been subject to brainwashing in government centres, but Muslim clothing is forbidden, mosques have been shuttered, and any semblance of freedom has been quashed. China has infiltrated Xinjiang with thousands of spies who keep tabs on citizens and report the smallest of “infractions.” Life as a Muslim in China has therefore been altered, perhaps irrevocably. All in all a typical central overreaction to a real, but small, threat.

Thankfully the world has condemned Chinese authorities for these actions (not that they care, of course). As least some countries—albeit not most Middle Eastern/Muslim states, somewhat confusingly—have had the moral fibre to say something about this atrocious violation of fundamental human rights. There has been, however, no sign that this situation will be ended any time soon.

Not surprisingly, these moves have galvanized Islamist terrorist groups around the world. Threats against the PRC have mounted in recent years; before the crackdown China was all but invisible on the list of “Islam’s enemies” as seen by jihadis. Terrorist propaganda now regularly rails against China, largely because of the suffering of Muslims in the country’s northwest. In addition, attacks on Chinese interests have increased in several countries; Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan are but some recent examples. More are likely to come as the PRC expands its Belt and Road Initiative and sends its workers abroad to take part in major infrastructure projects. As many of these initiatives are in nations with significant Muslim populations, jihadi groups can operate more easily and Chinese workers pose a tempting target for them.

In all likelihood, China will remain tone deaf to the link between its policies in Xinjiang and the targeting of its interests worldwide. Naturally, no self-respecting nation wants to be seen to give in to terrorists’ demands, but some introspection into what it is doing and whether its course of action is actually doing what it is supposed to do should be warranted, no?

So many mistakes have been committed in the ill-named “war on terrorism” over the past two decades (Guantanamo Bay, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan) on so many levels. It would be nice if we stopped doing some things that don’t work but rather make the situation worse. The atrocities in Xinjiang are but one more example and should end.

Are you listening, Xi Jinping et al? Who am I kidding? This is communist China we are talking about.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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