19 March 2004
2003 was an important year in the evolution of China's counter-terrorism policy. In December last, its Ministry of Public Security issued a list of identified "Eastern Turkistan" terrorist organizations. Figuring in the list are the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the World Uighur Youth Congress (WUYC), the Eastern Turkistan Information Centre (ETIC) and the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO). The list also gave the names of 11 members of these organisations.
This marked a new high in Beijing's efforts to project itself to the international community as yet another victim of international terrorist organisations and to characterise the Eastern Turkistan organisations as no different from other international terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda against which the US-led "war" on terrorism has been directed since 9/11.
Ever since 9/11, an important feature of China's foreign and counter-terrorism policies has been to project these organisations as forming part of the network of international terrorist organisations and to counter external perceptions that these are essentially indigenous in nature, with a purely domestic and not a pan-Islamic agenda.
China has also been trying to take advantage of the growing warmth in its relations with the US to seek acceptance of the legitimacy of its concerns in respect of terrorism in the Xinjiang province. Contrary to external perceptions of the Uighur separatist and Islamic organisations as an outcome of purely domestic grievances, China fears that the various terrorist organisations in Xinjiang have an agenda and a network extending beyond its frontiers and that there is a danger of their steady radicalisation and of Xinjiang one day turning into another Chechnya if their activities are not handled with firmness.
China's terrorism problem is related to its Xinjiang province where the Uighur Muslims are in a majority. The Uighurs are ethnically closer to the people of the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Xinjiang has a common border with the CARs, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Uighurs are a Turkic- speaking ethnic Muslim community who have been demanding greater rights and autonomy in the region. Militancy in Xinjiang is confined to the radical Islamic separatist groups such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and others formed by some Uighurs and supported by radical Muslim groups abroad to fight for an independent state called 'East Turkistan'.
There have been sporadic killings and bombings in Xinjiang during the last two decades. Among the more serious incidents, one could cite the bomb blasts in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in 1988, and again in 1992 when buses were attacked in Urumqi. In 1993, a bomb explosion at Kashgar killed 10 people. Disturbances were again reported at the border in 1995.
An overriding concern of Beijing at this point of time is to prevent the Uighur separatist movement, till now a largely ethno nationalist struggle, from becoming a full blown, pan-Islamic and more specifically Pan-Turkic jehadi conflict which may unleash destructive terrorist forces in the region. Chinese Uighurs from Xinjiang had participated in the war against the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s waged by Afghan Mujahideen groups. The Chinese fear that some of them may have been influenced by pan-Islamic ideologies and that their present struggle in Xinjiang may assume a trans-national and pan-Islamic dimension is not misplaced.
There have been reports of the influx of Chinese Muslims into Pakistan and Afghanistan for indoctrination and training since the early 1990s. Many Chinese made arms and ammunition as also ethnic Chinese were reportedly captured by the US-led coalition during the post-9/11 military action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghan territory. Two Chinese Muslims, Noor Mohammad and Abdul Jalil, have been projected as having had connections with Al Qaeda.
Despite this, there is so far no clear evidence of any major Al Qaeda network or presence in the Xinjiang region. To a large extent, the Uighur movement still remains a local affair caused by the demand for autonomy from the Uighurs who have been denied economic and political opportunities in the region and see themselves as discriminated against by the Han Chinese. The Chinese are trying hard to seek international acceptance of their projection of terrorist violence in Xinjiang, as externally motivated and as,hence, coming within the scope of the so-called war against international terrorism.
In April last, the Chinese Government was gratified by the US decision to add the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to its list of foreign terrorist organisations. This marked a departure from the earlier American reluctance to include counter-terrorism in Xinjiang as a justified component of the 'global war on terror' and to underplay allegations of serious human rights violations by the Chinese security forces in the Xinjiang province.
In July, 2003, China and the US signed a cooperation declaration on the Container Security Initiative (CSI).The aim of this declaration is to increase anti- terrorism cooperation through the exchange of security officers at their ports who would help identify and check high risk containers.
The Hamid Karzai Government in Kabul has reportedly promised co-operation against the activities of the four Uighur separatist groups. Apparently, there were intelligence reports that claimed that the ETIM and the ETLO had received money from bin Laden and have bases outside China, including in Chechnya and Afghanistan, but no substantial evidence has been forthcoming in corroboration of such reports.
