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Chinese Fear of Aviation Terrorism by Pro-Al Qaeda Uighurs

On March 7,2008, the Chinese authorities had claimed to have foiled an attempt by three Uighurs to blow up a plane of the China Southern Airlines flying from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province, to Beijing. The persons involved had allegedly managed to smuggle inside the aircraft gasoline concealed inside a can of soft drinks. The plot was foiled by alert security guards on board the plane and two of the suspects were arrested on board the plane. A third was arrested subsequently.

2.The Chairman of China Southern Airlines Liu Chaoyong said that a female passenger came out of the rest room and passed by a flight attendant who detected a suspicious smell. Then she smelt the scent of perfume and gasoline in front of the rest room. The attendant immediately searched the rest room and found an inflammable substance inside the garbage bin of the rest room. The attendant notified the airplane security guard immediately. Based upon how the female passenger spoke and acted, they realized that the male passenger next to her was a companion. The two individuals were arrested. The plane crew then moved the suspicious substance into the special container bin for handling such materials. The plane made an unscheduled stop at the Lanzhou airport. The two suspects were taken away by the police. Liu Chaoyong said that the preliminary analysis was that the two individuals intended to hide the inflammable material and then take action at the appropriate moment. ( Please refer to )

3. Since then, the Chinese authorities have been greatly concerned over the dangers of an act of aviation terrorism by Uighur jihadis belonging to the pro-Al Qaeda Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan (IMET). Apart from conventional acts of hijacking an aircraft, their concerns are focused on acts such as causing an explosion in mid-air with explosive material smuggled into an aircraft and a 9/11 style attack on a ground target with a hijacked aircraft. Possible responses to such scenarios have formed an important part of counter-terrorism exercises in China.

4. These concerns, which are not only continuing, but have also been aggravated after the violent incidents in Urumqi from July 5 to 8,2009, were reflected in the third joint Sino-Russian counter-terrorism exercise code-named “Peace Mission 2009” held for five days from July 22,2009, in the Sino-Russian border region. The actual exercise was preceded by a strategic preparatory meeting held at Khabarovsk in Russia on July 22. This was followed by the actual exercise held at the Taonan tactical training base of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in northeast China’s Jilin Province. It comes under the Shenyang Military Command.

5. Whereas in the previous two exercises held in 2005 and 2007, army units of the two countries played a prominent role, in the latest exercise Air Force units of the two countries played a prominent role The greater prominence given to the role of the Air Force in counter-terrorism resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of military personnel involved in the exercise. This came down from about 10,000 from each side in the previous two exercises to about 1300 from each side in the latest exercise.

6.Russia deployed 22 aircraft —- including Su-27 fighters, Su-24 and Su-25 attacker aircraft— and several helicopters in the exercise.. They arrived at a military airport in Qiqihar in the Heilongjiang Province. The PLA deployed more than 40 aircraft including attackers, fighter-bombers, armed helicopters and transporters. Interestingly, the Russians and the Chinese also deployed surface-to-air missile units. The deployment of the SAM units indicated that their operating instructions against aviation terrorism envisaged the shooting down of a hijacked aircraft if there was a danger of a 9/11 type incident.

7. Briefings and comments by Chinese experts to their media, which was allowed to watch the exercise, indicated that their concerns mainly focused on the dangers of an act of aviation terrorism by the Uighurs. Even though the exercise was planned long before the recent Urumqi disturbances, these disturbances found mention in the briefings and comments.

8.In a curtain-raiser despatch of July 20,2009, the Xinhua news agency quoted Major General Wang Haiyun, a former Chinese Military Attache to Russia and an expert in international strategy, as saying as follows: “Russia, a large country with many ethnic groups and complex political situations, is facing similar challenges. To some extent, the July 5 Xinjiang riot pushed forward anti-terrorism cooperation between China and Russia. Russia and China should also cooperate more vigorously to defend themselves and prevent terrorism from spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia.”

9.In an interview to the “China Daily” (July 31,2009) after the conclusion of the exercise, Major General Meng Guoping, who is the Deputy Director of the War Operations Department under the General Staff Department of the PLA, said: .”Rules of engagement for anti-terrorism combat operations are being formulated by the Chinese army to deal with the growing terrorist threat facing the nation. The move would mark the first time since its founding 82 years ago that the 2.3-million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have separate regulations for anti-terrorism operations. The army is drafting an Ordinance for Anti-terrorism Combat Operations based on its experience in anti-terror missions over the past few years. The army will also publish its first set of combat guidelines on anti-terror operations for the whole armed forces. The guidelines will regulate the anti-terror mission’s responsibility, composition, command and logistics support. The PLA has included anti-terror combat training in its elite armed forces divisions since last year and each army division has set up its task force for emergency response.”

10.The same paper quoted Song Xiaojun, a leading military expert based in Beijing, as saying as follows: “Extremists, separatists and terrorists have been collaborating to target China and turning more violent, almost to the point of forming an anti-Chinese government rebellion. The “three forces” defined in the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation ) Shanghai Treaty, namely extremism, separatism and terrorism, were said to be behind the deadly riot in the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region on July 5, during which 197 Han people and Uighurs died. China gave legal rights to its army to combat terrorism when it implemented the Emergency Response Law in August 2007.”

11. An interesting feature of the just-concluded exercise was the virtual absence of any role for the police and other civilian counter-terrorism agencies, if China has any. China treats counter-terrorism, even against its own nationals taking to violence amounting to terrorism, as a military and not a police operation. The result is the relative inexperience of the Police in dealing with terrorism-like situations and other law and order disturbances involving the use of violence by protesters. Any such disturbances tend to be looked upon by the Police as terrorism. They easily lose their cool and over-react, using disproportionate force. This is what happened at Urumqi recently.

12. India has already held two joint counter-terrorism exercises with the Chinese armed forces—- the first in Yunnan and the second in Karnataka. The police has a very important role to play in our counter-terrorism operations away from the border. We must take care that our security forces do not get infected with the ruthless Chinese ways of dealing with their own people under the name of counter-terrorism.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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