For months the Chinese authorities have been warning that restless Muslim Uighurs in the far west would stage attacks around the Olympics.
Now they seem to have been vindicated, with official reports Monday of a hit and run ambush involving grenades that killed 16 Chinese border police and wounded another 16 in the city of Kashgar.
If the reports are accurate, it would be the gravest attack of its kind in China for decades.
If I use the conditional, it’s because we are still waiting for independent confirmation of this attack. A lot of foreign observers have been skeptical about Chinese accounts of foiled Uighur terrorist plots recently because the government hasn’t shared any of the evidence.
But this seems to be just the sort of event that Chinese and international terrorism experts have been expecting.
The Uighurs still make up the majority in the far western province of Xinjiang, but only just. Han Chinese immigrants have been pouring in, and many Uighurs feel their culture is threatened. Certainly the government has been cracking down on mosques and religious schools, for fear of the sort of Islamic extremism that has convulsed Pakistan and Afghanistan, just across the border.
The Chinese police have also been cracking down on anyone they think might be linked to the pro-independence “East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” A top official from Xinjiang said last week his men had dismantled five terrorist groups so far this year, arresting 82 people.
Also last week a threatening video surfaced on the internet, from an organization calling itself the “Turkestan Islamic Party.” A masked spokesman promised to attack Olympic sites, and claimed responsibility for earlier bus bombs.
Security experts sniffed at the threats, on the grounds that the small number of Uyghur terrorists who are believed to have trained with Al Qaeda forces in Pakistan just don’t have the operational capability to strike anywhere near Olympic sites, given the massive security blanket that China has draped over them.
But Monday’s attack, if the details are confirmed, does not sound as if it has much in common with Al Qaeda tactics: two men drove a dump truck into a column of jogging policemen in the street, apparently, then threw grenades at them and attacked them with knives. This was not a suicide bombing.
Both assailants were arrested, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The incident happened two thousand miles away from Beijing, but only four days before the Olympics open here. This is bound to raise tensions far beyond the region of Xinjiang itself.