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US & TERRORISM IN XINJIANG

Paper No. 499                        24.07.2002

by B. Raman

The annual report on the Patterns of Global Terrorism during 2001 of the Counter-Terrorism Division  of the US State Department states as follows on China's contribution to the war of the international coalition against terrorism:

 2. "Chinese officials strongly condemned the September 11 attacks and announced China would strengthen cooperation with the international community in fighting terrorism on the basis of the UN Charter and international law.  China voted in support of both UN Security Council resolutions after the attack.  Its vote for Resolution 1368 marked the first time it has voted in favor of authorizing the international use of force.  China also has taken a constructive approach to terrorism problems in South and Central Asia, publicly supporting the Coalition campaign in Afghanistan and using its influence with Pakistan to urge support for multinational efforts against the Taliban and al-Qaida.  China and the United States began a counterterrorism dialogue in late-September, which was followed by further discussions during Ambassador Taylor’s (Francis Taylor, the State Department's Counter-Terrorism Co-Ordinator) trip in December to Beijing.  The September 11 attacks added urgency to discussions held in Washington, DC, Beijing, and Hong Kong.  The results have been encouraging and concrete; the Government of China has approved establishment of an FBI Legal Attache in Beijing and agreed to create US-China counterterrorism working groups on financing and law enforcement.

3. "In the wake of the attacks, Chinese authorities undertook a number of measures to improve China’s counterterrorism posture and domestic security.  These included increasing its vigilance in Xinjiang, western China, where Uighur separatist groups have conducted violent attacks in recent years, to include increasing the readiness levels of its military and police units in the region.  China also bolstered Chinese regular army units near the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan to block terrorists fleeing from Afghanistan and strengthening overall domestic preparedness.  At the request of the United States, China conducted a search within Chinese banks for evidence to attack terrorist financing mechanisms.

4. "A number of bombing attacks—some of which were probably separatist-related—occurred in China in 2001.  Bomb attacks are among the most common violent crimes in China due to the scarcity of firearms and the wide availability of explosives for construction projects.

5. "China has expressed concern that Islamic extremists operating in and around the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region who are opposed to Chinese rule received training, equipment, and inspiration from al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Several press reports claimed that Uighurs trained and fought with Islamic groups in the former Soviet Union, including Chechnya.

6. "Two groups in particular are cause for concern: the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP) and the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (or Sharki Turkestan Azatlik Tashkilati, known by the acronym SHAT).  ETIP was founded in the early 1980s with the goal of establishing an independent state of Eastern Turkestan and advocates armed struggle.  SHAT’s members have reportedly been involved in various bomb plots and shootouts.

7. "Uighurs were found fighting with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We are aware of credible reports that some Uighurs who were trained by al-Qaida have returned to China.

8. "Previous Chinese crackdowns on ethnic Uighurs and others in Xinjiang raised concerns about possible human-rights abuses.  The United States has made clear that a counterterrorism campaign cannot serve as a substitute for addressing legitimate social and economic aspirations," the report concluded.

9. This positive portrayal of the Chinese contribution to the war against international terrorism was, however, not reflected in any action by the US against any terrorist groups of concern to China.  No known terrorist/extremist organisation of Xinjiang figures in either the list of 33 designated Foreign Terrorist Organisations or in the list of other terrorist organisations not so designated appended to the State Department report.  No organisation or individual connected with acts of terrorism in Xinjiang figures in the list updated as on July 18,2002, of suspected individuals or organisations against whom financial sanctions (freezing of accounts) are to be enforced by banks.

10. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Abu Sayyaf of the southern Philippines have been designated as  Foreign Terrorist Organisations under the US law of 1996, but not  the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party, though all the  three are members of Osama bin Laden's  International Islamic Front For Jehad Against the USA and Israel.  In initiating action, either for designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation or for action under the UN Security Council Resolution No. 1373 in respect of bank accounts, the US and the European Union have focussed essentially on terrorist organisations, which are perceived by them as international in nature or which are seen as posing a threat to their nationals and interests.  Terrorist organisations viewed by them as purely indigenous have been excluded. These multiple yardsticks have been used vis-a-vis China as well as India.

