More catch-up posting this time for the Telegraph in the wake of the suicide bombing on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. Also spoke to Voice of America, Financial Times, Guardian and BBC Chinese on the topic.
A suicide attack on China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan will have little registered on most British radars. Yet, it marks a significant moment for China, as one of the first times that China has come so directly into the crosshairs of terrorists outside its borders.
Details may be scant at the moment, but it appears to mark the first time a Chinese diplomatic compound has been hit in such a way. It is also the latest marker in a gradual escalation of a terrorist threat that China is finding itself facing and points to an interesting marker in the growing normalization of China’s global role.
At the moment, it is unclear who is responsible for the attack. Early reporting seems to indicate Uighur extremists, and the targeting of the Chinese Embassy is a clear message.
Uighurs are a minority community resident mostly in China’s westernmost region (Xinjiang, that is adjacent to Kyrgyzstan), who have long chafed under Beijing’s rule.
This anger has expressed itself in large-scale riots between communities in China, a growing emigration of unhappy Uighurs from China, terrorist incidents within the country, and increasingly now violence outside the country.
The incident in Bishkek is not the first time that Uighurs have come under blame for attacks against Chinese officials in Kyrgyzstan, and it is not the first time that Uighurs have been linked to attacks against Chinese targets outside the country. A group is currently under trial in Thailand for their responsibility in a bombing of a shrine popular with Chinese tourists in Bangkok in August of last year.
But the targeting of the Embassy like this shows the degree to which China’s terrorist problem is one that has metastasized.
China has growing numbers of Uighurs and other nationals fighting in Afghanistan and Syria – both with Isil (the various leaks of Isil documents show almost 200 records that show links to China), whilst those fighting with other groups under the banner of a group called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) alongside other jihadi groups fighting against the Assad regime number possibly into the high hundreds.
Both groups have threatened attacks against China, though it is not clear that they have actually allocated many resources towards trying to achieve this.
Where China has usually faced the menace of international terrorism, it is more usually in an incidental fashion with nationals in the wrong place at the right time. And whilse groups have sometimes claimed to have been aiming for China – like in July last year when Somali group al Shabaab struck the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu killing 12, including a guard at the Chinese Embassy which was operating out of the building, and later released a message saying the attack was in solidarity for Uighurs’ treatment in China – there has been little evidence that they were really the intended target.
In fact, in its early days, al Qaeda did not appear to really engage much with the Uighurs’ cause or see China as a natural enemy.
In an interview in 1999 Osama bin Laden denied all knowledge of Uighurs saying: “I often hear about Chinese Muslims, but since we have no direct connection with people in China and no member of our organization comes from China, I don’t have any detailed knowledge about them.” And other al Qaeda ideologues at the time spoke of the alignment of Chinese and al Qaeda’s interests in fighting the United States.
Fast forward to today and current al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has loudly praised Uighur extremist leaders in some of his recent speeches. At the same time, Isil leader al Baghdadi has specifically threatened China in speeches and his group has ransomed and been responsible for the deaths of Chinese hostages.
An almost complete turnaround for China, and something that highlights the degree to which China has ascended to being a front line power with all the problems and responsibilities that are associated with that.
The full contours of what has taken place in Bishkek are still unclear. It may yet prove to be something with deeper local links and causes, but it comes against a broader trajectory of China increasingly finding itself in terrorist cross-hairs around the world. This is the darker side of global power and projection, and something China is going to have to get used to.