Friday, October 09, 2009

New al-Qaeda threat to China

Al Qaeda has called for a holy war against China in response to what it describes as the Chinese government's oppression of the Uighurs, the ethnic minority group who live primarily in the northwest region of Xinjiang. Speaking in a video posted on an Islamist website Abu Yahya al-Libi said the Uighur population would need to use a jihad to free themselves from the "tyranny" of the Chinese government.

"There is no way to remove injustice and oppression without a true return to their (Uighur) religion and … serious preparation for jihad in the path of God the Almighty and to carry weapons in the face of those (Chinese) invaders," al-Libi said. "It is a duty for Muslims today to stand by their wounded and oppressed brothers in East Turkistan … and support them with all they can."

China has cracked down on any dissent in the autonomous region following deadly riots earlier this year. At least 197 killed, said by Chinese authorities to be mostly Han Chinese. Internet and phone lines to the region were cut and access remains restricted. The ethnic tension has also precipitated a series of syringe attacks. Rumours have also created further unrest in areas inhabited by Uighur minorities.

Last month a blast at a Uighur restaurant in north-west Beijing created concern given the recent troubles in Xinjiang. Officials quickly dismissed the cause as being a "gas-explosion" though there is some speculation from a number of Beijing residents that the blast may have been triggered by a bomb. One Twitter user, who uploaded a picture soon after the explosion leveled the building, said she had been given "reliable information" that the blast was the result of a bomb. Maggie Rauch, an American living in Beijing had alerted the world to the blast hours before the official news agency Xinhua had made any mention of the incident. Her posting of the photograph on Twitpic also alerted authorities to the site which was blocked within minutes. The site has since become available.

If indeed the explosion was caused by a bomb it poses a question. Who planted it? There could be two possibilities. One, that it was a revenge attack targeting the Uighur community. Or two it was a device that was being prepared and that detonated prematurely. Both suggestions are of course entirely speculation. But if the later were true it would fit with continued assertions by Chinese authorities that a threat from Islamic terroism exists.

Last year China claimed it had cracked a terror plot to kidnap athletes, journalists and tourists at the Beijing Olympics. Police had seized nearly 10kg of explosives and "jihadist" literature during raids in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, the reports in July claimed. In another incident a 19-year-old woman confessed to attempting to hijack and crash a Chinese passenger plane. The aircraft had to be diverted in March last year after a suspicious liquid was found on board, Xinhua reported. The state news agency said the woman confessed to a "terrorist" attempt on the March 7 flight to Beijing from Urumqi.

The latest message from al-Qaeda is the latest in a series of such threats. Last year a little known Islamic organisation claimed responsibility for two bomb blasts in Kunming, Yunnan province. 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". And in July this year Al-Qaeda's Algerian-based offshoot, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), issued a call for "reprisals" for the ethnic crackdown.

AQIM pledged to target the 50,000 Chinese workers in Algeria as well as Chinese projects and workers across northwest Africa, said the London-based international consultancy Stirling Assynt. Justin Crump, head of terrorism and country risk with Stirling Assynt, speaking at the time, said, "Although AQIM appears to be the first arm of Al-Qaeda to officially state they will target Chinese interests, others are likely to follow".

Abu Yahya al-Libi's latest threat may or may not draw support from the Uighurs themselves but it will unnerve Chinese authorities who have interests around the globe especially in vulnerable locations like Africa.

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