Islamic Terrorists or Chinese Dissidents? U.S. Grapples with Uyghur Dilemma

President Joe Biden and his administration are grappling with a new foreign policy dilemma: how to deal with Uyghur separatists seeking to take on the People's Republic of China and establish an independent Islamic state in the northwestern Xinjiang region at a time when Washington is also increasing pressure on Beijing.

The U.S. stance for the last two decades since the "war on terror" was declared after 9/11 has been to view groups such as Uyghurs factions as enemy actors, due to their reported links to Al-Qaeda. One such organization, a Uyghur separatist group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was added to the Terrorist Exclusion List, a Patriot Act measure designed to disallow suspected militant group members from entering the United States.

Over the course of the past 20 years, however, Washington's foreign policy priorities have shifted dramatically, a change marked most notably by Biden's military exit from Afghanistan. That exit was set in motion by Donald Trump, whose focus throughout his tenure in office was on another national foe, China.

In addition to confronting Beijing on trade, political unrest in Hong Kong and tensions over Taiwan, the Trump administration endorsed allegations that China was conducting a "genocide" in Xinjiang, the northwestern province that is home to the Uyghurs. The offenses were said to have occurred as part of China's extensive counterterrorism measures in the region that included sprawling detainment camps, known officially as vocational education and training centers, in which more than one million people are believed by international critics to have been detained.

Chinese officials have strongly rejected these allegations, arguing that the facilities are a crucial part of the Communist nation's national security strategy, Beijing's own "war on terror." Xinjiang was the site of a deadly Uyghur insurgency that began in the 1990s in the form of bombings, stabbings and vehicle rammings that killed scores of authorities and civilians alike.

The widening U.S.-China divergence on the narrative took a dramatic turn just days after the U.S. presidential election last November, when the Trump administration removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List, citing a lack of activity, even as Uyghur fighters set up camp in Afghanistan and Syria.

The Biden administration continues to support that stance.

"ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist as the same organization that was conducting terrorist attacks in Syria at the time of their designation," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek.

As recently as February 2018, however, the Pentagon was conducting airstrikes against targets said to be linked to ETIM in Afghanistan.

But the State Department now sees it as a separate group altogether, one which is behind the active Uyghur insurgency in two conflict-ridden countries.

"Uyghur terrorists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan are members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)," the State Department spokesperson said, "a separate organization that China and others have incorrectly identified as ETIM."

Yet the spokesperson noted that the two groups have nearly identical goals.

"TIP is an organization allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qa'ida elements operating in Syria, and the group seeks to establish an independent Uyghur state, East Turkistan, in the area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China," the State Department spokesperson said.

Asked by Newsweek whether the Biden administration planned to brand the still-active Turkistan Islamic Party as a candidate for the Terrorist Exclusion List or the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the spokesperson declined to comment as a matter of protocol.

"The United States does not comment on deliberations related to our terrorist designation process," the State Department spokesperson said.

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A member of the Turkestan Islamic Party's Syria-based Levant affiliate fires a truck-based rocket launcher during a promotional video published January 7. "Uyghur terrorists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan are members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek, noting that "the group seeks to establish an independent Uyghur state, East Turkistan, in the area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China." Turkestan Islamic Party Voice of Islam Media Center

One Man's Terrorist, Another Man's Freedom Fighter

The Turkestan Islamic Party itself has spurned the "terrorist" label that officials in Washington, Beijing and other governments have ascribed to it.

"We, on the part of the group, have not posed any threat to any person, group, state or people," a spokesperson for the Turkestan Islamic Party's political office told Newsweek, "and even the Chinese people only see good from us, because we do not oppress the people like the Chinese government."

The spokesperson said that the group's activities were limited to the Chinese state itself due to its controversial policies in Xinjiang.

"Even in the future, we do not have any idea for the likes of targeting, kidnapping, threatening or [doing] anything bad against an innocent person or country," the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson said, "and we do not have a problem with any person or country other than the unjust Chinese government."

