The Uighurs: 2

This is a continuation of my last post, on the Uighurs now detained at Guantanamo. I described the “training” that the Uighurs received, and quoted a description of them and their motivations given by an FBI agent who interviewed them in 2002. But I didn’t address one crucial part of the current campaign against releasing them into the US, namely the claim that they “are members or associates of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), a designated terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda.”

Or, as Newt Gingrich put it:

“By their own admission, Uighurs being held at Guantanamo Bay are members of or associated with the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an al Qaeda-affiliated group designated as a terrorist organization under U.S law.

The goal of the ETIM is to establish a radical Islamist state in Asia. Last year, during the Beijing Olympics, the ETIM released a video in which an ETIM member stood in front of an al Qaeda flag and threatened anyone who attended the games.

Prior to 9/11, the Uighurs received jihadist training in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, a known al Qaeda and Taliban training ground. What’s more, they were trained, most likely in the weapons, explosives and ideology of mass killing, by Abdul Haq, a member of al Qaeda’s shura, or top advisory council. President Obama’s own interagency review board found that at least some of the Uighurs are dangerous.”

The Uighurs were at a camp, or a village, run by ETIM in 2001. Abdul Haq is supposed to have been a member of al Qaeda’s shura since 2005, years after the detainees had anything to do with him. If there is evidence that he or his group were affiliated with al Qaeda in 2001, I do not know of it, and the Uighurs have consistently denied any affiliation with al Qaeda.

It seemed to me that rather than citing things ETIM has been up to within the last few years, it might be better to look at contemporaneous coverage of the Bush administration’s decision to add ETIM to its list of terrorist organizations. Here’s what I found. First, the NYT:

“The Bush administration’s decision to brand as terrorist an obscure Muslim group with roots in western China has been greeted with skepticism by many Western diplomats and scholars. They say the Americans have offered little hard evidence for applying the label, and seem more concerned with softening Chinese opposition to a possible attack on Iraq than with the potential threat posed by the group. (…)

”This listing was a sop to the Chinese, giving them a lot of face,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese Muslims at the University of Hawaii, who sees no reason to single out this group and said terrorism had actually been uncommon in Xinjiang. (…)

Several diplomats from allied nations said the charges provided by the United States appeared to be largely a rehash of unproved Chinese assertions. They said their governments had acquiesced in the United Nations listing only to preserve unity.

State Department officials refused to provide instances of violations by the group, while asserting that Washington has independent evidence of its terrorist acts both in and out of China.

But if the Bush administration has such evidence, it was not visible in the internal ”background statement and press guidance” the State Department prepared on Aug. 30. The document went beyond any recent Chinese charges, blaming this single group for all the violent acts in the last 11 years that the Chinese had ascribed to a spectrum of separatist organizations.”

The Washington Post (Sep. 11, 2002):

“Two weeks ago, the Bush administration ordered that any U.S. assets associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) be frozen under an executive order, signed by President Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, that singles out groups deemed to pose a terrorist threat to Americans or U.S. interests.

Since then, several Western European governments have raised questions about U.S. motives and asked Washington for more evidence of the group’s terrorist connections, according to diplomats.

“We are concerned that the Americans are doing the Chinese a favor” at the same time the Bush administration is seeking China’s support in the Security Council for tougher action against Iraq, said one Western diplomat who asked not to be identified. Administration officials anticipate that China and Russia, both with Security Council vetoes and strong economic relations with Iraq, will be the most reluctant to agree to any strong new international disarmament action against Baghdad.”


“Beijing has since late last year put pressure on Washington to publicly declare the ETIM a terrorist organization.

But it was only during Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s visit to Beijing last month that Washington acceded to Beijing’s demands.

This is seen by Chinese analysts as a concession made by the U.S. in return for Chinese acquiescence in Washington’s possible attack on Iraq.”

The Washington Times:

“During a visit to Beijing last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced that Washington had placed a separatist group in Xinjiang province, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Mr. Armitage said the movement has been responsible for attacks on civilians. (…)

But many Uighur specialists think Beijing and Washington have inaccurately portrayed the situation in Xinjiang. They argue that, although there is tension in Xinjiang between Uighurs and Chinese, few Uighurs want to join a global Islamist movement, and that violent incidents in Xinjiang stem from local problems.

“Many Uighurs resent that the Chinese increasingly dominate the economy and society in Xinjiang, but they do not necessarily want their own country since they have seen how independent states in Central Asia have weathered economic catastrophes,” says Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Hawaii. (…)

Xinjiang specialists consider the Uighurs among the most liberal and pro-U.S. Muslims in the world, and in Kashgar women interact freely with men, run businesses and hold political office.”


“The U.S. decision came as a surprise for many Uighurs and international observers. Adding the little-known group to the U.S. terrorist list, they say, may have a negative impact on other Muslim Uighurs living in China’s western Xinjiang province.

Enver Can, president of the Munich-based East Turkestan National Congress, said Uighurs have never been religious extremists. Moreover, he said there are dozens of various Uighur organizations around the world, but that ETIM is virtually unknown. He questioned whether ETIM is even large enough to warrant classification as an independent Uighur group. “They are a small group of people who first fled to Central Asia, to neighboring Central Asian republics. After [governments there] began to deport some Uighurs back to China, the others who remained crossed to Pakistan and Afghanistan. There they received shelter and for different reasons, to settle their lives, they joined one group or another in Afghanistan,” Can said.”

I note several features of this coverage. First, while the Bush administration and the Chinese government claimed that ETIM were terrorists, virtually no independent observer did. Second, most observers thought that while there was an independence movement in Xinjiang province, and while some groups that were part of it were violent, it was neither fundamentalist in character nor clearly terrorism. Third, virtually all accounts noted that the Bush administration’s evidence was bizarre: their figures were identical to the figures China had given for separatist attacks in general, attacks China had blamed on many different groups; but for some reason the Bush administration blamed them all on ETIM.

Finally, a recurring theme in the coverage of this decision is the suspicion that the Bush administration put ETIM on its terrorist list in order to get China to acquiesce in the invasion of Iraq. Here one might also recall the FBI report I cited in my last post, in which an agent wrote:

“At the time of my TDY, US officials were considering whether to return the Uighurs to the Chinese, possibly to gain support for anticipated US action in the Middle East.”

Whatever ETIM might have become, I think there are grounds for serious skepticism that it was in any way affiliated with al Qaeda in 2001, when the Uighurs were present in its camp.

And don’t forget: the Bush administration cleared them.