Evaluating the Uighur Threat


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A Uighur terrorist from a recent videotape by the Turkistan Islamic Party.

On Tuesday, a federal court ruled that 17 Uighurs (pronounced wee-ghurs) detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba should be released into the US. The decision undoubtedly reflects the belief that the Uighurs pose no serious threat to America or her interests. Their enemy is China, advocates argue, and they have no hostile intentions towards the US.

It is true that the Uighurs' principal enemy is China, which has long fought a low grade war with the Uighur population. And the Chinese government, which has a miserable human rights record, has undoubtedly committed atrocities. So, it is natural that the Uighur cause would gain at least some popular support in Western countries. But as deplorable as China's human rights record is, the US courts should not view the Uighurs at Gitmo as a non-threat. And even if the Uighur detainees were focused solely on attacking China, the US would be wrong to condone their cause.

Acts of terrorism against any country, even one with a track record as deplorable as China's, should not be an acceptable form of resistance. Importantly, the Uighur detainees at Gitmo have all the hallmarks of committed jihadists. There is, therefore, no moral equivalency between their terrorism against China's oppressive regime (as well as innocent civilians) and other forms legitimate resistance. This crucial distinction should be made clearer by the analysis below.

The Long War Journal has reviewed dozens of unclassified documents pertaining to the Uighur detainees. Five of the 22 Uighur detainees have reportedly been released in Albania, since no other country would take them. But The Long War Journal reviewed the government's files for all 22 of the Uighurs who were or are detained at Gitmo. The documents were released to the public as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests by the media.

Our review of these documents, coupled with other publicly-available information, reveals several red flags that should be considered when evaluating the threat posed by the detained Uighurs. While no one should confuse any of the Uighurs detained at Gitmo for high-level terrorists such as those comprising al Qaeda's senior leadership, it is clear that they were training to participate in hostilities. Their cause could easily be directed at American interests. In fact, there is at least some evidence that the terrorist organization responsible for training the Uighur detainees has already targeted US interests.

All of the Uighurs at Gitmo have been associated with, or been members of, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement ("ETIM").

During the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, many nations contributed to the mujahideen's cause. This includes China. As terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna explains in his book Inside Al Qaeda, "the People's Republic of China trained Muslim Uighurs from the country's far western province of Xinjiang to fight the Russians in Afghanistan."

In a classic case of blowback, these cadres of Uighurs turned against their one-time patron when they returned home. They agitated for an independent Uighur country and took arms against the Chinese government. Throughout the 1990's Uighur veterans of the Soviet jihad, and their recruits, executed attacks throughout the Xinjiang province. Their members even hit targets inside Beijing, the heart of China. As Gunaratna has written, this conforms "to al Qaeda's doctrine of striking the center instead of fighting in the periphery." It is important to note that while these attacks were often aimed at government targets, civilians were not spared. However, it is not clear how many civilians were killed in this wave of attacks.

The most lethal of the Uighur groups to evolve out of the Soviet jihad is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. While Uighur separatist groups have struggled against the Chinese government for decades, the ETIM represented a new type of threat. The ETIM and associated groups, unlike their forerunners, is dedicated to international jihad and shares a similar ideology with al Qaeda and the Taliban. While some Uighur separatists may simply want to end Chinese repression, the ETIM is dedicated to establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state stretching from Western China through Central Asia.

The ETIM's tactics and strategic goals have earned the group international condemnation. The organization and related Uighur terrorist groups have been designated by the UN as one of the terrorist groups affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda. The US Treasury Department and the US Department of Homeland Security have also designated the ETIM a terrorist organization.

The Department of Defense has released unclassified documents produced at Gitmo for the 22 Uighurs. The documents were produced during the detainee's hearings before their Combatant Status Review Tribunals ("CSRT") and Administrative Review Boards ("ARB") between 2004 and 2006. All 22 of the Uighurs are alleged to have demonstrable ties to the ETIM and/or its sister organization the Sharq (East) Turkistan Islamic Partiyisa (STIP). All of the detainees were either: (a) identified as members of the ETIM and STIP and/or (b) received training at ETIM facilities and/or (c) resided at ETIM guesthouses or training facilities.

While the detainees and their advocates claim that they were solely interested in attacking Chinese interests, it is important to note that there is evidence that the ETIM has already plotted anti-American terrorism. As the State Department has noted, "two ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for plotting to attack the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan as well as other US interests abroad" in May of 2002.

