A brief history of ETIM and al-Qaeda

Many bombings and other terror attacks have been carried out in Xinjiang since 1990. Several organizations and individuals have taken credit for or have been named as responsible for these attacks. The PRC refers to the main group by the name East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Members of TIP in Syria. From Modern Diplomacy.

In 2002 the U.S. Secretary of State added ETIM to their list of proscribed terrorist groups. A widespread opinion among analysts, including the leadership of ETIM, is that this was motivated by a desire to gain the PRC’s support for America’s War on Terror. ETIM was finally removed from this list in the last days of the Trump administration in 2021.

With the intensifying Western criticism of Chinese policy in Xinjiang it is necessary for us to understand who and what the ETIM really is. Are they terrorists? Are they freedom fighters? Are they activists? Do they even exist?

TIP-trained children. From Equipo Nizkor

The group known as ETIM was formed in Pakistan in September 1997 around the leadership of
Hasan Mahsum. This group called itself Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan Ash-Sharqiyah (East Turkestan Islamic Party) and claimed to be a continuation of the ETIP formed by Ziauddin Yusuf in 1989.

Hasan Mahsum was born in Kashgar Prefecture in October 1964. From 1984 to 1989 he studied Islam in Kargharlak, a town to the southeast of the city of Kashgar. This was one of the schools led by Abdul Hakeem, “a famous Islamic fundamentalist scholar in Xinjiang” who had thousands of students across the province. Mahsum himself became an underground teacher and organizer of Islamists in the lead up to his arrest in connection with the Baren Township Riot of 1990.

TIP-trained children. From Equipo Nizkor

The PRC’s 2019 white paper, “The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang,” states that the ETIP had led a group of over 200 armed men who attacked a government building, took hostages, and killed police officers.

As of 2020 the “East Turkistan Government in Exile” website says that “Villagers led by Zeydin Yusup” (Ziauddin Yusuf) went to protest the enforcement of the One Child Policy.

Uyghur children pose with weapons and the flag of the Turkestan Islamic Party. From Foundation for Defense of Democracies

The Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe published this in their Information Bulletin in 1993:

“On April 5, 1990 an armed uprising broke out in Baren provoked by Chinese Communists. Almost three thousand armed Eastern Turkestanis under the leadership of Zeydin Yusuf disarmed the police forces, occupied the Baren township Party and government building and declared war against the Chinese Communists in order to establish a independent Eastern Turkestan Republic. By late afternoon the uprising had spread to nine other townships in the area.”

Hasan Mahsum spent most of the next six years in prison, along with other rebels and radicals. He made connections with people and he refined his ideology.

Hasan Mahsum (left) and Abdul Haq (right) praised by Ayman al-Zawahiri (center) in an al-Qaeda video. From Foundation for Defence of Democracies

After his release in January 1997 Mahsum began a tour of the Uyghur diaspora. He traveled to Jeddah in January, Pakistan in March, Turkey in April, and finally to Afghanistan in May.

Mahsum became involved in the wider jihadi movement during his time in the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). He re-founded the ETIP in September with less than a dozen companions and they underwent training with al-Qaeda and other Mujahideen groups. In 1998 the ETIP would adopt a pan-islamic and pan-turkist ideology, and in 1999 Mahsum is alleged to have met with Osama bin Laden. ETIP formed training camps and carried out recruiting and terror attacks inside China. By the end of 2000 they had dropped the “East” from their name, opening up narrow East Turkestan nationalism into expansive Pan-Turkism.

During the 2001 NATO invasion of Afghanistan the TIP fought alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda. A year later the US State Department would sanction them under Executive Order 13224, a list the group would stay on until Mike Pompeo removed them in 2021. By 2003 the USAF had found and executed Hasan Mahsum via drone, leaving Abdul Haq to become leader of TIP.

Translated by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

Over the course of the War on Terror a litany of terror attacks would be attributed to TIP by Chinese, Western, and jihadi sources. The White Paper describes a list of attacks leading up to its publication in 2014; TIP publicly threatened the 2008 Beijing olympics and were accused of instigating the 2009 Ürümqi riots. TIP is known to fight alongside al-Nusra Front and its successors in Syria. The 2016 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was attributed to TIP. The author of the Bishkek report notes that “TIP has become one of the key players in global Islamic jihad and can organize a terrorist act outside of China.”

The Kyrgyz doctor of political science, Uran Botobekov, has written on TIP’s ability to sustain its own numbers by recruiting Xinjiang families, bringing their children to Syria at great expense in order to train for jihad:

It should be noted that many Uyghurs, who fled from China, came to Syria with their wives and children. The Media Center Islam Avazi regularly produces video reports on how children of Uyghur militants of TIP undergo military training and learn the basics of Sharia law. According to the Islam Avaziin Telegram, “hundreds and hundreds of Uyghur children are brought up in Syria and in the future will become real soldiers of Allah and will liberate the land of East Turkestan from the unfaithful Chinese through jihad.”

