Sarah Cornelison, 28 May 2015, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2015.1039300
Communal violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese entered a violent new phase in 2013. The Uighurs, a Turkic language-speaking population concentrated in China’s far western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group of China, have clashed a number of times in the past two decades, most notably in 1990, 1997, and 2009. Most of these and other episodes of Uighur–Chinese communal violence occurred within Xinjiang’s borders. Since 2013, however, Uighurs have carried out a number of violent attacks in other regions of China. The violence has not only expanded to regions outside of Xinjiang, but has escalated in its form, as is indicated by the use of suicide terrorist tactics, previously unknown to the conflict (Clarke 2014).
The Chinese government has long attributed the violence to radical Uighur Islamist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other similar radical Islamist groups with purported ties to international terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. By contrast, Western scholars, human rights organizations, and non-Chinese media sources have often questioned Beijing’s claims. Yet with the pattern of violence observed since 2013, it seems more and more likely that certain Uighur groups or individuals have indeed radicalized and pose a significant threat.
Analyses in Chinese and international sources provide little explanation of the motivations behind these terrorist attacks and the political–religious identity of the attackers. This article seeks to address this gap by proposing a theoretical explanation for why Uighur individuals may be mobilized to carry out suicide attacks, when such tactics were not previously part of the Uighurs’ accepted repertoire of contention in China. Applying what is known about the conditions and process of mobilization for Chechen suicide bombers in the North Caucasus conflict, this article theorizes that the religious opportunity structure in Xinjiang combined with psycho-traumatic experiences caused by ongoing communal violence and military intervention has facilitated the self-recruitment and mobilization of Uighurs to terrorism.