Attack on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyz Republic

Daniel Kadyrbekov
October 31, 2016

The 25th anniversary of Kyrgyz Republic's Independence Day, August 30, 2016, was marked by a suicide bomber attack on the Chinese Embassy in the capital city of Bishkek. According to a press statement made by Deputy Prime Minister Jenish Razakov, the suicide bomber was the only fatality with two embassy technical staff suffering injuries. Despite making global headlines, the attack hardly received a passing glance from authorities and did not compel them to reschedule Independence Day celebrations and the World Nomad Games, which took place from September 3-8th with 10,000-15,000 visitors and participants from 62 countries on the shores of Issyk Kul lake.

Perhaps a good way to understand the context of this attack is to consider who will benefit from provoking the Chinese and increasing their commitment in what is traditionally a Russian dominated region. One theory is that the suicide bomber was a covert-op by special forces to provide more impetus for activating the role of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which held joint military exercises among member states starting from September 15th in the Kyrgyz Republic. In light of recent aggressive Russian foreign policy moves, some of the former Central Asian republics are becoming more anxious. There is speculation that activating Chinese support in the region would serve as an important counterweight.

On September 6, a week after the attack on the Chinese Embassy, Kyrgyz Republic’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced the identity of the suicide bomber, Zoir Khalilov, a Tajik passport holder and ethnic Uyghur, who was linked to an Uyghur nationalist cell that joined ISIL in Syria. Five additional people were arrested on collusion charges with the attack, however, a person whom GKNB announced as an alleged suspect linked with the attack proclaimed his innocence on social media, also providing his alibi.

In addition to the discrepancies mentioned above it’s important to note that there was no official claim of responsibility for the attack. Typically, an attack inspired by or on orders from Al-nusra, ISIL, or from Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) would be exploited for propaganda purposes. The silence was eerily unnerving. Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that China has never been on the enemy list of terrorist organizations, minus ETIM, which normally operates inside the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is known for perpetrating riots and attacks inside China--but never outside.

If the intended disruption was targeted at Chinese economic activities in the region, it does not make sense to target the country with minimum Chinese investment, presence, and media attention. It is widely known that Kyrgyz Republic is probably the most liberal regime in the region, which shelters exiled Uyghur dissidents—albeit under close watch by the state security apparatus.

It is also important to keep in mind the regional context, namely the economic situation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which is an economic union of states located primarily in Eurasia. After Russia occupied Crimea and its interventions in Eastern Ukraine, which resulted in Western economic sanctions, the state of economies in Russia and EEU member countries have been miserable.

Another important observation is the would-be Russian refusal months earlier on its commitment to build a hydropower station in Naryn, citing financial problems, which led to unilateral denouncement of investment agreement by the Kyrgyz government. To maintain the expensive foreign policy initiatives in the abovementioned regions with additional sanctions, Russia too needs a shoulder to delegate its security expenses in the region—and gladly accepts Chinese financial and military aid to the region.

Moreover, Kyrgyz Republic is heavily dependent on foreign aid to maintain the current level of budget despite a 30 billion soms deficit projected in 2016 and a drastic (28%) drop in exports in addition to foreign debt prevailing at 60% to GDP. Kyrgyz authorities are desperate to entice neighboring powers such as China to do more in terms of increasing the volume of foreign aid, preferably grant-based aid to the country.

In this light, a Member of Parliament, Omurbek Tekebayev, stated that to offset the catastrophic economic and foreign policy decisions of the current President Atambayev for the last five years, the Kyrgyz government wants to promote active Chinese involvement in the country with increasing security commitment to the region.

Given the lack of reaction by the Kyrgyz government and no claim from terrorist organizations, there are numerous reasons to believe that the attack on the Chinese Embassy might have been something other than “lone-wolf” terrorism by a disgruntled Uyghur nationalist.

Daniel Kadyrbekov is a political analyst and the former Aide to Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic. He obtained his MA in political science from Kobe University in 2011. Mr. Kadyrbekov currently works as Market Expansion Consultant at Nikkyo Co. Ltd. in Tokyo, Japan.