Will Afghan Taliban honor its promise to China to make clean break with ETIM?
FM urges new govt to take effective measures to crack down on terrorism
Published: Sep 16, 2021 06:33 PM Updated: Sep 16, 2021 09:53 PM
Taliban members are seen in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of northern Balkh province, Afghanistan, Aug. 31, 2021.Photo:Xinhua

Taliban members are seen in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of northern Balkh province, Afghanistan, Aug. 31, 2021.Photo:Xinhua

"Where have the members of the 'East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)' gone after leaving Afghanistan? How many of them are staying in the country?" These are the questions people are asking after the Afghan Taliban spokesperson said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had been told to leave Afghanistan. The topic has drawn broad attention in both China and overseas. The Chinese government has reiterated its concerns over the terrorist group as it has been posing a direct threat to China's national security. 

As one of the most dangerous and extremist terrorist groups that aim to split the Xinjiang region from China, the ETIM has been accountable for hundreds of terror attacks in China, especially in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. And its members are developing close ties with international terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and they are working to solicit Uygur people or people of other ethnic groups from Xinjiang to join the "global jihad." 

Over the past few decades, ETIM militants have scattered across Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and other countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Their presence has posed a threat to the global anti-terrorism work. Experts on security reached by the Global Times said that there might be several hundreds of ETIM members staying in Afghanistan right now and whether the Afghan Taliban will keep its promise to crack down on the ETIM remains uncertain. 

Moreover, given the possibility that terrorist forces in the Middle East and Central Asia may be stimulated by the Afghan Taliban takeover and the US withdrawal, the pressure on Afghanistan's neighboring countries has greatly increased. This calls for more cooperation from regional countries. 

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also focuses on anti-terrorism, were scheduled to meet on Thursday in Tajikistan for a summit that would grapple with the region's increasingly uncertain security situation. 

Some ETIM members have whitewashed themselves as activists or set up NGOs with support from Western forces, attempting to cover up their ties with terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al Qaeda. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

Some ETIM members have whitewashed themselves as activists or set up NGOs with support from Western forces, attempting to cover up their ties with terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al Qaeda. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

Complicated relations

In an exclusive interview with the Global Times on September 9, the Afghan Taliban's spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because the Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can't be used to launch attacks against other countries.

However, Shaheen did not mention the exact number of ETIM members that had left and number of those who are still in the country. Chinese security experts have warned that even a small number of them will still pose a threat to China's security.  

According to a report from the UN Security Council released in May 2020, the ETIM is located mainly in Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar. "Approximately 500 fighters of the group operate in the north and north-east of Afghanistan, primarily in Raghistan and Warduj districts, Badakhshan, with financing based in Raghistan."

According to data from Pakistan, there may be around 200 to 300 ETIM members in Afghanistan currently. "Although they are paramilitary forces, as long as they exist, the unstable factor for terrorist activities exist," Li Wei, an expert on national security and anti-terrorism at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times.

As they have been squeezed in Afghanistan, ETIM members are moving to neighboring countries including Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Shu Hongshui, a professor from the Northwest University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times. 

The Badakhshan province, which shares a border with Tajikistan, is the major place for the ETIM members in Afghanistan. Reuters reported in February 2018 that the US strikes in northern Badakhshan province destroyed Taliban training camps which supported militant operations by the ETIM at the border with China and Tajikistan. 

Shu also noted that in June, around 200 ETIM militants fought with the Taliban in Khash and Jorm of Badakhsha. Currently, a small group of ETIM militants live in the Takhar province near the Baharak town.

In recent years, as the power of the Islamic State (IS) and other international terrorist organizations waned, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but "its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years," Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times.

Zhang noted that Afghan Taliban spokesperson Shaheen's interview with the Global Times revealed that the Afghan Taliban knows who the ETIM members are, where they are located, and that it has contacts with them.

In response to Shaheen's remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press conference on September 10 that China has expressed serious concerns over the ETIM to the Afghan Taliban on multiple occasions. The Afghan Taliban attaches importance to this and has made solemn pledges. We hope they will honor their words, make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist groups, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on these terrorist organizations within its territory. In the meantime, they should step up coordination and cooperation with neighboring countries to forestall spillover effects, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed, harbor or source of terrorist forces. 

Many experts expressed their concerns and said that whether the Afghan Taliban will cut its ties with the ETIM remains to be seen, given their complicated relations. 

Shu noted that the ETIM may have cooperation with the Afghan Taliban. Since its establishment, the ETIM has used Afghanistan as a training base. The Afghan Taliban used to offer support - money, vehicles and arms - to the ETIM leader Hasan Mahsum and members who joined the "global jihad." 

During its previous ruling of Afghanistan, among the Taliban militants were a group of around 320 ETIM members from China's Xinjiang region. The Afghan Taliban also helped train the ETIM members, including on how to execute suicide bombs and make explosive devices. In return, the ETIM militants would fight with the Taliban when needed.

Shu also noted that in June, around 200 ETIM militants fought with the Taliban in Khash and Jorm of Badakhsha. In August, around 100 ETIM militants went into the Takhar province to cooperate with the Taliban and they now live in the area near the Baharak town. 

Although the ETIM has cooperation with the Taliban, it's unstable. Shu noted that there are a few differences between the two: The Afghan Taliban's political goal is to build a country while the ETIM seeks regime changes; the Afghan Taliban has no relationship with the US, but the ETIM gets support from the US; and the Afghan Taliban hopes to get China's support while the ETIM is anti-China.

