Terrorists such as the knife-wielding assassins who struck a Chinese railway station are the “common enemy of all mankind,” China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday in a reproach to countries whose expressions of condolences omitted any reference to terror.
The gang of black-clad attackers who killed 29 and injured 143 others in Kunming, a city deep in China’s southwest, are “devoid of conscience and humanity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing.
He added: “We believe that when dealing with violent terrorists like that, the international community should speak with one voice and take joint action.”
Indeed, the severity of the attacks, and the possible ties to groups such as al-Qaeda, suggest that China has been thrust into a dangerous new world, one that may force it to redraw the way it gathers intelligence in the face of increasingly deadly violence.
The Kunming killings were conducted with long sword-like knives that left bodies strewn and blood pooled on floors in the railway station. Witnesses described scenes of abject panic as eight people – including two women, according to state media – indiscriminately slashed vast numbers of people.
Four of the assailants were killed; Chinese police said they had taken three into custody. They named the group’s leader as Abdurehim Kurban, without offering further detail. The attack is the deadliest and most brazen single act of terror on Chinese soil, and is being referred to by state media as the country’s “9/11.”
So some in China took exception to a U.S. State Department statement that called it a “tragedy,” a term seen as minimizing the seriousness of the event. While the United States said it condemned the Kunming attack as a “terrible and senseless act of violence,” Chinese Internet users lashed out at the U.S. for what they perceived as a double standard.
“I extend my condolences over 9/11, which was such a horrible and meaningless traffic accident,” wrote one sardonic blogger.
Canada called it an “assault by knife-wielding attackers,” and, in Beijing, quoted Ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques as condemning “this horrific, senseless act of violence.” By contrast, the European Union called it a “‘most heinous’ terrorist attack … in the strongest terms,” a statement repeated by Chinese state media.
China has blamed the attacked on separatists from Xinjiang, the sprawling province on the country’s western flank, where the ethnic minority Uighur population has been involved in a growing number of often-deadly clashes with authorities. Uyghur people are largely Muslim, and have loudly protested against a heavy-handed Chinese security and surveillance presence that has, activists have said, involved disappearances, torture, officially sanctioned discrimination and tight restrictions on religious practice.
But official media lashed out at those sympathetic to the plight of those in Xinjiang in the wake of the Kunming attack.
“Anyone attempting to harbour and provide sympathies for the terrorists, calling them the repressed or the weak, is encouraging such attacks and helping committing a crime,” the Global Times, the tabloid voice of the Communist Party, wrote in an editorial.
Those who study terrorism said the co-ordination of the attack – with eight people all willing to risk death – showed a new level of sophistication. No one has claimed responsibility for the Kunming attack. But Rohan Gunaratna, who leads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said it is likely the attackers have ties to, or drew inspiration from, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a radical Islamic Uyghur secessionist group. The ETIM has been listed by the State Department as a “group of concern.”
“If you look at al-Qaeda and ETIM, they have had a very strong and very close relationship for more than 10 years,” said Mr. Gunaratna, who has travelled to Xinjiang and has written at length about al-Qaeda.
The Kunming killings offer an unmistakable statement about the perpetrators’ rising ability to project fear, Mr. Gunaratna said, and suggests that worse may lie ahead. “I would not call it the Chinese 9/11. I believe that the Chinese 9/11 will come,” he said. He pointed to the looming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has sparked fears that terrorists groups will regain ground to flourish. “They will train more people. And they will plan and prepare and execute more sophisticated attacks,” Mr. Gunaratna said.
For China, he added, Kunming makes clear worrying gaps in intelligence, particularly when it comes to groups that have operations outside Chinese border. The ETIM, for example, has operated in northern Pakistan.
China “will have to develop what is called high-grade intelligence, which means more human sources, more technical sources,” he said.
Mr. Gunaratna warned, however, that doing so at the cost of further alienating people in Xinjiang is dangerous. “Chinese overreaction will mean greater support for the separatist movement in Xinjiang,” he said.