11. Thus, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), all three Pakistan-based,  have been designated as Foreign Terrorist Organisations and the Harkat-ul-Jehad-Al-Islami (HUJI), also Pakistan-based, figures in the list of other terrorist organisations not so designated, but indigenous Kashmiri terrorist organisations such as the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) etc have escaped action.  Action has also been taken against the Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), apparently because of their past involvement in acts of terrorism outside Indian territory such as the explosion on board the Kanishka plane of Air India in June,1985 and the attempt to kill Indian Ambassador Ribeiro in Bucharest in 1991, but the other Sikh terrorist organisations such as the Khalistan Commando Force have been excluded.

12. Despite China's support to the international coalition against terrorism led by the US, Washington continues to maintain its ambivalence vis-a-vis the Uighur separatist groups and avoids identifying them as terrorists  as Beijing would like it to do.  After a meeting at Beijing on December 6, 2001, with Chinese Vice Foreign Ministers Li Zhaoxing and Wang Yi,  Francis Taylor, the Counter-terrorism Co-ordinator of the US State Department,  said: "The legitimate economic and social issues that confront the people in Western China are not necessarily terrorist issues and should be resolved politically rather than using counterterrorism methods."

13. After October 7, 2001, the Chinese Government, which previously had been playing down the frequent incidents of violence in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), started playing them up and projecting them as due to East Turkestan terrorists, who formed part of the international terrorism network and hence should be a legitimate target of the international coalition.  It repeatedly urged that the Uighurs captured by the US in Afghanistan should be handed over to the Chinese authorities for trial as terrorists, a request which has not yet been accepted by the US.  Addressing a press conference at Beijing in the beginning of November, 2001,Zhang Qiyue, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, claimed that there were  hundreds of Uighurs in Afghanistan. The "Xinjiang Daily" published a detailed report on acts the Government considered as "terrorism" in Xinjiang over the past decade.  She said that the "East Turkestan" terrorist force had close links with international terrorist forces and that "at least several hundred of these separatist-minded terrorists" once received training in Afghanistan.  She added that China was willing to make joint efforts with the international community to fight against all manners of terrorism, "including the 'East Turkestan' terrorist force."

14. Following the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Forum held in Shanghai after the start of the US operations in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said: "Terrorism should be cracked down upon, whenever and wherever it occurs, whoever organizes it, whoever is targeted and whatever forms it takes.  "Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said during the APEC summit in Shanghai  that the Al Qaeda had even sent some of the East Turkestan terrorists  to fight in Chechnya.  Official Chinese media reported that during their meeting on the fringes of the APEC summit, Jiang and  Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that "Chechnya and East Turkestan terrorist activities are part of international terrorism."

15. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao urged during a media briefing that the international community "should hold a uniform stance and consistent attitude in opposing and combating international terrorism.  " Apparently to satisfy the Chinese, the statement on terrorism issued by the APEC summit  condemned "murderous deeds as well as other terrorist acts in all forms and manifestations, committed wherever, whenever and by whomsoever.  " However, in remarks to the media before and after a bilateral meeting with Jiang in Shanghai, President Bush reiterated the US position as follows without specifically referring to Uighur terrorism:"The war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities;"  "ethnic minorities must know that their rights will be safeguarded-that their churches, temples and mosques belong to them."

16. Briefing the media in Beijing after a party conference on March,11, 2002, Abdulait Abuderexit, the Chairman of the  Xinjiang provincial Administration, made the following points:   

* Separatists in Xinjiang at home or abroad got both material and financial support from some extreme terror organizations abroad, and violent actions that had taken place in Xinjiang received financial aid from overseas.

* "During the US anti-terror war in Afghanistan, we did find some separatists in Xinjiang who joined some training programs abroad.  Chinese police had caught some terrorists who returned to Xinjiang secretly after receiving training in the terrorist camps of Afghanistan and some other countries.  The police of those countries concerned had also extradited and handed some of those terrorists to China."

* The paper on the East Turkestan terrorist forces issued by the State Council Information Office had made it clear that various terrorist activities had been under way in Xinjiang since the 1950s.  Incomplete statistics showed that from 1990 to 2001, the East Turkestan terrorist forces inside and outside Chinese territory were responsible for over 200 terrorist incidents in Xinjiang, resulting in the deaths of 162 people of all ethnic groups, including grass-roots officials and religious personnel, and injuries to more than 440 people.

