By Talimand Khan
Currently China considers the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) the most immediate and realistic security threat in the northwest Xinjiang province. Chinese authorities believe the group has links with other international militant organizations and is active in central, east and west Asia regions.
It is clear that the Chinese leadership fears that Xinjiang separatism has and will continue to gain support from transnational Muslim extremists but can also set a precedent for non-Muslims Chinese’s population for violent agitations and movements. The government increased its public security budget for Xinjiang by almost 90 percent in 2010 also indicates of China’s growing concern.
According to the media reports, the group is the brain child of MemetuhutMemetrozi and HasanMahsum. At the end of 1997, they founded the ETIM and Hasan became its chairman. HasanMahsum, a Uighur from Xinjiang’s Kashgar region, was killed in Pakistan in 2003.
Memetuhut born in southern Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture to a farmer’s family and currently facing life sentence after the Pakistani authorities arrested and hand over him to China in 2003. According to Memetuhut’s confession statement, released by the Chinese’s state media, he travelled extensively around Central Asia and also enrolled in International Islamic University in Islamabad Pakistan.
Information on ETIM is scanty. However, media reports suggest that ETIM is, like Teehrek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) a conglomeration of many splinters groups operating in Pakistan and central Asia.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a separatist group founded by members of the Turkic-speaking ethnic majority militant Muslim Uighurs, in northwest China’s Xinjiang province. Some experts suggest a possible affiliation between the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Party of Turkestan, formerly known as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The movement quest is to form an independent state called East Turkestan comprising parts of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and some also include Turkic parts of Russian regions.
The link of ETIM with Al-Qaida was reported by the Russian media in 2000 in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden pledged financial support to the IMU and the ETIM in a meeting held in Afghanistan in 1999.
The group is also listed by the UN Security Council’s al-Qaeda/Taliban Sanctions Committee. The U.S. treasury department listed the ETIM as a terrorist organization in 2002. The State Department also listed the ETIM as one of the more extremist separatist groups.
Perhaps that led China to sign Shanghai Treaty with Russia and central Asian states to deter their ethnic Uighur minorities from supporting separatism in Xinjiang. Currently, China is striving to shore up international cooperation to combat the increasing trend of multinational terrorist organizations.
Onwards 2002, China’s army (the People’s Liberation Army) has conducted military exercises in Xinjiang and in the region with central Asian countries, Russia, as well as India and Indonesia to combat terrorism.
If closely examined and analysed, the group’s objectives are more nationalistic seeking cultural identity which is linked through historical and religious references to get sympathies and support from the international jihadi core.
The recent spike in the attacks; the October 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square, the March, 2014 attack at a Kunming railway station, and the April and May attacks in Urumqiby the group targeting civilians also reflects a shift in strategy. Previously, the group’s main target was mostly police and other security forces in the Xinjiang region.
Analysts trace the link of such shift, typical terrorism targeting civilians indiscriminately, to the EMIT and the TIP’s collaboration with other terrorist groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Experts and media reports believed that Memetuhut confessional statement and the change strategy of selecting targets and attacking them suggested that the ETIM separatists had their presence in the tribal areas (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), particularly the North Waziristan that turned into a hub of international militant elements and groups. The existence of such formidable association prompted China to push Pakistan to intensify its counter-terrorism efforts, particularly in the North Waziristan.
Sardar Ahmad Khan Yusufzai closely followed political and security developments in the region, also observed that military operation code name, Zarab-i-Azab (Zarb-i-Azab was the name of one of the prophet’s sword) in the North Waziristan is the outcome of China pressure.
MrYusufzai further explained that such networking among the militant groups (non-state actors) was the strategy of survival in the face of states alliances against militancy.
So far, there is no evidence from independent sources on the casualties and captures of ETIM suffered during the Zarb-i-Azab but analysts like Ysufzai are of the opinion that they might melt down to the cities and other safe places along with other, mostly local groups like the Haqqani Network and Lashar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) etc.
The Reuters reported, on the eve of his China visit on October 28, 2014, Afghanistan president, Ashraf Ghani assured President Xi Jinping to help China in fighting against the Islamist militants.
There are also signals of increasing the US-Sino cooperation on combating international terrorism. Joint efforts in counter terrorism was one of the priorities among the agenda items during meeting between China president, Xi Jinpping and American president, Barak Obama, at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on November 12, 2014.
But divergence in states interests may dampen such international cooperation. The question is how Pakistani security agencies can effectively comb them out from the urban population and particularly, if protected by the good Taliban.
Similarly, without a shift by the Pakistan’s security establishment in its Afghan policy, and Afghanistan facing security challenges and instability from Taliban, how can Afghanistan be effective in denying sanctuaries on its respective soil?
The US has a different perspective than China’s definition of terrorism. The US, unlike China, excludes legitimate expression of peaceful political dissent from the definition of terrorism.
The US draws a line between counterterrorism and political persecution. Perhaps, on such grounds, the US had cleared 22 Uighurs from the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and ultimately repatriated them to Albania, Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and Pakistan. Experts of counterterrorism also point out to a lack of information sharing required for cooperation to combat terrorism.
Moreover, how much is China ready to create an enabling domestic political environment, hear dissenting voices and accommodate genuine political demands of the Uighurs? Uighurs complain that the heavy influx of Han Chinese has taken jobs from Uighur natives and pose a threat to submerge them culturally. The formidable challenge faced by the post 1990s China is accepting western economic model (market economy) san western political values ie political freedom and liberties. The fundamental question is not TEIM phenomenon, which might be an expression, but how long can the Mao’s political system sustain the western economic system?
Talimand Khan is Islamabad based researcher interested in climate change, migration, and peace and conflict research. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org, tweets @talimandkhan1
East Turkestan Islamic Movement : China Nightmare
By Talimand Khan