Militants fighting for a free “East Turkestan” have been labeled as terrorists and been blamed for setting off explosives, training terrorists, smuggling arms and stirring up riots. Although the government publicly has dismissed Islamic extremist as "disgruntled farmers with fertilizer bombs” it takes their threat quite seriously.

Beijing blames outside agitators and foreign-based terrorist groups for the unrest, specifically those from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement who it says have trained in militant camps in Pakistan. Yet Beijing has provided no direct evidence, and analysts say they suspect its claims are driven more by ideology than proof. Uyghur activists say harsh crackdowns only lead to greater anger among young Uyghurs who already feel culturally and economically sidelined by waves of Han migration to the region.

September 11th and the war on terrorism, gave China an opportunity to cast a localized Uyghur separatist movement as an international terrorist threat. China described itself as a “victim of international terrorism,” blamed unrest in Xinjiang on Osama bin Laden and asked the United States to include ETIM on its lists of terrorist organizations. At first Washington refused but when it sought support for its activitie sin Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq it changed its position and included the group on the terrorist list.

James Miflor, a professor at Georgetown and expert on Xinjiang, told National Geographic that many officials believe Xinjiang faces a serious terrorist threat because that “is what they are constantly told.”In one speech Osama bin Laden called Chinese “pagan Buddhists.” It is hard to gage the support of Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden because the Chinese Muslims are so afraid to speak their minds. But some have expressed sympathy for the Taliban and said there is not solid proof to link Osama bin Laden with September 11th.

University of Michigan political scientist Philip Potter told the Washington Post in 2014 the attacks in Xinjiang have become more sophisticated. “The assassination of the imam is important,: he added, referring to the murder in Kashgar. “Radicalized groups tend to target collaborators. It forces the community to take sides.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 17, 2014]

Al- Qaida, Xinjiang and China

Beijing does have justifiable concerns. Xinjiang borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, the home of many Muslim extremist and members for Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Many think the interests of Beijing would be better served if the government focused crackdowns and their paramilitary activity on Pakistan-based militant groups that slip across the border into Xinjiang and talk the more moderate a Uyghur groups.

American sources believe that maybe 600 or 700 Uyghurs passed through the Al-Qaeda Afghanistan camps and/or fought with the Taliban. Those that were captured were young and in their 20s and 30s described as very naive. They mostly didn’t want have anything to do with Al-Qaeda and were generally supportive of the United States because it pressured China.

After the riots in Urumqi in July 2009, an Algeria-based Al-Qaida arm---Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb---said it would avenge the deaths if Muslims in Urumqi by targeting Chinese working in North Africa. It was the first time that Al-Qaida directly threatened China or its interests.

In October 2009, Al-Qaida leader Abu Yahia al-Libi called on Uyghurs to rise up and launch a jihad against Beijing

Uyghur Jihadists and Terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Uyghur radicals are believed to be sheltering in lawless northern Pakistan, but it is unclear if they have any connection to attacks in China. Uyghurs were captured by U.S. forces following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and 22 were held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All but three have since been released and now reside in Albania, Bermuda and elsewhere.

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani authority on the Taliban and author of “Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia,” told the Washington Post he saw scores of Uyghurs being taught in madrassas in his country in the early 1990s and then training with a terrorist outfit called Lashkar-e-Taiba. Many were sent to Afghanistan to be hardened in battle alongside the Taliban. Since then, Uyghur militants have formed links with al-Qaeda, as well as with radical counterparts from Uzbekistan and Chechnya, said Rashid, “The Chinese are really very, very upset,” said Rashid, adding, with a reference to Pakistan’s intelligence service, “They came down very hard on the ISI and army to do something about it, to clean up their act.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 17, 2014]

Chinese Government Take on Terrorism in Xinjiang

The government says some Uyghurs are being radicalised by jihadist videos made in Pakistan and Afghanistan and accessed via the internet. Banned material can also be picked up by private satellite receivers, which are cheap in China but illegal without a permit.

Nisid Hajari of Bloomberg wrote: “The Chinese regime has tagged Uyghur separatists as "terrorists" at least since Sept. 11, 2001, when Beijing sought to link long-running tensions in Xinjiang to the newly sexy "war on terror." The discovery of several Uyghur men in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion bolstered China's claims. Some of the fighters were indeed looking for insurgent training; others may have been traveling through the country on their way to the Middle East. But of the 22 Uyghurs who landed in Guantanamo Bay, U.S. officials eventually determined none had any real links to al-Qaida or the Taliban leadership. [Source: Nisid Hajari, Bloomberg View editorial board, March 5, 2014]

