Why Xinjiang is not like Iraq, or a Major Al Qaeda Front
We interrupt our regular discussion of more fun things to discuss reports about terrorism in Xinjiang. This time, there’s an essay in the PacNet newsletter, available at the Time Magazine China Blog, by one Martin I. Wayne, a China Security Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Dr. Wayne, however, is a hard man to find. Not only is he not listed on the INSS staff directory, he doesn’t show up anywhere on Google. Not an easy feat these days. His book, “Understanding China’s War on Terrorism”, brings up nothing as well. It’s a shame, because I’d like to know more of his findings. On with the fisking (I’ve changed it so Wayne is in italics, I am not):
Al Qaeda’s China Problem by Dr. Martin I. Wayne
Al Qaeda has a China problem, and no one is watching. Despite al Qaeda’s significant efforts to support Muslim insurgents in China, the Chinese government has succeeded in limiting popular support for anti-government violence.
I have yet to see, beyond the occasional lip service provided in roughly two video statements (one here, transcrit of Zawahiri’s 2006 statement at Laura Mansfield’s site), “significant support” by Al Qaeda documented publicly by anyone.
The latest evidence came on Jan. 5, when China raided an alleged terrorist facility in the country’s Xinjiang region, near borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. According to reports, 18 terrorists were killed and 17 were captured, along with 22 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and material for thousands more.
IEDs is a misleading term. First because IED has now become the common term for roadside bombs. Second because the term used by Xinjiang officials has been 手雷, which literally refers to “hand thunder”, or a grenade. IED in Chinese, according to press reports, is 路边炸弹, or literally “roadside bomb”. Chinese reports about the seizure of 手雷 in Xinjiang have been curious, as statistics appear contradictory. A brief review:
- However in 2004, Xinjiang Party Chairman Wang Lequan claimed in one raid in 1999 that over 6,000 hand grenades had been found. (article at news.gzwindow.com now unavailable except through Google Cache; article also captured by chinesenewsnet (blocked in China), and later reposted on the Tiexue BBS.)
- Then, in January 2002 and December 2003, two reports, one which was an eight thousand character essay, both refer to a raid uncovering over 4,500 grenades. The first essay claims it was in Hotan, in 1999, while the second essay implies it occurred after 9-11.
Chinese reportage on terrorism is notoriously problematic, at times imprecise, or simply fabricated.
… now why on Earth might one think that?
For the skeptics, photos of the policeman killed in the raid were also released, showing emotional relatives amid a sea of People’s Armed Police paying their final respects. Ironically, China’s ability to successfully kill or capture militants without social blowback demonstrates the significant degree to which China has won the population’s “hearts and minds,” however begrudgingly.
And here the author chooses a terrible phrase to use. While one could argue that the PRC has successfully prevented widespread insurgency or unrest since 1997, winning “hearts and minds” is not what most visitors to Xinjiang will mark. The hearts and minds are quite against the Chinese, as a government and as a people. It is not a zero-sum game between a) the Party and b) violent ideologues. Most Uyghurs are neither, but Dr. Wayne has chosen to omit this.
China’s successful efforts to keep the global jihad from spreading into its territory present a real challenge for al Qaeda. The organization reportedly trained more than 1,000 Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group that is predominantly Muslim, in camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. In late December, al Qaeda’s number two, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for action against “occupation” governments ruling over Muslims, including reference to the plight of Uyghurs in western China.
The number of Uyghurs trained in Afghanistan is not easily obtainable, for obvious reasons. According to Strategic Insights, a monthly electronic journal produced by the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School, Gaye Christoffersen wrote:
“Beijing’s estimates of the extent of al Qaeda influence were overstated, with claims that there were 300 Uyghurs in Afghanistan in late 2001 and that all Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang were linked to al Qaeda. Later this was reduced to claims of 100 Uyghurs in Afghanistan, and altogether 1000 Uyghurs in Xinjiang trained by al Qaeda and the Taliban. That claim is supported by the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (UNRF), which also claimed that there were more than 100 Uyghurs in Afghanistan at that time helping the Taliban.”
