In answering the question “Why was Kunming chosen as the site of last Saturday’s attack?”consider the following:
In response to a police crackdown in Hotan, Xinjiang beginning in the summer of 2013, a large group of Uighurs attempted to make their way to Laos through Yunnan. Instead of escaping to Southeast Asia as refugees as planned, thirty were arrested at the border along with dozens of others throughout the province. Warrants were issued for those who were not immediately caught, and a detailed most wanted list was made public. At least eight remained at large and as time passed, hope for the release of their compatriots or relatives and their own escape to a foreign refuge grew smaller. With warrants out for their arrest and a heavy police presence in Xinjiang, returning home was impossible. Without local ID cards, settling down in Yunnan would prove just as difficult. Out of viable options, the group of eight decided to make a brutal last stand, taking out vengeance on the province where their plans failed. Gathering what little resources they could find in Kunming, the group planned to strike where they would be able to cause the most damage. And so on March 1, 2014, five people walked into the Kunming Train Station with knives and terror ensued.
Since the first few hours after the attack, the dominant narrative in both Western and Chinese media has been clear: the terror perpetrated at the Kunming train station was the work of Uighur separatists. Western sources disagree over whether the attack was a response to government oppression or part of a larger, global Islamic jihad, but most Western news outlets and Chinese media agree that the attack was premeditated and executed to maximum effect, whatever the goals were. Moreover, Chinese sources tend to say these terrorists were of the same ideology as those who crashed a car into the crowds at Tiananmen last October, if not part of the same terror organization. This narrative is not an especially comforting one for the Chinese public. After all, the violence that was once contained to the country’s far west is now encroaching closer to the coastal population centers, but at least it makes sense. At least there’s a monolithic threat to be faced. However, from the beginning, there have always been questions surrounding the story. Why Kunming? Why now? Why use such simple weapons as knives? At first, these questions remained unanswered, but in the past three days, more and more details about the attack have come to light, and a different narrative has emerged.
On Wednesday, March 5, a piece from Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service was published in English. This report claims that the Kunming terror attack had very little to do with either Kunming or organized terror. According to a Uighur resident of Kunming interviewed for the article, the attackers were most likely asylum seekers from Xinjiang with plans to escape to Laos via Yunnan. They left their home in Hotan’s Hanerik Township after a police crackdown last year. However, their plans hit a snag in October 2013 when Yunnan authorities arrested over 100 Uighurs, with over 30 were caught in Mohan on the China-Laos border. Another source echoed this account, saying many of those arrested in October were indeed Uighurs fleeing violence in Hotan and hoped to use Southeast Asia as a launching pad to seek asylum in other countries. This would not be the first time Uighurs attempted to escape via this route; in 2009, a group of Uighurs were deported back from Cambodia and in 2010, seven were deported from Laos. The group of eight terrorists who perpetrated the train station attack likely gave up their plans of escaping China after the October arrests. In fact it is quite possible that some, if not all of the seven Uighurs put on a wanted list after the October arrests are the also train station attackers. Thus the group of eight, frustrated with no hope of escaping China and fearing possible arrest, faced a crossroads and instead of returning to Xinjiang, they decided to take out their anger on the very place that they were stuck in: Kunming.
The basics of the RFA piece are corroborated by a statement from Yunnan Province Communist Party Secretary Qin Guangrong. Speaking at the National People’s Congress on Tuesday, he detailed his own (and presumably the state’s version of events). According to Mr. Qin, the eight terrorists involved in Saturday’s attack had originally planned to leave China to wage holy war. Unable to leave the country through Yunnan, they tried to escape via Guangdong. When their attempt to leave through Guangdong failed, the eight returned to Yunnan and decided to wage their holy war at home by attacking the Kunming train station.
While the Radio Free Asia’s and Qin Guangrong’s statements do have their differences, the basic narrative is the same: domestic terror was never the goal, and in fact the train station attack was only used as a last resort by people unsuccessfully trying to leave the country.
The low-tech nature of the attack also points to a group with a low level of organization and little funding. Using higher tech weapons like automatic rifles or a bomb would cause more carnage, but would likely require larger sums of money, most likely from a parent organization in another location. In addition, with the security crackdown in Xinjiang, organizing a dedicated terrorist cell to attack Kunming would have been much more difficult. Thus, the use of only swords points to a group that operated with neither high level organization nor substantial funding.
The observations of Dru Gladney, author of Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic, also point to a similar conclusion. According to Gladney, many pieces of evidence attributed to the attackers do not fit the mold of typical Uighur terror attacks. For one, the knives used lacked the ornateness and decoration usually found in Xinjiang knives. In addition, the flag of East Turkestan (the name Uighur separatists use for Xinjiang) is light blue, whereas the one found at the train station was dark blue, overlaid with Arabic, not Uighur, script. While some may look at Gladney’s observations and see evidence of foreign elements influencing the attack, this author finds something else. The fact that the attackers used knives and a flag uncharacteristic of Xinjiang points to the hypothesis that this attack was not planned in Xinjiang itself. Instead, they used whatever materials were available to them in Kunming to strike in desperation, leaving only terror and bits of evidence in their wake.
The last aspect to explain is the participation of two women, one reportedly pregnant, in the attack. Historically, female terrorists are characteristic of Russia’s Chechnya and Dagestan regions, with the 2004 Beslan school attack being a prime example. Thus female participation in the Kunming attack is problematic for those trying to fit it into the model of Uighur terrorism, which is traditionally carried out by men. However, one explanation is that the two women in the Kunming attack were in fact relatives of men arrested in the October 2013 roundup in Yunnan. It is possible that with their husbands or brothers in indefinite detention, or worse, the two women decided to lash out by joining their compatriots in the attack. Additionally, one of the captured female attackers purportedly is 5-6 months pregnant, a timeline that suggests the father of the child could have been detained in the October roundup. These motives would place the Kunming attacks in the same vein as Chechen terrorism. Female Chechen terrorists called “Black Widows,” are often driven by vengeance for their dead husbands; the Kunming attackers might have had similar reasons. This runs counter to Party Secretary Qin’s claims. Instead of a defined, cohesive group determined to wage holy war, evidence suggests an anomalous attack carried out by a more loosely organized group, as described in the Radio Free Asia article.
The picture that emerges from these sources is quite different than the tale being told through traditional media outlets. Instead of a concerted effort by an organized cell to wage war on China’s citizens, the Kunming train station attack seems to be something completely different. With the evidence available, threads of another, more nuanced story emerge.
Were the attackers at the Kunming train station members of a larger Islamic jihad? Were they connected to Uighur separatist organizations? Or as the evidence available suggests, were they frustrated asylum seekers who ultimately resorted to violence? Without a fully transparent investigation, the Chinese people and the world at large will never really know the identities of the terrorists or their motivations. Until then, we are left with hypotheses, speculation and a wounded country searching for answers.