WASHINGTON — In the dying months of his administration, President Donald Trump removed from the United States terrorist list a little-known paramilitary organization called ETIM, an acronym that stands for either the East Turkestan Independence Movement or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, depending on whom one asks. The group is also sometimes known as the [East] Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP or ETIP).
Explaining the decision, the State Department said that “ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.” The move was hailed by a wide range of Uyghur groups in the United States, who saw it as a step towards blocking China’s actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province.
Yet the decision will have confused anyone with a long memory or who closely followed the War on Terror. Only two years previously, the U.S. was actively at war with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, with Trump himself ordering an escalation of a bombing campaign against them.
In 2018, Major General James Hecker, the commander of NATO Air Command-Afghanistan, gave a press conference in which he noted that not only was ETIM real but they were working hand in hand with the Taliban and boasted that his forces were destroying their training bases, thereby reducing their terrorist activities both in the Afghanistan/Pakistan/China border region and inside China itself.
“Anybody that is an enemy of Afghanistan, we’re going to target them,” Brigadier General Lance Bunch told the The Washington Post, also announcing that “[w]e’ve got new authorities now that allow us to be able to . . . target the Taliban and the ETIM where they previously thought they were safe.”
Why then was the government suddenly insisting that ETIM/TIP did not exist? And who is this shadowy organization?
Who are the ETIM/TIP?
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a jihadist group led since 2003 by Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, a Xinjiang-born Uyghur. Its goal is to set up a Muslim-only ethnostate (East Turkestan) in Xinjiang. A dry and mountainous region at the western edge of China, Xinjiang is about the size of Alaska and is home to around 25 million people.
“This land is for Muslims alone,” Haq explains in an al-Qaeda PR film; “the mere presence of the disbelievers on this land should be a sufficient reason for Muslims to set out for jihad.” ETIM is still considered a terrorist organization by the United Nations, European Union, United Kingdom, and Russia, among others.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government also classifies it as such. When asked for comment, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told MintPress that “ETIM has long been engaging in terrorist and violent activities, causing heavy casualties and property losses, and posing serious threats to security and stability in China, the region and beyond.” Wenbin also criticized the U.S. “flip flop” on ETIM, something that, in his words, “once again exposes the current U.S. administration’s double standard on counter-terrorism and its repulsive practice of condoning terrorist groups as it sees fit.” MintPress also reached out to a range of Uyghur organizations for comment, but all declined to do so.
Some of the most high-profile of these attacks inside China, cited by Wenbin, were ETIM’s attempts to sabotage the 2008 Beijing Olympics by carrying out bomb attacks on host cities. Just before the games, ETIM released a video featuring a burning Olympic flag and warning all Muslims to stay away from the venues. There has also been a string of deadly attacks attributed to ETIM in which terrorists drive vehicles into crowds of pedestrians then proceed to carry out stabbing rampages.
In 2009, tensions between Uyghurs and ethnic Han Chinese spilled over into deadly riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, where nearly 200 people, mostly Han, were killed. As a result of the unrest, Beijing ordered a massive increase in surveillance and security across the region, flooding the province with cameras, armed police, and spies. To this day, it retains an extremely high-security presence.
Of course, the large majority of those killed by ETIM around the world have been non-Salafist Muslims, and considering ETIM to be representatives of the Uyghur population as a whole would be extremely misleading. In fact, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang have been caught in the crossfire between the ETIM and the Chinese government. To this day, the Afghan government also considers the group to be a serious threat to peace and security in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda, Taliban ties, Chinese target
ETIM units have trained and fought in what seems like virtually every single conflict involving Muslims over the past 20 years, but always with an eye to bringing their skills back home. A 2017 Associated Press exclusive titled “Uyghurs fighting in Syria take aim at China” found that at least 5,000 Xinjiang Uyghurs had traveled to Syria to train and fight alongside both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “We didn’t care how the fighting went or who Assad was,” one ETIM fighter told the AP; “We just wanted to learn how to use the weapons and then go back to China.” For many, Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of the Urumqi riots was the catalyst. “We’ll avenge our relatives being tortured in Chinese jail,” another fighter told the AP. A 2015 New York Times report also notes that one Chinese Muslim had been trained in Libya before going to Syria to fight against government forces.
The United Nations states that ETIM “has maintained close ties with the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.” Indeed, since 2005, ETIM leader Haq has been a member of al-Qaeda’s council of elders, a group of about two dozen individuals who control the organization’s direction. The UN notes that the ETIM’s major source of funding was Osama Bin Laden himself, who directly employed and paid Haq.
“The organization is clearly a part of al-Qaeda’s network — there is no real question about this fact. Al-Qaeda doesn’t hide its sponsorship of the TIP [ETIM]. And the TIP [ETIM] doesn’t hide its allegiance to al-Qaeda,” wrote Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, a hawkish think tank located in Washington. “But the Chinese Communist Party’s detestable policies in Xinjiang have led some democracy and human rights activists to downplay or dismiss the TIP’s overt jihadism,” he added.
In 2002, U.S. forces captured and detained 22 Uyghur militants at an ETIM camp in Afghanistan. They were sent to Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba and were accused of traveling from China to join the ETIM jihad, something many admitted to. However, all insisted that they were uninterested in harming the United States and instead saw China as their major enemy. Considering them no direct threat to itself, the United States began releasing them to third countries and by 2013 all had been freed.