While thus making headway in its anti-terrorism co-operation with the US, China continues to place importance on its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It supported a large-scale anti-terrorism exercise by the member-countries of the SCO and said that it would improve their ability to coordinate their fight against terrorism and guarantee regional security and stability. It was stated that the Chinese army would share its anti- terrorism expertise and experience with the troops of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and discuss ways to fight international terrorism.
However, the efforts made by Beijing to change external perceptions have not had any noticeable impact so far on non-governmental human rights organisations in the West, which continue to reject the 'terrorist' tag given by Beijing to the Uighur separatist organisations and have accused Beijing of waging a politically motivated campaign against ethnic and religious minority groups.
China's terrorism problem in the Xinjiang region needs a balanced study. It cannot be denied that the Communist regime has attacked the religious practices of the Uighur Muslims. It has allegedly arrested Muslim women in congregational prayers and banned other religious practices of the Uighurs on the pretext of cracking down on terrorism. The Government has allegedly discriminated against the Uighurs and this is obvious if one sees the socio- economic conditions of the Uighurs who are in a majority in the area vis-a-vis the Han Chinese who are in a minority. China has been accused by many States of committing human rights violations in Xinjiang. The Uighurs have traditionally practised the moderate Sufi form of Islam and the Chinese allegations of this traditional Sufism having given way to extremism under external influence need closer scrutiny.
The Uighur movement seems to be a genuine movement of the people who have felt marginalized due to the policies of the PRC government. The East Turkestan Information Center (ETIC), which is one of the organizations banned by the PRC on charges of terrorism, for instance, in its website does not even talk of a separate state, but it has been accused of inciting violence and religious extremism through the internet. The ETIC is a fairly comprehensive website on the history and culture of the Uighurs and highlights their repression at the hands of the Chinese who, according to it, are resorting to forced 'Sinofication' of the Uighurs.
In fact, in the search for a solution to the Uighur problem, the ETIC website says that a pan-Turkic or a pan-Islamic ideology has no role to play and that the Uighur leadership must sell "acceptance" of the fact that there cannot be a free 'Eastern Turkistan' or that Xinjiang cannot become a part of the pan-Turkic or Islamic state or a confederation. The website further says that the Uighur people must not only accept this, but must also drop their support for any claims to independence. China's terrorism concerns must not override the fact that there is a genuine political movement of the Uighur people for greater autonomy to preserve their ethnic and cultural practices.
The Chinese 'terrorist list' has other loopholes. If China feels that there is a genuine terrorist threat and the pan-Islamic Jihadi network of Al Qaeda is making inroads into Chinese territory it must furnish more evidence. While Dolqun Isa, the head of the WUYC, has been accused of being engaged in "all kinds of terrorist activities launched by the separatist group", the ETIM has been accused of committing a robbery and a murder in Urumqi on Feb. 4, 1999, along with other acts of terror. After 2001, there has been no report of any civilian casualties in acts of terror. In March last year, there was a hue and cry raised over a bomb hoax!
The list also mentions an Al Qaeda connection, but fails to corroborate it with any evidence. It seems to be true that Chinese manufactured ammunition was discovered in the Tora Bora caves during the Afghanistan war and several Chinese men were also killed, but there is still ambiguity about the exact connection of those Chinese with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Whether these people were a part of the international terrorist network or were participating against the American offensive in their individual capacity is not clear. There is a need for more information on the international linkages of terrorism in Xinjiang if China's counter-terrorism policies are to gain more credibility from the international community.
China has come out with more allegations against the Uighur organisations and leaders on February 13, 2004.The President of the East Turkistan Information Center, Abudujelili Kalakash, has been accused of training Abudumijit Enas in 2001 and 2002 on how to carry out terrorist activities. The WUYC has been accused of actively pursuing subversive activities and financing terrorists and terrorist organizations, the details of which are not given. The WUYC leader Dolqun Isa has been accused of training runaway terrorists to establish a base in Nepal. They do not make convincing reading in the absence of more details.
The writer is a post-graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and, presently, a member of the staff of the International Terrorism Watch Project of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). She is based in New Delhi. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org )
* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.