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Hostage held by Islamists underscores China’s struggle with militants

Islamic State’s claim that it is holding for ransom a Chinese national as well as a Norwegian has underscored the gradual emergence of Beijing’s long-running struggle with domestic terrorism as an international problem.

The Sunni Muslim extremist group posted pictures of the two hostages Wednesday in its online English-language propaganda magazine, Dabiq. In the photos, the two men stare directly at the camera wearing yellow jumpsuits; below them, a large-font message reads “for sale.”

Islamic State identified the two men as Fan Jinghui, 50, a “freelance consultant” from Beijing, and Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, 48, from Oslo.

The site gave Fan’s “home address” — an apartment in far-west Beijing — and a contact number for payment details. It described the ransom as a “limited time offer.” It did not give the hostages’ location, the ransom amount or details about their capture.

“To whom it may concern of the Crusaders, pagans and their allies, as well as what are referred to as human ‘rights’ organizations, this prisoner was abandoned by his government, which did not do its utmost to purchase his freedom,” said a caption beneath the photographs.

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Islamic State had not previously been known to demand a ransom from Beijing.

For years, Chinese authorities have been battling a low-level insurgency in the far-northwestern region Xinjiang, a vast sweep of deserts, mountains and scattered cities that is home to a plurality of ethnic Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking group. The region is frequently racked by violent attacks, including riots, sieges on police stations and checkpoints, and bombings in public places.

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Beijing has repeatedly blamed the attacks on “separatists” and a shadowy organization called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, while Uighur groups abroad say the violence probably is motivated by despair at Beijing’s religious and cultural constraints.

Experts say Uighurs are increasingly fleeing Xinjiang. While many are simply seeking better lives abroad, others have been joining militant groups in the Middle East, raising concerns that China’s domestic terrorism problem is spreading beyond the country’s borders.

“China faces a long-term strategic threat from terrorism,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“Although the burden of international terrorism has now shifted from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Syria and Iraq,” he added, “China still faces a sustained threat, because several hundred Chinese — several hundred Uighurs — have traveled [to these areas], they have received training in terrorism, and they have joined” militant groups such as Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra front.

Uighurs, who are often denied passports by Chinese authorities, are increasingly leaving the country via human smuggling routes through southern China’s Yunnan and Guangxi provinces into Southeast Asia.

Early this month, Thai authorities announced that several Chinese citizens from Xinjiang may have perpetrated a bombing at a Bangkok shrine in August that killed 20 people, including mainland Chinese and Hong Kong tourists.

Thai authorities detained one Uighur suspect, 25-year-old Yusufu Mieraili, in late August. According to the Bangkok Post, Mieraili confessed to delivering a bomb in a backpack to a yellow-shirted man caught on CCTV camera near the shrine minutes before the explosion. He told investigators that 10 to 12 people were involved in the bombing, according to the newspaper.

The Thai government forcibly repatriated more than 100 asylum-seeking Uighurs back to China in July, and officials suspect that the bombing may have been intended as retaliation. They believe that group’s leader, a man they have called Izan, fled to Bangladesh on a Chinese passport the day before the blast, Reuters news service reported.

Yang Shu, a terrorism expert at Lanzhou University in northwestern China, said that the Chinese government has never been known to pay ransoms for kidnapped citizens, and that Islamic State’s announcement would not likely change its policy.

“If you look at previous cases, there have been quite a few Chinese people who were kidnapped in Afghanistan,” he said. “Some were rescued — the Chinese government secured their release through negotiations with local tribal leaders.”

Chinese business records show that a man with the same name as Islamic State’s purported hostage, Fan Jinghui, registered an advertising company in 2002 at the “home address” on the militant group’s poster.

Soon after Islamic State released the hostage photos, reporters from several Chinese-language media outfits visited the address, but none found any occupants.

According to a Wednesday afternoon report in the Paper, a Shanghai-based news website, a man named Fan Jinghui, who also matched the hostage’s age and career path, appeared on a radio show, “One Hour at Lunchtime,” in 2001. The show’s theme concerned young Chinese people who choose to buck conventional 9-5 jobs for riskier ventures.

Fan, a freelancer in the advertising industry, said he taught high school for six years after graduating from college, then worked as a personal assistant to a producer at CCTV, China’s state broadcaster.

“Martin Luther King had a speech called, ‘I have a dream,’” he said in the interview. “He devoted his life to his dream. He chose a relatively risky path, for this dream. Maybe he couldn’t even see his dream until the day he died. … If you ask me, I will choose the path of Martin Luther King.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be immediately reached for comment.

“We are still verifying the information,” an unidentified ministry spokesperson said on Thursday, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper. “China strongly opposes any violent acts against innocent civilians.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg confirmed on Wednesday that a Norwegian man in his 40s was being held by a militant group in Syria, most likely Islamic State. The man was captured in January, she added.

“The kidnappers have presented a series of demands and significant amounts of ransom money,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “We cannot give in and won’t give in to pressure from terrorists and criminals. Norway does not pay ransom.”

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @JRKaiman on Twitter for news out of Asia

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