With China now in the U.S. crosshairs, the ETIM has moved from being an adversary to being a potential asset.
WASHINGTON — In the dying months of his administration, President Donald Trump removed from the United States terrorist list a little-known paramilitary organization called ETIM, an acronym that stands for either the East Turkestan Independence Movement or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, depending on whom one asks. The group is also sometimes known as the [East] Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP or ETIP).
Explaining the decision, the State Department said that “ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.” The move was hailed by a wide range of Uyghur groups in the United States, who saw it as a step towards blocking China’s actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province.
Yet the decision will have confused anyone with a long memory or who closely followed the War on Terror. Only two years previously, the U.S. was actively at war with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, with Trump himself ordering an escalation of a bombing campaign against them.
In 2018, Major General James Hecker, the commander of NATO Air Command-Afghanistan, gave a press conference in which he noted that not only was ETIM real but they were working hand in hand with the Taliban and boasted that his forces were destroying their training bases, thereby reducing their terrorist activities both in the Afghanistan/Pakistan/China border region and inside China itself.
Major General Hecker via Teleconference from Kabul, speaking about/showing their preferred approach to dealing with radicalized Chinese Uyghurs, on February 7th, 2018. https://t.co/0pIeMGviJ6 pic.twitter.com/lakT50OLp1
— Daniel Dumbrill (@DanielDumbrill) August 6, 2020
“Anybody that is an enemy of Afghanistan, we’re going to target them,” Brigadier General Lance Bunch told the The Washington Post, also announcing that “[w]e’ve got new authorities now that allow us to be able to . . . target the Taliban and the ETIM where they previously thought they were safe.”
Why then was the government suddenly insisting that ETIM/TIP did not exist? And who is this shadowy organization?
Who are the ETIM/TIP?
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a jihadist group led since 2003 by Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, a Xinjiang-born Uyghur. Its goal is to set up a Muslim-only ethnostate (East Turkestan) in Xinjiang. A dry and mountainous region at the western edge of China, Xinjiang is about the size of Alaska and is home to around 25 million people.
“This land is for Muslims alone,” Haq explains in an al-Qaeda PR film; “the mere presence of the disbelievers on this land should be a sufficient reason for Muslims to set out for jihad.” ETIM is still considered a terrorist organization by the United Nations, European Union, United Kingdom, and Russia, among others.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government also classifies it as such. When asked for comment, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told MintPress that “ETIM has long been engaging in terrorist and violent activities, causing heavy casualties and property losses, and posing serious threats to security and stability in China, the region and beyond.” Wenbin also criticized the U.S. “flip flop” on ETIM, something that, in his words, “once again exposes the current U.S. administration’s double standard on counter-terrorism and its repulsive practice of condoning terrorist groups as it sees fit.” MintPress also reached out to a range of Uyghur organizations for comment, but all declined to do so.
Some of the most high-profile of these attacks inside China, cited by Wenbin, were ETIM’s attempts to sabotage the 2008 Beijing Olympics by carrying out bomb attacks on host cities. Just before the games, ETIM released a video featuring a burning Olympic flag and warning all Muslims to stay away from the venues. There has also been a string of deadly attacks attributed to ETIM in which terrorists drive vehicles into crowds of pedestrians then proceed to carry out stabbing rampages.
In 2009, tensions between Uyghurs and ethnic Han Chinese spilled over into deadly riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, where nearly 200 people, mostly Han, were killed. As a result of the unrest, Beijing ordered a massive increase in surveillance and security across the region, flooding the province with cameras, armed police, and spies. To this day, it retains an extremely high-security presence.
