Mummies and Mullahs: Islamic Separatism in China’s ‘New Frontier’

Andrew McGregor

Canadian Institute for International Affairs, Summer 1999

Confronted by separatist movements on several frontiers, the Chinese government watched with alarm NATO’s unsanctioned intervention in Yugoslavia. They needn’t have worried. There is little expectation of foreign support in Xinjiang, but the deeply divided Uyghur nationalists are determined to continue their struggle for autonomy.

The NATO air assault on Yugoslavia in support of the minority Kosovars has distressed the Chinese government which is trying to deal quietly with several minority movements of its own. Somewhere between the high-profile Tibetan independence movement and the virtually unknown separatists of Inner Mongolia is the Uyghur independence movement. The non-Chinese Turkic Uyghur people want independence for their traditional homeland of Xinjiang (or “Eastern Turkestan”), a mineral and petroleum-rich province in the northwest that covers one-sixth of China’s territory. Ever since Turkic Muslims displaced central Asia’s Indo-Buddhist civilization in the 11th and 12th centuries AD, Xinjiang has remained culturally Islamic.

Xinjiang

Lying at the heart of central Asia, Xinjiang acts as a bridge for the extension of Chinese trade and economic influence, while it also serves as a security buffer between the Chinese and their Turkic and Persian Muslim neighbors. Some of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges surround the northern Zungharia region of northern Xinjiang, while the southern Tarim Basin contains the forbidding Taklamakan desert. Most Uyghur settlement is in the oases on the fringe of the desert, but there are also two small but economically depressed areas, the Ili Valley and the Turfan depression. The harsh terrain means that many regions exist in relative isolation and often possess different histories.

The modern use of “Uyghur” to designate the main group of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang began only in 1924, when Soviet ethnologists used it to describe Turkic Muslim residents of the Soviet Union whose roots were in China. The term came into wide use after 1949, but many nationalists now prefer the old name of “Eastern Turkestan.” Whatever the designation, it should not be used to disguise the very real differences among the oases of the Tarim Basin or to imply a cultural and social unity that does not exist. Poor communications among Xinjiang’s population centers has meant that most oases historically look beyond the province for trade and cultural interaction. After the communist takeover in 1949, however, the city of Urumqi became a transportation hub for the rail exports of goods to eastern China. The province was also opened up to settlement by the majority Han Chinese.

Urumqi

Since 1949, Xinjiang has suffered almost continuously from ethnic division and a low-level insurrection that seems to be waiting for an opportune moment to blow wide open. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been vigilant in suppressing religious and political dissent, but the almost endless rounds of protests, mass arrests and executions have served only to keep the political pressure at boiling point. Since the early 1990s numerous small opposition groups have adopted violence in pursuit of independence. Assassinations, bombings and train derailments now accompany the more common street riots, demonstrations and attacks on ethnic Han Chinese.

In 1999, violence has become increasingly frequent, particularly in the separatist stronghold of the Ili Valley. In February, two leading Muslim separatists were executed in Yining City, while 1,000 crack troops were rushed in to dissuade retaliation. Because foreign correspondents and human rights organizations are generally barred from Xinjiang, the potentially explosive situation has an unusually low profile internationally. The absence of a high-profile spokesman (such as Tibet’s Dalai Lama) or a government in exile does not help, nor does the presence of a divided Uyghur opposition often consumed by personal feuds or such petty differences as what to call an independent Xinjiang. Some promote a “Greater Uyghurstan,” incorporating Xinjiang with parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Such dreams are not only unrealistic, they tend to ensure an unreceptive attitude among the central Asian states. The Islamic and pan-Turkic nature of the Uyghur separatist movement makes it generally unappealing to the Western social activists who have turned Tibet and even East Timor into international causes.

From Silk Road to Cultural Revolution

Xinjiang’s early history is revealed in the ruined cities of the famous Silk Road that ran through it, the great trading route that connected the Far East to the Middle East and beyond to Europe. There is ample evidence of Manichean, Buddhist and Nestorian Christian beliefs before the arrival of Islam. The province became part of the Chinese empire when Emperor Chen Lung defeated the ruling Zungarian Mongols in 1759. An independent Muslim khanate followed several minor revolts, and real Chinese authority came only with an invasion by the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1876. Resistance to Chinese rule continued under the republican government, with a short-lived Turkish-Islamic Republic of East Turkestan established around Kashgar. Massacres of Chinese, Hindus and Christian missionaries followed, until the nation was destroyed by the Soviet Union in 1934 at China’s invitation. During the republican period, ethnic-Chinese Muslims (Hui) enjoyed great power in Xinjiang as soldiers and administrators. Rebellions began to take on an anti-Hui character, especially after the republican leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, argued that all minorities were branches of the Han family.

Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims took advantage of the turmoil of the Second World War to found the East Turkestan Republic (ETR), which lasted from 1944 to 1949. Having grown out of the Uyghur and Kazakh “Ili Rebellion,” the ETR government was multi-ethnic. At the time, Mao Zedong was promoting autonomous rule for Chinese minorities to win support for the CCP. After most of the ETR leadership died in a mysterious plane crash en route to negotiations with the CCP in Beijing, Xinjiang was reoccupied and brought under communist control as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. [1] Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was a devastating period for the Turkic population as mosques were closed, books were burned, hard labor camps created and religious leaders arrested. More than 100,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs escaped to the Soviet Union; others fled to Turkey, Germany, Taiwan, India, Afghanistan and Australia. A more lenient religious and cultural policy in the 1980s only encouraged the growth of nationalism.

The Mummies of the Tarim Basin

As in other ancient but disputed territories, archaeology has found itself at the center of territorial claims. In 1979, Chinese archaeologists began uncovering large numbers of well-preserved Caucasian “mummies” in Xinjiang Province, all of which appear to have belonged to an advanced Indo-European culture. A number of Uyghur nationalists, led by Turghan Almas, an officially banned historian, identify the mummies with the ancient culture of the Tarim Basin, as preserved in Uyghur folklore. The carbon-dated remains have been used to substantiate Uyghur nationalist claims that, not only were their ancestors the ancient inhabitants of Xinjiang, but their civilization was substantially older than that of the Han Chinese. The ancient Uyghur culture, language and script have always held the highest reverence in the Turkic nations across Asia as the earliest manifestations of Turkic civilization.