Problems with Chinese Government View on Terrorism in Xinjiang

Nisid Hajari of Bloomberg wrote: “Indeed, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, concrete ties between Uyghur extremists and the global jihadist movement are hard to corroborate. One Pakistan-based insurgent group, 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]

Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, told Reuters "I don't believe there is any kind of organized extremist Islamic movement operating in East Turkestan. It is almost impossible for Uyghurs to organize because of China's stringent controls and attacks." China's approach to Xinjiang has hardened over the past 12 years, creating an atmosphere "like a war zone", she said. "Fully armed Chinese soldiers patrol Uyghur neighborhoods, villages and towns. They frequently attack Uyghurs and extrajudicially kill them in any kind of confrontation," Kadeer added. [Source: Paul Eckert, Reuters, October 30, 2013]

Growth of Jihadism and Terrorism in Xinjiang

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “Terrorism — in the sense of attacks on civilians — is a new phenomenon in Xinjiang, but the unrest here has a much longer history, with many Uyghurs chafing under Chinese repression since the Communist Party takeover of the country in 1949, and resentful of the subsequent flood of immigrants from China’s majority Han community into the region. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 19, 2014 ==]

“What has changed is the growth in conservative Islam, and the increasing desperation of Uyghurs determined to resist Chinese rule. Until a decade or two ago, Xinjiang’s Uyghurs wore their religion lightly, known more for their singing, dancing and drinking than their observation of the pieties of their faith. But in the past two decades a stricter form of the religion has slowly gained a foothold, as China opened up to the outside world. ==

“While worship was allowed at officially sanctioned — and closely supervised — mosques, a network of underground mosques sprang up. Village elders returning from the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, brought back more conservative ideas; high levels of unemployment among Uyghur youth, and widespread discrimination against them, left many searching for new ideas and new directions in life. The rise of Islam was, in part, a reaction against social inequality and modernity.” ==

“But Joanne Smith Finley of Britain’s Newcastle University, an expert on Uyghur identities and Islam, says religion has become a “symbolic form of resistance” to Chinese rule in a region where other resistance is impossible. When hopes for independence were cruelly dashed by mass executions and arrests in the city of Ghulja — or Yining in Chinese — in 1997, Uyghurs had nowhere else to turn, she said. “People lost faith in the dream of independence,” she said, “and started looking to Islam instead.” ==

“Not every Uyghur in Xinjiang is happy with the rising tide of conservatism: one academic lamented the dramatic decline in Uyghur establishments serving alcohol in the city of Hotan, while insisting that many young girls wear veils only out of compulsion. But China’s clumsy attempts to “liberate” Uyghurs from the oppression of conservative Islam are only driving more people into the hands of the fundamentalists, experts say. “If the government continues to exaggerate extremism in this way, and take inappropriate measures to fix it, it will only force people towards extremism” a prominent Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, wrote, before being jailed in January on a charge of inciting separatism. ==

Roots of Uyghur Terrorism

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “Tensions have been simmering in Xinjiang for years, but Uyghur discontent seems to be growing over restrictive Chinese practices such as refusing to allow women to wear traditional head scarfs or young men to grow beards. China has also been gradually phasing out the use of the Uyghur language in education, throwing Uyghur teachers out of work and adding to concerns that Uyghur culture is under siege. Uyghurs feel marginalized as the benefits of growth and resources exploitation accrue to Han Chinese migrants who have flooded the region in recent decades. Add to that the influence of global militant Islam and the sense that Muslims elsewhere are standing up for their religion, and it creates a highly combustible mix. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 22, 2014]

Reza Hasmath, an Oxford University lecturer in Chinese politics who studies Uyghur issues, told AFP: "Uyghurs are not comparing themselves to other Uyghurs, they're comparing themselves to other Hans," he said. "If you see the Hans are doing better than Uyghurs it's going to create a greater divide." The result, he says, is that frustrated Uyghurs increasingly take refuge in ethnic and religious consciousness. "This is how radicalisation occurs over the generations," he said. [Source: Kelly Olsen, AFP, July 3, 2013]

Perceived interference in religious practice and culture, and the fact education is increasingly carried out in Mandarin, serve to marginalise them further, experts say. "In general, as in the case in Tibet, they are trying to Sinicise the Uyghurs," said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lam said such labels were "just a means to try to justify the harsh measures and failure to promote real ethnic harmony and conduct a genuine dialogue with the religious and intellectual leaders in Xinjiang". Uyghurs, he said, are unhappy about increased surveillance, heavier police presence at mosques and strict controls of legitimate Muslim and cultural activities.