The spokesperson argued that any other illicit activities may be carried out by Chinese spy agencies in order to blame the Turkestan Islamic Party.

"Anything that happened or happens, this is not from our side, but will be from the unjust Chinese intelligence," the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson added, "because we are not terrorists who target innocent people like the Chinese government [does]."

At the same time, the group does not rule out waging armed struggle as a means to achieve its political aims.

"The Chinese government should leave the land of East Turkestan by the peaceful path," the spokesperson said. "If they choose the path of war without leaving peacefully, then we have the right to choose all kinds of paths in order to restore our homeland."

The region known to Uyghur separatist proponents as East Turkestan comprises around 25 million people living across a span of some 700,000 miles of China's Xinjiang and parts of neighboring Gansu and Qinghai provinces — roughly the size of France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ireland combined.

The area came under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party with the rest of the mainland as Mao Zedong's victorious People's Liberation Army drove the nationalist Republic of China forces to exile in Taiwan in 1949.

At the time, the Soviet Union, the world's top communist power, backed the East Turkestan separatists as a check against Chinese power.

The People's Republic of China today recognizes some 56 ethnic communities, including the majority Han population, the world's largest ethnic group, which has increasingly expanded throughout the nation.

This migration is rooted in economic motives as China rapidly developed in recent decades, but those supportive of the separatist East Turkestan cause saw a state-sponsored plot to actively suppress Uyghur culture.

"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."

Blowback Now and Then

In many ways, the Uyghur uprising that first gripped Xinjiang in the 1990s took inspiration from the successful mujahideen resistance that repelled the Soviet Union's attempt to back a communist government in Afghanistan throughout the previous decade. The U.S. was among the top supporters of the Cold War-era rebel effort, and China also aided the cause as it saw a threat of Soviet encirclement.

The conflict would prove consequential for the intersection of Islam and politics across Asia. The same year the Soviet intervention began, 1979, also marked the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Grand Mosque Seizure in Saudi Arabia, two other events that left lasting impressions in the region.

The anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan gave birth to Al-Qaeda, and its violent aftermath produced the Taliban, which would go on to take over much of the country in an ensuing civil war. After Al-Qaeda orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a U.S.-led military campaign dismantled the Islamic Emirate that the Taliban had established across most of Afghanistan.

But as of last month, the Islamic Emirate has officially returned. A resurgent Taliban swiftly retook Afghanistan as the U.S. military withdrew from its longest-ever war.

The Taliban today vows not to repeat its past behavior in allowing transnational militant groups to operate on Afghan soil. This commitment was encoded in the Doha peace accord signed by the group and the Trump administration in February 2020.

"As we signed up to in the agreement, we commit to our promise that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against anyone, not against China, not against Russia, not against America, not against any country," Qari Saeed Khosty, who handles social media responsibilities for the Taliban's Islamic Emirate, told Newsweek.

"On the other hand," he said, "we also request that the territories of other countries are not used against Afghanistan."

The U.S. is not alone in calling for the Taliban to rout out any organizations that may pose a threat abroad. Many nearby nations including Russia, India and Afghanistan's six neighbors, China, Iran, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have all issued similar requests to the newly reformed Islamic Emirate.

A joint statement by the nations bordering Afghanistan, delivered during a historic meeting last month, directly named Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), the separatist Baloch Liberation Army and Jondollah, the Pakistani Taliban, commonly referred to as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and ETIM, which most countries in the region consider directly tied to the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Although the U.S. has dropped ETIM from its Terrorist Exclusion List, the group remains designated a terrorist organization by China, the European Union, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. The United Nations Security Council has also subjected ETIM to sanctions since 2002 due to its suspected association with Al-Qaeda.

For China, any presence of ETIM or its affiliates is considered a top priority threat.

"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," Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington, 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."

