The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) harbors the lofty and unrealistic goal of expelling Chinese "occupiers" from Xinjiang province and create an independent State called "East Turkistan".
East Turkistan, according to the plan, would eventually be part of a Central Asian Islamic caliphate called "Turkistan", the name for Central Asia preferred by Islamists that incorporates present day Xinjiang province, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
Xinjiang province is China's "Uyghur Autonomous Region" just as Tibet is the "Tibetan Autonomous Region". In actuality, both are heavily regulated by Beijing. China's largest administrative division, Xinjiang makes China a Central Asian power. The province borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and is the source of 30% of China's future petroleum needs.
Reflecting this geography, for millennia Xinjiang has been caught between the influences - and armies - of the Mongols, Manchus, Han Chinese Arabs, Persians, and Turkic groups.
However, never before has Xinjiang been so locked into the Chinese state. The Han Chinese population in Xinjiang has grown from less than a small percentage one century ago to half the population of the province today. An urban rumor among Uyghurs in Xinjiang's ancient city and former Silk Road trading point, Kashgar, is that the Chinese government "imports" 25,000 Han Chinese per month to "Hanify" the population and raise land prices until Uyghurs are forced to the periphery of the city.
Given the province's population trends - and the pace of reconstruction in old cities like Kashgar - it will be hard for Xinjiang to ever regain its distinct Uyghur character. The TIP is trying to rectify this and the grievances that make up its raison d'etre are the same basic grievances as Xinjiang's overall Uyghur population, although the TIP's use of al-Qaeda-style violence generates little support.
In fact, since the TIP has such a limited record of attacks in China, despite its terror-charged rhetoric, the group undermines peaceful protest movements in Xinjiang and abroad that seek more autonomy and democratic rights for the Uyghurs.
In a video and written statement posted on online jihadi forums in September, the leader of the TIP, Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, delineated the government policies that TIP opposes:
Mandatory education, which he says has caused the apostasy of Muslims from their religion.
The policy of enforced bilingual education which forces Uyghurs to learn Mandarin as they progress in school.
The emigration of Muslim females from Xinjiang to the "Chinese region," or "inner China" as it is known to Uyghurs, in order to find work in China's major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
The policy of birth control, a legacy of the former one-child policy, which he describes as "threatening" to the Uyghur population;
The policy of densely settling Chinese in the Muslim population, which he says has led to the marginalization of the Muslims as Han Chinese overtake the Uyghurs in traditionally Uyghur cities like Kashgar.
The policy of looting and transporting out of "Turkistan" valuable resources, especially petroleum.
The testing of nuclear weapons in Xinjiang, which took place 46 times from 1946 to 1996 at Lop Nur in Xinjiang.
The TIP's prolific output of online media by far trumpets its terror credentials. The group has yet to carry out an attack in China for which the evidence traces back to the TIP. There is a long list of attacks that the TIP has claimed and that the media has given the TIP credit for, but the TIP's relationship to the attacks has turned out to be bogus, or dubious at best. Even the group's responsibility for an attack in Kashgar in August 2011 - which the media attributed to the TIP and which was claimed by the group in a video statement - does not hold up to scrutiny. Most likely, the TIP had very little to do with it.
The attack in Kashgar began on the evening of July 30, 2011 with an explosion on a street lined with pedestrians and food stalls frequented by Han Chinese. Shortly after, two Uyghur men hijacked a truck, killed its driver, and then steered the truck onto the sidewalk and into the food stalls and then stabbed people at random.
The next day, on July 31, another attack occurred on a popular dining and shopping street for Han Chinese. After two more explosions at a restaurant, as many as 10 Uyghur men allegedly shot and stabbed people indiscriminately, including the firefighters who came to the rescue. Overall, more than 10 civilians and eight attackers were killed and more than 40 others wounded in the two days.
While massacring civilians has the hallmark of al-Qaeda-style violence that the TIP would most certainly endorse, a look at the facts places doubt on TIP involvement. For one, the Chinese authorities after having at first pinned the attacks on the Pakistan-based East Turkistan Islamist Movement (ETIM) fighters, an organization that preceded the TIP, then affirmed through investigation that the attacks were carried out and organized by local Uyghurs.
The main weapons used in the attacks were knives, which caused all the fatalities, while the explosives were "homemade". Later reports placed into question whether there actually were guns used in the attacks since all the deaths were caused by stabbing. The attackers did not hold a TIP logo or shout any slogans about the TIP, and the TIP's post-attack video included a clip of one of the attackers, but not of the other 10, which makes one question why would not the TIP show clips of all of the attackers it trained if it was really responsible?
Similarly, in 2008 a TIP commander, Seyfullah, claimed in a video that the TIP carried out a spate of bombings in China in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, including on buses in Kunming and Shanghai and a building in Wenzhou. A Chinese man, however, later confessed to the Kunming bombings, the Shanghai bombings were reportedly caused by a passenger's inflammable goods, and the Wenzhou attack reportedly took place at the site of a gambling ring and was carried out by a man angry over his debts. While previous TIP claims may have been true and a Chinese cover-up brilliant, the TIP still provides no concrete evidence of its carrying out attacks.
The TIP continues to issue more online media propaganda, possibly to establish a pedigree as a bona fide terror group like the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan (IMU) or because compelling online videos attract jihad funders from abroad.
A video released by the TIP on online jihadi websites in February included for the first time a Russian speaker, perhaps to attract Central Asians' attention. A man with a red henna-dyed beard claiming to be a "mujahid" named Yahya speaks on behalf of the "Jamaat Turkestan" in the territory of Khurasan. He says the "Jamaat Turkistan," meaning Turkistan Society - possibly an alternate name for the TIP - moved into the territory of Khurasan (ie the tribal regions of Pakistan), "along with our families and have found shelter there in October 2001," which coincides with the flight of many Central jihadis from Northern Afghanistan to Khurasan as a result of the US invasion at that time.
Yahya compared the combined North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces' invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 with the Chinese invasion of Turkistan in 1949 China and to Russia's invasion of Tatarstan. He says that in Tatarstan they live under sharia law and that all people there train in the handling of weapons, the conduct of guerilla war, and urban fighting tactics. A representative of Turkistan appears on the video and says that, "All land is the land of Allah! And we are ready to fight those who are against Islam!"
The TIP's media wing, Voice of Islam (Islam Avaz), posted the third edition of its video series "Tourism of the Believers" on February 2. The second edition of the series was released one week earlier on January 24. The first edition was posted on the same online forum, shmukh al-Islam, in October 2011. In addition, from 2008-2011 the TIP ran nine editions of an online magazine called "Islamic Turkistan" which discussed the history of Islam in Turkistan, the reasons why jihad against China is necessary, and other common international jihadi themes.
Since the grievances of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally recognized to be legitimate by the international community, the TIP's videos serve to add a jihadi element to an otherwise peaceful movement. The attacks attributed to the TIP in Xinjiang are likely exaggerations or false claims and worsen perceptions of the Uyghur cause from the international community.
The existence of such a terrorist organization also provides fodder for the Chinese government to clamp down on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Thus, above all, the TIP seems to serve the benefit of the group's online media producers who rake in funds from international jihadi donors while inducing no strategic military or moral benefit for the Uyghurs on the whole.
J Z Adams is a lawyer and international security analyst based in Washington, DC. He writes regularly on Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Nigeria and runs an open-source research, translation.
Asia Times Online