China’s Other Muslims

China has at least 20 million Muslims organized into at least ten ethnic groups. [2] Of these, only the Uyghur and the Hui are significant in terms of numbers. (The Chinese always distinguish between the Hui or “common Muslims” and the Turkic or “turbaned Muslims”). The approximately 9 million Hui – Han Chinese converts to Islam – are found throughout China, but particularly in Gansu and Ningxia provinces. Historically, many Hui in Xinjiang have been soldiers, administrators and even warlords, but they command little respect from the Uyghurs. Though the Hui and the Uyghurs are unlikely to make common cause, the Hui have also proven turbulent subjects at times; serious disturbances erupted in 1992-93 in Ningxia province when local government officials attempted to interfere with the Khufiya Sufi order.

The vast majority of Muslims in China are orthodox Sunnis (the mainstream of Islamic thought). Because Sunni Sufi orders pursue a mystical path of worship, they are seen as potential breeding-grounds for Islamic extremism. They flourish nonetheless in Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, as well as in Xinjiang. Similar orders helped keep Islam alive during the communist occupation of the Muslim states of the Caucasus and central Asia.

Hui Muslim Girls

The Islamic Opposition

CCP efforts to restrain Islamic practice by closing mosques and Islamic schools create an opening for more extreme forms of Islam to penetrate the rather moderate Sunni-style Islam of the Uyghurs. Chinese attempts to control Muslim clerics are unpopular; in March 1996 a pro-government religious leader was assassinated in Xinjiang.

The Uyghur nationalist opposition is deeply divided. At least 20 distinct groups (mostly exiles from the Uyghur diaspora [3]) range from “letterhead” organizations to guerrilla groups running terrorist/low-level insurgency operations. The most prominent and credible of the exiled leaders is Erkin Alptekin, son of the former secretary-general of the ETR. He is the current chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), formed in 1989. [4] His father, the late Isa Yusuf Alptekin, joined with Tibet’s Dalai Lama in 1985 to found the Allied Committee of the Peoples of East Turkestan Tibet and Inner Mongolia, a group which organizes demonstrations and conferences to publicize alleged Chinese human rights violations. The movement, which favors dialogue over violence, is frustrated by Chinese refusals to talk with any “splittist” organization.

Attempts to build a cohesive nationalist consensus among Xinjiang Uyghurs have also been frustrated by what Justin Rudelson, a central Asian scholar, has called “oasis chauvinism.” Uyghur identity tends to be closely tied to the oasis of origin, be it Kashgar, Yarkand, Karghalik or Turpan. Each nationalist “attempts to create a nationalist ideology which places his own oasis at the forefront of Uyghur history in order to facilitate the acceptance of a national identity at the oasis level.” [5]

New States, New Policies

The collapse of the Soviet Union introduced five new central Asian states to the world community – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. All were Turkic-Muslim in character, save Tajikistan, where the majority language and culture has Persian roots. Though the Uyghurs are the last significant Muslim group under communist rule, they have received little encouragement from their central Asian cousins. Aside from Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, the current central Asian leaders are all former members of the Soviet communist elite and are unlikely to support any activity that could threaten their positions. Pan-Turkic nationalism and Islamic sentiment played no role in the independence of these states, which were virtually cast off by a re-organizing Russia. Continued Russian influence, particularly in security matters, is another factor in discouraging activities which might threaten Russian-Chinese relations in what both nations would concede is a historically sensitive area. The damage to Islamic life and tradition over 70 years of communist rule in the ex-Soviet central Asian states makes a home-grown Islamic movement of any strength in the area (other than Tajikistan) unlikely in the near future.

Uzbekistan, the largest central Asian state, is the most fervently anti-Islamist. According to President Islam Karimov: “Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself.” [6] In 1996, China used its economic power to pressure Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan into signing the Shanghai Accords, essentially an agreement to repress Uyghur separatists and other Islamic movements in any of the signatory countries. Karimov claims that recent bombings in which 16 people were killed in Tashkent were the work of Uzbek Islamists trained in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan has long-standing border ties with Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang and with Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan. In 1990, the Chinese subdued what they described as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” led by Kyrgyz preparing for a jihad against Han Chinese, [7] and in 1998 a number of Uyghurs were arrested in Kyrgyzstan for “Wahhabist” activities. Because Kyrgyzstan is worried about the state of its relations with China, Uyghur exiles have been warned not to use it as a base for separatist activities. Like the other new states of central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is concerned about maintaining relations with China now that it can no longer count on Moscow’s might in support of decisions affecting cross-border ethnic ties.

With a population of 300,000 Uyghurs, Kazakhstan is most sensitive to potential difficulties with Beijing. Many of the urban “Russified” Kazakhs look to their Uyghur relatives in Xinjiang for authentic Turkic culture. After Kazakhstan signed a border agreement with China in 1994, the offices of several Uyghur nationalist groups in the capital of Almaty were closed. In 1998, Kazakhstan extradited two Uyghur mullah-s (Islamic teachers) and their families who had fled from Xinjiang. Chinese-Kazakh trade totals more than that of Turkey with all of central Asia, and the Kazakhs are currently engaged in joint ventures with the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) to develop Kazakhstan’s extensive energy reserves. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan has been a source of concern to China since it hosted military manoeuvres involving American troops as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Because the Kazakh government also fears Islamist movements, it formed an alliance with Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan against “Wahhabist extremism.”

Although China would find it difficult to project its military power westwards into central Asia to suppress any cross-border support for a Uyghur insurrection, it may count for the moment on central Asia’s leaders to do the work for it.

Islamic Extremism?

The post-communist governments of central Asia are alarmed by any sign of “Wahhabist” activities, a reference to Islamist activists who take their inspiration from Wahhabism, a highly conservative religious revival movement founded in Arabia in the mid-18th century by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The puritan movement became closely tied to the al-Sa’ud family, who eventually conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabists (who prefer to be called Muwahhidun or Unitarians) reject any Islamic trend that interfered with the direct contemplation and worship of God. Wahhabist control of the holy cities of Saudi Arabia allows the movement to spread its influence amongst Islamic pilgrims, including those from Xinjian and central Asia. The use of jihad to establish an Islamic state is central to Wahhabist doctrine. The degree of Wahhabist influence in central Asia is difficult to gauge, as the term is often used by various governments to describe any militant Islamist group so as to justify extreme measures against them. China rarely uses the term in official declarations, probably in deference to Saudi Arabia, with whom China needs to maintain good relations because of its energy needs.

