By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 27, 2008
BEIJING, July 26 -- A group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party has released a video asserting responsibility for deadly bus bombings last week in China's western Yunnan province and other recent incidents, and threatening attacks during the Olympic Games.
The Chinese government, which has warned that terrorism is the biggest threat to the Olympics and has mounted a massive security effort, played down the group's claims, some of which were inconsistent with details of the incidents.
Police officials in Yunnan and in Shanghai, where a bus explosion in May killed three people, said there was no evidence the two attacks were connected to terrorists, state media reported.
In the video, a man identified as Commander Seyfullah says the group aims "to target the most critical points related to the Olympics."
"We will try to attack Chinese central cities severely, using the tactics that have never been employed," he says, according to a translation provided by IntelCenter, a terrorism research firm based in Alexandria, Va.
Terrorism experts believe that the group is the same as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an underground separatist organization in the Xinjiang region of western China, which advocates independence for the area's Muslim Uighur inhabitants. China often warns of the danger posed by the group, though some experts say the government exaggerates the threat as an excuse to suppress dissent against Chinese rule.
Xinjiang police say they have broken up five separatist groups this year and arrested 82 people on suspicion of plotting against the Games, which open in two weeks. Last month, the government executed three people identified as members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Experts are divided on the veracity of the group's assertions and its ability to make good on its threats.
Li Wei, director of the Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said the group is "not capable of launching different attacks in different cities in China. I think they just wanted to increase their influence and attract more funding by claiming responsibility."
Rohan Kumar Gunaratna, a terrorism expert based in Singapore who has advised the Chinese government, said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has about 40 fighters who have trained with al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Those members are the most dangerous, said Gunaratna, who recently traveled to Xinjiang to assess the terrorism threat. He added that the group is also focused on creating local terrorist cells to stage smaller incidents.
"China has invested very significantly in protecting the Olympic venues," Gunaratna said. "No terrorist group can mount large-scale attacks in Beijing during this period, but medium to small attacks are possible."
In the video, Seyfullah, whose name means "sword of God" in Arabic, is dressed in olive-drab fatigues, his nose and mouth covered by a white scarf. He is flanked by two gun-toting men in black masks. The video is titled "Our Blessed Jihad in Yunnan."
Speaking in Uighur, he says the group carried out the July 21 bus bombings in the Yunnan capital of Kunming, which killed two and injured 14. He says the group was also responsible for the Shanghai bus explosion, a July 17 attack involving a tractor loaded with explosives in the southeastern port city of Wenzhou, and the bombing of a plastics factory in Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong province, also on July 17, according to the IntelCenter translation.
Police in Kunming and Shanghai said they have no evidence indicating that the bus bombings were organized acts of terrorism. "As to whether the explosions were masterminded by many suspects or just an individual, there is no conclusion now," the state-run New China News Agency quoted a spokesman for the Yunnan Provincial Department of Public Security as saying.
Cheng Jiulong, deputy head of the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau, said an investigation had determined that the explosion there was caused by a flammable liquid like oil. "The blast was indeed deliberate but had nothing to do with terrorist attacks," he said.
Terrorism had not previously been raised in connection with the other two incidents listed by the group, and the incidents did not occur July 17, as the group states. The Guangzhou explosion occurred March 13 in a vehicle repair plant and residential building, not a plastics factory, according to local media reports at the time. Seven people died, and 30 were injured. In Wenzhou on May 17, a man fighting with gamblers reportedly drove a tractor loaded with explosives to a gambling establishment and smashed into a car. When people gathered to look, he set off the explosives, killing 19 people.
"While the claims of responsibility appear exaggerated, the potential threat to transportation infrastructure, particularly in cities other than Beijing, cannot be brushed aside," according to an analysis of the video published by Strategic Forecasting, a firm based in Austin, Tex., that provides geopolitical intelligence.
Seyfullah released a five-page written statement on June 27 listing grievances against the Chinese government and calling for suicide bombings against several targets, including Chinese airports, railways and tourist spots.
"We certainly know they are capable of conducting bombings," said Ben Venzke, chief executive of IntelCenter. "It becomes a question of scale. It would seem they are clearly going to make attempts."
Researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.