This would be a good time to mention that the Chinese government has, as Dr. Wayne may be doing here, conflated different Uyghur terrorist organizations. The PRC has primarily referred to the East Turkestan Independence Movement, or ETIM - the only group linked to Al Qaeda through its now deceased leader Hasan Mahsum, who was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003 during a raid on an Al Qaeda hideout. Here I refer to probably the most authoritative document existing about evidence of Uyghur terrorism, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment(PDF) by James Millward. In analyzing the 2002 8,000 Character Essay conservatively titled “East Turkistan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity”, Dr. Millward points out:
“Because in Chinese the compound “Dongtu” (East Turkistan) is used both in a generic sense, for all “East Turkistan” groups, and as a specific abbreviation for any name beginning with “East Turkistan,” the result is ambiguity over whether a given act was committed by a specific group known to espouse a separatist line (such as the East Turkistan Liberation Organization, or ETLO) or by unknown perpetrators whom the authors of the document claim, without providing evidence, to be East Turkistan separatists. Moreover, the English version of the document uses the singular form (“the ‘East Turkistan’ terrorist organization”) for terms that in Chinese (which lacks a definite article) are generic and possibly either singular or plural. The document thus implies that there is a unified East Turkistan terrorist organization of considerable strength. From all other indications, however, this is not the case.”
Millward goes on to point out that US government endorsed this sloppiness when it placed the ETIM on the terrorist watch list “thus attributed to ETIM specifically all the violent incidents of the past decade in Xinjiang that the PRC document itself blames only on unnamed groups or on ETLO.” As for the UNRF, the only other source to support the 1,000 trainee claim besides the PRC, Millward notes: “the 80-year-old leader Mukhlisi is now largely discredited and resented by other exile Uyghur groups in Central Asia for exaggerating Uyghur involvement in militant activities—as he did, for example, in March 1997 by announcing that the Urumqi bombings (on the day of Deng Xiaoping’s memorial) were the work of his own and two allied Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan, by all accounts a false claim not even credited by the PRC.”
There is also a question about to what extent the Chinese government attributes what might be criminal acts for financial or other motives. The Yining Riot, also discussed in Millward’s essay, is a clear example. There has never been any evidence submitted that suggests that any sort of terrorist group was involved except PRC allegations that the East Turkestan Islamic Party of Allah provoked it (the ETIPA does not seem to exist beyond this one-off). Dr. Wayne would seem to have failed to differentiate between the claims of the PRC, the UNRF and others, and perpetuated a dangerously oversimplified picture.
Yet despite this commitment of resources and rhetorical energy, Uyghurs across Xinjiang’s social spectrum explain that violent resistance is no longer a viable path. Many Uyghurs in Xinjiang believe that insurgents worsen Uyghurs’ plight by making the Chinese more fearful, thereby more repressive.
This is, in my opinion, a fair and accurate statement. I would certainly not, however, characterize it as winning “hearts and minds”. This is what people crushed by authoritarian repression and fear say. They respond out of fear of what the PRC would do to them, not out of respect (unless you are someone who believes fear is the only form of respect, as regrettably some American conservatives apparently do). Most importantly, Wayne makes a very large mistake: he conflates the Uyghurs with both Al Qaeda and Iraq. Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents are not the same to begin with, and comparing it to the Uyghurs is even worse. The Uyghurs, as Millward points out, have long had ethnic nationalist aspirations, as opposed to religious ideological ones. He states:
“The participants in acts of anti-Chinese resistance and their motivations have been varied. Insofar as there is a common denominator, for the twentieth century this has been Uyghur nationalism—sometimes colored by Islam as a basic part of Uyghur culture but not arising from a desire to create an Islamic state per se.”
And this is precisely why Al Qaeda is not a good model for considering Uyghur terrorism, such as it is, and especially inappropriate for judging the views of Uyghurs who do not support violent or ideological means. Uyghurs overwhelmingly harbor nationalist dreams connected most intimately to Turkey, not the Arab states. Pan-Turkicism is an ethnic phenomenon that goes against Al Qaeda’s most basic beliefs. Islam has usually taken the role of garnish, not main dish. Millward then goes on to explain why it’s so tempting to look at Xinjiang through an Islam-centric lens:
“Despite this ethnonationalist, as opposed to religious, basis to Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang, journalists seem to take interest in Xinjiang primarily because it is a majority Muslim area. The reasons for this are clear. I myself once cowrote a magazine article titled “Why Islam Troubles China Too,” capitalizing on the fact, startling and intriguing to a general readership, that China has a large Muslim population in Xinjiang. This fact serves as a perennial hook for pieces about Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, one that seems even more compelling in the aftermat of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, because it fits Xinjiang into the ongoing global narrative of “Islamic terror.” Since stories about Xinjiang usually appear as sporadic features, rather than part of continuing coverage, journalists return to this hook repeatedly with each piece about the region.”
