It's much easier to hype a security threat than to prove one doesn't exist, a fact that has bedeviled China's Uyghur minority. That many Uyghurs oppose the Chinese government -- sometimes violently -- is beyond doubt, but Beijing has sought to tie the Uyghur political movement to a larger global Islamist jihad. And thanks to the U.S. government, the United Nations and various charlatan "terrorism experts," they have succeeded. That's the conclusion of Sean Roberts, a Central Asia scholar at George Washington University, in a new report (pdf), "Imaginary Terrorism?"
In November 2001, the Chinese government published a paper, “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by ‘Eastern Turkistan’ Organizations and their Ties with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban,” which identified a group called the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as the most dangerous Uyghur threat. That was the first-ever public identification of the ETIM, and it was followed by another white paper two months later. That these documents were released just after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. was no coincidence, Roberts writes:
Given the timing of the release of these two initial official documents, many experts on China and the Uyghurs viewed them as attempts by the Chinese state to link its struggle with Uyghur political dissent to the United States’ “Global War on Terror.” Whether or not this was the intent, it appears to have been the result.
Later in 2002, both the U.S. and the United Nations placed the ETIM on their official list of terror organizations.
The U.S. government’s recognition of ETIM as a terrorist organization was highly controversial. Given that no scholars studying the Uyghurs, the XUAR, or China more generally had ever mentioned this organization in their work; that there was little evidence proving that any violence in the XUAR over the last two decades was actually carried out premeditatedly by organized terrorists; and that no concrete evidence of the organization’s capacity or even its existence was publicly available beyond the claims of the Chinese government, some analysts questioned whether the recognition of ETIM was a quid-pro-quo action aimed at involving the PRC more substantively in GWOT. While the United States probably wanted more Chinese involvement in Afghanistan at this time, a more cynical analysis of the situation suggests that first and foremost the U.S. sought China’s tacit support for the invasion of Iraq, which took place a mere six months after the American recognition of ETIM as a terrorist organization.
But the unintended result was that a whole variety of nongovernmental sources accepted those claims at face value, from groups that should know better like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Defense Information, to the less reputable crop of terror experts that popped up as television new pundits and defense contractors in the wake of September 11.
These organizations offer no specific evidence for their characterizations save some suspect internet-based sources and the publicly available statements by the U.S. and Chinese governments. They have adopted a clear position that, regardless of its immediate threat, ETIM is aligned with America’s enemy in GWOT, is highly organized, and is ready to carry out random acts of violence.
Roberts exhaustively catalogs how this "information" gets cited and recited even in academic literature, and how as a result:
[T]he portrayal of ETIM as a capable terrorist organization and a credible threat to China, and perhaps the world, has been reproduced uncritically throughout the academic literature related to terrorism, including in journal articles, monographs, and doctoral dissertations.In the chain of reproduced knowledge, the authors of these academic works on the Uyghur terrorist threat have, in turn, frequently crossed back into the policy community and into popular media through punditry.
All this, while the U.S. has barely since discussed the ETIM:
Given the way that the United States has quietly avoided making any vocal allegations of a Uyghur terrorist threat since its 2002 recognition of ETIM, one must assume that the U.S. government has come to similar conclusions about “Uyghur terrorism.” Unfortunately, for the Uyghurs, this does not undo the damage done to them by the original accusations from 2002 and the subsequent chain of knowledge production created by the “counterterrorism industry.”
So does the ETIM actually exist? Roberts investigates the testimony of Uyghur detainees at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo, and also travels to Albania to interview some of the detainees who were relocated there after being released from Guantanamo. The story that emerges is that there was some sort of "camp" for Uyghurs in 2001 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, but its presence in Afghanistan had more to do with the lawless environment then than any formal affiliation with the Taliban or al Qaeda. That group was likely what Beijing calls the ETIM, though the Uyghurs Roberts talked to had never heard that name:
This organization... likely tried to recruit young Uyghur men and train them for militant activity against the Chinese state using the camp in Jalalabad described by the detainees as well as perhaps other training locations. That being said, the statements of Guantanamo detainees also suggest that this effort was mostly informal, highly disorganized, and deprived of both weapons and financial resources. Aside from the poor conditions at the abandoned encampment that was reclaimed by Uyghurs in Jalalabad, the detainees were unanimous in noting that “weapons training” in the camp was limited to brief access to a single automatic rifle. Furthermore, while some of the detainees did note that they had gone to Jalalabad in the hopes of receiving combat training, most had ended up there through a variety of benign circumstances. While all of the detainees clearly articulated their animosity towards the Chinese state, those who had not come to Jalalabad explicitly for combat training were ambivalent at best about the prospect of participating in armed struggle.
There's much more in the report, including an account of all the various terror acts that the ETIM is alleged to have perpetrated, to which Roberts also casts a critical eye.
It's a story that is probably being repeated, with minor variations, all over the Islamic world. One example is another shadowy Central Asian group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which another regional expert, Christian Bleuer, investigated in another very good recent report. To paraphrase the H.L. Mencken quote for the post-9/11 era, no one ever went broke underestimating the fearlessness of the American public.