Uyghur Militants in Eurasia a potential threat - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 28 Oct 2018 1 Comment

Turkestan. And what do you know about Turkestan? It is a wounded body with swollen eyes and bitter agony. Although the West commits crimes against the Muslims from time to time, and their crimes become known to media outlets (people hear and see about the crimes), Muslims rise to aid their brothers with every method and trick. However, the crimes committed by the pagan Chinese against the Muslims in Turkestan are carried out in silence and in the most despicable ways. ... It is a duty for Muslims today to stand by their oppressed and wounded brothers in East Turkestan, and support and aid them with everything they can.

—Sheikh Abu-Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda: No. 2 commander, Oct. 6, 2009 (video entitled, “East Turkestan: The Forgotten Wound”)


After years of low-intensity media coverage of Uyghur militants’ activities in Syria, in Eurasia and even in China’s western province of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), increased activity by Chinese authorities in XUAR recently to tamp down Uyghur nationalism has begun to push the issue of Uyghur militancy into the spotlight. Beijing’s intent is apparently to prevent further growth of militancy among the Uyghurs, and China is perhaps reacting to the reported presence of more than 5,000 Uyghur militants in Syria fighting against the al-Assad regime under the banners of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).


Although neither the size nor the fighting ability of the Uyghur militants in Syria can be fully corroborated, Eurasian policymakers worry that the migration of these dedicated fighters to Eurasia could set back efforts to bring stability in Afghanistan. And since these militants have long identified the Chinese authorities as their principal enemy, they could make China’s Belt and Road transport links, running through Eurasia on their way to Europe from China, wholly dysfunctional.


Moreover, in Afghanistan and in the Central Asian countries where pockets of militants operate using a variety of slogans and objectives (and are financed via drug trafficking and smuggling activities in the region), the addition of another group of militants dedicated to undermining China’s efforts in the region could prove detrimental for all nations in the region. In the following, we review the evidence and discuss how the potential threat of Uyghur militancy could become a real threat to Eurasia.


What We Know


There are reports that the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP)—the Afghan version of the Arabia-based ISIS—is firming up its foothold in eastern Afghanistan, particularly in Nangarhar province, and was recently working to set up an enclave in northern Afghanistan’s Jowzan province bordering Turkmenistan. Since ISKP is a sworn enemy of both the Taliban and the Kabul government, it is likely that the group is either already in league with TIP militants or would team up with TIP in the future.


Another militant group active in northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 2014 IMU pledged its allegiance to the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Uzbekistan has also become a recruitment hub for ISIS in the Middle East. It was estimated that in 2017 approximately 1,500 Uzbeks travelled to the Middle East to join ISIS ranks. The gains the ISKP group has made in northern Afghanistan can be attributed to the IMU’s pledge to ISIS and their close proximity to the ISIS franchise in Afghanistan. IMU already had a presence in northern Afghanistan, courtesy of porous Afghan-Central Asia borders. Still further north, near Russia, Kazakhstan is considered a potential recruitment pool for ISIS. More than 300 Kazakhs have joined ISIS ranks in Iraq and Syria. (ISIS in Afghanistan is Moving North, Not South: Stewart Webb: Defence Report: Apr 4 2018)


There are also reports that IMU has allied with TIP. IMU members have previously fought alongside the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and they currently fight alongside ISKP. The Ferghana Valley, where the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik borders converge, has always been a fertile recruiting ground for the IMU, which successfully exploited the widespread poverty in the region in its recruitment strategy. IMU’s ability to draw recruits has increased following their alliance with the ISIS. The IMU has generated funds through drug trafficking, racketeering and solicitation of donations abroad. A decade ago, in May 2008, French, German and Dutch authorities detained 10 individuals suspected of running a network to funnel money to the IMU in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Jan. 8, 2013, a French court sentenced Turkish/Dutch national Irfan Demirtas to eight years in prison for leading a network that French prosecutors said had raised at least 300,000 Euros for IMU, with more than half of that specifically designated for jihad. Eight others belonging to the group received lesser sentences. (Australian National Security: Australian Government)


In addition to the presence of these larger terrorist organizations, the Eurasian region is also host to many smaller terrorist groups. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid said: “U.S. intelligence reports cite more than 20 terrorist groups now active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of them originally from Central Asia. Groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are allied with the ISIS, yet also fight for the Taliban. The United States is deploying up to 1,000 more Special Forces and trainers to help the Afghan army, bringing total US-NATO strength to an estimated 15,000 troops.” (A New Dawn in Uzbekistan? Ahmed Rashid: The New York Review of Books: Mar 27 2018)


Who Are the Uyghurs?


The origins of the Uyghur people may be traced back to the Uyghur khanate of the 8th century A.D. The khanate broke away from the Turkic Empire and settled across the Tian Shan Mountains, in the area of the modern-day Chinese cities of Urumchi and Tarpan. In 1932 a local Uyghur warlord, who turned out to be a downright rascal, established the group’s semi-autonomous status during China’s Qing dynasty. The mess created by this warlord resulted in widespread rebellion in 1933 and brought into the rebellious group various ethnic varieties of Chinese who lived there at that time. The short-lived and ill-administered rule of this warlord ended with takeover by a military commander. According to some observers, this commander survived with the blessings of then-Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin until 1944, when he was finally replaced by a Kuomintang (KMT) governor for Xinjiang province.


