For months, Chinese authorities have been publicising the threat
from separatist militants in the northwest region of Xinjiang,
saying members of its Muslim, Uighur minority were bent on
disrupting the Beijing Olympics.
But when a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party released a video threatening the Games and taking responsibility for recent bus bombings in Shanghai and in the southern province of Yunnan, China was quick to deny its claims.
That has thrown into the spotlight the issue of China's credibility regarding its statements on domestic terror and left analysts wondering where the truth lies in the line between cracking down on terrorism and crushing dissent.
"It's fairly hard to gather any corroboration really about the extent of the threat," said Michael Clarke, a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia.
"This is the problem of looking at China. In the past there has been very little transparency from the Chinese about what's actually going on in Xinjiang with relation to these Uighur separatist groups, so it's quite difficult," he said.
Turkistan, or East Turkestan, are names sometimes used for Xinjiang by those advocating for an independent state in the region.
China has said terrorism is the greatest threat to the Aug. 8-24
Olympics and that it has broken up several cells in Xinjiang, the
oil-rich Central Asian region that borders Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Officials in March also said they stopped a plan by a
Uighur woman to bring down a flight from Xinjiang.
But the government has provided scant detail of the plots and critics accuse it of using the Olympics as a pretext to crack down on Uighurs, many of whom resent the restrictions China's Communist authorities place on their religion and culture.
"There are groups in Xinjiang that pursue armed struggle and others that pursue a political struggle. So there is a realistic threat," said Robert Karniol, a Bangkok-based military analyst.
But he said it was difficult to establish the truth of either China's claims of extensive plots, or its denial of the Turkistan Islamic Party's claim of responsibility.
"I wouldn't believe them one way or the other. But that's based
on historical precedence, not on any factual information," he
Lack of information
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao repeated reports in official media that there was no link between the Olympics and the bus bombings in Yunnan's capital Kunming last week that killed at least two and injured 14.
He also defended the lack of information from the government about security threats.
"Everyone knows that regarding security questions, a lot is
based on intelligence.... So we can't be very detailed in the
information we reveal," Liu told a regular news conference.
Some said China may have an interest in denying any terror link out of embarrassment that such an incident could happen so close to the time of the Games. But others questioned even the existence of any Turkistan Islamic Party.
Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based counter-terrorism expert,
said the Turkistan Islamic Party could be a group under the banner
of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an organisation that
advocates a separate state for Xinjiang and that the United States
lists as a terrorist group.
"The ETIM infrastructure in Xinjiang has been disrupted, but still, ETIM is capable of operating in China," said Gunaratna.
"It is very difficult for ETIM to attack the Olympic venues because they have been very well-secured," he said, adding the group was probably only capable of what he called "small and medium-scale" attacks.
China has been keen to ensure the international community acknowledges that it has a domestic terror threat, but some wonder whether it has done itself any favours by issuing dramatic statements on the subject without offering details or evidence.
"Everyone recognises the Olympics is potentially a very
attractive target," said Clarke. "The question really is can they
really be believed. It's a little bit like the boy crying