Posts Tagged ‘ETIM’

A long lost post for ICSR looking at terrorism in China, something that I had actually drafted initially prior to the recent events out in Hotan. There it now seems as though the government is saying that a “flag of jihad” was being flown, though I have not seen reference to the East Turkestan groups anywhere. Any tips or pointers always welcome.

Jihad in China

Islamist terrorism and extremism in China is a very difficult subject to research. A general sense of paranoia casts a shadow over the it and a great paucity in direct and accurate information means that people often have very little that is empirical or tangible to add.

None of this is to say that the problem does not exist. Recently a video emerged on the forums that by my count is the first to be released that is primarily in Chinese (Mandarin that is, the main Chinese language) – previous videos have been later translated into Chinese, but this is the first one to boast a speaker clearly using Chinese. Others have been released threatening China ahead of the Olympics, and a video from April 2008 showed three Chinese men being executed, most likely somewhere in Waziristan. There have also been a number of half-formed plots, including an attempt to bring down a plane going from Urumqi (a regional capital) to Guangzhou (a regional the capital) using a petrol bomb,a series of bus bombings for whom no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided and aseemingly suicidal attack against security forces in Aksu, Xinjiang in August last year.

In all of these cases, the Chinese authorities blamed what are called East Turkestan groups. East Turkestan refers to what China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is considered by those who call for independence of their province. These people tend to be Uighur, a Turkic minority mostly resident in China that used to be the most populous in that province: Han Chinese migration has completely changed the ethnic demographics of the province. This migration has been accompanied by what is seen locally as a slow erosion of Uighur culture and a general sense that Han China is taking advantage of the province’s considerable natural resources with little benefit to the locals. Uighur’s are a predominantly Muslim minority and some splinters of the al-Qaedaist narrative have managed to find a home amongst the disaffected communities. And these groups are either referred to as, or self-call themselves, East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP).

But whether these attacks are actually carried out by organised groups is very hard to confirm. Some individuals have in the past made connections with al Qaeda and affiliated networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and broader Central Asia. According to Camille Tawil’s recent authoritative book Brothers in Arms, in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 ETIM “pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and stopped all paramilitary activity against China (which the Taliban could ill-afford to upset), as requested.” And the existence of the connection is further confirmed by a quick review of the Chinese listed Wikileak’d Guantanamo detainee files that show a whole series of Uighur men who left China for reasons mostly to do with what they felt was Chinese oppression and ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether they were all connected to terrorist groups is unclear, but certainly the path they took seems to have been a well-trodden one. There are regular reports that the Pakistani government trumpets of “Turkestan” fighters being killed in operations in Waziristan. And last May, interior minister Rehman Malik referred to the back having been “broken” of the “East Turkestan” groups. He was rewarded with substantial contracts and investment from China.

More recently, while the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was undertaking one of its joint counter-terrorism exercises, Chinese minister Meng Hongwei declared that, “signs are the ‘East Turkestan’ terrorists are flowing back.” But while this declaration sounded like it was founded in some sort of direct threat intelligence, nothing has since materialized. This could of course be due to the fact that it is sensitive information and consequently suppressed, but at the same time, Chinese authorities like to trumpet success in counter-terrorism operations.

But now we have had what seems to be a genuine expression of violence in Xinjiang, with the news that a mob of “thugs” attacked a police station in Hotan, one of the few majority Uighur cities left in the province. While this attack does not seem on the scale of the grim July 2009 riots that led to around 200 deaths, reports indicate that at least a handful of people have been killed. So far blame has not been attributed to the East Turkestan groups, but the local information bureau has already referred to the event as “an organised terrorist attack.”

The East Turkestan groups and the threat from them are also often quoted as one of China’s driving motivations behind engagement with Central/South Asia. But what is interesting is that there is often little evidence of a successful terrorist attack being carried out in China. Consequently, there is a certain amount of skepticism about the size and nature of the threat. Curious, I recently asked a series of high profile researchers and officials what size they considered the threat to be and got broadly similar responses, though very different senses of how dangerous the ETIM/TIP groups are.

One told me that in the past year some 100 had been killed in Afghanistan/Pakistan and that he estimated there were some 1,000 more. Someone affiliated with a research institution linked to the state security ministry played the threat down, declaring that there were some 100/200 people and that the networks had been largely disrupted. The only reason he thought they would be able to make a turn-around was if things in Afghanistan got a lot worse providing the group with a new space to operate in. In a larger conference space I posed the same question to a University academic who had just given a very doom and gloom assessment of security in Central Asia and he guesstimated numbers were in the “hundreds” and that they were very active in the “border regions.” He expressed particular concern about Tajikistan and the porous borders that the nation had as a potential conduit for terrorist networks in the region.

Often, however, the bigger threat that is referred to are groups like Hizb ut- Tahrir, whom are present in Central Asia and apparently amongst the communities of cross-border traders that go back and forth between Xinjiang and the bordering states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One high estimate that was given me was of some 50,000 HuT members in China spread out from Xinjiang all the way down to Sichuan province with people seeing the group as part of a dangerous Islamicization that is taking place in broader Central Asia and consequently in China too. More conservative estimatessay there are some 20,000 HuT members in China.

It seems that there is some sort of a terrorist threat to China from violent Islamist networks. But what remains unclear is to what degree this threat is able to conduct any sorts of operations within China or to what degree al Qaeda and affiliate networks are able (or want) to manipulate it for their own ends. Currently, the jihad in China seems more aspirational than operational. At the same time, if events in Hotan are confirmed, it looks like the tinderbox of ethnic friction and disenfranchisement that might offer an outlet for such extremism to latch on to continues to exist.

