According to news reports which are currently flooding into Western media outlets such as BBC, AP, the Guardian, and the New York Times, a man riding a motorized tricycle and armed with an explosive device attacked a crowd on the streets of Aksu, which is located in the northwestern area of the Tarim basin. Much of the information that is shared between Western reports on the incident come from Hou Hanmin, a government spokesperson who provided details on the incident in Urumqi.
All the the reports agree that 7 were killed and 14 were injured in the attack. The incident took place outside on the streets, with the BBC, quoting, Hou, saying it occurred at an intersection while the New York Times states that the attack actually occurred on a bridge. Hou has emphasized that the victims were all local residents and belonged to several ethnicities, and, quote, innocent civilians. The Guardian, talking to an unnamed local police official, said that victims included a group of Uyghur residents who were working with local security forces in patrolling the streets and “reporting crimes.”
More valuable information can be gleaned from this Mandarin coverage from ifeng (h/t @henrykszad at Twitter). Interestingly, this article states that one person who was aiding police (Mandarin: 1名协警员) was about to lead fifteen border patrol officers (Mandarin: 带15名联防队员) in a patrol at the T-intersection of Kalatale and Wuka roads. While they were lined up on the side of the road the attacker drove his tricycle by the group and threw (抛出) an explosive at them, instantly killing 5, with 2 dying later at the hospital, 14 injured, and several vehicles at the scene, some police vehicles, some civilian vehicles damaged or destroyed. This information supplements, clarifies, and even challenges some of the information that has been divulged in the Western reports. With the information from the ifeng report when can almost pinpoint exactly where the incident occurred: not precisely in Aksu city proper, but in a suburb, Yiganqi, at the intersection mentioned above which is 50 meters West of the river dividing Aksu from Yiganqi (this explains why the earlier NYT report mentioned a bridge – if not exactly on the bridge, then the incident occurred very close to it). This is about as accurate as we can get for now:
View 2010-08-19 Aksu Attack in a larger map
A few things of note, the intersection that I’ve marked is on Wuka Road, but the smaller road off it is not labeled, but I’m fairly confident it is Kalatale Road as it’s a T intersection and it’s almost exactly 50 meters west of the bridge over the river. It’s very clear from the satellite imagery that this intersection leads into a Uyghur area of Aksu (the short, squat buildings and unorganized layout almost certainly makes it a Uyghur neighborhood as opposed to a Chinese neighborhood with apartment buildings arranged in roads – see Kashgar satellite imagery for another contrast), and so it does seem that the attack occurred as a patrol was about to enter or inspect a Uyghur area.
All the reports agree that the perpetrator was caught at the scene of the attack.
What will happen in the wake of this attack
If previous attacks of this nature are anything to go by, I predict that there will be a trial very soon, perhaps within the next one or two months. At the trial, the suspect will most likely “admit” connections to organized “East Turkestan” terrorist networks and may perhaps even be linked to the two alleged ETIM terrorist masterminds that were caught and implicated two months ago. Again, if the government goes by its usual playbook, after the guilty verdict and the death penalty go up and are approved by the Supreme Court the suspect will be quietly executed without much media fanfare about a year after the verdict. This Aksu incident – which will probably be immortalized in Chinese records as the “8-19 incident” （八·十九事件 or maybe 八·十九爆炸事件 or something like that) – will triumphantly be added to the litany of “terrorist attacks” that local authorities have and will refer to to make a case to both domestic and global audiences that China is a victim of international terrorism.
What should we make of it
Well. Was it terrorism?
Before we answer that, it’s important to observe the uncanny similarities between this attack and the attack that occurred in Kashgar in August of 2008. Both were attacks carried out against border patrol units that were out on the streets, patrolling. Both involved young, local males (yes, this hasn’t been established from the Aksu case, but I’m almost certain that’s what it will be) using improvised explosive devices which were tossed, used, or thrown as the attackers approached the patrol in some sort of vehicle. In spite of these explosives, both were emphatically not suicide bombings. And in both cases, the perpetrators were caught alive after killing and injuring several of their intended victims.
The methods of these two attacks, their apparent spontaneity, and their choice of target to me indicate that rather than being carefully supplied, supported, and planned strikes against targets of imminent political value, both of these attacks were on-the-spot decisions carried out by disgruntled individuals against context-specific targets using the most readily available and obvious devices. Without intending to downplay the tragic loss of life in this attack, the explosives employed by the perpetrator clearly did not require the level of pre-planning required for the Oklahoma City bombing or the level of coordination and organization required for the 9/11 hijackings. Given the importance of the farming and mining industries in the area around Aksu and Uyghurs’ participation in those industries, procuring chemically volatile materials that could harm a group of people on the street is just as feasible for a disgruntled malcontent as it is for a terrorist with transnational financial support.
But more revealing in this case are the targets of this attack, where, according to the Chinese report, one individual was leading a group of public security officers into an inspection of an obviously Uyghur neighborhood. Anything ranging from a hatred of someone perceived as a race traitor (if the informant, put mildly in Chinese as “an individual assisting the police,” was Uyghur, which seems to be the case) to something specific – perhaps the informant was specifically about to turn in or inform on the attacker for any sort of crime – could have been motivation for the attacker to grab the nearest volatile devices and attack the patrol before it could arrive. In which case, we see incidents all over the world, very frequently in the United States, where “snitches” are murdered for their collaboration with the authorities, or armed holdouts with “You’ll never catch me coppers” attitudes engage in gunfights or hostage-taking situations with the authorities. Is this terrorism? No. And so I contend that, lacking accurate and trustworthy information, which is almost always the case with incidents in Xinjiang, we cannot unilaterally consider this incident a terrorist attack. However, I anticipate that this is exactly how this incident will be portrayed given the usefulness of such an incident to the government’s ongoing efforts to depict the area as a terrorism-plagued region. That being said, we will look closely at what information gets revealed – and what information doesn’t – in the coming weeks and months.