20 of the 22 Uighurs detained at Gitmo were allegedly trained in an ETIM training camp and/or other facilities. At least 15 of the Uighurs detained at Gitmo have admitted that they received weapons training. The main training camp at which the Uighurs trained was reportedly sponsored by al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the unclassified documents released by the DOD, 20 of 22 Uighurs were alleged to have received training in Afghanistan. The Uighurs allegedly trained on light arms, including how to breakdown or fire a Kalashnikov rifle. At least some of the detainees also allegedly received religious instruction, including how to read the Koran. The US government also alleges that one of the detainees was a weapons instructor from May through October of 2001.

In addition to examining the US government's claims, The Long War Journal examined the detainees' testimony. The DOD released transcripts of testimony for 19 of the 22 Uighur detainees. The detainees frequently denied the government's allegations. Interestingly, however, 15 of the 19 Uighur detainees who testified admitted to receiving some form of training in Afghanistan. Most, if not all, of the detainees claimed they received the training in order to fight against the Chinese government.

The training took place primarily at the ETIM's training camp in Tora Bora. A minimum of 15 detainees, out of the total 20 who received training, were trained at the ETIM's Tora Bora facilities. There were also two instances in which detainees were allegedly trained to use small arms at ETIM guesthouses in Kabul and Kartisi, Afghanistan. The government's files note that the Kabul guesthouse was "Taliban-sanctioned." In one instance, a detainee was alleged to have "received training in an al Qaeda sponsored camp two hours North or Northwest of [Jalalabad], Afghanistan." In a few instances, it is not entirely clear where in Afghanistan Uighur detainees received their training.

Throughout the unclassified Gitmo documents, the government alleges that the ETIM's training camp at Tora Bora was sponsored by the Taliban and al Qaeda. The government claims the "training camp was provided to the Uighurs by the Taliban" and "funded by bin Laden and the Taliban." One unclassified document explains the recruiting network that drew the Uighurs to Afghanistan more fully:

[The] ETIM, reportedly with financial support and direction from Osama bin Laden, recruits within remote areas of Eastern China and ships recruits to training camps in Afghanistan. These recruits then return to China to conduct terrorist activities and extend their influence. Training includes religious extremist theory, terrorism, explosives, and assassination. Some training camps also include the manufacturing of weapons, ammunitions, and explosive devices.

None of the 19 Uighur detainees admitted any connection between the Taliban, al Qaeda and the ETIM's training facilities during their testimony before their tribunals or review boards. The Uighurs frequently denied any association with al Qaeda or the Taliban. As one of the Uighurs, Bahtiyar Mahnut, put it: "Al Qaeda those people don't care if we go or not or anything [about] people. They just destroy everything and we're not crazy like those people. We're not going to get along with those kind[s] of people  we have nothing to do with that."

The Uighur detainees may very well not be aware of any link between the ETIM and al Qaeda. Or, they may be lying. But it is unlikely that the ETIM operated training camps inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan without, at the very least, the regime's acquiescence. And as Gunaratna has pointed out previously, "al Qaeda and the [ETIM] have released a number of statements and videos where ETIM is training in al Qaeda camps with their instructors." In a recent interview with The Long War Journal, Mr. Gunaratna pointed out that a small cadre of ETIM fighters had relocated to Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northern Pakistan. There, according to Gunaratna, they receive training from al Qaeda and al Qaeda-allied forces.

Some of the Uighur detainees are alleged to have fought in Afghanistan.

At least three of the Uighur detainees are alleged to have participated in hostilities in Afghanistan. The US government alleges that one of the Uighurs, Ahmad Tourson, "stated that he traveled to Konduz, AF and then on to Mazar-e-Sharif to fight against General Dostum's troops." It is not clear when Tourson allegedly made this admission. During his CSRT hearing Tourson denied traveling to Mazar-e-Sharif to fight.

The battle for Mazar-e-Sharif began in the second week of November 2001. The Northern Alliance, backed by US airpower, quickly took hold of the city after a brief gunbattle with Taliban forces. The city is a major strategic point in Afghanistan, and it took the Taliban years to gain control of it. So when coalition forces approached in late 2001, the Taliban called in reinforcements from the many jihadist terrorist groups operating on Afghani soil. It is certainly plausible that Tourson was one of those who made their way to Mazar-e-Sharif in support of the Taliban's operations. Although he denied traveling to Mazar-e-Sharif to fight, Tourson admitted that the Northern Alliance captured him there.

Most of the Uighur detainees were at Tora Bora during the US bombing campaign in late 2001 because they had been attending training classes there. Two of them are alleged to have "participated" in the battle of Tora Bora. The government alleges that Yusef Abbas "participated in the battle of Tora Bora" and "was wounded as a result of coalition bombing, and received medical treatment from the Taliban." During his CSRT testimony, Abbas denied these allegations. "No, I didn't participate in any fighting," Abbas claimed. He claimed that a fellow Uighur, and not the Taliban, attended to his wounds. Similarly, Uighur detainee Abdullah Abdulqadirakhun denied that he participated in the battle of Tora Bora.