17. There are nearly a hundred organisations, which keep popping up from time to time claimimg to represent different sections of the Uighurs in Xinjiang as well as outside and to be fighting on their behalf.  It is difficult to say whether all such organisations exist in reality or whether many of these are merely letter-head organisations, which exist only on paper.  India faced a similar situation in Jammu & Kashmir in the early 1990s when nearly a hundred organisations popped up overnight.  Most of these were subsequently found to be figments of imagination.

18. Amongst the major terrorist/extremist organisations of Xinjiang identified so far are  the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party, the Eastern Turkestan People's Revolutionary Party, the Eastern Turkestan Independence Organization, the Eastern Turkestan Grey Wolf Party, the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Front ,the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, which could be identical with the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party, the Home of East Turkestan Youth, which is described by some analysts as the Hamas of Xinjiang,as highly motivated and as radical as the Hamas, the Turkey-based East Turkestan National Center, headed by by Reza Berken, a retired Uighur Colonel of  the Turkish Army, and the Committee for Eastern Turkestan, based in  Kazakhstan.

19. The Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party (Sharki Turkistan Islam Partiyesi), based in the cities of Kashgar and Hoten, is supported mainly by religious fundamentalist elements, conservative forces and some farmers.  The Eastern Turkestan Revolutionary Party (Sharki Turkistan Inkalavi Partiyesi), in Urumchi and Ghulja, claims the support of  writers, progressive students and other intellectuals.  The Eastern Turkestan Independence Organization (Sharki Turkistan Azatlik Teshkilati) is centered in Hoten.  It claims the support of some young farmers, unemployed Uighurs and young officials.  The Eastern Turkestan Grey Wolf Party (Sharki Turkistan Bozkurt Partiyesi) used to have  some following  in Urumchi.  It is believed in Xinjiang that the Uighurs descended from a wolf and hence its name.  This party, reportedly backed  by  teachers,students and other intellectuals, was said to be Turkic-oriented.  The Eastern Turkestan Liberation Front (Sharki Turkistan Azatlik Fronti) reportedly has a presence in the cities of Turfan and Kumul and is supported by unemployed Uighur youth, farmers and intellectuals.  Of these organisations, only the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party and the Home of East Turkestan Youth seem to be oriented towards religious extremism and pan-Islamism.  The relative support enjoyed by these organisations amongst the local people and their respective roles in acts of violence in Xinjiang are difficult to establish.

20. Some of these organisations have ideological and possibly even operational link-ups with the  Hizb-e Tehrir (HT) or Party of Liberation, which is not based in Xinjiang and  which projects itself, without convincing proof, as  the largest and the most popular Islamic movement with following in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and  which has been fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the historical region once known as Turkestan, encompassing the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China, often referred to as Eastern Turkestan, and the Central Asian Republics (CARS), referred to as Western Turkestan.  They are also reported to have links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which, according to Russian media reports not independently corroborated, has re-named itself since June, 2001, as the  Hizb-i-Islami Turkestan, or the Islamic Party of Turkestan, and re-formulated its objective as the creation of  an Islamic republic out of the five Central Asian Republics and the XUAR of China.

21. The problem of terrorism/religious extremism faced by China in Xinjiang has certain similarities with that  faced by India in the Punjab in the past and in J&K presently.  The first similarity relates to the role of some members of the diaspora in fomenting terrorism.  In India, Sikh terrorism in the Punjab was initially started by some members of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, the USA, the UK and other Western countries, with the encouragement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the USA's Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) during the Nixon Administration, but it could never gather much support from amongst the Sikh population of Punjab.  This facilitated the counter-terrorism operations of the Punjab Police.  On the contrary, terrorism in J&K was initially started by indigenous elements with the support of the Kashmiris in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), with very little involvement of the Kashmiri (essentially Mirpuri) diaspora in the West.  In Xinjiang, the role of the Uighur diaspora in the Central Asian Republics (CARs), Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West in fomenting terrorist violence and political destabilisation has been as considerable as in the case of the Sikh diaspora in the  Indian Punjab.