Terrorism, often described as the weapon of the powerless, has erupted in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China – allegedly the work of Uyghur nationalists. In 1997, there were bus bombings in Urumqi and Beijing. The latter was especially embarrassing to the Chinese government because it coincided with the funeral of Deng Xiaoping. The Organization for Turkestan Freedom, which has its headquarters in Istanbul, claimed responsibility for the bombings, which came only a day after punishments for terrorism were increased and new charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “taking advantage of religious problems to instigate the splitting of the state” were added to the criminal code.

Many Uyghurs were arrested and executed, but a statement from the UNPO questioned Uyghur participation: “We now believe that the Chinese authorities or some elements within the government may have set off the devices… to discredit the Turkic peoples of East Turkestan, and to create a pretext for even more severe repression in our region.” [8] The accusation is unlikely; the bombings brought world media attention to Xinjiang’s problems, and what the CCP fears more than anything is internationalizing the issue.

Language and Demographic Issues

At the core of Beijing’s attempts to pacify Xinjiang is a campaign to create a major demographic change in the ethnic proportions of the province’s population. When the CCP took control of Eastern Turkestan in 1949, Han Chinese [9] made up only five per cent of the population. With 300,000 arriving every year, the Han Chinese are now as numerous as the Uyghur, and there are plans to being many more settlers. A more liberal reproductive policy which allows two children per couple rather than one as in the rest of China encourages Han resettlement in Xinjiang. There are also plans to accommodate many of the up to two million people who will be displaced if the Three Gorges dam project proceeds.

Language is a major barrier between Muslims and Han Chinese, who live highly segregated lives in Xinjiang. While some Uyghurs may learn Chinese to facilitate trade, it is almost unheard of for Chinese to learn Uyghur or any other Turkic language. Most education in the province is in Chinese. The few Uyghurs who attain higher education can expect little in the way of employment opportunities; most of the preferred jobs are reserved for ethnic Chinese. Those works on Uyghur history and culture that are written in Chinese are all dedicated to proving the historical unity of the Uyghur and Chinese races. CCP intervention in Uyghur language issues has proved disastrous. The traditional Arabo/Persian script used for Uyghur was for twenty years replaced by the Pinyin Latin script before a reversal of CCP policy rendered a generation of Uyghurs illiterate in their own language.

Administrative Mechanisms

In the 1950s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began an experiment with a “Production and Construction Corps,” a paramilitary force responsible for border defence and internal security, along with normal duties in agriculture and construction. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) is the only one still active. Run independently of the regional government, the XPCC has considerable autonomy and legal jurisdiction through its own police, courts and prisons and is a constant irritation to the Uyghurs. It diverts most of the available water for its irrigation schemes and pollutes the remainder with industrial waste. Land annexation is common and Uyghur farmers are often forced into agricultural “regiments” of the XPCC. As part of its internal security responsibilities, the XPCC rather than the PLA increasingly responds to riots and other disturbances. XPCC units were a major part of the 1996 “strike hard” campaign against “ethnic splittists” (the CCP term for minority separatists), carrying out mass arrests after meeting armed Uyghur resistance.

Communist Demolition of Mosques in Xinjiang (VOA)

China maintains an extensive network of prison camps in Xinjiang which receive thousands of criminals each year from all over China. After completing their sentences, the convicts are forbidden to leave the province, but are welcome to send for their families. Many Uyghurs blame rising crime rates on the presence of the hard-labor camps. In 1996, a leading Chinese dissident, Harry Wu, and Erkin Alptekin testified before a US senate subcommittee that the XPCC was using World Bank funds to build penal colonies.

Nuclear Testing and Petroleum Extraction

Another volatile issue is the ongoing programme of nuclear testing in the Taklamakan Desert. Protests against testing began in Xinjiang in 1985, and Uyghur émigré associations claim over 200,000 people have died from nuclear fallout. Illnesses and birth defects like those experienced by the victims of Soviet nuclear tests in neighboring Kazakhstan have been reported. While the Kazakhs are now receiving direct UN aid, the Uyghurs are still awaiting an investigation.

Chinese Oil Operations in the Tarim Basin (Upstream Online)

China’s determination to open up the oil resources of Xinjiang comes at a time when the nation has become a net importer of oil, but the reserves in the Tarim Basin are extremely difficult to tap. Though the experience of Western-based oil consortiums is essential, poor concessions and exorbitant fees have discouraged several companies. Worst of all is the lack of discoveries to support China’s estimates of 80 to 180 billion barrels of oil in the Tarim Basin. As estimates fall sharply, the attention of world oil companies has moved on.

International Implications

With its sovereignty challenged in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan, China is clearly alarmed by NATO’s unsanctioned military support of an internal rebellion in a sovereign nation, Yugoslavia. American strategic and economic interest in Kosovo is negligible; Taiwan, however, is another matter, and China fears a resumption of the pre-détente US/Taiwan military relationship. Chinese premier Zhu Rongji has even warned of the possibility of world war if the principle of non-intervention is not carefully observed in international law and conflict. [10]

The problem of Tibetan independence was raised repeatedly during Zhu’s visit to Canada in April 1999, but the lower profile problem of Uyghur separatism was not. Despite the continuing violence in Xinjiang, and to a lesser extent in Tibet, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported Zhu’s assertion that China’s minority difficulties were an internal affair: “There are no murders. We don’t have the rapes that we’re seeing right now in Kosovo. Those are two completely different positions. One is political, the other one is extremely violent.” [11]

With Chinese-American relations already strained over several issues, there is little political interest in Washington in inflaming relations by supporting Islamic minority rights in China. Closer to home, China maintains close ties with Pakistan and Iran, largely designed to counter the spread of radical Islamic movements from those countries. Pakistan has often been cited by the Chinese as the source of weapons for Xinjiang’s most militant nationalists, and they did not hesitate to ask Pakistan to crack down on a Muslim group suspected of smuggling arms to the Uyghurs. The Arab nations of the Middle East also want to maintain good relations with China, a major regional arms supplier.