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “Chinese television has broadcast a series of confessions by Uyghurs suspected of involvement in attacks, paraded in orange or blue prison vests, their wrists often cuffed to tables. Many are young, just 18 or 19, and appear to have little knowledge of the Koran or Islamic teachings, according to state media reports. Philip Potter, an expert on terrorism in China at the University of Michigan, said the extremist fringe outside China is not only an inspiration to groups within China but also a “huge latent threat.” China has stepped up its surveillance of Uyghurs in Xinjiang specifically to counter that threat and to spot outsiders quickly. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 17, 2014]

“But China’s focus on the external inspiration for some of the violence in Xinjiang is missing the bigger picture, experts say. The long-running and brutal suppression of Uyghur rights, culture and nationalist sentiment has bred deep resentment here, while an intensified campaign to “educate” people by turning them away from Islam — preventing women from wearing veils and students from attending mosques, for example — seems to have caused even more anger. “The mainstream frustration and sentiment in Xinjiang is anti-China nationalism,” Rashid said. “But if China does not change its policy, the mainstream will no longer be nationalist, it will be extremist.”

Influence of Jihadist Videos in Xinjiang

Nisid Hajari of Bloomberg wrote: Turkestan Islamic Party “most destabilizing contribution to the Xinjiang unrest, though, may be the online newsletters and training videos it puts out. While few details have emerged about the series of clashes that have wracked the provinces over the past year - killing more than 100 people, most of them Uyghurs - there are indications that some amateur insurgents have been experimenting with explosives and even homemade rocket launchers.[Source: Nisid Hajari, Bloomberg View editorial board, March 5, 2014]

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “China says, the militants have been producing a slew of video and audio messages to inspire Uyghurs back home. “Extremist thoughts are spreading mainly through the Internet, and through underground scripture classes,” Erkin Tuniyaz, the vice chairman of the regional government, said. The videos contain exhortations to jihad, show militants training together or dispense advice on how to make bombs. Some celebrate attacks in Xinjiang and urge their followers to carry out more. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 17, 2014]

Foreign Influence on Xinjiang Terrorism

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “China says foreign religious ideas — often propagated over the Internet— have corrupted the people of Xinjiang, promoting fundamentalist Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam and turning some of them towards terrorism in pursuit of separatist goals. It also blames a radical Islamist Uyghur group — said to be based in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas and to have links to al-Qaeda — for a recent upsurge in violence. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 19, 2014 ==]

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “China says the violence is not attributable to religion or ethnicity, but is orchestrated by separatists and malcontents supported by instigators overseas. Specifically, it blames a Uyghur military group known either as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement or the Turkistan Islamic Party. While Uyghurs are known to be among Islamic militants hiding across the border in Pakistan's lawless northwestern region, it isn't clear whether such a group exists and is capable of organizing and carrying out violence in Xinjiang. Uyghur militants occasionally turn up in propaganda videos to either praise or take credit for attacks within China. There is also a large network of activists in the Uyghur diaspora who call for a peaceful struggle against the authorities. They are led by U.S.-based Rebiya Kadeer, whom China imprisoned, then exiled and now accuses of having been behind 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang that left almost 200 people dead. She denies the allegation. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 22, 2014]

In response to U.S. government criticism of Beijing’s policy in in Xinjiang in a commentary in the state-run China Daily, Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences researcher Shi Lan said, "Some of the Xinjiang terrorist groups get support from the West, which loves to call their usurpations acts of 'independence and religious freedom,'" she said. "Western powers still use double standards when it comes to terrorist attacks on China." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2013]

Uyghur Jihadists, Syria and Islamic State

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “Indeed, China’s suppression of religious practice in Xinjiang appears to have caught the attention of the global jihadist movement. In July, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was reported to have mentioned China at the head of a list of more than a dozen countries or regions where Muslims are repressed, urging his followers to send “brigades” to help their “brothers.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 17, 2014]

“Foreign-trained Uyghur militants may not yet be returning to China — Beijing believes many have made their way to Iraq and Syria — but their message of jihad is starting to resonate here.” In July 2014, “Wu Sike, then the Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, said at a news conference that he understood from foreign news reports that about 100 Chinese nationals, mostly Uyghurs, were being trained or were fighting with the Islamic State. This month, Iraq’s Defense Ministry posted a picture on its Facebook page to announce that it had, for the first time, captured a Chinese national fighting with militants there. “

“The concern is about people sneaking back in,” he said, arguing that they might not inspire a coordinated uprising so much as convince others to join them in sporadic acts of violence. “Individual skill sets and credibility count for a lot. Cells popping up spontaneously can become a lot more capable and a lot more prevalent.”