22. The Uighur organisations claim that there are presently about  500,000 Uighurs living in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.  About  200,000 of them are in Kazakhstan of whom a half live in Almaty.  It is alleged that an umbrella organisation called the Inter-State Uighur Union (Uygurlarning Devletlerara Ittifaki), headed by  Kahraman Gojamberdi, acts as the front organisation of the Europe-based Eastern Turkestani Union in the CARs and mobilises the support of the diaspora for the so-called struggle against Beijing through  an Eastern Turkestani Fund and an International Eastern Turkestani Coordination Center.

23. Beijing has been particularly concerned over what it apparently perceives as the failure of the authorities of Kyrgyzstan to act effectively against Uighur trouble-makers from Kyrgyz territory.  In 1998, Uighurs in Kyrgyzstan  staged a protest demonstration against China in Bishkek. In a protest note to the Kyrgyzstan government, Pan Chan Lin, the Chinese Ambassador, said  that "certain forces in Kyrgyzstan are harboring subversive aims against China" and  that "this kind of subversive activity on the soil of Kyrgyzstan will harm the warm friendship between Bishkek and Beijing.  " In March 2000, the head of the Uighur community in Kyrgyzstan, Nigmat Bazakov, was assassinated, according to Kyrygz officials, for refusing to back an Uighur separatist group.  Last January, a court in Kyrgyzstan condemned to death an Uzbek militant fighting alongside Uighur separatists for Bazakov's murder.  On July 1, 2002, a Chinese diplomat posted in Bishkek and his driver were reportedly assassinated.  It is not yet clear who was responsible for the assassination.

24. The second similarity relates to the external causes of aggravation of the terrorist violence in Xinjiang.  Just as in J & K, in Xinjiang too, there are two distinct terrorist/extremist movements---one resorting to violence on ethnic grounds to assert the Uighur ethnic identity against the perceived Han Chinese domination and the other using religious and pan-Islamic arguments to justify violence for the establishment of an independent Islamic State.  While the ethnic separatist elements have been the beneficiaries of sympathy and support from the Dalai Lama's set-up and the Tibetan diaspora abroad, and the US, Taiwanese and Turkish intelligence agencies, the religious fundamentalist elements have been in receipt of support from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed jehadi organisations in Pakistan, the Taliban and bin Laden's International Islamic Front For Jehad Against the USA and Israel.

25. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA had built up a network of contacts with the Uighur separatist elements and some of those, who had in the past worked for the Munich-based Radio Liberty of the CIA such as Erkin Alptekin, chairman of the Europe-based Eastern Turkestani Union  and a close Uighur associate of the Dalai Lama, are now in the forefront of the ethnic separatist movement.

26. On October 16, 1998, what was billed as the First International Conference of the Allied Committee of the Peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia was held  at the Columbia University in New York.  Some officials of the Clinton  administration and some pro-Dalai Lama  members of the US Congress were amongst the  100 participants.  Rinchen Darlo, the New York representative of  the Dalai Lama, opened the conference and read out messages from the Dalai Lama and Isa Yusuf Alptekin (since dead), father of Erkin Alptekin.  The Dalai Lama expressed his support for the Allied Committee and said in his message: "Though Mongolians and Tibetans share a common religion and religious heritage, our ties to the people of Eastern Turkestan are no less.  Our three peoples are tied together by geography and history, and these days unfortunately by the Chinese occupation of our countries.  During the last few years we have seen momentous changes come to the world.  The Soviet empire has collapsed, and in its wake many formerly oppressed nations have regained their freedom and independence... In view of these changes, I remain optimistic that not too far in the future the true aspirations of the peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Inner Mongolia and Tibet will be fulfilled, and I am confident that the people of Eastern Turkestan, Inner Mongolia and Tibet will contribute to peace, prosperity and stability of not only China, but Asia as a whole."

27. The late  Isa Yusuf Alptekin, based in Turkey, said in his message:" The peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia believe that the United States is in an unique position to play an important role in this matter.  Therefore, I kindly request the people of the United States, the United States Congress, the Administration and the press to give due ear to the free voice of our peoples - the Allied Committee.  I have devoted my entire life to bring the plight of my peoples to the attention of the Free World.  I am almost 95 years old, have lost my eyesight, and God only knows how long I have to live.  But one thing is very clear to me: even if I pass away the Allied Committee under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, our common spokesman, my brother and my sincere friend, will carry on the non-violent struggle of the peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia with strong determination."

