by Zia Ur Rehman
During his recent visit to Islamabad, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi asked the Pakistani government to take action against ethnic Uygur Islamic militants present in its lawless tribal areas.
Pakistan and China have enjoyed friendly ties for six decades, but Beijing has recently expressed reservations over alleged links between Pakistani militants and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Chinese authorities are said to be concerned about presence of the ETIM militants in Pakistani territory, where they say the fighters are being trained before they cross into Xinjiang to carry out militant attacks. But they did not discuss the issue publicly to ensure they don’t embarrass Pakistan. The ETIM is also described as the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP).
In an April 5 statement, Chinese Ministry of Public Security published a list of six terrorists with their profiles, saying they were operating in South Asia, without naming Pakistan. According to the Chinese list, Nurmemet Memetmin, who was described as the “commander of the ETIM”, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a “South Asian country”, but he escaped in 2006 and has been planning new attacks against China, including the late July attacks on civilians in Kashgar. After the Kashgar attacks, Chinese authorities had invited then Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen (r) Ahmed Shuja Pasha to Beijing in August and told him the militants had allegedly been trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is home to ethnic Uygurs, a Turkic-speaking and largely Muslim people who make up about 40 percent of the region’s population. Founded in 1997, the ETIM is fighting to liberate the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province (also called East Turkestan) from China. The Chinese government says such groups – linked with Al Qaeda -are responsible for unrest in the province.
In the most serious incident of violence in decades, 197 people were killed and about 1,700 others injured on July 5, 2009, when riots between Uygur and Han ethnic groups erupted in the regional capital of Urumqi. Analysts say the riots shattered the authoritarian Communist Party’s claims of harmony and unity among dozens of ethnic groups in China.
Experts on militancy confirm the presence of militants of the ETIM in Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan regions where several other foreign and international militant groups, such as the Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Army of Great Britain and Ittehad-e-Jihad Islami also operate.
“There are dozens of Central Asian militants living in the tribal region,” said a militant associated with Hafiz Gul Bahadur. “But it is very difficult for us to distinguish between the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uyghurs because of similar facial features.”
After Al Qaeda and the IMU, the ETIM is the third strongest foreign militant outfit operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, says Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based analyst. “The number of ETIM militants present in Pakistan has always been kept secret because it may hurt ties between China and Pakistan,” Yousafzai wrote in his book ‘Talibanisation’. According to his estimates, the number of Chinese militants in FATA was 50 to 300 during 2007-08.
The influence of ETIM among jihadi groups is so strong that the movement’s leader Abdul Shakoor Turkistani was rumored to be Osama bin Laden’s successor after his death in May 2011, said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank.
Rana said that the ETIM split into two factions last year. One concentrates on the separatist movement inside China, while a hard-line faction believes in a global jihad. Chinese militants are also present in northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he added.
But the ETIM network has weakened significantly in recent years after a crackdown by Pakistani authorities and killing of many of its top leaders in drone strikes. Last year, Pakistan handed over to China a handful of Uyghur militants who were arrested by the security forces in the tribal areas.
ETIM chief Hassan Mashom was killed by Pakistani security forces in 2003. His successor, Abdul Haq Turkistani, was killed in a drone attack in May 2010. Abdul Haq, who is also known as Memetiming Memeti, became a member of Al Qaeda’s executive council in 2005, according to the United States Treasury Department, which declared him a global terrorist in 2009.
“We believe the ETIM is not only an enemy of China but also an enemy of Pakistan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told media when Haq was killed.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org