A Video Threat to the Olympics?

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A frame grab of a video that suggests a terrorist threat to the Olympic Games

The video seemed to fit the Islamist terror profile. Incantatory music precedes the footage of a white-turbaned man, his face shrouded in white cloth, dressed in military fatigues and flanked by two similarly uniformed comrades whose identities are hidden by black commando face masks. In the video, a previously little known group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party claims it carried out several fatal bombings in the country in recent months. The group's self-described military commander, Seyfullah, said it was responsible for incidents in Shanghai in early May and in the southern city of Kunming on July 21 that killed a total of five people. He also said the group had bombed a plastics factory in the province of Guangdong. Most ominously, he threatened to carry out further attacks during the Beijing Olympics, which are scheduled to open on Aug. 8. Indeed, the video begins with Beijing's Olympic logo in flames and a grainy image of a sports facility superimposed with an animated bomb blast.

But was it a serious threat? The 3-min. video, which was obtained under unspecified circumstances by the Intelcenter, a Washington, D.C., company that specializes in collecting counterterrorism information, was greeted with skepticism both in and out of China. Police in Shanghai and Kunming said the blasts weren't related to opposition to Chinese rule by ethnic Uighur Muslims in the country's far western province of Xinjiang. Police in Guangdong province also said they had no record of an explosion on the date mentioned in the video.

"My hunch is that this is a media-driven operation," says Nicholas Bequelin, chief China researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in New York City. "The goal is to help it to recruit people to the cause or attract attention" at a time when the eyes of the world are focused on China, he says, adding, "I don't think they seriously are claiming responsibility." Says terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna: "The threat is to change the mood rather than to mount an attack in the Olympic venue. However, attacks elsewhere, small to medium, are likely in the lead-up and during the event." Becquelin, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about the situation in Xinjiang, said the group had previously released several videos but that "they've never presented any evidence that they are operational."

China's roughly 9 million Uighurs have long chafed under what critics describe as oppressive rule that reduces them to second-class citizens. Beijing, meanwhile, has trumpeted the threat from what it describes as secessionist groups bent on forming a breakaway state named East Turkestan. Some 60 people have been arrested this year alone for "terrorist activities," Becquelin notes, and as recently as July 9, two Uighurs were executed for allegedly plotting attacks; 15 others received lengthy prison sentences.

Despite widespread criticism of Beijing for its failure to produce any proof that such plots exist and the often shifting and contradictory accounts given by security forces of alleged attempted attacks, there is little dispute that some sort of attack during the Games is possible. In 2002, under pressure to obtain China's support for an amendment on Iraq at the U.N., the U.S. State Department designated the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist group. Concrete information on such groups is hard to come by. The consensus is that a small group of separatists — probably fewer than 40, according to Gunaratna — is being trained under the ETIM umbrella in the tribal areas of Pakistan that line the 1,300-mile (2,092 km) border with Afghanistan. ETIM is the only group that is capable of carrying out an attack in China in the next few weeks, says Gunaratna, who heads the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

In a report published by the center in June, Gunaratna wrote, "There are multiple threat groups operating in China. But the group with proven capability to attack in China is the ETIM. Working with al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban, ETIM has been training members specifically to mount operations in China." He warns that although the group is small, the threat it poses to the Olympics is real because of the training and assistance it has received from al-Qaeda–linked groups. "To prevent attacks, it is essential for Beijing to develop a deeper understanding of the structures of each one of these groups, their operatives and their modus operandi," the report argues, adding that "the current understanding of the authorities of China of these three groups is appreciably weak. "

For human rights activists like Becquelin, a much broader approach is needed to address the root causes of Uighur discontent. "The Chinese government must stop conflating violent and nonviolent opposition in Xinjiang and cease its oppressive policies," he says. "Then, and only then, will it be possible to start working towards a solution."