This article has been updated.
Traditionally, the Uighur separatists aren’t the sort to seek attention. Dwelling primarily in the mountains of Xinjiang Province in northwest China, they don’t maintain an active social media presence like the Taliban or al-Qaeda. They almost never post videos boasting of exploits.
But over the last two weeks, amid unsubstantiated speculation the Uighurs had some involvement in the disappearance of MH370, the Turkic-speaking Muslim group has gained greater international notoriety than perhaps ever before. (The Chinese government said Tuesday morning that background checks on nationals aboard the missing flight didn’t return any terror links.)
The Uighur emergence began on March 1 when a group of attackers wielding knives stormed a train station in southern China and stabbed to death 29 people, injuring at least 140 more. It was a rare occurrence in China: a “premeditated violent terrorist attack,” as the government-run Xinhua News Agency described it, pinning responsibility on Uighur separatists.
Then late last week, five more Chinese were stabbed to death in another knife fight that involved Uighurs, further rattling a nation still skittish from the March 1 attack.
At the same time, one of the leading Malaysian newspapers, the Harian Metro, reported that police were paying “special attention” to a 35-year-old Uighur passenger who it claimed had once undergone flight simulation training. The report, which the government declined to confirm, said the Uighur had gone to a British university and learned how to fly on a simulator in Sweden around 2006.
Afterward, according to Australia’s News.com, people purporting to represent the Uighur separatist movement hammered journalists with e-mails. They claimed to be behind the airplane’s disappearance — an assertion News.com dismissed as “opportunistic.”
Over the weekend, however, additional claims surfaced that had more credence. Ensconced in a secluded mountain base straddling Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the Uighur leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party vowed to Reuters that there would be more terror attacks. “China is not only our enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims,” Abdullah Mansour said. “We have plans for many attacks in China. We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge.”
Who are the Uighurs? And why are they so angry?
The genesis of their animosity lies in regional, historical, and cultural differences with the Chinese government. Their home province, Xinjiang, has been under the yoke of the Communist party since 1949, when it took control of the country. Because of the linguistic and geographic divide — Xinjiang is 1,500 miles from Beijing — the Muslim minority has long chafed under China’s autocratic rule.
China keeps a tight watch on the country’s religious groups, and some Muslim Uighurs have called for secession to found a nation called “East Turkestan.” “Chinese authorities continue to place curbs on Muslims’ ability to practice their religion,” a 2013 U.S. Congressional report states. Uighur groups were “warned against going on Hajj pilgrimages not organized by the government.”
Just weeks ago, Chinese authorities arrested a prominent Uighur scholar named Ilham Tohti, who was living in Beijing. The government in late February charged him with “inciting separatism.”
But such animosity manifested itself in terrorist attacks only recently — a reality that’s spurred speculation about Uighur involvement in the disappearance of MH370. The airliner had been carrying 154 Chinese out of 227 passengers.
What’s more, on Saturday the Malaysian government revealed additional flight paths the missing plane may have taken. Those revelations showed that if the jetliner had flown north, it would have eventually arrived in the vicinity of China’s far northwest. And that’s exactly where the Uighurs are.
This article was updated to clarify that it was the Chinese government that blamed the separatists for the recent train station attack.