Conclusion

With no expectation of substantial assistance or recognition from foreign sources, the Uyghur separatists have limited options; an extended terrorism campaign (which may get some international press but is unlikely to gain international support), a negotiated settlement (unlikely, as China refuses to talk to “splittists”), or an all-out revolt, as in Chechnya. Unlike the Chechens, the Uyghurs have little military experience to draw upon, while the PLA would have almost unlimited resources and manpower at its disposal from a strongly centralized state facing no major opposition.

China would be most reluctant to relinquish control of Xinjiang, which it needs for its energy resources, as a base for China’s still active nuclear weapons programme, as a security buffer to central Asia, and as a destination for China’s ongoing population resettlement. Most importantly, Xinjiang’s separatist movement does not exist in a political vacuum. Any sign of weakness on Beijing’s part could be interpreted as a sign for Tibet and Inner Mongolia to set up their own independence campaigns and cause serious problems for China’s effort to reunite Taiwan into the mainland fold. As in many post-communist states in Europe and Asia, nationalism and economic reforms have been used to keep multiethnic states together. The Uyghurs themselves have suggested that Beijing has deliberately exaggerated the militancy of the Uyghur nationalist movement in order to create an “internal enemy” around which the CCP can build strong nationalist sentiments amongst the Han Chinese at a time when economic and external pressures threaten the solidarity of the Chinese union. An emphasis on the threat of Islamic “fundamentalism” also serves to keep most Western governments at bay.

Some Uyghurs believe that only the collapse of the People’s Republic would create an opportunity for East Turkestan to secede, but others have become desperate in their belief that every new trainload of settlers makes independence a little more remote. Knowing that time is against them, it is clear that any serious drive for independence must be made sooner rather than later. Addressing their lack of international support, Ahmedjan Qari, a leading Uyghur nationalist exile, has warned that “The world doesn’t think we will die like in Afghanistan, like in Yugoslavia. We can. We will die in droves.” [12]

Endnotes

  1. There are five “autonomous regions” in China – Tibet, Mongolia, Ningxia, Guangxi and Xinjiang – which in practise often enjoy less autonomy than their non-autonomous neighbors.
  2. There are five Turkic Muslim groups in Xinjiang: Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tatars. There are also the Persian-speaking Tajiks and, in the region bordering Gansu and Qinghai provinces, the Salars (who speak a Uyghur dialect) and the Bao’an and Dongxiang, who both speak an archaic Mongolian language. The Hui, ethnic Chinese with a long Muslim tradition, are the tenth group. The language used by the Hui is Chinese, peppered with Arabic and Persian loan-words.
  3. There are Uyghur communities and exile organizations in Istanbul, Ankara, Almaty, Amsterdam, Munich, Melbourne and Washington DC.
  4. “Participation in UNPO is open to all nations and peoples who are inadequately represented as such at the United Nations.” At present, 52 “nations or peoples” have declared adherence to UNPO’s five principles.
  5. Justin Jon Rudelson: “The Xinjiang mummies and foreign angels: Art, archaeology and Uyghur Muslim nationalism in Chinese Central Asia,” in M. Gervers and W. Schlepp (eds.), Cultural Contact, History and Ethnicity in Inner Asia, Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Toronto, 1996, p. 173.
  6. See: “Republic of Uzbekistan: Crackdown in the Farghana Valley: Arbitrary arrests and religious discrimination,” Human Rights Watch 10(4D), May 1998.
  7. Lillian Craig Harris: “Xinjiang, central Asia, and the implications for China’s policy in the Islamic world,” China Quarterly no. 133, March 1993, pp. 117-18. Jihad is a complex concept that involves a militancy on behalf of Islam that can take many forms based on interpretations of the Koran and the hadith-s (sayings of the Prophet). In general, the “greater jihad” is the struggle against the evil within oneself, while the “lesser jihad” is the effort to bring Dar al-Harb (areas outside of Islam) within Dar al-Islam (the “House of Islam”).
  8. UNPO, “Bombings will be used as pretext for severe repression in East Turkestan,” May 27, 1999.
  9. While there are no less than 70 million belonging to ethnic minorities in China, the Han Chinese still comprise about 94% of the population. “Han” is a cultural rather than a racial designation in that its use disguises the significant linguistic and physical differences that exist across China. The CCP has encouraged the use of the term to foster national unity.
  10. Miro Cernetig: “Chinese leader warns of global war,” Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 3, 1999.
  11. Heather Scoffield: “PM and China’s Zhu take heat on rights,” Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 17, 1999.
  12. Quoted in Tony Walker and Charles Clover: “Bombs rock China’s far west: Islamic militants put Uighur nationalism on the map with terrorist blasts,” Financial Times, London, February 27, 1999.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Behind the Headlines: Canada’s International Affairs Magazine, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto.

Uyghur Militants Respond to New Chinese List of “Terrorists”

Andrew McGregor

May 4, 2012

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a response in late April to the latest list of Uyghur “terrorists” prepared by China’s Ministry of Public Security. The TIP communiqué was entitled “A Statement Regarding the Declaration of a ‘Terrorists’ List for the Third Time by the Chinese Government” (Islam Awazi, April 23).

Seal of the Turkistan Islamic Party

The Chinese list of six suspects, complete with descriptions, aliases and photos, is consistent with previous Chinese statements that describe Uyghur militants as members of the now defunct Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) rather than members of the TIP. [1] Leading the list of suspects is Nurmemet Memetmin, who is described as the “commander of the ETIM.” [2] According to the Chinese list, Memetmin was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in a “South Asian country,” (i.e. Pakistan, which is always described this way in statements with possible implications for Chinese-Pakistani relations), but had escaped in 2006 to take up the planning of new attacks against China, including the July 30-31, 2011 attacks on civilians in Kashgar allegedly led by the late Memtieli Tiliwaldi (see Terrorism Monitor, April 26).

The TIP used the statement to reject their categorization as “terrorists” by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security:

No doubt those who were accused of terrorism by the oppressive Chinese government are the martyrs who died in the torture chambers defending their religion, honor, and all their rights deprived by the aggressive Chinese…

Let everyone know that the jihad in Turkistan is not a terrorist act but rather it is an aqida [belief] and religious obligation and responsibility that is laid on our shoulders because of the aggressions of the Chinese against us… It is a legitimate right for the Muslims of Eastern Turkistan and it is prohibited for any person to describe it by another name.