Another book review in the same edition of Terrorism and Political Violence, this time I see that I am one of two reviewers of the book “Ethnic Identity and National Conflict in China” which looks at the subject of Islamist radicalisation in China. It was interesting and on an undercovered subject which I have tried to research on while I am here, but with great difficulty. They provide a pretty detailed overview of events so far. I also had the pleasure of meeting a couple of authors last year in Singapore and they had some interesting insights. I know of a couple of other books in the pipeline on this topic, so am looking forward to reading more about it, and hopefully contributing myself at some point. It seems to me that China has got an interesting problem with violent radicalisation, though it is equally unclear given the almost blanket hiding of any coverage about it, how much is actually going on and how much is merely a noise. A very confusing vision.

Similar to the last one, unfortunately, this is also behind a firewall and I am going to ask if I can republish it here.

UPDATE: I see the authors have created a website where they have posted the full text.

A new piece for Jamestown looking at an odd plot in Dubai. One point which I should clarify is that ETIM, or Uighur extremists, have in the past also been linked to possible events in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan – so in a way this is not the first time they may have attempted something outside China. The whole thing, however, is very murky, and any pointers for new information on it would be appreciated of course.

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 29
July 22, 2010 04:42 PM Age: 1 hrs
Category: Terrorism Monitor, Global Terrorism Analysis, Home Page, Terrorism, China and the Asia-Pacific, Middle East
Site of the attempted attacks, Dragon Mart mall in Dubai

On June 29, a court in Dubai found two ethnic Uyghurs guilty of plotting to attack a massive shopping mall made up of 400 shops selling Chinese-made goods (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 30). This attempted attack was not only the first terrorist plot to be disrupted in Dubai, but also the first time that a cell tied to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has taken aim at a Chinese target outside China and Central Asia. In what appears to have been intended as a largely symbolic attack, the Uyghurs’ target was not the mall itself, but a statue outside the mall of a dragon wrapped around a large globe.

According to court documents, key plotter Mayma Ytiming Shalmo, 35, was first recruited by ETIM in Mecca in 2006. [1] While in Saudi Arabia, possibly on Hajj, Shalmo met the deputy leader of ETIM, with whom he discussed the “premise of jihad in China.” Having agreed that he was interested in doing something about the Uyghurs’ plight, Shalmo traveled with the deputy leader to Pakistan’s Waziristan region and was trained in weapons and how to manufacture explosives from easily available materials. He was then introduced to ETIM’s electronics expert, who taught him how to make detonators. Shalmo claims to have spent a year at the mujahideen camps.

After his year of training, Shalmo was given orders from the head of ETIM, relayed through the deputy, to target the Dragon Mart mall in Dubai. He flew from Islamabad to Dubai on July 28, 2007 and spent autumn in Dubai, twice visiting the mall on what were presumed to be scouting missions. He then left the country and went back to Saudi Arabia before re-entering the UAE on December 22, 2007 by bus. At this point, his co-conspirator, Wimiyar Ging Kimili, 31, also an ethnic Uyghur, entered the picture, giving Shalmo a place to live upon his return to Dubai. At some point during this period, the men entered into discussions about China and jihad, and Kimili agreed to help Shalmo in his operation.

From a practical perspective, Kimili’s assistance appears to have been essential. Shalmo apparently spoke neither Arabic nor English, and thus would have been completely reliant on Kimili to go with him to purchase the necessary materials from pharmacies and paint supply shops. When police captured the men, they had in their possession alcohol, potassium permanganate, aluminum, chloride acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, sulfur, acetone and other “tools to be used in the preparation of explosives.”

It is unclear exactly when or why the local police started watching the men. According to one report, they were first alerted by the local Chinese Embassy, which was monitoring the men due to their ethnicity. The same report, however, also highlights that in court documents released in January, the men were first noticed after they made a 50,000 Dirham ($13,600) wire transfer to China, which was then forwarded to Saudi Arabia (The National, June 30). The implication is that this was funding for the attack, though the purpose of these transfers remains unclear, as is who first noticed the money movement. In court documents released at the end of the trial, Kimili describes Shalmo receipt of $10,000 via a hawala network from Turkey to fund the plot.

The same court documents released at the conclusion of the trial highlight the fact that local security services were first alerted to the men in early June 2008 after receiving information that Shalmo was a known ETIM member who was planning an operation in the UAE. They appear to have wasted little time in obtaining a court order to search his property, and on June 28, 2008 they raided his house in al-Ain, discovering the chemicals and other equipment. During his interrogation, Shalmo admitted Kimili’s role in the plot and his help in obtaining the bomb making materials. On July 16, 2008, police arrested Kimili.

Kimili claimed during the trial that, fearing for his family, he had a change of heart about the attack and told Shalmo of his concerns. At this point, he claimed that Shalmo “told him he wanted the chemicals only to use them for black magic” (The National, July 9).

Casting a shadow over the case was the allegation that the men’s initial confessions had been coerced “through fear,” though the court ultimately dismissed this claim, saying fear alone does not constitute coercion.  Furthermore, the trial was delayed while the courts sought out relevant interpreters – in the end translations had to be made first from Arabic into Mandarin and then into Uyghur (and vice versa). Translators were apparently provided by the Chinese Embassy, which also sent representatives to attend the duration of the trial (The National, June 30).

The men were ultimately given sentences of ten years each, with the court noting the attack was ultimately aimed at the UAE, as the mall is government owned. The death penalty, the usual tariff for terrorism charges in Dubai, was dismissed by the court since the plot was still in its “preliminary stages” (The National, June 30). However, upon release both men are to be deported, presumably to China, where they will likely face further punishment as admitted members of ETIM.

Note

1. Unless otherwise indicated, the information is based on court documents released by the courts at the conclusion of the trial. The ETIM leader and deputy leader went unnamed in those documents.