Monday, August 18, 2008

Islamic terrorism growing in China

The Turkistan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for Kunming bombs

Four weeks after bomb blasts hit two number 54 buses in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, Chinese authorities have yet to make any arrests and there has been little official word on who might be responsible. The blasts killed two passengers and injured at least 10 others on the morning of the 21st July, the same date as a number of failed suicide attacks on London’s transport system in 2005. But despite the coincidence of dates and even a claim of responsibility from a little known Islamic terror group, authorities have dismissed any connection with Islamic extremists. Soon after the attacks, described as “deliberate” by Chinese officials, the Turkistan Islamic Party released a video claiming success in their “Holy War (or Jihad) in Yunnan province”. Similar claims of responsibility came following an incident on a Shanghai bus on 5th May [BBC / Shanghaiist]. In that attack the bus became engulfed in flames following an explosion. Three people died and 10 others were injured which some reports at the time described as an “accident” when “gasoline canisters carried by a passenger” caught fire. However, it seems clear that the attack was certainly deliberate even if the motive cannot be established. Posters were soon distributed following the incident asking for help in identifying one of the victims [Link] and one even offered a 50,000 Yuan reward for information [Link / vuilleblog].

When the bomb blasts occurred in Yunnan province three months later some locals speculated that the attacks may have been carried out by someone with a grievance rather than terrorists. Land grabs by authorities have certainly raised tensions in some areas and there have been cases where individuals have resorted to extreme measures following overzealous treatment by police. One individual stabbed several policemen to death and set fire to the police station in Shanghai last July as retribution for perceived maltreatment by the authorities [BBC].

But the timing of the Yunnan bus blasts and the details surrounding the attacks seem to indicate that the authorities are playing down the incident and attempting to dispel any ideas that the bomb blasts were instigated by Islamic terrorists. Both bomb blasts occurred near to the city centre a little over an hour apart. In fact one bus was only a few minutes from the heart of Kunming’s financial district. Despite the “deliberate” nature of the attack authorities quickly cleared the vehicles from the scene and the roads were swiftly reopened to traffic. Many residents that spoke to tvnewswatch on the day of the attack expressed the view that the swift clear up was due to the efficiency and professionalism of the Chinese authorities. Others suggested the authorities wanted to down play the incident because they didn’t want people to worry. But there was nonetheless concern on the streets of Kunming following the blasts.
One week later two incidents on buses in the city made further headlines in local papers but received only scant attention outside the country. A man attempted to set fire to himself on a number 64 bus but was detained by authorities. And a tyre explosion on the K2 route also caused concern. Both incidents made front page headlines in the Shenghuoxinbao newspaper but authorities said there was no connection with the bomb attacks the previous week. A British newspaper meanwhile reported on a “third bus bomb in a week” on the “54 and K2” route. The article in the Guardian said that the incident was near to one of the bus blasts the previous week and said that the “explosion” may have been caused by an engine explosion.

The incidents, whether domestic or terror related, have caused concern not only in Yunnan but in other provinces too. In Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, one taxi driver expressed the worries of many in the city. “It shocked many people here”, he said, “ if it can happen in Yunnan it could happen anywhere in China”. A few days later China was rocked by what was most certainly a terrorist attack after 16 police died in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region [BBC]. The attack on the 4th August was swiftly blamed on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, said to be closely connected with the Turkistan Islamic Party which claimed responsibility for the Shanghai and Yunnan blasts. And less than a week later further attacks came leaving several militants and a security guard dead [BBC]. Further attacks followed leaving more security personnel dead [BBC].
Despite these continued attacks, China has insisted the Olympic games were safe [BBC]. But the safety concerns, as well as visa restrictions and high hotel prices, have kept many foreign visitors away and hundreds of empty seats at Olympic events have had to be filled with volunteers. Back in Kunming, there are still worries. Yunnan is home to a large Islamic community and if there is a rise of Islamic terrorism the effects may be far reaching. Last week the BBC reported that the bus blasts had bred “fear in Yunnan”. This is not immediately apparent as people continue about their daily lives. But the authorities are certainly concerned as it increases its drive against terrorism, though officials still insist, at least publicly that the Yunnan blasts were not terrorist related.

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