The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has set up a new "anti-terror unit" in an apparent effort by China to deepen cooperation with Russia and Central Asia in its fight against Uyghur nationalist groups.
The director of the SCO's anti-terror section, based in Tashkent, gave a series of interviews to Chinese media last week and gave a handful of new details about the organization's security efforts in Central Asia. From China Daily:
"Many terrorists who carried out deadly attacks in China watched or listened to video or audio files online with extremist ideological content, but such materials are produced or uploaded outside China," Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Eurasian grouping's regional anti-terrorist structure executive committee, said at its headquarters in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.
"The regional anti-terrorist structure decided to set up a special unit at the end of 2013 to deal with the new situation."
Xhang doesn't elaborate in that interview on what the new unit is, but in another interview, with the Global Times he reports that "our anti-terrorist structure established a joint expert team from all SCO members later last year to deal with the threat from the Internet." (Members of the SCO are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
Indeed, it seems from the various interviews (the ones in English, anyway) that the main theme he was trying to get across was that violence by China's ethnic Uyghurs -- which has spiked in recent weeks -- is inspired by media produced outside China and transmitted via the internet. Via CNTV:
"There is a very important trigger for the recent attacks in China’s Xinjiang. Many of the terrorists watched or listened to video or audio files online with extremist content. We also saw some of them, and I have to say they are highly inflammatory. They use religion to incite violence. But most of these terrorist materials are produced and uploaded outside China, which poses a potential threat to other SCO countries as well." Zhang said.
He does allow -- maybe -- for the possibility that violence by Uyghurs isn't solely the product of outside agitation: "What is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization always vigilant against? The answer is that we are on high alert against anyone who is making use of the internal social conflicts of SCO member states as a tool to sabotage national security." But in all the interviews, details are scarce. Which internal conflicts in which SCO member states? Where were these terrorist videos produced? How is this new unit going to "deal with" the threat from the internet? Even if the new unit is, as it appears, only made up of analysts and not soldiers, it's still a sign that the SCO -- which has lately looked much more like an investment bank or talk shop -- still takes security seriously.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization -- another regional security bloc, this one led by Russia -- has also recently prioritized the threat from the internet. In April, the group announced that was going to soon create an "international center to combat cyber threats." From RIA Novosti:
"Today, information activities are a weapon. The situation can be destabilized without the use of the armed forces, almost entirely through IT solutions, and in some places it could lead to a violent regime change," Bordyuzha explained at the opening of the Eurasian Youth Economic Forum in Yekaterinburg.
“On this basis, the CSTO is taking steps to provide better IT security. I can say that as of today, information warfare and security are becoming a priority for the CSTO,” he added.
But the CSTO's emphasis has been more on the informational aspect of "color revolutions," whereas Xhang, between the lines, was implying a focus on radical Islamist media on the internet. But Russia has discussed cooperation with China on these issues via the structures of the CSTO and SCO. From the Voice of Russia:
Russia and China have agreed to intensify mechanisms for cooperation with Central Asia and increase the potential of regional groups, primarily the Collective Security Cooperation Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
"Russia’s initiative on creating a universal center for countering modern threats and challenges is of paramount significance. We’re grateful to China for supporting our efforts," the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev said on Friday.
Commenting on Afghanistan’s influence upon regional security, he said, "I’m confident that the military presence of extra-regional forces in Central Asia should be linked with stabilization efforts in Afghanistan."
"It is not incidental that in the last months terrorists stepped up the actions in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region," Patrushev said.
It's also interesting that Russia is endorsing China's view that violence in Xinjiang is a result of external forces (Patrushev explicitly says Afghanistan) rather than internal grievances. China and Russia have substantially different interests in Central Asia. But might suppressing any internet-mediated threat to the current order -- whether via Islamism or color revolutions -- be a common cause they can work on together?