China’s state media has published reports that some Uyghurs were gaining war-fighting experience in Syria. According to Associated Press: The Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party, cited a Chinese antiterrorism official who said around 100 Uyghurs had traveled to Syria to fight alongside Syrian rebels over the past year. In a separate story the newspaper quoted Syrian Ambassador to China Imad Moustafa as saying that at least 30 members of the militant group East Turkistan Islamic Movement, had entered Syria to fight government forces in Aleppo. According to the report, Moustafa said the Uyghur militants received training in a border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then went on to Syria via southern Turkey. [Source: Associated Press, July 4, 2013]

Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on China and Central Asia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, said it was not implausible that some Uyghurs who identify with radical Islamist ideology might participate in the Syrian conflict.Turkey, which borders Syria, has a sizable Uyghur diaspora, many of them exiles disgruntled with Beijing. Pantucci said the Syrian war is attracting religious extremists around the world. “Syria is an extraordinary magnet for international jihadists and international extremists,” he said. “That there are Uyghurs who are probably radicalized going into the battlefield in Syria is not entirely surprising. But whether this is an organized thing from the East Turkistan movement or its elements, it’s difficult to know.”

Terrorism, Xinjiang and the United States

Before September 11th and the war in Iraq, many Chinese Muslims regarded the United States as a friend and a supporter of their fight for more freedom and autonomy. Many listened to Uyghur-language broadcast on U.S.-supported Radio Free Asia. These same Chinese Muslims have traditionally been wary of Muslim extremists and have no affection for Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden.

Concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in it own backyard, China has supported the United States's war on terrorism. At the same time the actions of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused many to view the United States as bullies that have unfairly singled out Muslims.

The United States’ condemnation of Xinjiang-based Islamic groups has been a propaganda coup for Beijing. After September 11th, the Chinese government stepped up its crackdown on suspected separatists in Xinjiang, targeting groups with connection to terrorists and groups that didn’t have any links. According to Amnesty International, 3000 people were detained in the four months following September 11th. Some were arrested for showing any kind of dissatisfaction with the Chinese government. A few were executed.

In his book The Tree That Bleeds: a Uyghur Town on the Edge Nick Holdstock wrote that affter the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred in the United States the president of the college where Holdstock worked told him and two other foreign teachers that "a small group of separatists" were out to cause trouble, that there were a few Taliban around, and that he and his colleagues were prime targets for kidnapping. The 9/11 attacks also encouraged conspiracy theories among the Uyghur, and Holdstock quotes one Uyghur friend who tells him the Chinese could have been to blame, which would mean that "The Americans will fight the Chinese. They will win and then we will be free."

Chinese Muslims at Guantanamo

A total of 23 Uyghurs were detained at Guantanamo. They ended up in American hands after being captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and 2002. One said he was a hat maker, another a shoe repairman. Another said he was typist of the Uyghur language. Some of their stories raised suspicions and were inconsistent with the stories of others. There were some hints they may have been involved in terrorist activities but no hard evidence against them was ever presented. The Uyghurs were shackled to the floor even though there were serious doubts as whether the actually done anything wrong.

Five Uyghurs were released from Guantanamo Bay in May 2006 after three years and sent to Albania, the only country that would accept them. As of July 2008 they were living in a tidy house in a refugee camp outside the Albanian capital of Tirana used mainly by refugees from war-torn eastern European countries like Kosovo. The Uyghurs were unable to get work and unable to reunite with their families.

During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, the five Uyghurs were scooped up by bounty hunters who sold the for $5,000 each to U.S. forces. They deny involvement with the Taliban or Al-Qaida and say there were in Afghanistan to escape oppression and to make their way to a third country and seek a better life. After a couple years at Guantanamo their “enemy combatant” status was taken away, making them available for release. China regards them as terrorists.

As of 2008, seventeen other Uyghurs remain in Guantanamo. Their stories are similar to those of the five that were released. Abu Bakker Qassim and A’Del Abdu ak-Hakim, for example, were captured in Pakistan as they fled a Taliban training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. The two men were trained to carry activities against China but said they had no quarrel with the United States. Ten of the Uyghurs at Guantanamo were deemed low risk detainees whose beef was with the Chinese Communists not the United States.In October 2008, a U.S. judge ruled that the 17 Chinese Muslims be released immediately and declared the evidence against them was dubious, and said its source may have been the Chinese government.

In September 2009, three Uyghurs held at Guantanamo agreed to be released to the tiny Pacific island of Palau. A total of 14 were originally schedule to go the island nations. In June four other Uyghurs from Guantanamo were transferred to Bermuda.

Palau agreed to take 12 of the 13 Guantanamo-imprisoned Uyghur, In November 2009, six Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo and still wanted by Beijing arrived in Palau. Two others said they would go.

In October 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear the cases of Guantanamo-imprisoned Uyghurs who wanted to be released in the United States.

Beijing has demanded the return of the Chinese Muslims but the United States has refused to send them to China The Muslims have said they want to be released in the United States and fear they will be tortured or executed if they are sent to China.

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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