Of course, the large majority of those killed by ETIM around the world have been non-Salafist Muslims, and considering ETIM to be representatives of the Uyghur population as a whole would be extremely misleading. In fact, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang have been caught in the crossfire between the ETIM and the Chinese government. To this day, the Afghan government also considers the group to be a serious threat to peace and security in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda, Taliban ties, Chinese target
ETIM units have trained and fought in what seems like virtually every single conflict involving Muslims over the past 20 years, but always with an eye to bringing their skills back home. A 2017 Associated Press exclusive titled “Uyghurs fighting in Syria take aim at China” found that at least 5,000 Xinjiang Uyghurs had traveled to Syria to train and fight alongside both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “We didn’t care how the fighting went or who Assad was,” one ETIM fighter told the AP; “We just wanted to learn how to use the weapons and then go back to China.” For many, Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of the Urumqi riots was the catalyst. “We’ll avenge our relatives being tortured in Chinese jail,” another fighter told the AP. A 2015 New York Times report also notes that one Chinese Muslim had been trained in Libya before going to Syria to fight against government forces.
The United Nations states that ETIM “has maintained close ties with the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.” Indeed, since 2005, ETIM leader Haq has been a member of al-Qaeda’s council of elders, a group of about two dozen individuals who control the organization’s direction. The UN notes that the ETIM’s major source of funding was Osama Bin Laden himself, who directly employed and paid Haq.
“The organization is clearly a part of al-Qaeda’s network — there is no real question about this fact. Al-Qaeda doesn’t hide its sponsorship of the TIP [ETIM]. And the TIP [ETIM] doesn’t hide its allegiance to al-Qaeda,” wrote Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, a hawkish think tank located in Washington. “But the Chinese Communist Party’s detestable policies in Xinjiang have led some democracy and human rights activists to downplay or dismiss the TIP’s overt jihadism,” he added.
In 2002, U.S. forces captured and detained 22 Uyghur militants at an ETIM camp in Afghanistan. They were sent to Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba and were accused of traveling from China to join the ETIM jihad, something many admitted to. However, all insisted that they were uninterested in harming the United States and instead saw China as their major enemy. Considering them no direct threat to itself, the United States began releasing them to third countries and by 2013 all had been freed.
The training camp was located in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan and run by Haq himself. U.S. intelligence actually concluded that many of the trainees acted as a “blocking force” for Bin Laden in 2001, when American forces came very close to capturing him. This allowed him to evade the U.S. for a further ten years. The U.S. carried out an assassination attempt on Haq in 2010, with media reporting that he had been killed by an unmanned drone. However, he was merely seriously injured and escaped with his life.
The State Department designated the ETIM as a terrorist group, adding them to its list in September 2002. At that point, the Bush administration had declared a war on terror, was battling the Taliban in Afghanistan and was about to invade Iraq. Furthermore, relations with China were good at the time and the Bush administration wished to secure Chinese co-operation or at least dampen Chinese resistance to its campaigns.
“Designating ETIM/TIP as a terrorist organization does seem appropriate,” Daniel Dumbrill — a Canadian YouTuber currently in Xinjiang, and an outspoken critic of U.S. policy towards China — told MintPress, adding:
I don’t believe they suddenly and abruptly cease to exist and I don’t believe the U.S. government believes this either. Even if they did, the Tamil Tigers have been inactive for over 10 years since their defeat, but they remain on the U.S. government list of terrorist organizations. Therefore, it doesn’t seem like clearing off inactive terror groups has ever been a matter of priority. There is of course, I believe, an ulterior motive to [their removal from the terrorist list].”
A fight for global supremacy
Today, however, relations with China have definitely soured. The country’s rapid economic rise has alarmed and preoccupied many planners in the West, who now see China as America’s “unparalleled priority” for the 21st century. President Trump placed sanctions on the country and attempted to block the growth of Chinese tech companies like Huawei, TikTok, and Xiaomi. Along with the trade war has come a war of words, with top brass in Washington suggesting that the new Cold War with Beijing will be less about tanks and missiles and more “kicking each other under the table.” Others have advised that the U.S. should wage a widespread culture war, including commissioning what they call “Taiwanese Tom Clancy novels” meant to demonize and demoralize China.