This is part of what I consider the Xinjiang strain of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not China!” journalism.
Why Uyghurs have not radicalized in large numbers is a matter of debate, but certainly one reason is they have not been given the chance - and this is because of China’s strict control that Dr. Wayne claims has been relaxed in exchange for “soft power”. While the PRC may have eased on mass arrests or excessive force, they have not relaxed when it comes to strictly policing religion and free speech. When imams are trained by the state and surveilled, it makes it quite difficult for one of them to preach an extremist message. On the other hand, it makes it impossible for anyone to engage in civil society building or public debate. Dr. Wayne clearly understands this: “The Chinese government purged separatist sympathizers from local governments and attempted to remove political dissent from religious worship”, yet seems to believe that this control has somehow slackened. It has not, just has similar control has not slackened for any other part of the PRC (though it may be more rigid in Xinjiang).
At the same time, availability of Uyghur language education was broadened and Beijing sought to expand economic development in Xinjiang, which was viewed as the key to success.
Dr. Wayne seems unaware of the growing pressure for Uyghurs to study in Chinese language schools. He also continues on about Zawahiri’s message, which mentioned Xinjiang briefly in a list including Chechnya and Spain. He also spent several paragraphs talking about Palestine, but Al Qaeda has yet to show a very strong presence in the Territories. In fact, Hamas has told him to please go away. Another melodramatic bit of flair Wayne uses is to claim “Local men who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets returned home with new skills and attempted to ply their trade. Young Uyghurs were inspired by the power of men, armed with Allah and AK-47s, to defeat a superpower.” A number of Uyghurs, however, fought on the Soviet side. I met one in Urumqi who had a Russian tank tattooed on his chest - because he was in one. He was part of the large exodus of Uyghurs to Soviet Central Asia who eventually returned after the 80s.
The raid in Xinjiang upon a group taking mining explosives and building IEDs represents a threat similar to the attacks of Madrid and London: home-grown individuals, radicalizing, building weapons with supplies at-hand.
This sort of blurring of distinctions is precisely one of the biggest problems with the “War on Terror”. To compare angry young immigrant populations inspired by extremists zealots to an angry indigeneous population demanding political freedom is to miss the very key elements necessary to understanding what is going on.
The contrast between China’s project in Xinjiang and U.S.’s actions in Iraq is stark: where China realized that local politics was a key factor for strategic effectiveness, the U.S. has focused on targeting an ever-growing pool of insurgents and terrorists. China’s ultimate success in frustrating al Qaeda’s designs on Xinjiang rests upon its recognizing and responding to the political nature of the threat.
And so we come to Iraq, and here is the biggest failure to make a distinction I could possibly imagine. On the one hand we have China’s “project in Xinjiang”, which is to maintain control over an internal province so as to permanently keep it within their borders under an authoritarian government. On the other hand we have America’s “actions in Iraq”, where the goal, ostensibly, is to leave after establishing a democratic, self-governed nation. China’s efforts in Xinjiang have to been to prevent any kind of unified social movement, whether it be Rebiya Kadeer’s peaceful one or Hasan Mahsum violent one, so that society is organized by Beijing, not the public. If the U.S. wants to make Iraq into a repressive version of Puerto Rico, then Dr. Wayne is right - there are lessons to learn from the PRC.
OK, OK, back to more fun stuff.
- al-Qaeda 4
- America 19
- Ayman al-Zawahiri 1
- BBS 4
- Beijing 46
- Central Asia 6
- Chechnya 2
- Chinese government 34
- Deng Xiaoping 5
- East Turkestan Independence Movement 2
- East Turkestan Islamic Party of Allah 1
- East Turkistan 1
- East Turkistan Liberation Organization 2
- explosive devices 1
- Gaye Christoffersen 1
- Google 17
- Hamas 1
- Hasan Mahsum 3
- Hong Kong 22
- James Millward 3
- Laura Mansfield 1
- London 10
- Madrid 1
- Martin I. Wayne 1
- National Defense University's Institute for National S 1
- Naval Postgraduate School 1
- People's Armed Police 1
- rhetorical energy 1
- sea of People 1
- Taliban 1
- Urumqi 9
- US government 7
- Wang Lequan 4
- Xinjiang Party 2
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