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China is confronting its own security challenges. In the past, small-scale terror attacks have generally targeted local governments in out-of-the-way cities. This year is different. Ethnic militants have struck civilians far from their homeland in Northwest China. and the militants are using a new weapon, suicide bombers. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on China's evolving threat.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In early March, a group armed with long knives slashed their way through a train station plaza in China's Southwest. They killed nearly 30 people and wounded more than four times that. Chinese authorities blamed Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority from Xinjang, the country's rugged Northwestern region. Then last month, suicide bombers injured nearly 80 people at a train station in Urumqi, Xinjing's capital. And last week, militants drove SUVs through a crowded market there.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE TV PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: On Chinese TV, this witness described the vehicle speeding through the market at more than 60 miles an hour and mowed down elderly shoppers. The militants threw explosives before blowing themselves up. Analysts say all this marks a shift.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARDNER BOVINGDON: There seems to be a categorical difference in these recent attacks.

JACOB ZENN: To me, it shows a heightened level of sophistication.

JAMES MILLWARD: These are all quite new in the context of China and the Uighurs.

LANGFITT: That was Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, Jacob Zenn, an Eurasia analyst at the Jamestown Foundation - a Washington think tank - and James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University who's written two books on Xinjiang. China's government blames the changing nature of the attacks on foreign Islamist influence. Authorities say the men who attacked the market had watched violent terrorist videos, although officials have yet to provide proof. Yang Shu is director of Central Asian studies at Lanzhou University in Western China.

YANG SHU: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: I think right now the imperative is to curb the spread of Islamist extremism, he says. Global terrorism, especially Muslim terrorist activities in Central Asia and West Asian regions certainly have an impact on militant Uighurs. Jacob Zenn also suspects outside influence. He spoke by cell phone from Urumqi where he's traveling.

ZENN: Suicide bombings are not typical or common way around the world to express grievances. It's only become popularized by the Al-Qaida or global jihadist network.

LANGFITT: China's government blamed the Urumqi train station bombing on the Turkistan Islamic Party. It's a violent Uighur separatist group outside China, based along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The group issued this video praising the attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKISTAN ISLAMIC PARTY VIDEO)

LANGFITT: It opens with a montage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, surrounded by flames. Some analysts, though, question whether the violence is entirely driven by foreign jihadi groups. They point to Chinese policies that anger Uighurs and target their culture, such as cutting Uighur language instruction in schools and harassing men who wear big beards. James Millward of Georgetown.

MILLWARD: I think that these crackdowns may have created a climate, may have created enough frustration where there are some people who are beginning to pay heed to the horrible pseudo-religious ideologies that lead to suicide bombings and attacks on civilians.

LANGFITT: Millward cited a recent case reported by Radio Free Asia. Middle school girls in Xinjang's Aksu Prefecture were detained for wearing headscarves. Their relatives demonstrated for their release. The protest devolved into stone throwing and ended with police firing into the crowd. At least two protesters were reportedly killed.

MILLWARD: By going after headscarves, the authorities have really produced a conflict here which was completely unnecessary. I don't think there's a great deal of security threat from these schoolgirls.

LANGFITT: So what is the ultimate goal of militants as they unleash increasingly savage attacks on civilians? One of course is attention and perhaps to show their growing desperation. But Gardner Bovingdon of Indiana University has another, even darker theory.

BOVINGDON: The strategy might be to elicit a more ruthless government crackdown in the name of suppressing terror. That further exasperates popular discontent with the government and therefore generalizes a feeling of greater desperation.

LANGFITT: And Bovingdon says that would be deeply cynical. Right after last week's market attack, the Chinese government announced a year long crackdown on terror Xinjang. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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