Square incident shows signs of links to wider Islamist terror networks

By Clifford A. Kiracofe Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-15 0:28:02

The recent incident in Beijing involving ethnic Uyghurs in a fiery car crash at Tiananmen Square raises the issue of terrorism and Central Asia. While some Western media outlets chose to play up the human rights theme, the threat from extremist Islamists must not be ignored.

Violent acts of terrorism by Uyghur extremists have occurred in the past in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Bombings in Urumqi occurred in 1992 and 1997, and occurred in Aksu in 2010. There were attacks in Hotan in 2010 and in Kashgar in 2011.

In the Kashgar attack, two terrorists drove a hijacked truck into a crowd of pedestrians. In Beijing, the attack repeated this pattern targeting a symbolic site, and civilians, in the capital city which many foreign tourists visit.

Some extreme Uyghur groups are directly linked to Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organizations. Western media avoided this fact and failed to provide such context in reporting on the recent Tiananmen Square incident.

These extremists make no secret of their radical religious views. In fact, they publicly call for the construction of a Islamic "caliphate" for Central Asia which would include Xinjiang.

Such calls demonstrate the relationship between religious extremism and separatism in Islamist terrorist ideology and activities.

Western analysts are familiar with several related terrorist organizations involving Uyghurs.

For example, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) are well known. Both are closely linked to Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

These organizations have made their agenda clear through public announcements. They say they are conducting a jihad to separate Xinjiang from China in order to form an Islamic state called "East Turkistan."

For over some two decades, well-known Uyghur terrorist organizations have been operating in Afghanistan and along its border zone with Pakistan. Pakistani security has been threatened by them, and Pakistani security forces have had to deal with them forcefully.

The top leaders of the Uyghur terrorist organizations are well-known, and did not attempt to conceal their identities when they were alive. The top three late leaders were Adbul Haq al Turkistani, Hassan Masum, and Abdul Shakoor.

Abdul Haq served on the Al Qaeda council in 2005, and was chosen by Osama bin Laden himself to lead the TIP in 2008.

Masum reportedly also received direct financing from bin Laden and founded ETIM in 1997. When Abdul Haq died in 2010, Abdul Shakoor took over the leadership of TIP and also of joint operations involving Uzbek terrorists operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and especially in North Waziristan.

The integration of Uyghur terrorist organizations with Central Asian terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), is well known to specialists. The UN and the US Department of State follow these organizations closely.

Given the very real direct connections of extremist Uyghur organizations to Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Afghanistan and in Central Asia, it is no wonder that Chinese authorities are concerned about recent developments.

Uyghur terrorist operations in China like the Kashgar attack have features that Al Qaeda is known for, such as spectacular attacks aimed at civilians. Such attacks are undertaken to gain global media attention for propaganda purposes.

The pan-Islamic ideology of Uyghur terrorist organizations emphasizes separatism and breaking away from China in order to create a separate fundamentalist Islamic emirate.

The direct connections of Uyghur terrorist organizations to Central Asian organizations such as IMU demonstrate an ongoing regional threat. 

Against such a threat, cooperation among regional states is essential. Central Asian security issues will continue to be salient after the planned 2014 withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. 

Looking to the future, China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would be well advised to deepen cooperation on regional security matters including counterterrorism.

The author is an educator and former senior professional staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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