Many scholars think that there is no organized Islamic terrorist group in Xinjiang and the various bombings and attacks have been local in nature and carried out by individuals or small groups that had some local grievance. At most there are several small groups with similar goals. If there is a large organized group it appears to lack the personnel and weaponry to carry out a sophisticated attack. James Millward of Georgetown University told the Washington Post, “The degree of organization of Uyghur groups or East Turkestan separatist groups is a big question among many experts outside of China.”

Beijing has said there are more than 50 “terrorist” groups fighting for independence in Xinjiang and claims that 1,000 members of 10 different groups have undergone training at camps in Afghanistan, with some returning to Xinjiang and elsewhere in China and set up secret cells.

Millward and many Western analysts say the problem in Xinjiang is not a religious problem but a civil rights problems that has to do with Uyghurs feeling discriminated against and not getting job opportunities.

The Chinese view the problem differently. Yu Jianrong of the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Washington Post: “The main and core issue is separatism, although it combines some farmer and land problems...We cannot regard this purely as citizens trying to protect their rights.”

Whenever there is an attack or an arrest the Chinese government says that the attackers or the people arrested are members of the ETIM (See Below) or are Uyghur separatist but offer no evidence to back up their claims other than those involved were Uyghurs.

Beijing wants to the ETIM, the Istanbul-bases Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization; The World Uyghur Youth Congress; and the East Turkestan Information Center to be recognized aborad as “terrorist organizations” and shut down,

East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)

China has frequently blamed a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)for violence in Xinjiang. ETIM has been placed in the United States’list of terrorist organizations. The United States and the United Nations both classified ETIM as a terrorist organisation in 2002, during a period of increased US-Chinese cooperation following the 9/11 attacks.Many believe the group was singled out by the Bush administration to curry favor with Beijing for its fight on terrorism and win support from China on the war in Iraq. Some experts say China exaggerates its threat to justify tough security measures in Xinjiang. The U.S. later removed the group from its list of terrorist organizations.

ETIM’s aim is to establish an Islamic state in Xinjiang and said it is committing to using violence because peaceful methods have not produced any results. The group is small and obscure. Most Uyghurs have never heard of it. Washington has accused it of planning to attack Western embassies in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing says it has ties with Al Qaeda.

Little is known about ETIM,its strength and links to global terrorism.. Its former leader Hasan Mahsum admitted that some members received training in Al-Qaida camps but denied his group had ties with Al-Qaida. The group is believed to have been more active in the struggle involving the Taliban in Afghanistan than in terrorism in China. Those that believe ETIM exists and is active think it has about 40 member based in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Al-Qaida members and Taliban are have sough refuge. Some think it never existed. Dru Gladney of Pomona College told the New York Times he thinks that ETIM may have as few as 10 members,

ETIM has very little support among ordinary Uyghurs, less than 1 percent by some estimates, The Chinese government has to be careful not to crack down on Uyghurs too hard out f fear of radicalizing them.

ETIM might have ties in Pakistan and central Asian countries, but it was unclear how close they might be, Michael Clarke, a professor at Griffith University in Sydney who has authored a book on China’s policy of integration in Xinjiang, told ASP. “It’s not that China shouldn’t be concerned about those (ties), but the core issue is that the linkages have been exaggerated by the Chinese government,” he said, adding that he was “sceptical on the exact nature” of ETIM. [Source: AFP, August 24, 2014 +/]

East Turkestan Islamic Movement Morphs Into Turkestan Islamic Party

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said that ETIM has reformed as the TIP in recent years; in 2012, its leader was killed by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan. The TIP has claimed responsibility for bus bombings in the Chinese cities Kunming and Shanghai, and threatened attacks on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. "The problem is that their credibility is dodgy at best," Bequelin said. "It's not clear whether they are a real outfit that is actively planning things, or just a bunch of people who are sort of agitating." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, November 25, 2013 +++]

The leader of ETIM, Hasan Mahsum, was killed in 2003 by the Pakistani army in what the Pakistanis described as a raid on an Al-Qaida hideout. After he was killed, members organized into similar smaller groups, including the Turkestan Islamic Party and received training from Al-Qaida in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

According to InterCenter, a private group that monitors militant and terrorist groups on the Internet, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the same group as the ETIM. As proof it said it found a picture of ETIM’s supposed founder Hasan Mahsum on the TIP website with a TIP acronym in the photo. IntelCenter told the New York Times that the name ETIM has been used by China, the United Nations and other organizations but was never used by the group itself. It originally called itself the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP) but after 2000 removed the “East” from its name.

Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP)

Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is regarded as an offshoot of ETIM. After the Urumqi riots in 2009 it urged Muslims to attack Chinese interests both at home and abroad in retaliation for the “barbaric massacre” and “genocide” of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. It also threatened attacks during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Zhao Guojun of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences told the New York Times the Turkistan Islamic Party is believed to have fewer than 100 members, most of them Uyghur. It was formed in 2003 in alliance with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Mr. Zhao said. The group’s former leader, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, became a member of Al Qaeda’s executive council in 2005, according to the United States Treasury Department, which designated him a global terrorist in 2009. Mr. Turkistani was reported to have died last year in a Predator drone strike in the Taliban-controlled North Waziristan region of Pakistan.

After the riots in Urumqi in July 2009, Seyfullah, the military leader of TIP urged Muslims to attack Chinese interests both at home and abroad in retaliation for the “barbaric massacre” and “genocide” of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. “Know that this Muslim people have men who will take revenge for them,” Seyfullah said in a video message, ‘soon, the horsemen of Allah will attack you, Allah Willing, So lie in wait; indeed, we lie in wait with you.” The group had previously announced it would stage attacks during the 2008 Olympics.

According to Reuters: TIP, which China equates with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), keeps a low profile in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban, it rarely posts videos promoting its activities or ideology. Its exact size is unknown and some experts dispute its ability to orchestrate attacks in China, or that it exists at all as a cohesive group.In a rare interview with Reuters in March, Abdullah Mansour, who says he is the leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party, said it was his holy duty to fight the Chinese.” [Source: Reuters, May 14, 2014]

Turkestan Islamic Party Attacks

Before the Olympics the TIP released a video with a burning Olympic logo and a warning to Muslims not to attend the games, presumably to prevent them from being caught up in violence the group planned. The group has also claimed involvement in other violence in China, including a 2008 explosion on a Shanghai bus that killed three people and attacks in the coastal cities of Wenzhou and Guangzhou. The Chinese government calls those claims unverified. In January 2010, TIP issued a statement claiming that 15 of its members were killed in an American airstrike inside Afghanistan.

Nisid Hajari of Bloomberg wrote: “The Turkestan Islamic Party has tried to claim credit for a whole slew of bombings in China in recent years that have been conclusively traced to other culprits. Doubts have similarly been cast on the group's claims that its followers are now training and fighting with Sunni radicals in Syria. [Source: Nisid Hajari, Bloomberg View editorial board, March 5, 2014]

That's not to say that groups like TIP and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement - the umbrella organization Beijing blames for most Uyghur attacks, including the one in Kunming - aren't dangerous. Video footage showed one of the assailants in a 2011 attack on Han Chinese civilians in the city of Kashgar being trained in a TIP camp in Pakistan. The group is also thought to have killed 21 Chinese border guards in an October 2012 assault.

Turkistan Islamic Party Takes Credit for 2011 Kashgar and Hotan Attacks

The Turkistan Islamic Party has claimed responsibility in an online video for recent violent attacks that killed dozens in China’s western Xinjiang region, according to an American organization that tracks militant activity. The American organization, the SITE Intelligence, posted the video, by the Turkistan Islamic Party, on its Web site, reporting that it had been issued in late August. In the video, according to SITE, the group’s leader, Abdul Shakoor Damla, claimed that attacks in July in Hotan and Kashgar, two southern Xinjiang cities, were acts of revenge for the Chinese government’s repression of the region’s ethnic Uyghur population. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times September 8, 2011]

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “The Turkistan Islamic Party has previously made similar claims that remain unverified. Its highest-profile threat, to disrupt the 2008 Beijing Olympics with chemical, biological or conventional weapons, was never carried out. Some terrorism experts remain concerned about the group’s threats, and its members have been linked to other Islamic militants, including Al Qaeda. But one Chinese analyst,Zhao Guojun of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, was cautious. While the group could have carried out the attacks, Mr. Zhao said the claim was probably made to blow a “trumpet for themselves.” “It’s a way to increase their influence,” he said.

