Removed From Terror List by Trump, Uyghur Bin Ladenites See Biden as Ally in Fight Against China
Have already served as CIA's de facto useful battering ram against the Syrian government
Militant Uyghur separatists, whose vanguard group was removed from a U.S. list of terrorist organizations by former President Donald Trump, now see President Joe Biden as an ally in their decades-long fight against China.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 passed Saturday, the lingering blowback of the unprecedented attacks remains with the United States in a myriad of ongoing measures adopted in tandem with the still-raging “war on terror.”
Among them is the Terrorist Exclusion List, which was established as part of the Patriot Act to impose travel restrictions on those suspected or accused of being or having ties to transnational militants.
Over the past two decades, only three groups have been removed from this list. The most recent was Trump’s removal of the Uyghur separatist group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also called the East Turkestan Islamic Party. [In Syria’s Idlib Turkestan Islamic Party is merged at the hip with Syrian Al-Qaeda; Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). While CIA didn’t arm TIP or HTS directly they armed and finances smaller groups that shared trenches with the two and were subordinate to them.[
The controversial decision on November 6, 2020 came on the backdrop of worsening friction in U.S.-China relations, which deteriorated throughout the Trump administration. The move also came amid simmering domestic turmoil three days after the U.S. presidential election, and a day before most media outlets called the race for Joe Biden.
The group remains off the list under the Biden administration. A spokesperson for the Turkestan Islamic Party’s political office said the group believed to be ETIM’s alias or successor now sees a partner in Washington’s current leadership and the continued U.S. policy of confronting China on alleged human rights violations based on religious and ethnic discrimination in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese have neither religious nor moral books,” the spokesperson for the Turkestan Islamic Party told Newsweek. “If today China is not banned on Earth, tomorrow the world will witness the burning of the Torah and the Bible by the Chinese and the transformation of churches into animal stables, just as our mosques, our Quranic books and our human rights are violated today.”
“So we hope that not only the U.S. government,” the spokesperson added, “but also all countries and all people will take action against the Chinese government.”
ETIM seeks to establish an Islamic state for the Uyghur minority across China’s northwestern Xinjiang province and its periphery.
The spokesperson clarified that the group’s struggle was directed not at the entirety of China’s 1.4 billion people but at the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which the Turkestan Islamic Party wishes to see overthrown.
“The Chinese people need not be punished for the mistakes committed by the Chinese government,” the spokesperson said. “The Chinese people should overthrow this tyrannical Chinese government themselves.”
China, the world’s most populous country, is home to 56 recognized ethnic communities, including a Han majority and scores of minorities, among them the largely Muslim Uyghur population, mostly centered in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province in the northwest, which shares a border with Afghanistan and seven other countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan.
Home to some of China’s most important energy reserves and infrastructure, Xinjiang has also hosted a violent insurgency among Uyghurs seeking to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
“East Turkestan is the land of the Uyghurs,” the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson said. “After the Chinese government occupied our homeland by force, they forced us to leave our homeland because of their oppression against us. The whole world knows that East Turkestan has always been the land of the Uyghurs.”
Attacks in the name of the Uyghur separatist cause began in the 1990s and continued for more than a quarter-century, killing both civilians and police while threatening the stability of the world’s fastest rising power and soon-to-be top economy. China responded with a massive crackdown, and by 2017 had established a series of mass detainment centers known officially as vocational education and training centers to stamp out radical currents among the Uyghur population.
International critics claim these centers are concentration camps, a characterization that Chinese officials strongly reject but Uyghur separatists generally support.
“We are not terrorists like the Chinese government that targets innocents,” the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson argued. “The Chinese government should leave the land of East Turkestan by the peaceful path.”
But the spokesperson would not rule out the use of violence to achieve the group’s political aims.
“If they choose the path of war without leaving peacefully,” the spokesperson said, “then we have the right to choose all kinds of paths in order to restore our homeland.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson in June confirmed ETIM’s removal from the Terrorist Exclusion List.
The explanation was simple.
“ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist,” the spokesperson told Newsweek.
The State Department linked its current assessment directly to Washington’s critical view of China’s policy toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang and abroad, which the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, believes constitutes a “genocide.”
“We assess that ETIM is now a broad label China uses to inaccurately paint a variety of Uighur actors, including non-violent activists and advocates for human rights, as terrorist threats,” the spokesperson said. “China often labels individuals and groups as terrorists on the basis of their political and religious beliefs, even if they do not advocate violence.” [Which is true but there are people who go by that name who use violence including against civilians.]
That non-terrorist assessment came despite the fact that the Pentagon continued to regard ETIM as an active threat at least as recently as February 2018, when the Pentagon said U.S. forces conducted airstrikes against the group in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan.
A report published later that year by the congressionally mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted that ETIM is “also referred to as the Turkestan Islamic Party,” and constituted “an Islamist Uighur separatist movement from China that operates along the border with Afghanistan.”
It remains unclear whether or not the U.S. officially considers ETIM and the Turkestan Islamic Party to be separate groups, but it has regarded both as hostile to the U.S.
On its online travel portal in the country information page for the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan, the State Department specifically warns of the activity of the Turkestan Islamic Party along with other militant groups in the region.
“Extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al-Qaida remain active in Central Asia, and the Turkistan Islamic Party remains active in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region,” the report reads. “These groups have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments and may attempt to target U.S. government or private interests in the region.”
In addition to China, a number of nations and international organizations consider ETIM and/or the Turkestan Islamic Party a terrorist organization, including the European Union, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
In July 2020, Sam Mullins, a professor of counterterrorism at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, called the Turkestan Islamic Party “the primary Uyghur terrorist organization currently operating in Afghanistan and Syria” in an article published by the U.S. Air Force Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.
A U.N. Security Council report published this May on the presence of militant groups in Afghanistan also discussed an ETIM presence there, noting that a “number of Member States identify this group as the Turkistan Islamic Party, which is a widely accepted alias of ETIM.”
“Many Member States assess that it seeks to establish a Uighur state in Xinjiang, China, and towards that goal, facilitates the movement of fighters from Afghanistan to China,” the report said.
It also warned of an increasing flow of ETIM fighters from Syria to Afghanistan.
“Another Member State reported that the group has also established corridors for moving fighters between the Syrian Arab Republic, where the group exists in far larger numbers, and Afghanistan, to reinforce its combat strength,” the report said.
Much of the Turkestan Islamic Party’s attention in recent years appears to have been focused on Syria, another country in which the U.S. backed an anti-government rebellion that splintered into factions with ties to Al-Qaeda, and later with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
But as the Syrian government, supported by Iran and Russia, continue to bombard the last insurgent-held outpost of Idlib, Uyghur separatists appear to have a renewed interest in Afghanistan.
And ETIM has a long history there.
In the 1980s, the group took inspiration from mujahideen that received support from the U.S. in their struggle against a Soviet incursion. China also backed the Muslim rebels, and when the Soviet Union left and its allied communist administration in Kabul collapsed, both Washington and Beijing felt the effects, as the Xinjiang insurgency in neighboring China soon erupted, accompanied by global Al-Qaeda plots and the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Now, with the Taliban back in power, China fears ETIM and other militant groups could again take advantage of the situation to wreak havoc on the People’s Republic.
“Some terrorist groups have gathered and developed in Afghanistan over the past two decades, posing a serious threat to international and regional peace and security,” Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Newsweek. “In particular, as an international terrorist organization listed by the UN Security Council, the ETIM poses an immediate threat to the security of China and its people.”
In an effort to avoid this outcome, Chinese officials have courted the as yet unrecognized Taliban leadership in a bid to ensure that they cut all ties with groups posing a threat to China and neighboring nations. Liu said such assurances were offered by Taliban Political Bureau chief Abdul Ghani Baradar, now the Islamic Emirate’s first deputy prime minister, during his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tinjian in July.
“The head of the Afghan Taliban made it clear to the Chinese side that the Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts that hurt China,” Liu said. “The Afghan Taliban should earnestly honor its commitment, make a clean break with all terrorist organizations, resolutely fight against the ETIM and clear the way for regional security, stability, development and cooperation.”
He said China was “following closely” the establishment of the interim Taliban government announced on Tuesday, looking for a peaceful outcome that excludes the presence of militant groups like ETIM.
“China sincerely hopes all parties of Afghanistan can echo the eager aspiration of the Afghan people and common expectation of the international community, build an open and inclusive political structure, adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, make a clear break with terrorist organizations in all forms and live in good terms with all countries, especially neighboring countries,” Liu said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington also referred Newsweek to the joint statement adopted during a first-ever summit of the six nations that border Afghanistan: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Beyond ETIM, the language also made reference to other regional blacklisted armed organizations, including Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Baloch Liberation Army, both of which have been implicated in a recent spate of attacks against Chinese citizens and interests in Pakistan.
The statement “emphasized that Afghanistan’s territory should not be allowed to pose a threat to other countries,” and “reiterated that terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, ETIM, TTP, BLA, Jondollah and others should not be allowed to maintain a foothold on Afghanistan’s territory.”
Several unclaimed attacks in Pakistan have already targeted Chinese citizens.
And the Turkestan Islamic Party, like ISIS, continues to make aspirational references in its public messaging to the historic “Khorasan” region that encompasses Afghanistan and its Central Asian periphery.
It is here that the group sees the U.S. as contributing to the anti-China campaign by withdrawing from the two-decade war effort in Afghanistan.
“The United States is a strong country, it has its own strategy, and we see the withdrawal of the American government today from this war in Afghanistan, which is incurring huge economic losses, as a means of confronting China, who are the enemy of all humanity and religions on the face of the Earth,” the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson, who did not comment on the distinction with ETIM, said.
“We believe that the opposition of the United States to China will not only benefit the Turkestan Islamic Party and the people of Turkestan,” the spokesperson added, “but also all mankind.”
And now the group seeks clarity on Washington’s position in order to calculate upcoming moves.
“We want to know the U.S. administration’s opinion of the Turkestan Islamic Party in the future on confronting the oppressive China, and we want to know whether the U.S. government supports the Uyghur cause or not?” the spokesperson said.
“We want to know the strategy of the U.S. government against the Chinese government in the future in order to move comfortably,” the spokesperson added, “because we see that no one is confronting the unjust China except the American government.”