On Thursday, May 22nd, two sport utility vehicles pulled into a popular market in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang Province in northwest China. As the vehicles swung through the open street area teeming with elderly shoppers, occupants inside tossed explosive devices into the crowded streets. After exhausting their supply of hand-tossed explosives, the attackers committed a suicidal attack, detonating massive devices installed in the vehicles themselves. Four of the attackers were confirmed dead immediately following the attack while a fifth was taken into custody by Chinese authorities on May 23rd. In all, 39 people were killed and around 100 more were wounded. Witness accounts of the attack alluded to a scene reminiscent of those in Baghdad throughout the height of the war in Iraq:

Some of the photos circulating on social media suggested a hellish scene, with bodies strewn on the ground amid burning wreckage. Others showed flames and smoke billowing out of the end of a tree-lined street guarded by police. (CNN, May 23)

On May 23rd, Beijing issued an official statement declaring its policy intent in response to the attacks in Urumqi:

Without any details, the report said authorities had undertaken a “one-year crackdown on violent terrorist activities” in the volatile region after blasts in the heavily policed city of Urumqi killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 90, according to state media. The number of dead does not include the attackers. (CNN, May 23)

On June 4th, nine ethnic Uighurs were sentenced to death by a Chinese court after being found guilty of terrorism charges. On June 11th, Chinese police shot dead five ethnic Uighurs in Konasheher County in southern Xinjiang. One police officer was killed in the battle. Igniting the clash was the lifting of a Uighur woman’s veil during a house check last week.

Earlier in 2014, an attack in Kunming on March 1 left 29 dead, to include 14 of the perpetrators. The incident in Urumqi on May 22nd is only the latest in a escalating series of attacks seemingly emanating from a restive insurrectionist segment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Officially an autonomous region in northwestern China, Xianjiang has been increasingly the location of targeted Chinese government crackdowns in response to a burgeoning insurrectionist Uighur separatist movement. On October 28, 2013, a car laden with explosives and occupied by three ethnic Uighurs crashed into the Tiananmen Square gate just below a portrait of Mao Zedong. The car’s explosives detonated upon impact,  killing all three occupants and two bystanders. More than three dozen bystanders were badly injured. The Chinese government immediately moved to blackout media coverage of the incident but social media web sites began to distribute images of the wreckage. Most of the social media sharing those images were soon shut down.

Urumqi - Photo courtesy of Alexander Flühmann
Urumqi – Photo courtesy of Alexander Flühmann

Insurrectionist activity had begun spiraling upward in the weeks leading up to the attack on May 22. The explosions on May 22nd in Xinjiang marked only the latest of attacks in what is increasingly a hotbed of anti-Chinese insurrectionist activity in recent years. On May 1st, two men characterized as “religious extremists” detonated explosives in a suicide attack, killing one person and wounding at least 79 others.

Reports of ethnic Uighurs involved in insurgent activities in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have elicited fears that militants in Xinjiang are constructing relationships in international jihadist circles that could assist in connecting insurgent nodes in Xinjiang with well-financed and supported international terrorist networks. By facilitating associations with key leaders of international jihadist groups such as the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Al Qaeda, the insurrectionist campaign in Xinjiang could sustain a sizeable international logistical support network, ensuring the ability to acquire weapons and training for attacks against the Chinese government inside China. Recently, some lenders in China have been advised to cease doing business with Afghan interests, largely out of fear that money flowing between the countries is being funneled to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).