The Uyghur Islamists see in the latest list an effort to create divisions within the Islamic community in Xinjiang:

The purpose of the Chinese government in [making] these lists is to cut the link between the mujahideen and the Muslims morally and materially, and safeguard its rule in Eastern Turkistan, but how could they do that, since our proud Muslim Turkistani people, who have intelligence and foresight, knows the cunning of communist China and the extent of its crimes?

The TIP concluded their statement with a call to the international Muslim community to “answer the call to jihad and join the ranks of the mujahideen” in the struggle against the “atheist communist government of China.”

China’s Ministry of Public Security also announced that the suspects’ funds and assets would be frozen, though this was likely to be little more than a formality given the unlikelihood any of the six have funds or investments of any significance in Chinese financial institutions. 

Given the arms used in many of the attacks recently attributed by China to the ETIM (knives, agricultural implements, etc.) and the apparent lack of planning or coordination in these attacks, the remark of a Ministry of Public Security spokesman that the ETIM was “the most direct and real safety threat that China faces” can only be interpreted as an indication that Beijing believes there are no other significant threats to China’s security (Xinhua, April 6).  Nonetheless, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Hong Lei, did not refrain from suggesting the Uyghur militants posed a major international threat: “The evidence is incontrovertible that this organization’s violent terror activities seriously threaten not only China’s national security, but also the peace and tranquility of the region and the world” (Reuters, April 6).

Meanwhile two Uyghur prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp have been freed after ten years imprisonment without charges and four years after a U.S. court ordered their release. China has demanded their extradition though the United States, which has determined Uyghur prisoners will suffer persecution at Chinese hands, has banned the prisoners’ entry to U.S. soil. The Uyghurs will thus be settled in a willing third party nation, in this case El Salvador, following earlier resettlement of released Uyghur prisoners in small nations such as Switzerland, Bermuda, Albania and Palau (Reuters, April 20).

Notes

1. For the list, see: The Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China, April 6, 2012,  http://www.mps.gov.cn/n16/n1237/n1342/n803715/3197850.html. For an earlier list, see Terrorism Focus Brief, October 20, 2008.

2. Other transliterations of the name from the Chinese version of the Uyghur name include Memtimin Memet,Memetiming Memeti and Nurmamat Maimaitimin.

This article first appeared in the May 4, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Will Xinjiang’s Turkistani Islamic Party Survive the Drone Missile Death of its Leader?

Andrew McGregor

March 11, 2010

Though it appears to have occurred on February 15, the death of the leader of al-Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani (Turkistani Islamic Party – TIP) was reported only in recent days (Geo TV, March 1; Dawn [Karachi], March 1; The News [Islamabad], March 2). Abdul Haq al-Turkistani was one of three militants killed by a missile launched from a CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Abdul HaqLate TIP Leader Abdul Haq al-Turkistani

The men were reported to have been in a vehicle near the village of Tappi in the North Waziristan district of Miramshah. While the strike took place on February 15, Pakistani security officials did not release the news until March 1. The death of the leader of the radical Uyghur group was confirmed by a Taliban spokesman (Dawn [Karachi], March 1). Eastern Turkistan was occupied by troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949 and the subsequent mass migration of non-Muslim Han Chinese to the renamed province of Xinjiang (New Territory) has rendered the native Turkic Muslim Uyghurs a minority in the region.

Despite the amount of international attention the TIP garnered through threats to the 2009 Beijing Olympics, the group’s relative inactivity and proclivity for claiming responsibility for incidents they clearly had nothing to do with raises questions about the very existence of the TIP as an active jihadi front.

Is the TIP the same as ETIM?

Many commentators seem happy to repeat Beijing’s assertion that the TIP is a new manifestation of the earlier East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), but no evidence has been provided to prove a direct link between the two groups. The ETIM never issued a statement regarding a change of name or organizational restructuring. Indeed, the ETIM seems to have faded out with a whimper rather than a bang after the death of its leader, Hasan Mahsum (a.k.a. Hasan Makhdum; a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani) at the hands of Pakistani security forces in 2003. [1] The uncertain origins of the ETIM’s so-called successor group, the TIP, have led to speculation that the TIP may be a splinter group of the ETIM or even a false-flag operation designed to establish ties between Uyghur separatists and al-Qaeda. TIP literature tries to establish a pedigree for the organization by substituting the TIP moniker for the ETIM name in descriptions of Hassan Mahsum’s earlier organization in Afghanistan (see the TIP eulogy of Hasan Mahsum, Shumukh al-Islam Network Forum, April 1, 2009). The traditional Muslim name of the Uyghur homeland is “East Turkistan,” not simply “Turkistan,” which refers to a much larger physical area of Central Asia. Xinjiang (New Territory) is a Chinese name and is never used by Uyghur opposition groups.

Although the TIP was unknown before it began issuing threats of biological, chemical and conventional attacks on the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Abdul Haq claimed the movement began as part of the military wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) under the late Uzbek jihadi commander, Juma Namangani (killed in a U.S. aerial bombardment in November 2001). Uyghurs were present at IMU training camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11.
Under the name Memtimin Memet (or Memetiming Memeti), Abdul Haq was identified in 2008 by China’s Ministry of Public Security as the successor of Hasan Mahsum and next leader of the ETIM (Xinhua, October 21). The statement, which named eight wanted Uyghur militants in connection with plots against the Olympics, made no mention of the TIP. The Ministry maintained that all of the Uyghur plots had been foiled by Chinese security forces. Though a series of bombings and attacks occurred in Xinjiang in August 2009, none were related to the Olympics (except through timing) and no claim of responsibility was issued by the TIP or ETIM. It is possible that the attacks were inspired by TIP videos, but this link has never been confirmed.

Tying Uyghur Militants to al-Qaeda

ETIM leader Hassan Mahsum always denied any connection between the ETIM and al-Qaeda, though there is no question a small group of Uyghur militants fought alongside their Taliban hosts against the Northern Alliance. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, the ETIM was a “terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda,” but the scores of terrorists Beijing claimed that Bin Laden was sending to China in 2002 never materialized (China-Embassy.org, December 9, 2002). Likewise, the training and financial assistance that the U.S. State Department maintains al-Qaeda provided to the ETIM seems to have had little impact on ETIM’s inability to mount operations of any significance in China. The TIP’s “strategy” of making loud and alarming threats (attacks on the Olympics, use of biological and chemical weapons, etc.) without any operational follow-up has been enormously effective in promoting China’s efforts to characterize Uyghur separatists as “terrorists” with almost no material loss to China.

