BEIJING (AP) — China said Wednesday that it has foiled 181 terror plots since it started a crackdown a year ago on Islamic separatists in the northwestern region of Xinjiang that was prompted by a surge of violence that reached as far as Beijing.
However, it was unclear what scale of terror organization is reflected in the tally, because authorities have given neither extensive details on the plots nor a clear definition of what they would include, and some analysts suggest small-scale or even nonviolent incidents might be on the list.
Xinjiang is largely closed to foreign journalists and substantial information about security in the region is difficult or impossible to collect and verify.
Touting the crackdown's success, state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday showed paramilitary troops conducting drills featuring fleets of helicopters, simulated building assaults and heavy weapons including anti-tank guns and flamethrowers.
The report said 96 percent of the foiled plots were still in the planning stages. It said 112 suspects have turned themselves in, but no figures were given on those captured or killed by police. Some critics have raised concerns of summary executions in the crackdown.
Authorities also have targeted the distribution of video and audio recordings promoting extremism, along with outward signs of religious conservatism among the native Muslim Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) population such as the wearing of long beards by men and veils by women. In addition, authorities have tightened controls on both legal and illegal border crossings into neighboring Central Asian states.
The crackdown was launched after a bomb attack last May 22 on a crowded market in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, in which 39 people were killed. That followed an extremely rare attack in Beijing in which five people were killed, including three attackers, when a Jeep mowed down pedestrians in front of iconic Tiananmen Gate.
A knife attack at a train station in the southern city of Kunming about a year ago claimed 29 lives, further marking a departure from the militants' previous targeting of government offices, police stations or other symbols of rule by the ethnic Han Chinese majority.
Violent conspiracies in Xinjiang generally involve only a few people, so it was unlikely that China had uncovered any "wide-ranging networks," said David Brophy, a Xinjiang historian at the University of Sydney.
The exact nature of the plots also is hard to assess, since China tends to broadly define terrorism to include acts that might otherwise be seen as ordinary religious or cultural practices, he said.
And while reports of major violence have largely disappeared from China's state-controlled media, Brophy said he was aware of incidents involving "quite large numbers of casualties that can't really be explained."
Beijing says unrest among Uighurs is caused by extremist groups with ties to Islamic terror groups abroad, but has provided little direct evidence.
Uighur activists say public resentment against Beijing is fueled by an influx of Han settlers in the region, economic disenfranchisement and onerous restrictions on Uighur religious and cultural practices.
The rise of the Islamic state group in Iraq and Syria is seen as further complicating matters, with China increasingly concerned about Uighurs crossing borders to fight with the group — and the potential for them to return to carry out attacks in Xinjiang, said Ahmed A.S. Hashim, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technical University.
"Creating a narrative of success in Xinjiang could be a way to say, 'Listen, terrorists, there is no fertile ground here for your nefarious activities,'" Hashim said.
He warned, however, that even if the crackdown is successful, less bloodshed in Xinjiang does not mean Beijing has won over the Uighur population to its policies. "Reduction in violence does not mean a resolution of the matter."