After the Afghan Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, their divergence with the ETIM has widened but "it does not mean they are in the same boat. We need to make further observations of their complicated relations and interactions," said Shu.

Will the Afghan Taliban fulfill its promise to China? 

Zhang of Fudan University says given that ETIM has a limited sphere of influence in Afghanistan, it is hard to be eliminated. "Even if the Taliban wanted to make good on their promise, it's hard since it's unable for the Taliban to fully control the grass-roots militants and tribe leaders. We cannot rule out the possibility that the ETIM may find better soil to grow in the country ruled by Sharia law."

Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.

However, despite the complicated relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the ETIM, one thing is clear: As the ETIM issue relates to China's core interests, without proper handling, it may cast obstacles for future relations between China and the Afghan Taliban.  

Besides inciting violence and organizing terror attacks in China's Xinjiang, the ETIM, a terrorist organization on the UN security sanction list over ties with Al Qaeda, also planned attacks on the US Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, posing a threat to all. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

Besides inciting violence and organizing terror attacks in China's Xinjiang, the ETIM, a terrorist organization on the UN security sanction list over ties with Al Qaeda, also planned attacks on the US Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, posing a threat to all. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

Terrorism in essence

Listed as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council on September 11, 2002, the ETIM, also known as "Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)," is an organization that used violence to further its aim of setting up a so-called independent "East Turkistan" within China. Since its establishment, it has formed close ties with international terrorist organizations which pose a threat not only to China's national security but also to the global anti-terrorism work. 

According to a document released by the Information Office of China's State Council in January 2002, from 1990 to 2001, domestic and overseas "East Turkistan" forces conducted at least 200 terror attacks in China, causing 162 deaths of residents of different ethnic groups, government officials and religious figures, and injured more than 440. 

In recent years, the ETIM has set up bases outside China to train terrorists and has dispatched its members to China's Xinjiang region to plot and execute terrorist acts. There is also evidence that ETIM members took steps to plan attacks against the interests of the US, including the United States Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, according to the UN Security Council. 

"The ETIM, by virtue of its nature and activities, is definitely a terrorist group. It has plotted and committed terrorist attacks in China and the neighboring countries," Li Wei said, noting that when the IS was rampant, the number of people solicited by the ETIM to leave China to join the "global jihad" reached around 5,000.

Li Wei's words echoed the information given by Li Jun, an official from China's state counter-terrorism bureau in May 2015 at a forum with ASEAN countries. Li Jun noted that encouraged by online propaganda and arranged by the ETIM, some extremists illegally crossed the border from China's Yunnan and Guangxi, entering countries in Southeast Asia with the help of local gangs, then flew to Turkey with fake identities under the help of the ETIM members and went into Syria using the Syria-Turkey border to join wars. 

After two to three months' training, they returned to Turkey, Li Jun noted. He said that according to the information China had gathered, around 300 Chinese extremists fight in Syria and most of them were affiliated to the ETIM branch and some joined other terrorist organizations. 

The ETIM is one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations among the "East Turkistan" terrorist forces. In 2003, China identified a list of terrorist organizations, including the ETIM, the "East Turkistan Islamic Party," "World Uyghur Youth Congress," and "the East Turkistan Information Center."

Moreover, many of the "East Turkistan" terrorist organizations have sought "transformation" since 2001, and the ETIM members whitewashed themselves as activists by setting up NGOs with support from the US and the West. They incite confrontations among ethnic groups in Xinjiang to stir up violence, smear China's policies in Xinjiang as "suppressing ethnic groups" and cater to US' geopolitics to hype "human rights" issues relating to Xinjiang, Li noted.

For example, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a US-based anti-China organization established in 2004, was transformed from the World Uyghur Youth Congress (WUYC), a terrorist organization categorized as such by Chinese authorities. Dolkun Isa, leader of the WUC, was also from the WUYC. 

The ETIM militants are scattered across Iraq and Syria. Some of them have whitewashed their identities and become members of NGOs or "human rights" activists living in Western countries, including Germany and Turkey, as well as some Southeast Asian countries, Zhu told the Global Times. 

No matter where these members are, they pose a threat to China's national security. Although they are incapable of splitting the Xinjiang region from China, they may still incite domestic extremists to conduct terror attacks, Zhu said. 

Given its damage, why is the ETIM terrorist organization so hard to eliminate? Many experts say that one major reason is the double standards adopted by the West and the US. 

Li Wei noted that influenced by the changes of US polices toward China and the US' double standards on anti-terrorism, the ETIM changed itself after 2001. After their overseas living space was temporarily squeezed by the US-led war on terror following the 9/11 attacks, ETIM members began to shift their focus on China to earn support from the West.

Due to their double standards, the US and the West deliberately misinterpret China's anti-terrorism efforts. They accuse China of targeting a certain group of people. 

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the banner of anti-terrorism exposed its "fighting against terrorism" as just an excuse to promote US-style democracy and values - all of these gave hope to the ETIM terrorists as they believed that as long as they are targeting the Chinese government, they can earn support from the West, Li said. 

No matter what the US does, it can't change ETIM's nature of terrorism or the practical threat the terrorist organization poses to China and the world. 

Experts noted that the US withdrew from Afghanistan abruptly but left a messy situation in the country and increasing terrorist threats to regional countries. In order to avoid terrorism spillover from Afghanistan, regional countries, including China, need to work more closely. 

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