A videotaped biography of Hassan Makhdum carried by jihadi websites in 2009 claimed that “the leaders of the Turkistan Islamic Party nominated a new military leader, brother Abdul Haq, by consensus” to replace Hassan Makhdum after his death in 2003 (Shumukh al-Islam Network Forum, April 1, 2009). Despite his alleged role as leader of the al-Qaeda and Taliban-associated ETIM (or TIP) since 2003, Abdul Haq did not find his way onto the U.N. and U.S. Treasury Departments’ lists of terrorists “associated with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda or the Taliban” until April 2009. [2] Where was Abdul Haq between 2001 and 2008? He is known to have been an instructor at IMU training camps in Afghanistan before 9/11, but disappears from the record until his sudden reemergence as leader of the TIP in 2008.

An ambitious and no doubt expensive media campaign including internet magazines and video productions has little counterpart in actual TIP operations. Through articles in its internet journal, TIP appears to claim the mantle of Hasan Mahsum’s ETIM. Many of these articles appear to be an attempt to create an organizational connection between the TIP and the earlier ETIM, going so far as to retroactively rename the ETIM.  Despite this, there is a chronological gap between the apparent demise of the ETIM, with the death of its leader in 2003, and the sudden emergence of the TIP in 2008. A few very minor militant actions in this period were attributed to the ETIM, though by this time Chinese authorities were using “ETIM” as an all-purpose descriptor for those responsible for any militant activity. There are scores of different Uyghur nationalist groups, which run the gamut from peaceful secularists to militant Islamist jihadis.

Promoting a Lost Cause in Xinjiang?

A video released in August, 2009 by the TIP’s own “Voice of Islam” media center and al-Fajr media center featured Abdul Haq and a number of TIP leaders discussing their jihad against “Chinese colonialism.” The video has an Arabic translation of the original Uyghur language remarks by the TIP leaders. A look at some of the leaders’ rhetoric shows a movement at odds with its time; its anti-communism decades too late to interest the West; its stated affinity to global jihad winning it no friends while doing nothing to actually further the cause of global jihad; their armed nationalism out of touch with young Uyghurs educated in Chinese and ready to seek economic opportunity at the expense of nationalist pride; and threats of terrorism not even winning them the head-pats given to Tibetan nationalists in an age of global economic integration in which China is a major player. Taking on China’s massive military on its own turf is also unlikely to make any priority list for global jihadists engaged in bitter struggles over South Asia and the Middle East. The following video excerpts give some indication of the stated motivation of the TIP:

Shaykh Uthman Umar Haji: “When we ask the Chinese people about the reason that brought them to our country, they say: ‘Turkistan is our land, it is a part of the Republic of China’… The Chinese are cowards and they fear death, but they did not find anyone to confront them and stop their march against Islamic East Turkistan. The Muslims will see how the Chinese Army will flee and leave Turkistan and its people alone…  What good comes to a man who lives under the Chinese colonies like an animal? It is really shameful for us to be enslaved by China and accept humiliation and deprivation as an alternative to carrying out Islamic rulings in all aspects of our lives.”

Shaykh Abdul Haq: “The Chinese people are forcing the Muslims to achieve complete apostasy under the slogan of ‘The law is above all.’  They are forcing Muslim children to learn the Communist doctrine and they are afraid that the mujahideen influence the youth. When the Chinese could not apply an idea, they start to distort the image of the mujahideen and jihad through the media. They wanted the Muslims not to wake up from their long slumber and not to be able to recognize their sons, the mujahideen, or to realize the reality of the Communist campaign.”

Shaykh Abdullah Mansur: “We have to conquer our own country and purify it of all infidels. Then, we should conquer the infidels’ countries and spread Islam. The infidels who are usurping our countries have announced war against Islam and Muslims, forcing Muslims to abandon Islam and change their beliefs.” [3]

Among the TIP’s main complaints are government restrictions on the number of children, the demolition of historical Muslim urban areas and the imposition of equality between men and women “in rights and duties” by the communist regime.

Struggling with the Chinese Behemoth

The apparent hopelessness of a military struggle against China was addressed by Commander Abdullah Mansur, who drew on the communists’ own experience:

The Communist Chinese knew the power and effectiveness of weapons more than us, because they practiced fighting before and reached this level. The Communist Red Army was not formed or assembled overnight, but they were formed one individual after the other until it became a massive army. When they started fighting against Japan and their allies, they fought without tanks or warplanes. However, they managed to deter the Japanese and expel them from their lands in spite of the fact that their enemy was equipped with tanks and warplanes…  We can say that confronting the Chinese enemy does not require possessing thousands of warplanes and tanks or thousands of soldiers, but it requires the first condition, which is faith in Almighty God and working according to His commands concerning preparation and jihad. [4]

Following the July 2009 riots in Urumqi that saw the loss of nearly 200 lives, Abdul Haq “appeared” (his face was digitally blurred) in a video urging Uyghurs and other Muslims to broaden the violence. “[The Chinese] must be targeted both at home and abroad. Their embassies, consulates, centers and gathering places should be targeted. Their men should be killed and captured to seek the release of our brothers who are jailed in Eastern Turkistan.” (Voice of Islam; July 31; Reuters, August 1, 2009; The Standard [Hong Kong], August 3, 2009). Despite Abdul Haq’s claim that “all the Islamic umma, especially the mujahideen in the world, are entirely ready to fight with their Muslim brothers in East Turkistan against the Chinese,” there were no takers in the jihadi community and the TIP again failed to follow words with operations.

Riot in Urumqi

Rioting in Urumqi, 2009

Having sentenced 26 people to death for their role in the Urumqi riots, China has now declared public security funding would be doubled for 2010 (al-Jazeera, January 28). Beijing has also announced plans to recruit 5,000 new special police officers to deal with unrest in Xinjiang. After a month of training, these new officers will serve in mixedunits with police from other parts of China (al-Jazeera, February 5). The security initiatives and additional spending suggest Beijing views 2010 as an opportunity to crush Uyghur separatism.

What was behind the decision to target Abdul Haq?

