In the run-up to the summer Olympics in China, Beijing has implemented stringent security measures to guard against terrorist attacks — and any politically motivated protest that could embarrass the regime. To help justify the measures, the government has shined a spotlight on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the far reaches of northwestern China, home to the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group perhaps even more distinct in China than their Tibetan neighbors. While ETIM may currently pose a threat, it is not as great as Beijing claims, nor is it likely to make much of an impact during the upcoming Olympics. Still, China’s obsessive focus on ETIM may have exacerbated the very problem that Beijing hoped to solve.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on the threat posed by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in China. With the Beijing Olympics less than 100 days away, Chinese security forces are stepping up measures to prevent or respond to terrorist attacks during the games. Top on Beijing’s list of likely suspects is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2002 (after intense lobbying by Beijing) and at the top of China’s first openly published list of most-wanted terrorist groups and individuals (issued in December 2003). ETIM is composed primarily of militant Islamist ethnic Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and can trace its origins to the early 1940s. The Uighurs are a Turkic people, some of whom consider Xinjiang the main part of East Turkistan, a state that briefly existed from 1933 to 1934 and from 1944 to 1949. They also consider the region heir to a broader East Turkistan or Turkistan that was initially conquered by the Manchus in the mid-1700s and, after decades of struggle, eventually annexed by China in the late 1800s and renamed Xinjiang, or "New Territories." (Click map to enlarge) In 2008 alone, Beijing has so far carried out three raids on suspected ETIM-linked cells — one on Jan. 27 and two during a series of actions lasting from March 26 until April 6. Beijing also has accused ETIM of being behind a March 7 attempt to down a Chinese passenger jet using gasoline smuggled aboard, warned that ETIM was still active and training in Pakistan and alerted India to potential ETIM militants heading to New Delhi ahead of the Olympic Torch Run in April. And there have been several reports of broader crackdowns and round-ups of potential “troublemakers” in Xinjiang in 2008, prior to the July arrival of the Olympic Torch in the region. China’s repeated warnings of Uighur militant plots have drawn international skepticism. Many activists and analysts have accused Beijing of exaggerating the threat in order to gain international support for further crackdowns on the ethnic Uighurs, who China believes remain a potential source of separatist and anti-Beijing sentiments, and to implement stricter security measures throughout China ahead of the Olympics. China’s penchant for lumping all forms of unrest, disagreements and violence under the catch-all label “terrorism” adds to the difficulty of accurately judging the real level of threat to the Olympic Games or the specific threat posed by Uighur militants in general and ETIM in particular. A closer look at the East Turkistan/Uighur movements reveals a movement split along numerous lines — domestic versus diaspora, militant versus political, Islamist versus secular, separatist versus those advocating a genuine regional autonomy. And all of these opposing forces face a large degree of apathy from the international community, international Islam and the Uighurs themselves. The large-scale threat Beijing fears does not appear likely anytime soon. But the chances for smaller group actions cannot be ignored. A specific look at ETIM offers some insight into the Uighur/East Turkistan movement, its links to the broader Islamist militant community and, given China’s focus on the group, its potential as a genuine militant threat. Next: China: The Evolution of ETIM