By Jenni Hesterman
In a rare show of transparency, China revealed today that it has detained 82 suspected terrorists since January that ‘allegedly plotted sabotage against the Beijing Olympics,’ the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing the police chief in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region that borders Central Asia. As the August 8th opening ceremony approaches, the Chinese government has stepped up warning of a domestic terror threat emanating from the region, fueled by Muslim extremists.
Earlier this week, the state news agency reported that police in Urumqi killed five knife-wielding Muslims and detained 10 others who allegedly wanted to launch a ‘holy war’. The Urumqi police chief also said 41 illegal places of worship in Xinjiang had been closed this year because they were training grounds for ‘holy war’.
Xinjiang is a vast region of deserts and mountain ranges in the northwest of China, accounting for 1/6 of its territory. The region has been an area of instability for almost 2000 years, when China won a bloody conflict to acquire it from Mongolia. In the 1940s, during a period of civil war, the region successfully broke away from China and formed its own country, East Turkestan, but was deposed just 9 years later by Communist China.
After 40 years of uneasy truce, the region was deeply affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, witnessing the establishment of the breakaway republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both border countries. A separatist uprising ensued, and decades later, strong tensions still exist between the government and the Xinjiang region. The majority populace consists of 8 million Muslim Turkic Uyghurs, who have long asserted their desire for independence from the Han Chinese culture, and have blatantly complained about repression to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In a remarkable 2002 Time Magazine article about the region entitled “One Nation Divided”, Matthew Forney Kashgar reports Beijing’s fear that Xinjiang will become its “Chechnya”, and consequently they maintain an ironclad grip on the region.
The Xinjiang region also borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, and with several rural, unpatrolled passages between the countries. It is also home to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a State Department and UN acknowledged (but not officially designated) terrorist group. ETIM is a militant, Uyghur organization that advocates the creation of an independent, Islamic state of East Turkestan in the Xinjiang region. The founder and leader of the organization was Hasan Mahsum, who was shot and killed by the Pakistani Army on October 2, 2003. ETIM has been blamed for several car bomb attacks in Xinjiang in the 1990s, as well as the death of a Chinese diplomat in Kyrgyzstan in 2002, but the group has neither admitted nor denied the accusations.
ETIM has had, and may still have links with al Qaeda. In its 2005 report on terrorism, the US State Department said the group was “linked to al Qaeda and the international jihadist movement” and that al Qaeda provided the group with “training and financial assistance”. In January, 2002, the Chinese government released a report with evidence that Hasan Mahsum met with Osama bin Laden in 1999 and received promises of money, and that bin Laden sent “scores of terrorists” into China.
The Chinese government fingered ETIM when arresting a group in January that was supposedly manufacturing explosives to attack hotels and government buildings in Beijing. In April, the government said it arrested 35 people for plotting to kidnap athletes, journalists, other visitors to the games. They reportedly had 22 pounds of explosives, 8 sticks of dynamite, and “jihadist” literature. China appears to be aggressively investigating and neutralizing danger to the Olympic Games.
However, there is disagreement about whether a terrorist threat even exists. Exiled members of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population openly state there is no risk, and accuse the Chinese Government of exaggerating or fabricating the threat as an excuse to crack down on all forms of dissent ahead of next month’s Games. The U.S. asked for additional data in March when the Chinese government stated that it stopped a plot by terrorists to hijack an airliner in the West of the country, but they provided no further information. Certainly, exaggerating the terrorist threat to crack down on the separatist movement is not in China’s best interests; should that information come to light, it would damage relations with the countries that are fueling its economic climb.
As the Games approach, intelligence and counterterrorism agencies in the U.S. and abroad are keeping a close eye on the situation. Interpol chief Ronald Noble said in June that Chinese authorities have devoted “more resources to making sure these are safe Olympics than any other country has ever before.” He also said that from the Interpol’s perspective, China has done everything to ensure that the August Games are safe and secure. FBI Director Robert Mueller visited in January and saw the security bed down plan first hand, expressing his confidence and saying “I am very much impressed by the preparations…and I fully anticipate that the Olympics will be secure and safe“. An interesting side note: without elaborating and dodging follow on questions for clarification, Mueller indicated that he was more concerned with a threat to the Olympics from an international terrorist group than a domestic Chinese group. Hopefully, China’s focus on the domestic groups and internal strife didn’t cause a blindspot and airports, train stations and other transit points for those traversing the border have been properly secured.
A little known fact: the Chinese themselves have been the victims of global terrorism. Although not widely publicized, and not acknowledged by their government, as many as 18 Chinese citizens lost their lives in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Other citizens were killed in the Philippines by terrorists, possible linked to al Qaeda. It seems that since these attacks, China has engaged in the fight against terror, supporting UN sanctions and engaging their friend Pakistan to help address extremist elements within the country.
So perhaps the country has done everything possible to prevent a terrorist event in August. If prevention of loss of life isn’t the primary driver, maybe the risk of national embarrassment and inability to cover up or spin an attack, while under the intense scrutiny of the world, will be.
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies.
You may contact the author at JLHBlog@aol.com.