There’s been quite a bit of chatter this week about the apparent VBIED attack in Beijing and whether it constituted terrorism or not. It may be more useful to go back to tbe beginning and try and unpack the incident to establish exactly what was going on.
I’m down with the official account so far as it pretty clearly was an attack perpetrated by Uighurs and that its root was in China’s occupation of Xinjiang. The oddest thing about the not quite suicide car bomb attack at Tiananmen on Monday was the fact that the alleged perpetrators were all members of the same family: a chap called Usmen Hasan and his wife and mother. So not so much a terrorist attack as a terrorist excursion.
Family terrorism does happen from time to time, usually among male siblings, though Chechen Black Widows are often family members of other terrorists according to this essay by Mia Bloom, author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism. Ms Bloom adds:
In groups bound by ethnic or nationalist ties, it is quite common for members of the same family to become involved.
If we accept that involvement in terrorist organization might be at least in part a result of some grievances, it is likely that siblings experience those grievances equally. Israeli counter terrorism policies that included the demolition of houses or long-term arrest of fathers would have impacted all children in that household. It should hardly be a surprise that members of the same family join together and may even be deployed for the same mission.
From the perspective of the terrorist organization, engaging family members can help sustain both the commitment of participants as well as heighten operational security.
Well, we have the ethnic and national ties. And the Asahi Shimbun notes that one of the additional suspects sought by the Beijing cops came from Lukqun, where 35 people were killed earlier this year in a series of attacks on local police stations. It could be that the man sought was involved with the people who did that. It could also be that he and the group that killed them were caught up in whatever round of brutal reprisals were staged by the cops, which gives us our family level grievance,
Where I’d differ in this case – but Beijing wouldn’t – is with the last paragraph. Beijing has put the whole incident down to the shadowy but apparently lethal East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as it does with all incidents of Uighur on Han violence. Yet the strange thing about this shadowy, ultra-efficient terrorist group is that it never seems to be able to arm its cadre with anything more lethal than edged weapons. Also, it can’t make a bomb: Monday’s VBIED consisted of drenching the car in petrol and crashing it, after a brief bout of tourist skittles on Tiananmen Square. ETIM never, ever seems to have anything to say for itself, despite the importance of propaganda to jihadist groups, and nobody has ever managed to identify any of its current leading members. What ETIM does do is fit into China’s overall Xinjiang narrative that apart from a few malcontents exploited by shadowy Islamist crackpots, Uighurs are very happy with Chinese rule.
By contrast, what we actually seem to have here is another example of Uighur rage, following the established pattern of Uighur on Han violence; groups of people combining with minimal organization and attacking Han or collaborationist targets either with whatever weapons are to hand or with whatever can be made into a weapon, against a background where ethnic violence against the Han is seen by a significant element of the Uighur population as a legitimate response to Chinese state behaviour in Xinjiang.
In his recent essay on the Uighurs, James noted the similarities between incidents of violence in Xinjiang and the rounds of massacre and repression in Algeria just after WorldWar Two (we’ve made the same point here,). You also have your pieds noirs in the form of Bingtuan colonists, hardscrabble types from places like rural Henan. What we may have here is the early stage of a classic anti-colonial war. It may be that Chinese repression is of an extent and sophistication that prevents a local version of the FLN forming. What that leads us to is an endless cycle of violence and repression that can’t be solved because it’s politically impossible for Beijing to admit that Uighurs might be legitimately unhappy under Chinese rule.