The United States designated the ETIM a terrorist organization in August 2002 after intense diplomatic pressure from China at a time when Washington was trying to prevent a Chinese veto at the U.N. over action against Iraq. The designation also followed a pledge by China to restrict missile technology transfers to nations like Iran. Though Uyghur militants had never targeted U.S. nationals or interests, the arrest of two Uyghurs in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek in May 2002 became the justification for Washington’s action. The Uyghurs were alleged to have a map of the capital’s embassy district in their possession. This was quickly transformed into a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy and the men were deported to China, never to be heard from again. This incident is still used as “proof” of a Uyghur threat to America.

Amir Mir, a Pakistani journalist and security analyst who is usually well-informed on defense matters, said discussions with diplomats in Islamabad suggested China was pressing Pakistan for the right to conduct its own military operations against Uyghur militants in FATA and the NWFP, similar to American operations in the region (The News, March 3). The CIA and the U.S. government do not comment on the process used in targeting attacks by UAVs in Pakistan, but there is wide speculation that Islamabad has negotiated a say in identifying targets on its territory in return for allowing U.S. drone operations to continue. Pakistan has no interest in antagonizing China, a major economic and military partner, and may have called for a strike on the TIP leader to relieve intense pressure from Beijing to do something about Uyghur militants in northwest Pakistan.

Following the strike on Abdul Haq, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister travelled to Beijing to convince China of Pakistan’s sincerity in ridding the frontier region of TIP members and other Uyghur militants. On March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed satisfaction with Pakistan’s efforts; “I believe the government of Pakistan has effective control over the situation” (The Hindu, March 8).

Hasan Mahsum’s ETIM appears to have collapsed following his death in 2003. With the security forces of Pakistan, China and the United States aligned against it, it remains to be seen if the more “virtual” TIP will survive the death of Abdul Haq al-Turkistani.

Notes

1. See Andrew McGregor, “Chinese Counter-Terrorist Strike in Xinjiang,”  Johns Hopkins University Central Asia – Caucasus Institute Central Asia Caucasus Analyst (March 7, 2007), www.cacianalyst.org/view_article.php
2. U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Release TG-92, April 20, 2009, www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/tg92.htm
3. Excerpts from “The Duty of Faith and Support,” Voice of Islam/al-Fajr Media Center, August 26, 2009.
4. Ibid

This article first appeared in the March 11, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

China Releases List of Olympic Terrorism Suspects

Andrew McGregor

October 30, 2008

China’s Ministry of Public Security announced the names of eight Uyghur militants charged with Olympic games-related terrorist activities on October 21. While no actual terrorist incidents were reported during the August games, a Ministry spokesman claimed all the various Uyghur plots were foiled by Chinese security forces (Xinhua, October 21).

xinjiang olympic 1Chinese Security Forces Clamp Down in Xinjiang

The suspects are alleged to be members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM -East Turkistan is the Uyghur term for the western Chinese province of Xinjiang). In the weeks prior to the Olympics, there were video threats from a previously unknown Uyghur Muslim group called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which claimed responsibility for a number of older incidents they were clearly not involved in before making outlandish threats of massive attacks on Olympic facilities using conventional and chemical weapons. The TIP has not been heard from since. Though a series of bombings and attacks occurred in Xinjiang in August, none were related to the Olympics (except through timing) and no claim of responsibility was issued by the TIP or ETIM.

There has been little ETIM activity since the death of its leader Hasan Mahsum at the hands of Pakistani troops in October 2003. According to a 2002 Chinese government report that gave exaggerated figures for the size of the movement, the ETIM received training in camps run by al-Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. Chinese security forces claimed Hasan Mahsum received funding from Osama bin Laden, though the late ETIM leader denied any connection to al-Qaeda. The movement received a U.S. designation as a terrorist organization after intense diplomatic pressure from China in 2002.

The new report charges Memtimin Memet (“Memetiming Memeti” in the Xinhua transliteration) with being the successor of Hasan Mahsum as leader of the ETIM. Memet is charged with organizing fundraising and military training before issuing orders in January for terrorist attacks on the Beijing Olympics.

Xinjiang Olympic 2Another alleged militant, Emet Yaqub (“Emeti Yaquf”), seems to be identified as the “Commander Seyfullah” who issued the TIP video threat that was dated July 23 and appeared on the U.S. IntelCenter website on July 25. The Ministry document makes no mention of TIP and cites only a “June 2008” video that threatened the Olympic games with chemical and biological weapons. Most of the suspects are reported to have trained with explosives and poisons, though no actual attacks are claimed.

The Ministry document is extremely vague on locations, dates and other details of the terrorist plots, but attempts to compensate for this with less relevant details, such as aliases, birthdays, education levels and official identification numbers. The report avoids identifying locations for the ETIM’s external activities, referring only to “a South Asian country” and “a certain Middle East country.” The “South Asian country” is most likely Pakistan, which is currently seeking financial and nuclear aid from Beijing.

China is seeking international support in apprehending and extraditing the ETIM suspects, who are believed to be out of the country. The release of the statement comes as China is lobbying the U.S. to “avoid double standards” and extradite 17 Uyghurs currently held in the Guantanamo Bay prison (Xinhua, October 21; Hsin Pao [Hong Kong], October 23). The men have been found innocent of terrorist activities and were recently ordered released by a court order, though the U.S. administration is appealing the ruling (AP, October 9; LA Times, October 8). Uyghur expatriates claim China is mounting a new campaign of repression against Xinjiang’s Uyghurs now that the Olympic games are over (Sherqiy Turkistan Axbarat Merkizi [East Turkistan Information Center, Munich], October 15).

 This article first appeared in the October 30, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Chinese Counter-Terrorist Strike in Xinjiang

Andrew McGregor

Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, John Hopkins University

March 7, 2007

In the midst of the lead up to next year’s Beijing Olympics and a power struggle in the Chinese Communist Party, a January raid on an alleged terrorist training camp in Xinjiang killed 18 terrorist suspects and one policeman. Seventeen more suspects were reported captured. Twenty-two homemade ‘hand grenades’ were seized, along with material for another 1,500. The raid was also said to have provided new evidence of ties between the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and ‘international terrorist forces.’ The raid marks the latest clash between Muslim Uyghur separatists and Chinese security services suppressing opposition to regional Sinification.

xinjiang 1Former ETIM leader Hasan Mahsum

BACKGROUND:

The Uyghur separatist movement is badly divided, with dozens of groups with different agendas claiming to represent the interests of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people. Some groups renounce violence as a political tactic while others embrace it. Until recently the Uyghurs were the majority in the Central Asian region they call East Turkistan (known to the Chinese as Xinjiang, or ‘New Territory’), but a massive and continuing migration of Han Chinese into the region has left the Uyghurs with only 45% of the population of 18 million.

