Beijing Terror Attack: Implications

The Chinese authorities have described a deadly car crash in Tiananmen Square on October 28 as a 'planned, organised, premeditated, violent terrorist attack'. The incident involved a sports utility vehicle ploughing into a crowd and bursting into flames, killing its three occupants – the driver, his wife, and mother – as well as two tourists. Forty people were also injured.

The authorities blamed Uighur Muslim separatists from China's westernmost region of Xinjiang for the incident, and have arrested five Uighurs for their alleged involvement in the plot. Local police also said they had recovered 'religious extremist content' from the burnt-out vehicle, which was set on fire using gasoline by its occupants. Meanwhile, on October 31, Chinese media reported that at least three airlines – Beijing Capital Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, and Sichuan Airlines – had received bomb threats.

Like Tibet, which it neighbours, Xinjiang is a remote Chinese province whose local population has long been opposed to Chinese rule and harbours separatist inclinations. Tibetans and Uighurs have felt politically and culturally persecuted by the Han Chinese majority, and the two regions have occasionally seen outbursts of unrest. For example, rioting in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, in 2009 left around 200 people dead and 1,600 injured.

In the short term, the most likely response by the Chinese authorities is a crackdown on perceived and actual Uighur separatists, both in Beijing and other major cities, and in Xinjiang itself. However, a heavy-handed approach could risk alienating the Uighurs, thereby potentially increasing the likelihood of acts of violence. China could also attract greater criticism from international human rights groups. Indeed, critics of China fear that Beijing will use the October 28 incident as the pretext for a disproportionate crackdown.

In the long term, the bigger questions are whether Uighurs will become radicalised, and whether they will attract the support of Islamist militants in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, which shares a very short border with western China. Back in 2009, Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda official who was subsequently killed in a drone strike in 2012, called for a holy war on China in response to Beijing's harsh treatment of Uighurs. China itself claimed in 2008 to have foiled a terror plot aimed at disrupting the Beijing Olympic Games.

If the Uighurs do become radicalised, and draw greater support from global Islamist militants, then the threats facing China will surely increase. Although it is highly speculative at this stage, it is conceivable that in the far future, if China becomes more heavily involved in Middle Eastern affairs and pursues similar policies to the US, then the anger fuelling radical Islamism could be redirected towards China.