The KMT retained control of the south until the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) takeover in 1949, when the KMT governor surrendered, leaving the Uyghur leaders as the CCP’s only rival for power in Xinjiang. Following a July 1949 meeting in Ghulja with a representative from the new People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Uyghur leadership was invited to Beijing for further consultation. Reports indicate that the plane carrying the Uyghur leaders crashed en route on Sept. 3, 1949, killing all aboard. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had already moved into the province, taking control of northern Xinjiang.


The arrival of the CCP led to the departure of many thousands of Uyghurs, who were dedicated to the concept of “pan-Turkism” and its goal of recreating a band of Turkic-speaking states stretching across Central Asia from the homeland of Ankara to Xinjiang. Although many thousands of Uyghurs have left China, about 11.5 million still live in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country. It is not clear how many live outside of China; but majority of the Uyghur expatriates live in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, along China’s western borders. (The Uyghurs: Britain’s Double-Edged Razor to Cut Up China and Beyond: Ramtanu Maitra: EIR: Apr 11 2008)


In essence, the Uyghurs are Turkic people native to Central Asia who inhabit parts of the Tarim, Junghar and Turpan basins. Uyghurs themselves refer to this area as variously “Uyghuristan,” “East Turkestan” and, sometimes, “Chinese Turkestan.” The area encompasses some 2,000 kms from East to West and 1,650 kms North to South—bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as well as China’s Gansu and Qinghai provinces and Tibet Autonomous Region. (Who are the Uyghurs: Radio Free Asia: July 9 2009)


Spotlight on the Uyghurs


On Aug. 10 in Geneva, during a two-day annual review of human rights in China, Vice-Chairwoman of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination UNCERD) Gay McDougall expressed “deep concern” over the situation facing Muslim Uyghurs in China. She said credible reports suggest that China’s approach to combating religious extremism “has changed the Uyghur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no rights zone.” McDougall also claimed that as many as 2 million more Uyghurs in China’s XUAR were being forced into “political camps for indoctrination” (1 million Uyghurs in Chinese ‘internment camps,’ UN hears: Deutsche Welle: Aug. 10 2018).


UNCERD’s Aug. 30 report on the “discriminatory” situation in XUAR, noting the following:

“(a) Numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism. The Committee regrets that there is no official data on how many people are in long-term detention or have been forced to spend varying periods in political ‘re-education camps’ for even nonthreatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture like daily greetings. Estimates about them range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million. The Committee also notes that the delegation stated that vocational training centers exist for people who committed minor offences without qualifying what this means;


“(b) Reports of mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs, including through frequent baseless police stops and the scanning of mobile phones at police checkpoint stations. Additional reports of mandatory collection of extensive biometric data in XUAR, including DNA samples and iris scans, of large groups of Uyghur residents;


“(c) Reports that all XUAR residents are required to hand in their travel documents to police and apply for permission to leave the country, and that permission may not come for years. This restriction impacts most heavily on those who wish to travel for religious purposes;


“(d) Reports that many Uyghurs abroad who left China have allegedly been returned to the country against their will. There are fears about the current safety of those involuntarily returned to China.


“(e) While acknowledging the State party’s denials, the Committee takes note of reports that Uyghur language education has been banned in schools in XUAR’s Hotan (Hetian) prefecture.”


On Aug. 29, 17 U.S. lawmakers—led by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.)—addressed a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, calling for sanctions against Xinjiang’s regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of China’s 25-member Politburo, who has helped create one of the world’s most restrictive security regimes after a series of attacks in 2013 and 2014. (China Rejects U.S. Lawmakers’ Push for Russian-Style Sanctions: Bloomberg News: Aug 29, 2018)


In Geneva, responding to Gay McDougall’s accusations on Aug. 13, the Chinese delegation categorically stated that there was no such thing as “re-education centers” in Xinjiang, nor was there any subjugation of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority region. A Chinese representative said that some minor offenders of religious extremism or separatism have been taken to “vocational educational and employment training centers with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation,” which had achieved success in correcting their beliefs. Even those people’s rights, said the representative, are “duly protected.” Xinjiang saw deadly ethnic riots break out in 2009, and officials also blamed Uyghur militants for a knife attack at a train station in 2014 that killed 29. (China flat out denies the mass incarceration of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs as testimonies trickle out: Isabella Steger: Quartz: Aug 13, 2018)


China has categorically rejected the UNCERD report and reacted angrily to the U.S. lawmakers’ appeal for sanctions against China. At a regular press briefing in Beijing on Aug. 31, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying stated: “These comments ... were based on so-called information that is yet to be verified and has no factual basis.” Hua added that China was acting as necessary to combat extremism and terrorism on the country’s western frontier. “The sense of security and the fulfilment of people in Xinjiang has been greatly enhanced. … As for all the preventive security measures we’ve taken, many countries around the world do the same,” she added. (China disputes U.N. report on Uighur discrimination: Channel News Asia: Aug. 31, 2018)


A day earlier, the foreign ministry spokesperson had brushed aside the U.S. lawmakers’ allegations. Hua Chunying said that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religion according to the law and that the American lawmakers should not “threaten to impose sanctions at every turn.” Chunying told reporters: “I would like to advise the individual U.S. lawmakers to focus on and perform their duties well because they are spending taxpayer money. They should certainly serve the Americans properly instead of poking their noses in other countries’ affairs and pretending to be a judge of human rights.” (China rejects U.S. lawmakers’ sanctions call over Muslim camps: Christopher Bodeen: AP: Aug. 30 2018)


(To be concluded…)

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