Police in Hong Kong have raided what they said was a bomb-making factory, arresting nine people, days after an officer was stabbed in what the force described as a “lone wolf terrorist attack.”
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, the city’s senior bomb disposal officer, Alick McWhirter, said materials seized during the raid were “consistent with the manufacturing of the powerful, dangerous and unstable high explosive TATP.”
Relatively easy to make from common materials such as nail polish remover or bleach, TATP – triacetone triperoxide – has been used in a number of terrorist attacks in recent years, including bombings in Britain and Belgium.
Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent with the police force’s national security department, said the people arrested Monday had planned to bomb public facilities, including the Cross Harbour Tunnel, and courthouses. They belonged to a pro-independence group, Returning Valiant, and also planned to launch car bomb attacks and place bombs in rubbish bins, Supt. Li said.
The raid follows days of warnings from police and senior politicians in the Chinese territory of the growing risk of terrorism, even as the national security law introduced by Beijing last year has effectively stymied most opposition to the government.
Speaking at a national security forum this week, Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee pointed to the recent stabbing incident as proof “that although national security threats are under control, risks still exist.”
In that case, a 50-year-old man attacked a police officer from behind on the evening of July 1, seriously wounding him. The attacker, who has not been officially identified, then stabbed himself in the chest, an injury that would prove fatal.
The incident took place amid a massive police operation to prevent any protests on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. An annual pro-democracy march was stopped, and multiple people were arrested for alleged breaches of public order.
Support for the Hong Kong Police Force has been at an all-time low since the often-violent anti-government protests of 2019, with police accused of misconduct during the demonstrations.
The July 1 attacker has since become something a martyr, with people leaving flowers at the site where he died.
Speaking on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said it was “immoral” to “mourn a person who deliberately attacked and wanted to kill a policeman on duty.”
Ms. Lam and other officials have warned against “glorifying violence” and have called for a crackdown on material that could “radicalize” others against the police and the city’s administration. On Sunday, two people were arrested over online posts allegedly encouraging others to attack officers on the street.
Just how serious a threat Hong Kong faces is hard to gauge, however.
Despite years of anti-government unrest, some of which has turned violent, bombings are incredibly rare in Hong Kong. The last major wave of terrorist violence occurred in 1967, when pro-Communist groups rebelling against British rule planted more than 8,000 bombs around the city, killing 15 people.
Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said the scant information provided by the Hong Kong police about alleged terror incidents makes it difficult to know how seriously to take them.
“The problem is, you never really know what they found, what constitutes precursor chemicals,” he said, adding that there is an incentive for the authorities “to talk up the threat to some degree.”
“From the authorities’ perspective, it’s designed to highlight a problem they’re saying is really substantial, that has a political edge to it, and that therefore they need more support to do something about it,” he said.
Police said most of those arrested Monday were teenagers, with the youngest just 15. They are being charged with “terrorist activities” under the national security law, for which they could face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Mr. Pantucci said there were risks in “putting a terrorism label” on what may have been fairly minor threats, as this could give the impression that anti-government activity is more significant than it actually is.
“That has a self-perpetuating element,” he said. “Because then other people will look at this, people who may be aggravated or angry, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s not just me, there’s lots of people who are angry, and look, they’re all picking up weapons to do something about it.’ ”
This is particularly the case in a place such as Hong Kong, where legitimate means of dissent have been increasingly closed off by the national security law and a continuing clampdown against the opposition. Few protests have taken place since the law came into force last year, and almost every prominent pro-democracy figure is either in prison or facing trial.
“A sense of despair definitely generates a context where in some cases people may turn to violence,” Mr. Pantucci said.
Speaking Tuesday, Ms. Lam said it was a “fallacy” to claim that violence is justified to address societal problems.
“We should not, and need not, link the government’s performance to national security and public safety issues,” she said.
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