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BEIJING — A deadly terror attack not far from Mao's tomb shows that China may not be prepared for terror attacks that Western nations have been trying to counter for years.
"China's counterterrorism capabilities are rudimentary, they lack high-grade, high-quality intelligence to fight terrorism," said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism expert who has researched terrorism in China.
On Wednesday, Chinese police for the first time said that the Monday car crash into a crowd of people was an act of terror. The identities of the attackers released Wednesday indicates they are members of a repressed Muslim ethnic group in China.
The incident involved a Jeep with a driver and two passengers that plowed through pedestrians at lunchtime before it crashed and burned at an historic bridge close to the portrait of Chairman Mao on Tiananmen Gate. The gate is near the compound where China's current crop of Communist Party leaders live and work.
The attack killed the car's three occupants and left two tourists dead and 40 others injured.
Police said the "carefully planned, organized and premeditated," attack was done by Usmen Hasan, his mother Kuwanhan Reyim, and his wife, Gulkiz. Police said the trio lit gasoline to start the fire that killed them.
Police found gasoline, gasoline containers, a steel stick and a flag with "extremist religious content" inside the Jeep, and long knives and "jihad", or "holy war", flags in the temporary residence of five suspects who were detained 10 hours after the incident with the help of police in Xinjiang, reported Xinhua, the state news agency.
The names of the alleged attackers sound like those of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group in northwest China's Xinjiang region.
Beijing police led a city-wide manhunt for suspects as they issued notices to hotels for information on first two and later eight suspects, all Xinjiang-based and Uighur-sounding apart from one Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group, who was born in Sichuan but lived in Xinjiang.
A huge area of desert, mountain and mineral wealth in Chinese Central Asia, Xinjiang has witnessed regular unrest and many fatalities in recent years involving the indigenous Uighurs and the Han immigrants who have arrived in large numbers from elsewhere in China in recent decades.
The Uighur have long complained about repressive rule by Beijing that restricts their freedom of movement and religious belief. The Chinese government argues it has brought badly-needed development, and says violent incidents there are fomented by 'hostile foreign forces'.
Monday's incident marks a successful escalation of tactics by Xinjiang separatist groups seeking to form an 'East Turkestan' independent of China, said Gunaratna, who has researched terrorism in Xinjiang.
"The only group with the intention and capability to mount this attack is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement," or ETIM, a shadowy organization, based in the Afghan-Pakistan border, that some say does not exist.
"ETIM is no longer confined to Xinjiang, and it will continue to build those capabilities," he said. "It is a very successful attack and will inspire and instigate more attacks. Those Western countries that were reluctant to believe the ETIM was a terrorist group should now believe it is a terrorist group," that has been aided by al-Qaeda, said Gunaratna.
Uighur exile groups have urged caution before China rushes to judgment on this incident.
"Today, I fear for the future of East Turkestan and the Uyghur people more than I ever have," said World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer, in a statement from Washington Tuesday. "The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing, so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uyghur people."
Beijing authorities have already arrested 93 Uighurs without reason and stepped up monitoring of all Uighurs doing business and studying outside of Xinjiang, said Dilxat Rexit, a Sweden-based spokesperson for the Congress, an international organization of exiled Uighur groups.
"This Beijing incident will become the new excuse for China's crackdown," he said Wednesday.