Olympic Security Fears up After China Terror Attack

A bombing that killed 16 police in western Xinjiang underscores the vulnerability of areas outside of Beijing and heightens fears about Olympics security
An ethnic Muslim (2nd-L) is questioned by a Chinese policeman (L) as local police (R) look on at a security checkpoint on a highway in Keping County in China's far northwestern, mainly Muslim Xinjiang region on July 30, 2008. PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the Summer Olympics, the Chinese government has launched a security clampdown in Beijing unprecedented in the country (BusinessWeek.com, 07/28/08). But in other parts of China, the security presence is not as intense, and on Aug. 4, terrorists took advantage. An attack on a border armed-police division in the far western region of Xinjiang killed 16 policemen and injured 16 others, China's official Xinhua news agency reported. Two attackers driving a truck threw explosives at a group of policemen as they were jogging along the street doing their morning exercises. According to Xinhua, police arrested the two and suspect the raid was the work of terrorists.

If so, it's the latest and deadliest yet by extremist separatists trying to create a separate state for the country's Uighurs, Muslims who speak a language related to Turkish. While supporters of the Dalai Lama, who want an independent Tibet, get far more attention in the international media, groups such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) that want to turn Xinjiang into an independent state are alleged to be behind the most violent acts against the Beijing government, including recent bus bombings in Shanghai and the southwestern city of Kunming.

The attack today signals to some experts that the movement is moving to a new level of violence. Typically, the Chinese government has had the upper hand in fighting Uighur separatists, says Barry Sautman, an associate professor in the division of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. The attack today, though, "is on the scale of [an attack] in Iraq or Afghanistan," he says. "That is something very new. They haven't had this before."

Police&Symbolic Target

The number of Uighurs in Xinjiang is unclear: Sautman says the Chinese government puts the region's Muslim population at 8 million, with another 7 million Han Chinese, while leaders of the Uighur diaspora say there are 20 million Uighurs in the region. All of the Uighurs are Sunni Muslims. And while Tibetan activists say Beijing has campaigned to suppress Tibetan Buddhism, the central government has not cracked down on Islam in Xinjiang. There are some 23,000 mosques in the region, says Sautman.

As recently as last week, Chinese government officials had said they had the situation under control. "There are only a very small number of sabotage activities in Xinjiang, and many were nipped in the bud," the official China Daily newspaper quoted Kurexi Maihesuti, vice-chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, as saying. "We see that these terrorist groups are not that capable of instigating massive sabotage activities, as some hostile forces have hoped to see."

Now, the bombing signals to some that the country faces more threats. The killers chose their target with symbolism in mind, says Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Taipei. "Attacking the security establishment is a big challenge" to the government, he says. "That is supposed to have more protection than other areas." If the attackers could strike against police with such deadly results, "that means there are many weaknesses," says Yang, "which will attract more attacks from terrorist groups."

Missiles Defend Olympic Venues

What does that means for the safety of the tens of thousands of athletes, tourists, journalists, Olympic officials, and world leaders arriving in Beijing for the Games? Chances are, the Chinese government's extensive preparations in the city will make it exceedingly difficult for terrorists to strike, says Alexander Neill, head of the Asia Security Program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense & Security Studies in London.

There are surface-to-air missiles stationed near the main venues. Some 100,000 security personnel are on patrol across the city. Police checkpoints stop traffic on Beijing's roads. The cost just for the surveillance equipment—including 300,000 cameras—is $6.5 billion. "Given the training and the layers of security that China's authorities have placed on Beijing, the ability for a conventional terrorist attack is quite severely curtailed," Neill says. "It's clear that the government has taken every precaution possible to protect the Olympic venues and those attending the Olympics."

That might lead terrorist groups to try for more attacks like the one today in Xinjiang or in late July in Kunming, though. "It will be very difficult for the ETIM to mount attacks inside Beijing because of the huge investment Chinese have made," says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence & Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies in Singapore. "But outside Beijing, it is very difficult to protect from a terrorist attack."

Long term, the ability of Muslim groups fighting the Chinese government to find supporters overseas will make Beijing's challenge even greater. It's unclear where the ETIM gets its support: Some allege a connection to al Qaeda while others point to Turkish supporters across Central Asia. One thing seems certain: The opposition is difficult for the Chinese government to suppress. "The East Turkistan movement is fairly extensive in terms of networks throughout Central Asia into Pakistan," says Neill. "The Uighur separatist network is extensive and it's got money behind it, probably through criminal activities such as smuggling drugs and arms running."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.