TIP-trained children. From Equipo Nizkor

Here we must draw attention to the specific anti-PRC rhetoric of Ayman al-Zawahiri and how neatly it aligns with the anti-PRC rhetoric of western critics, including so-called anti-imperialists:

The anti-Chinese slogan of TIP (Turkistan Islamic Party) is actively supported by the leader of al Qaeda Ayman al Zawahiri. He has repeatedly praised “the heroism of Uyghur Muslims for their commitment to jihad all over the world.” Zawahiri lauds leaders of the Turkistan Islamic Party Shaykh Hasan Mahsum and Abd al-Ḥaqq. Zawahiri blasts the Chinese government as an “atheist occupier,” saying that Chinese authorities prevent the Muslims of East Turkistan from “performing their religious rites” and forces them to “change their religion.” This is the tactics of al-Qaeda. Al Qaeda has consistently portrayed Muslims as the victims of various aggressors, thereby seeking to capitalize on the discontent within local Muslim populations.

TIP-trained children. From Equipo Nizkor

After a careful analysis of the speeches of the leaders of TIP on the Internet, articles of Islamic Turkistan(تركستاناإلسالمية) magazine in Arabic, video and audio materialsin the Media Center Islam Avazi, we can conclude that the ideology of the Turkestan Islamic Party is based on Wahhabism and militant Salafism. It was the religious works of Islamic thinkers Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiya, SayyidQutb, Ayman al Zawahiri that became the ideological basis of the TIP together with the Uyghur mentality. The ideological doctrine plays an important role in the radicalization of the Uyghur youth, as well as in the search for and attraction of more potential supporters to TIP. Radical Wahhabism and Salafism had a significant impact on the mindset of Uyghur militants.

From Modern Diplomacy.

Modern Diplomacy’s analysis contains this gem, a likely cause of America’s 2021 reversal on ETIM:

But if the military situation in Syria does not develop in favor of TIP, the Uyghurs will seek an underground shelter in the countries of Central Asia, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this won’t reduce the threat to China. On the contrary, different branches of the Turkestan Islamic Party in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East will pose a great threat to Beijing’s implementation of its super-project “One Belt One Road”.

From Modern Diplomacy.
TIP members control a part of Hama province and extract taxes-in-kind. From Diyaruna.

The party was born out of a violent separatist uprising in the late 1980s and its successors claim to have only been driven underground, and never defeated. The consensus of analysts, historians, and involved parties is that the TIP/ETIM has always been a violent organization which, in line with al-Qaeda’s overall strategy, uses the legitimate grievances of Muslim populations to fuel radicalization and theocratic warfare.

This insurrectionist ETIP was not the origin of Islamic separatism in Xinjiang. We still must ask: who ran the Islamic schools that radicalized ETIM’s founders and leaders? What are the conditions that make Uyghur youth in Xinjiang vulnerable to ETIM recruiters? And above all, what is to be done about the swelling tide of jihadi violence?

[ Go To Part 2: Sufi Masters of Southern Xinjiang ]

Sources and Further Reading

Gunaratna, R. (2010). Uighur Separatism: East Turkistan Groups. SpringerLink.

State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. (2019, March 19). Fighting terror, protecting human rights in Xinjiang. China Daily. https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201903/19/WS5c9033f0a3106c65c34ef4ae.html

East Turkistan Government in Exile. (2020, June 20). Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Baren Revolution (1990). East Turkistan Government in Exile. https://east-turkistan.net/commemorating-the-30th-anniversary-of-the-baren-revolution-1990/

Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe. (1993, April). Eastern Turkestan Information Bulletin Vol. 3 No. 2. Citizens Against Chinese Communist Propaganda. http://caccp.freedomsherald.org/et/etib/etib3_2.html#2

U.S. Department of State. (2021, March 16). Executive Order 13224. United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/executive-order-13224/

Vagneur-Jones, A. (2017, March 2). War and Opportunity: the Turkistan Islamic Party and the Syrian Conflict. Fondation Pour La Recherche Stratégique. https://www.frstrategie.org/en/publications/notes/war-and-opportunity-turkistan-islamic-party-syrian-conflict-2017

Botobekov, U. (2017, December 9). China and the Turkestan Islamic Party: From Separatism to World Jihad. Modern Diplomacy. https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2017/12/09/china-and-the-turkestan-islamic-party-from-separatism-to-world-jihad/amp/

Weiss, C. (2016, September 29). Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria shows more ‘little jihadists.’ FDD’s Long War Journal. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/09/turkistan-islamic-party-in-syria-shows-more-little-jihadists.php

The Diplomat. (2016, September 29). Al-Qaeda, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and the Bishkek Chinese Embassy Bombing. https://thediplomat.com/2016/09/al-qaeda-the-turkestan-islamic-party-and-the-bishkek-chinese-embassy-bombing/

Cairo, B. W. A. A. I. (2018, November 13). Extremists impose more tributes in north Syria. Diyaruna. https://diyaruna.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_di/features/2018/11/13/feature-02

Equipo Nizkor. (2016, September 26). Equipo Nizkor – Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria shows more “little jihadists”. Derechos Human Rights. http://www.derechos.org/peace/syria/doc/syr7575.html

Al-Tamimi, A. J. (2019, March 18). New Audio Message by the Turkestan Islamic Party’s Amir: Translation and Analysis. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. https://www.aymennjawad.org/2019/03/new-audio-message-by-the-turkestan-islamic-party

Joscelyn, T. (2016, July 8). Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of ‘Islamic Spring’ series. FDD’s Long War Journal. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/07/zawahiri-praises-uighur-jihadists-in-ninth-episode-of-islamic-spring-series.php


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