The prospect of a hot war cannot be overlooked, however. And U.S. actions are making the threat all the more likely. In 2013, the Obama administration announced a “Pivot to Asia,” meaning a draw-down from the Middle East and an escalation of tensions in the Pacific. Today, over 400 American military bases encircle China. American ships and aircraft continue to probe the Chinese coastline, testing their defenses. In July, U.S.S. Rafael Peralta sailed within 41 nautical miles of the coastal megacity of Shanghai. Earlier this year, the head of Strategic Command stated that there was a “very real possibility” of war against Beijing in the near future.
It is in this context that the United States has begun to denounce China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. Xinjiang has been under serious security measures for more than a decade, and the internment of Uyghurs has been going on since at least 2014. Yet the U.S. was largely silent about their treatment until recently. Today, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) accuses China of imprisoning between one and three million Uyghur Muslims, describing it as a genocide. The NED has given nearly $9 million to Uyghur groups and has condemned what it sees as a “deafening silence in the Muslim world” about their plight.
Amnesty International has largely agreed, labeling what China calls re-education facilities, meant to deradicalize the population, as “detention camps for torture and brainwashing of anyone suspected of disloyalty.” Uyghurs have alleged that they have been forcibly sterilized, that their places of worship have been demolished, and that they were made to eat pork and separated from their families while interned.
Others have rejected this interpretation. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, head of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, recently wrote:
There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uyghurs, but those do not per se constitute genocide. And we must understand the context of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which had essentially the same motivation as America’s foray into the Middle East and Central Asia after the September 2001 attacks: to stop the terrorism of militant Islamic groups.”
Dumbrill seemed to agree, noting that many Uyghurs in Xinjiang see the extremist jihadists as their primary worry, not government forces, of whom some Uyghurs speak fondly. “The police presence aside, people lead fairly ordinary lives here with the same kinds of hopes and dreams that people anywhere else would have as well,” he told MintPress, criticizing the foreign coverage.
Wenbin was, unsurprisingly, even more dismissive of the charges. “Western politicians and media are frantically spreading lies on Xinjiang,” he said, adding that “the allegation of ‘genocide’ is more than preposterous.”
The politics of terror
At the same time as it was delisting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for apparently not existing, the Trump administration added Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terror. Without a hint of irony, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to the island’s “malign interference in Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere” as the reason for the designation. A report released last month by the Department of Health and Human Services outlined what such malign influence was: offering doctors and other medical teams to other needy countries during a global pandemic.
Yet the politics of the terror list has always been highly suspect. In an attempt to dampen worldwide support for his cause and shore up the Apartheid government, the Reagan administration placed South African leader Nelson Mandela on the terrorist list in 1988. Mandela was not pulled off it until 2008 — 14 years after he became president.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration also recently removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, in what was an openly transactional event. Sudan agreed to normalize relations with Israel and give the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars. As usual, Trump was unable not to say the quiet part out loud: “GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan,” he tweeted.
Ultimately, the drastic change in U.S. policy on the ETIM has nothing to do with the movement itself — which remains the same jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban — but rather to a changing American stance towards China. For years, the U.S. ignored human rights issues in Xinjiang, as China was seen as a useful workshop for American capitalism. But the PRC’s rapid rise has frightened many in Washington; hence the sudden fascination with the plight of the Uyghurs. The designation of the ETIM as a terrorist group was likely seen as getting in the way of longstanding U.S. attempts to provoke unrest in China. With China now in the crosshairs, the group has moved from being an adversary to being a potential asset. It appears that the government decided that insisting they no longer exist was an easier sell than pretending they are no longer a terrorist group.
While the change in status might seem inconsequential, it could be a harbinger of a dangerous future. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement was placed on the list because of the War on Terror. Now it has been taken off because of the coming war on China.
Feature photo | Graphic by Antonio Cabrera
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.