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Jul 25, 2008 | 22:21 GMT

China: ETIM's Direct Threat to the Olympics

Zhang Wenkui/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Summary
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) — another name for China's Islamic Party of East Turkistan militant group — has claimed responsibility for the July 21 bus bombings in Yunnan and several other incidents around the country. The group has also said militants are trained and deployed to attack critical targets in major Chinese cities during the Olympics. The claims of responsibility appear exaggerated, but the threat TIP poses cannot be ignored.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) — another name for the Islamic Party of East Turkistan (ETIM) — has issued a video claiming responsibility for the July 21 bus bombings in Yunnan as well as several other incidents across China in recent months. The spokesman for the TIP, who refers to himself as Commander Seyfullah, also warned that TIP militants were trained and deployed to hit at critical targets in central cities during the Olympics. While the claims of responsibility appear exaggerated, the potential threat to transportation infrastructure, particularly in cities other than Beijing, cannot be brushed aside. Over the past year, TIP has expanded its presence on the Internet, issuing videos calling for a jihad by Uighurs from China's western Xinjiang province and highlighting training exercises. One video showed the execution of at least three ethnic Chinese. In addition, TIP has profiled extensively both the history of the movement (which at times has been called ETIM — a name the Chinese use when talking about most militant actions in Xinjiang and a group the United States added to its list of foreign terrorist organizations) and the former leader of ETIM, Hasan Mahsum, who was killed in Pakistan in 2003. Following Mahsum's death, ETIM fractured, its members moving into hiding, primarily in Afghanistan. Since that time, a successor movement has been pulling together, linked to Uzbek and other foreign militants operating in the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. More recently, the TIP has begun issuing videos — some dedicated to Mahsum, others showing training operations — and, in an April video, the group began issuing warnings to China that they would attack the Olympics. This most recent video follows up on that, saying that China has effectively run out of time, and that the group's leader, Abdul Haq, has ordered militants to begin striking in central China. Haq was one of the key members of the early ETIM group, working with Mahsum in Afghanistan in training Uighur militants in 2001. China has long warned that ETIM posed a critical threat to the Olympics. The recent uptick in incidents in China — from the March airline incident to the recent bus fire in Shanghai and the double bus bombing in Yunnan — has raised concerns if not about a coordinated effort to target the Chinese state, at least about China's transportation infrastructure. ETIM has a history of transportation infrastructure attacks (as does the broader al Qaeda movement), and there have been quiet rumors from China — particularly in Shanghai — in recent months that suspicious Central and South Asians (including Kazakhs) were seen monitoring infrastructure in Chinese cities, the implication being that they were carrying out pre-operational surveillance for potential attacks. Chinese authorities have also reported that they found plans for attacks against Olympic athletes, tourists and various military and civilian infrastructure during raids of alleged ETIM camps in western China earlier this year. The claims in the latest TIP video seem a bit exaggerated — a common tactic for militants seeking to increase attention and embellish their own image. There is some suspicion that the videos are part of a psychological operation, by either the Chinese government to further justify security sweeps or by foreign agents to raise additional fears in Beijing. Chinese authorities also recently said they had wrapped up a threat in Shanghai to the Olympics. However, the government has yet to offer an explanation for the bus attack in Shanghai (and a hoax bomb-call for a major market at around the same time), and the local government in Yunnan has already tripled the initial reward for information leading to the arrest of the culprits behind the bus bombings in Kunming. Yunnan borders Southeast Asia, and the mountain paths offer a relatively easy route for discreet entry into and out of China should the militants have come from outside. While Seyfullah's claims appear greater than reality, they cannot be entirely dismissed, nor can the potential for further transportation infrastructure attacks against China. As STRATFOR has cautioned previously, attacks against buses, trains and even airlines are not unlikely, particularly outside of Beijing. Shanghai in particular has seen a lot of unusual activity in recent months that may be a signal that operations are being planned or scoped out in the city. While TIP/ETIM does not pose a strategic threat to the Chinese state, such transportation attacks are well within its scope of capabilities.
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