Deadly attacks giving China experts pause
The rising number of attacks in China and their growing sophistication have confounded security experts who had believed that Beijing was exaggerating the threat of terrorism to justify its authoritarian practices.
Three security guards were stabbed to death Tuesday at a checkpoint near Kashgar in westernmost China, a desert region with a mostly Muslim population. The killings brought the death toll to more than 30 in the last eight days.
Exact numbers are difficult to come by because of the secrecy imposed by the Chinese government, which is worried that the attacks will put a damper on the Summer Olympics. Dusty Kashgar is more than 2,000 miles from Beijing -- about as far as from Baghdad to Berlin. The attacks raise questions about the government’s ability to keep a grip on its farthest-flung citizens.
“The Chinese are keen to show they are in control. They don’t want to spoil the Olympic party. But there is no doubt, this is a significant escalation,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
The population of China’s westernmost Xinjiang region is predominantly made up of Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who have a long history of political violence against Chinese rule and previously have tried to declare independence. But what used to be a local movement has been nurtured in recent years by groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have supplied Islamic ideology and training.
“It is not just the quantity, but the quality of the attacks that has changed. They are becoming more dangerous,” Gunaratna said.
The most sophisticated of the recent attacks took place before dawn Sunday when 12 bombs exploded in close proximity at a police station, a shopping mall and a bank in the town of Kuqa. Two of the bombers were reported to be women -- a phenomenon that had been virtually unknown in China until this year.
One of the 10 assailants killed reportedly was a woman. Another attacker was reported by the official New China News Agency to be a 15-year-old girl who was injured as she tried to throw a homemade bomb.
The assailants appeared to be trained in using simple, everyday objects to deadly purpose. They also have eschewed the heavily guarded Olympic venues in Beijing in favor of easy targets.
In Tuesday’s incident, which took place in the town of Yamanya, attackers armed only with knives managed to kill the three people and escape.
On Aug. 4, attackers surprised border guards out for an early morning run in Kashgar by plowing into them with a dump truck and then hurling homemade explosives.
Deadly bus bombings last month in Kunming, the capital of the southern province of Yunnan, used explosives made of the same ingredients as fertilizer.
A group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for those bombings and another in Shanghai in May. The group, which terrorism experts say is a successor to one known in the 1990s as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, has released several videos threatening attacks during the Olympics.
Many experts have said their claims are pure bravado, and until recently, it was the conventional wisdom among China scholars that Beijing was using the terrorism threat to justify its actions. U.S. intelligence sources expressed doubts about the threat of terrorism in China.
“Security should not become in any way a cover to try and deal with dissent,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned China last month.
Nicolas Becquelin, China analyst with Human Rights Watch, says the violence has surprised China experts.
“A lot of people have egg on their faces,” he said. Just 16 hours before the New York office of his organization was to release a report July 21 accusing China of hyping the threat, the bombs went off in Kunming. The group didn’t publish the report.
Several of the recent attacks took place in towns where the Olympic torch passed in June as China tried to assert mastery over a region where its sovereignty has long been challenged.
The fatal stabbing Saturday of the father-in-law of the U.S. men’s volleyball coach was not believed to be related to the other attacks. The incident was blamed on a recently divorced man with psychiatric problems who then killed himself.