The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a militant Muslim separatist group in Xinjiang province in northwest China. The U.S. State Department listed the ETIM as a terrorist organization in 2002 during a period of increased U.S.-Chinese cooperation on antiterrorism matters in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Chinese authorities have called the group a threat (ChinaDaily) to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, but human rights organizations say this was exaggerated to allow the government to crush any form of dissent. However, some experts say the ETIM does pose a security threat. The question of China's vulnerability to terrorism resurfaced in July 2008 when a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) took credit for a series of attacks (Xinhua) in several Chinese cities, including deadly bus explosions in Shanghai and Kunming. The group also threatened to target the Beijing Olympics. Some counterterrorism experts claim the TIP was the ETIM using another name.
What is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement?
A small, militant Muslim separatist group based in western Xinjiang province of China—a vast, thinly populated region that shares borders with several countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ETIM is one of the more extreme groups founded by Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking ethnic majority in Xinjiang, seeking an independent state called East Turkestan. Most Uighurs, according to the U.S. State Department, do not support the movement to establish an independent East Turkestan. China’s communist regime, which fears that China could splinter if regional separatist movements gain ground, has long called the ETIM a terrorist group; after September 11, China warned the Bush administration that the ETIM had ties to al-Qaeda. In August 2002, after months of pressure from Beijing, the Bush administration announced it would freeze the group’s U.S. assets. But experts say detailed, reliable information about the ETIM is hard to come by, and they disagree about the extent of the ETIM’s terrorist activities and its ties to global terrorism.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-guhrs) are an ethnic minority group numbering about 8 million. Their ethnicity, language, and culture is more similar to the Turkic peoples of neighboring Central Asian republics. Although the ETIM seeks to establish an independent Islamic regime, the majority of Uighurs do not support an Islamic state.
Does the ETIM have ties to al-Qaeda?
U.S. and Chinese officials say it does, but some experts are less sure. The State Department reports that the ETIM has received “training and funding” from Osama bin Laden’s terror network and that ETIM militants fought in the ranks of al-Qaeda against the United States in the Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. officials are said to have gathered information about Uighur militants linked to al-Qaeda from twenty-two Uighurs captured in Afghanistan and detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Five of the detainees were released in 2006 and were accepted by Albania instead of repatriating to China.
In January 2002, a Chinese government study reported that the ETIM has received money, weapons, and support from al-Qaeda. According to the report, some ETIM militants were trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan , crossed back into Xinjiang, and set up terrorist cells there. But while experts agree hundreds of Uighurs left China to join al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, some China specialists doubt the ETIM currently has significant ties to bin Laden’s network. Beijing has a long history of falsifying data, they say, and since September 11 the Chinese have repeatedly tried to paint their own campaign against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang as a flank of the U.S.-led war on terrorism—and to get Washington to drop its long-standing protests over Chinese human rights abuses in its crackdowns in Xinjiang. ETIM leader Hahsan Mahsum was killed in raids on camps linked to al-Qaeda in 2003.
Does the ETIM target Americans?
The State Department says that in May 2002 two ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for allegedly plotting attacks on the U.S. embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, as well as other U.S. interests abroad.
What kinds of attacks has the group launched?
Little is known about which specific attacks were carried out by the ETIM, but China blames separatists in Xinjiang, including the ETIM, for more than 200 terror attacks between 1990 and 2001. Chinese authorities say Uighur terrorists have bombed buses, markets, and government institutions; assassinated local officials, Muslim leaders, and civilians; and burned down businesses, resulting in some 160 deaths and 440 injuries overall. James Millward of the East-West Center writes that the Chinese, while rightfully afraid of separatist violence, have “exaggerated” the threat to “crisis proportions,” contending that radical Uighur violence has not escalated since early 1998. Experts say that few attacks have been carried out since then.
Why did the United States decide to target the ETIM?
Experts disagree. State Department officials say they took a tougher line because of persuasive new evidence that the ETIM has financial links to al-Qaeda and has targeted U.S. interests abroad. But some experts call the sharp shift in U.S. policy on Xinjiang an obvious bid for warmer relations with China. The United States had repeatedly rebuked China for human rights violations in Xinjiang and resisted linking the post-September 11 war on terrorism with Chinese attempts to quash Uighur separatism. Skeptics note the timing: The Bush administration’s clampdown on the ETIM came as the United States sought to prevent a possible Chinese veto in any UN Security Council debate over Iraq, shortly after Chinese officials said they would tighten regulations on the export of missile-related technology, and before Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s scheduled October 2002 visit to President Bush’s Texas ranch.
How does China respond to the separatist movement?
The United States accused China of using terrorism concerns as an excuse to suppress political dissent in Xinjiang. Since September 11, China has beefed up military and police units in the region; detained thousands of suspected militants; and restricted religious rights, which are protected under China’s constitution. The U.S. State Department's human rights survey for 2007 says the Chinese government continued to tightly restrict Muslims' religious activity in Xinjiang.
Human rights groups are concerned that the U.S. characterization of the ETIM as a terrorist group has given the Chinese a free hand to repress Uighurs. Experts say that while some Uighurs want full independence, others simply want greater autonomy, economic opportunities, and better protection from human rights abuses and discrimination. Many Uighurs complain of harassment by Chinese authorities, who have reportedly closed mosques in Xinjiang.
Does the ETIM pose a threat to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing?
The Chinese government says it does, but human rights groups say China uses the security threat as an excuse to crack down on the Uighurs and other minorities. In July 2008, a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party released videos claiming responsibility for a series of deadly attacks and threatening the games. The Chinese authorities rejected the group's claims. The U.S.-based intelligence firm Stratfor says the TIP is another name for the ETIM. According to Stratfor, the TIP's "claims of responsibility appear exaggerated, but the threat TIP poses cannot be ignored." The firm also asserted that over the past year, the TIP had expanded its presence on the Internet, issuing videos calling for a jihad by Uighurs in Xinjiang. Ben N. Venzke, head of the U.S.-based independent terrorism monitoring firm IntelCenter, says it is not clear whether the TIP is a separate group or part of the ETIM. However, he says the group's objectives and goals are similar to those of the ETIM.
But others are not so convinced. Omer Kanat, senior editor of the Uighur service for U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia, says the TIP may not even be a Xinjiang-based Uighur group. "When you see the video you think it's a Uighur group but we have never heard of [the] TIP as a Uighur group," Kanat says. He suggests a possible affiliation between the TIP and the Islamic Party of Turkestan (GlobalSecurity.org), formerly known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU, a coalition of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states and a close affiliate of al-Qaeda, is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. The IMU changed its name to the Islamic Party of Turkestan in 2001, expanding its goal to the creation of an Islamic state in all of Central Asia.