28. Erkin Alptekin,the first Chairman of the Allied Committee, urged the USA to persuade the Chinese leadership to begin negotiations to defuse the tense situation in Eastern Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia peacefully and to the mutual satisfaction of all parties.  He called on the UN to send a fact-finding mission to these areas.  He also called on the Chinese leaders to sit down with representatives from Eastern Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia in an effort to encourage stability and prosperity among the Chinese people and freedom and happiness among the peoples of these three countries. Amongst others who spoke were Foreign Minister Tenzing Tethong of the Exile Government of Tibet,the President of the Inner Mongolia League for the Defense of Human Rights, Shobsood Temsiltu, Prof. James Seymore of  the Columbia University, Professor Yan Jia-qi also of the Columbia University, Prof. Robert Thurman, also of the Columbia University, Dr. Shevket Karaduman, president of the Federation of Turkish American Associations, Omer Kanat, a representative of Eastern Turkestan, Gyaltsen Gyaltag, representative of the Dalai Lama in Europe, and  Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama in Washington DC.

29. In February,1998, Anwar Yusuf, President of the Eastern Turkistan National Freedom Center, visited Taiwan at the invitation of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations, reportedly a US-based organisation, along with Erkin Alptekin; Professor Thubtin Jigme Norbu, elder brother of  the Dalai Lama; Tashi Jamyangling, former Home Secretary of the Tibetan Government in exile; and Johnar Bache, Vice Chairman of the Southern Mongolian People's Party.  They met Liu Sung-pan, the then President of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan; Shui-Bian Chen, the then Mayor of Taipei; and Frank C.T. Hsieh, the then Mayor of Kaosiung.

30. The Turkish intelligence has allegedly been funding the World Turkic Friendship, Brotherhood and Cooperation Conference held periodically to highlight the Turkic identity.

31. Despite publicly unarticulated concerns over the encouragement received by the ethnic separatist elements from governmental and non-governmental organisations in the USA and the European Union member-States, the Chinese have been co-operating with the US in its war against terrorism in Afghanistan in the hope that the success of the US counter-terrorism strikes against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda could help them in their own operations against the pan-Islamic elements in Xinjiang.  They have reasons to be concerned over the dregs of the Al Qaeda and other members of the International Islamic Front gravitating towards POK and the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) as this could add to their security problems in Xinjiang.  The recent grenade attack  in Pakistan  by  suspected pro-bin Laden terrorists  on a party of German and other tourists travelling by the Karakoram Highway to Xinjiang would indicate the presence of some of these dregs in the vicinity of Pakistan's border with Xinjiang.

32. Despite their support to the USA in its war against terrorism, the Chinese  are concerned over the possibility of the USA taking advantage of the war to establish a permanent military and intelligence presence in the CARs as this would enable the US intelligence agencies to keep alive the ethnic separatist elements in Xinjiang by working through the Uighur diaspora in the CARs.  However, the Chinese have not yet openly expressed these concerns.

33. It is difficult to quantify the extent of the influence of bin Laden and his International Islamic Front on the pan-Islamic elements in Xinjiang. The Chinese themselves have been estimating the number of Uighurs trained in Afghanistan by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda before October 7, 2001, as about 1,000, but this appears to be an over-estimation.  On the basis of the present evidence from Pakistan, the number cannot be more than 100.

34. India should have reasons to be concerned over the Dalai Lama's hobnobbing with the pan-Islamic elements in Xinjiang.  One cannot avoid suspecting that the influence of these elements must have been behind his participation in a conference organised in Chennai last year  by some elements, which have been acting as apologists for Gen.Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani military dictator, which was attended by a representative of the Huryiat of J&K and a large number of Pakistanis, some of them retired Pakistani military officers.  The Dalai Lama's set-up subsequently denied or played down some of the controversial remarks attributed to him at the conference.

35. The Government of India should consider conveying to the Dalai Lama its unhappiness and concern over his association with pan-Islamic  elements in Xinjiang.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com )

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