The latest video shows a Uyghur man identified as Memeti Tiliwaldi at what is said to be a terrorist training camp, probably somewhere in Afghanistan or in Pakistan’s lawless region near the border with China. Chinese police officials reported in early August that they had shot and killed Mr. Tiliwaldi, 29, after he was identified as one of those who staged a series of attacks in Kashgar on July 30 and 31, which left at least 18 people dead.

While the attacks in Hotan and Kashgar almost certainly were planned in advance, some analysts have noted that they bore few of the hallmarks of the actions of a sophisticated terrorist group. For the most part, the attackers’ weapons were knives and automobiles that they drove into crowds of bystanders. The bombs detonated in the Kashgar attacks also appeared to be comparatively primitive.

Hizb ut-Tahrir

Hizb-ut-Tahrir (or ILP, Islamic Liberation Party) is believed to be active in Xinjiang. It is the most widespread radical Islamic group in Central Asia. Believed to have thousands of followers, it wants to create utopian Muslim society called a caliphate that it hopes will take root in Central Asia and then spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa too.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir is believed to have around 15,000 to 20,000 members in Central Asia. Founded in the Middle East in 1952 as a Leninist, anti-royalist revolutionary party , it made inroads into Central Asia after the after the collapse of the Soviet Union perhaps because it was Islam with a socialist aspect. Among its elements are creating utopian communities and establishing strict Islamic law that requires segregation between men and women. It also wants a return to the gold standard and calls for jihad against Israel and non-believers even though it insists it is non-violent.

Many Western analysts accept Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s claim that is non-violent. The group claims it can establish a Islamic state in three stages: 1) educates Muslims about its ideology; 2) spread these views into the government; and 3) topple secular regimes from the inside.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir s believed to be behind attacks in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is outlawed in Uzbekistan and has been accused by the Uzbekistan government of inspiring terrorist attacks. It operates legally in Britain but is banned in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but operated fairly open in the Osh area of Kyrgyzstan. . Authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have tried to suppress it.

Hizb ut-Tahrir in China

In China and Xinjiang Hizb-ut-Tahrir is an illegal religious organization. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights watch told Reuters, “The organization is extremely resilient and its influence, although limited to southern Xinjiang, seems to be growing...The prison authorities are also worried about the influence of Hizbut followers on other inmates.

Heyrat Niyaz, an Uyghur journalist and blogger, told Hong Kong newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan: “Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami... has spread extremely quickly in southern Xinjiang. I've studied this group, which was founded by an Afghan. When the Afghan died, a Pakistani doctor among his followers carried out a reorganization and recruitment drive. Whether in China, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, the ILP is an underground movement. In 1997, when the ILP had just begun to appear in Xinjiang, there were probably only several hundred members. According to statistics made public last year by the relevant agencies, the organization may now have close to 10,000 members in Xinjiang.”

“This organization is extremely disciplined and its composition rather unusual,” Heyrat Niyaz said. “It attracts young men around the age of 20, mostly from rural areas. In fact, this organization is extremely backwards, so that even among Uyghurs without any basic social underpinning, those with even a bit of education don't have any interest [in the ILP]. The influence of groups like this that have infiltrated from abroad is ultimately quite small, because they bring nothing to the table. A serious attack from the organs of state power could totally wipe them out. There's no need for anti-terrorism measures throughout society in Xinjiang.”

In 2001, Beijing claimed it arrested two Islamic extremist members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Urumqi and Hotan. Some think that Hizb ut-Tahrir was responsible for organizing the protests in Khotan in 2008.

The Chinese government regards Hizb ut-Tahrir as a threat and calls it a terrorist group. Police have spray painted slogans on walls that warn against having anything to do with the group. Slogans written in both China and the Uyghur language displayed in Kashgar read: ‘strike hard against Hizb ut-Tahrir” and “Hizb ut-Tahrir is a violent, terrorist organization.” A posting in a Kashgar government website reads: “Be very clear about Hizb ut-Tahrir’s reactionary nature. Be very clear about its pervasive and actual threat to Xinjiang and Kashgar.”

Hizb ut-Tahrir insists that its activities in China are non-violent and that the government plays up its threat so it can crack down not only Hizb ut-Tahrir but Muslims in general.

Image Sources: Mongabey

Text Sources: Thomas B. Allen, National Geographic, March 1996; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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