Originally Published 2004-01-03 07:06:01 Published on Jan 03, 2004
Since 9/11, both China and the US have one concern in common - the threat of 'Islamic' terrorism. On December 15 2003, China's Ministry of Public Security (MPS) issued a list of four terrorist organisations and eleven terrorists that pose a threat to China's security.
China's Terror List and its Implications
Since 9/11, both China and the US have one concern in common - the threat of 'Islamic' terrorism. On December 15 2003, China's Ministry of Public Security (MPS) issued a list of four terrorist organisations and eleven terrorists that pose a threat to China's security. The groups--Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO), the World Uygur Youth Congress (WUYC) and the East Turkistan Information Centre (ETIC)--collectively represent what the Chinese have termed the 'East Turkistan' terrorists.

Some of the more extreme elements of the Muslim ethnic community of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have been demanding an independent state of 'East Turkistan' with the aim of uniting the Turkic-speaking people who trace their roots to Central Asia rather than China. However, the majority living in XUAR hope for greater regional autonomy to manage their distinct ethnic and religious identity.

The list issued by the MPS raises certain significant concerns. Firstly, PRC has highlighted the inter-linkages of the East Turkistan terrorists and Al Qaeda and the Taliban for training and financial support, particularly since 9/11. According to a report by the Permanent Mission of the PRC to the UN in November 29 2001, the East Turkistan terrorist groups were numbered at 40 organisations, eight of which were considered to openly advocate violence as a political objective. The terrorist groups have headquarters in countries like Turkey (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Resistance Movement) Kazakhstan (Central Asian Uygur Hezbollah), Pakistan (Turkistan Party), Afghanistan (ETIM), Switzerland (Eastern Turkistan Youth League) and Central Asia (ETLO).

According to the UN report of 2001, the ETIM was said to be a major component of the bin Laden terror network. It was also believed that the Pakistan-based Turkistan Army was fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan under the control of the ETIM and its recently slain head Hasan Mahsum. The Turkistan Army has a 320-strong 'China Battalion' recruited mainly from the Xinjiang province. The ETIM members were also said to have received training in camps that were then controlled by bin Laden, the Taliban and the Uzbek Islamic Movement in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and so on. Osama bin Laden has also been accused of providing the ETIM with $US 300,000 in the past. The recently published lists again highlight the international linkages of the 'East Turkistan' terrorists, although in a more perfunctory manner.

There is a growing belief in the world that the bin Laden and Taliban link with the East Turkistan terrorists has been exaggerated by the Chinese, especially since the US war on terrorism kicked off. Since September 11, the PRC has striven for a wider definition of terrorism, encompassing the agenda and activities of secessionist groups functioning in XUAR. The ETIM was named a terrorist organisation by the US as well as the UN under Chinese pressure; largely a warning to the international community of the danger that lay in overlooking the plausible link between 'East Turkistan' and 'Islamic' terrorism. Yet, there is not enough information on the global linkages of terrorism in Xinjiang. It is quite possible that stirring up international concern on global terrorism, a subject equally threatening to all states in the world, is China's way of deflecting concern of the political and religious repression of the Uygur people.

Secondly, the list makes a mention of the profiles of the terrorists and their groups, along with a criteria-list for identifying them. All eleven terrorists mentioned in the list are Uygurs from XUAR, most of who are not living in China. Of the four terrorist groups, the WUYC and the ETIC are political groups based in Germany. There is a glaring absence of concrete and hard evidence regarding the terrorist activities of the various groups. For example, Dolqun Isa, the head of the WUYC mentioned in the list has been accused of organising and participating in "all sorts of terrorist activities launched by the separatist group". In another place, the ETIM is accused of committing "a robbery and murder case in Urumqui on February 4, 1999 and other acts of terror." The terrorists and their groups have been accused of planning and perpetrating a wide range of terror acts like bombings, political assassinations and poison attacks - details of which have not been convincingly furnished or corroborated. The ETIC, for instance, has been accused of using the internet for inciting religious extremism and advocating jihad through violence and terror. However, the ETIC website is a means of publicising the distinct history and culture and the political repression of the people of East Turkistan at the hands of the Chinese. Before cooperating in extradition proceedings, other states should be suspicious of the absence of authentic information that establishes the culpability of the named terrorist groups and their members in specific terrorist plans and attacks.

Thirdly, by publishing the lists, the Chinese government has made a tacit appeal to other countries for international cooperation in apprehending and extraditing the identified terrorists. Zhao Yongchen, the spokesperson of the MPS Anti-Terrorism Department has explicitly called upon governments of other countries to ban the terrorist groups and their activities, freeze their financial assets and carry out criminal investigations and hand over the terrorists to Chinese authorities. A principal criterion set forth for identifying a terrorist group by the Ministry was stated as - "Organisations engaged in terrorist activities endangering national security or social stability, and harm the life and property through violence and terror, regardless of whether it is based in or outside. Clearly, this definition is sweeping and open-ended. All activities that endanger national security and social stability cannot be identified as terrorist in nature. Also, any activity can be perceived by the government as adversely affecting social stability.

Nonetheless, China is interested in projecting itself as an important partner in the global war on terror by issuing the 'terror-lists'. The PRC has been able to negotiate and hold agreements on counter-terrorism issues with countries such as India, the Shanghai Six members and even the US. Recently, the Pakistan army assisted the Chinese in killing its most-wanted terrorist and ETIM leader, Hasan Mahsum at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on December 25, 2003. Bilateral efforts like this will undoubtedly go a long way in strengthening relations. Counter-terrorism efforts made by the Chinese are also pivotal to a constructive Sino-US relationship. Many claim that the US has deliberately evaded the Xinjiang issue and focussed on common terrorist threats to build warmer relations with China and build on its support for the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While cooperation with China on countering terrorism will depend to a great extent on geo-strategic considerations, it is imperative for other countries to carry out inquires into the exact nature of the terrorist attacks before handing the terrorists over. Although terrorism has emerged as an absolute and universal evil that cannot be reasoned with, it is necessary for governments to differentiate between the more moderate and the extreme faces of terrorism. According to Jonathan Stevenson, a Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "old terrorist groups have used terrorism selectively, as a means to getting a place at a negotiating table to achieve nationalistic, ethnic or ideological ends that are geographically circumscribed." Calling it the 'bin Laden effect', Stevenson believes that 9/11 has forced some of the 'old' terrorists like the LTTE and the ETA to refrain from violence, if only to distance themselves from the terrorism of the 'bin Laden' variety.

Before India or the rest of the world celebrates the entry of China into the global war on terrorism, China must be able to furnish more details about the terror activities in XUAR and provide credible information about the effects the counter-terrorism measures have had on the security of the Uygur people.

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