Beijing has sought specific assurances from the Taliban that ETIM would be crushed or expelled from the self-styled Islamic Emirate. Chinese officials say such a promise was given by Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's political bureau and now acting deputy prime minister of Afghanistan, during the group's visit to Tianjin 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 "following closely" events in Afghanistan as the Taliban formed an acting government and said Beijing hoped for a positive outcome.

"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.

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People's Liberation Army personnel of the Xinjiang Military Region pose during a high-altitude training session in this photo published September 17. "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," Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Newsweek. Chinese People's Liberation Army

A Threat and a Promise

The Taliban has not officially acknowledged the presence of ETIM or the Turkestan Islamic Party on Afghan territory.

The Taliban's Khosty issued a specific denial to Newsweek.

"These people are not present in Afghanistan," Khosty said. "We do not need to say anything about them because they are not present on our territory."

During an interview earlier this month with Global Times, an official publication of the Chinese Communist Party, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen also said ETIM had mostly left Afghanistan. He reiterated his group's stated obligations per the Doha deal struck with the U.S. to prevent such activity.

"First, we will not allow any training on our territory," Shaheen said. "Second, we will not allow any fundraising for those who intend to carry out a foreign agenda. Third, we will not allow the establishment of any recruitment center in Afghanistan. These are the main things."

But the Global Times staff questioned this resolve in a follow-up editorial last week that pressed for answers on the current state of ETIM, which the paper considered an alternative name for the Turkestan Islamic Party. It claimed that ETIM was believed to still be active in Afghanistan, and cited a U.N. Security Council report released in May that referred to the Turkestan Islamic Party as "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 U.N. report said.

And while the group's headquarters are currently believed to be in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the U.N. report voiced another unspecified member state's concerns that the group was capable of moving fighters between two countries at war.

"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.

But the State Department continues to insist that China mislabels the groups.

Around the same time this U.N. report was released, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that U.S. officials "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."

"China often labels individuals and groups as terrorists on the basis of their political and religious beliefs, even if they do not advocate violence," the spokesperson added.

But last week's Global Times commentary also cited a number of Chinese experts attesting to the lasting strength of Uyghur fighters in Afghanistan, and warned that any ongoing ETIM presence would complicate relations between the Taliban and China, which has already begun to provide desperately needed aid to its neighbor.

What's In a Name?

The Biden administration has also cast hopes on the Taliban to crack down on outlawed groups, with a focus on ISIS and its so-called Khorasan affiliate, nicknamed ISIS-K. The word Khorasan refers to a historic region that encompasses Afghanistan along with its periphery, and the term is also embraced by ETIM and the Turkestan Islamic Party.

The U.S. has been more opaque on the continued threat of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In Syria, however, the Pentagon on Monday conducted a drone strike said to have taken out a senior leader of the group.

The strike occurred in Idlib, a crowded space shared by Al-Qaeda, the Turkestan Islamic Party, a slew of other rebel and jihadi factions, Turkish troops and millions of Syrian civilians fleeing a decade-long civil war. In this conflict, Syria is allied with Iran and Russia against a broad insurgency once backed by the U.S. and partnered nations.

Chinese officials have long expressed concerns that the U.S. may once again reinstitute its playbook tactic mobilizing disruptive non-state actors to undermine Beijing's hold on Xinjiang, the hub of the country's natural energy reserves. No evidence has yet emerged of such a move, but sanctions against officials in Xinjiang and ETIM's removal from the Terrorist Exclusion List have only fueled China's paranoia.

The state of U.S.-China relations have deteriorated to the point that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned Monday that the two leading nations must avoid repeating the Cold War. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his officials have consistently issued similar appeals and Biden too addressed the issue during his U.N. General Assembly remarks on Tuesday, without mentioning China directly.

Though he did mention Xinjiang by name as a region in which he said the U.S. stood with racial, ethnic, and religious minorities facing oppression.

And the Turkestan Islamic Party, still free from any U.S.-specific sanctions, has expressed enthusiasm for further action from Washington against Beijing.

"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 told Newsweek.

"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."