The ‘counter-terrorist’ raid occurred in the remote Akto County on the Pamir Plateau, close to the Chinese-Kyrgyz border. After the raid, Chinese security forces tightened their control of the borders with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China’s official press suggested that al-Qaeda had helped the ETIM ‘infiltrate’ the region, though it did not say why the Uyghurs needed such aid in their own territory. In 1990, Akto County was the site of a bloody uprising led by Uyghur militant Zahideen Yusuf, killed in the fighting along with fifty others.

Most Uyghurs are members of Islamic Sufi orders and lack the interest in Salafist Islam that is a prerequisite for involvement with al-Qaeda. There are few examples of Sufis cooperating with al-Qaeda; indeed, their form of worship is attacked by Bin Laden and his associates as a type of heresy that must be exterminated. Though some Uyghurs sought military training from the Taliban in the 1990s it appears that they did so in order to mount separatist operations in Xinjiang rather than join Bin Laden’s anti-American jihad. Some Uyghurs may even have received training from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The ETIM is one of the most obscure of the Uyghur militant groups, barely known even to other Uyghur activists. According to a Chinese government report released in 2002, ETIM members received training in camps run by al-Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) throughout Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks. The report almost certainly exaggerated the size of the ETIM, claiming it commanded a formation known as the ‘Turkistan Army’ that included a “China Battalion of 320 terrorists from Xinjiang. This was just one of a number of large-scale Uyghur ‘terrorist’ formations China claimed were active in Afghanistan, including some whose existence is dubious, such as the 1,000 strong ‘Central Asian Uyghur Hezbollah’. The same report alleged that Hasan Mahsum met with Osama bin Laden in 1999 and obtained al-Qaeda financing for the ETIM, though its leader, Hasan Mahsum, denied any such connections. There has been little ETIM activity since the death of Mahsum at the hands of the Pakistani army in October 2003.
xinjiang 2While some Uyghurs fought alongside the Taliban or the late Juma Namangani’s Afghanistan-based IMU, others joined the Chechen mujahidin during the early years of the second Russian/Chechen war that began in 1999. The total number of Uyghurs active in various foreign-based jihadist groups in 2001 was probably not more than several hundred, with a significant decline in numbers since. It is important to note that the jihadist/Islamist component of the Uyghur separatist movement comprises only a fraction of a political trend that has widely varied aims and methods.

In August 2002, the United States designated the ETIM as a terrorist organization after pressure from China. The announcement followed a pledge by China to restrict missile technology transfers to countries like Iran, and preceded a visit by the Chinese President to the United States. The United Nations also put the ETIM on its terrorist list a month later. China lists four Uyghur organizations as ‘terrorist groups’, though the ETIM is the only one to have this designation internationally.

Two months before the raid in Akto County, a 32-minute video was released through the al-Fajr Information Centre inciting the people of ‘East Turkistan’ to take up jihad against the ‘infidel’ Chinese communists. The video portrays Uyghur ‘mujahidin’ training with firearms, possibly in Afghanistan.

IMPLICATIONS:

Beijing has raised the specter of Uyghur terrorist attacks on the 2008 Olympics, though overplaying this hand as a means of stifling separatist opposition in Xinjiang could have the effect of scaring away tourists. Police in Beijing are preparing to work with foreign intelligence services to prevent terrorist attacks at the games. The maturation of the transnational Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has made it extremely difficult for Uyghur militants to operate from neighboring Central Asian countries. The SCO (consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) has introduced new intelligence-sharing and cooperative counter-terrorism measures. China’s economic expansion has largely defused the threat of separatist militancy by integrating its Central Asian neighbors into its economic and security planning, thus eliminating the cross-border bases essential to most successful resistance movements.

Pan-Turkism enjoyed a brief popularity in Turkic states and regions in the early 1990s, but has since recoiled in the face of twenty-first century political realities. Pan-Islamic sentiment survives in Xinjiang, but is not the dominant force behind Uyghur separatism. Unemployment, religious repression, assimilation pressures and the activities of the Communist Party of China are more potent recruiting forces for Islamic militants in Xinjiang than any call for a Central Asian caliphate. Compared to the regional government (which includes nominally Muslim Uyghurs), the Communist Party in Xinjiang is politically stronger, exclusively atheist and dominated by Han Chinese.

Hu Jintao, China’s President and Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, has been promoting Party leaders from northwest China (including Tibet and Xinjiang) to important positions in the Beijing government over the last year, much to the displeasure of the traditional East-coast power base of the party. This has caused a rift in the party, and the attack by the Xinjiang police services will cast doubt on Hu’s boasts that he has pacified the region at a time when he is under pressure to give up his post as President to Chinese VP Zeng Qinghong.

Many Uyghurs seek U.S. support and attempt to present Xinjiang as a kind of Muslim Tibet. This effort has been hurt in the past by incidents like that of May 2002, when two ETIM members in Kyrgyzstan were arrested for plotting an attack on the U.S. embassy in Bishkek and deported to China. In April 2004, FBI director Robert Mueller suggested that there were militants in China who advocated terrorism, “whether you would call it Al-Qaeda or a group loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda’s leadership.

CONCLUSIONS: The timing of the police strike is puzzling, as it emphasizes an al-Qaeda/Uyghur terrorist threat at a time when violence and separatist sentiment in Xinjiang is in decline. China has repeatedly demonstrated its ruthlessness in repressing local militants, a lesson understood by many young Uyghurs who see integration into the dominant Chinese culture as the only path to success. Beijing is counting on economic development and Han migration to eventually take care of Xinjiang’s separatist troubles.

Was a raid on an illegal mining operation transformed into an anti-terrorist operation for political reasons? Chinese security forces have not offered a description of the assault itself. Illegal mining operations are common in China and explosives are commonly used in mining activities. The high death total of the raid nevertheless functions as a reminder to Xinjiang’s Uyghurs that separatist activities of any type will not be tolerated as the Beijing Olympics approach. As the world turns its focus onto China in an unprecedented way, the Communist Party is determined to manage its public image down to the finest detail.