While considerable focus would be on terrorism-related scenarios likely to arise from foreign terrorists, likely…
After a long interval of inactivity in the Xinjiang region of China, Uighur extremist elements have again been involved in two incidents reported by the Chinese authorities from that region.
The first incident took place at Urumqi, the capital of the province, on January 27,2008. There was reportedly an exchange of fire between the police and some Uighur extremists when the police raided a hide-out of a suspected sleeper cell of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an associate of Al Qaeda with close links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) or Group, another Uzbek group. While the objectives of the IMU are regional and confined to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian Republics and Xinjiang, those of the IJU are global. The IJU projects itself as a global jihadi organisation with no specific ethnic identity.
According to the official version of the raid, two Uighur extremists were killed and 15 others arrested by the Police. Five police officers were injured. Chinese officials refrained from giving publicity to this incident for nearly a month. They officially gave out the details only after the regional media in China started reporting about it, presumably on the basis of briefings from officials at the lower levels.
The Chinese authorities have assessed this incident as an indicator of a revival of the ETIM’s activities as a prelude to a possible terrorist strike to be staged just before or during the Beijing Olympics of August,2008. While there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the facts as reported by Chinese officials, their linking it to the Olympics seems to be based more on precautionary speculation than on concrete evidence.
The second incident was reported to have taken place on board a Chinese commercial plane flying from Urumqi to Beijing on March 7,2008. Security guards travelling on board the plane overpowered two suspected Uighur extremists, who tried to create an incident. The Chinese media has characterised the incident as an attempted terrorist strike. The plane made an emergency landing in the northwestern city of Lanzhou. The two persons overpowered by the security guards were handed over to the local police for interrogation. The other passengers were also questioned. The police claim to have found some inflammable liquid in one of the toilets on board the aircraft. Further details are not yet available.
It is to be expected that anti-Beijing elements in the Uighur community in China as well as abroad would try to embarass the Chinese authorities and draw attention to their demands in the period before and during the Olympics. These elements fall into two groups. The first group consists of those inspired by the pan-Islamic ideology of Al Qaeda and acting in co-operation with it. In one of his messages of 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No.2 of Al Qaeda, had included Xinjiang in the list of lands historically belonging to the Muslims now under the control of non-Muslims. He wanted all these lands to be “liberated” from the control of non-Muslims. The pro-Al Qaeda Uighurs mainly operate from the camps of the IMU and the IJU in the North Waziristan area of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. It has been difficult to quantify their number. Different reports estimate their number differently—-ranging between 30 and 100.
The second group consists of pro-Western Uighurs, who mostly operate from Albania, Kosovo and Turkey. This group includes three or four Uighurs, who were handed over by the Pakistani authorities to the US for being interrogated at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba. They were released subsequently since no evidence could be found against them that they posed a threat to US nationals and interests. They settled down in Albania and keep moving between there and Kosovo.
For the last two years, two anti-China video films purported to have been produced by unidentified Uighurs have been disseminated through the Internet. They do not appear to have been produced by As-Sahab, the Psywar and propaganda division of Al Qaeda.
While there is so far no specific evidence that these two groups are planning to stage Olympics-related incidents, the possibility of such incidents has to be factored into in any security plan for the Olympics. The possibilities are incidents not involving the use of violence by the pro-Western Uighurs and incidents amounting to acts of terrorism by pro-Al Qaeda Uighurs.