The majority of the detainees are not alleged to have participated in fighting in Afghanistan. But this may be because they were, by and large, new recruits. Most the Uighur detainees traveled to Afghanistan in the months immediately preceding the September 11 attacks. In the aftermath of the American-led counterattack, many of the jihadist forces were left to scramble for refuge. In fact, most of the Uighur detainees were captured by Pakistani authorities after fleeing across the border, just as many hundreds of their Arab counterparts did.

The Uighur's advocates maintain that they were solely focused on using their new skills against the Chinese. But ETIM recruits have fought alongside their fellow jihadists throughout central Asia. The ETIM has a particularly close relationship with another al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan ("IMU"). And the IMU frequently filled al Qaeda's and the Taliban's ranks with willing fighters. It is at least possible, then, that the ETIM's new recruits may have ended up on the battlefields of central Asia as opposed to western China.

At least several of the Uighur detainees have ties to the ETIM's senior leadership, which is, in turn, tied to the senior leadership of al Qaeda.

A key figure in the nexus between the ETIM and al Qaeda is a deceased terrorist named Hassan Mahsum. Mahsum reportedly brokered the relationship between al Qaeda and the ETIM in the 1990's. According to some reports, he even received $300,000 from Osama bin Laden directly. This claim may come from the Chinese government, which is not always the most reliable broker of information. However, the DOD's unclassified files are replete with references to al Qaeda's sponsorship of the ETIM. As the DOD alleged in one document:

"Mahsum aligned his organization with Osama Bin Laden (OBL) and it is now considered part of al Qaida. Since 2000, its core has been located at an al Qaida camp near Tora Bora. The fighters, under the authority of OBL, are considered a combat sub-unit of the Taliban."

Former Indian intelligence officer B. Raman has explained the relationship between Mahsum's ETIM and al Qaeda in similar terms. Raman has written that the ETIM "is a major component of the terrorist network headed by bin Laden" throughout South and Central Asia. Raman has further claimed:

"Hassan Mahsum, the ETIM ringleader, used to hide in Kabul and had an Afghan passport issued by the Taliban. Bin Laden asked the ETIM to stir up trouble in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then stage an organized infiltration into Xinjiang. The 'Turkistan Army' under the ETIM fought along with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This 'Army' has a special 'China Battalion' with about 320 terrorists from Xinjiang. The battalion is under the direct command of Hassan Mahsum's deputy Kabar."

Other experts agree with Raman that there was a definite relationship between Mahsum and al Qaeda. For example, Gunaratna has described the relationship between al Qaeda and the ETIM as "very strong." In an interview earlier this year, Gunaratna explained:

Hassan Mahsum, the leader of ETIM, was killed in South Waziristan--the area that al Qaeda was operating in 2003--by the Pakistani forces. There have been a number of ETIM members arrested in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are working very [closely] with Al-Qaeda. Abu [Zubaydah], the operations chief for Al-Qaeda, met with Uighur radical groups entering Pakistan. The relationship between the two is very strong.

The relationship between Mahsum and bin Laden is germane to the analysis of the Uighur detainees. Not only did Mahsum run the ETIM, to which all of the Uighur detainees have been tied, but he also had direct dealings with at least some of the Uighur detainees.

For example, according to the DOD, one Uighur named Nag Mohammed was "closely associated with" Mahsum. "In late September 2000," the government claimed Mohammed "traveled from Turkistan, through Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, to Kabul, Afghanistan for an Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) meeting." The DOD did not release a transcript of Mohammed's testimony, so it appears that he did not participate in either his CSRT or ARB hearings. And, therefore, we do not know his response to this allegation.

Another Uighur detainee named Abdullah Abdulqadirakhun admitted during his CSRT hearing that Mahsum personally trained him at the Tora Bora camp sometime between September and mid-October of 2001. Similarly, Uighur detainee Yusef Abbas claimed that Mahsum showed him how to use the Kalashnikov. Two others admitted to seeing or meeting Mahsum as well. Bahtiyar Mahnut admitted during his ARB testimony that Mahsum visited the Tora Bora camp while he was there and that he met the ETIM chieftain. Huzaifa Parhat also admitted he saw Mahsum at the Tora Bora camp. (Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided that Parhat had been wrongly labeled an "enemy combatant" at Gitmo.)

After Mahsum was killed in 2003, a terrorist named Abdul Haq assumed control of the organization. Haq and Mahsum had worked together for years, recruiting and training Uighurs in camps in Afghanistan.

Several of the Uighur Gitmo detainees admitted that Haq ran the Tora Bora camp. And there is evidence that at least some of the detainees were personally supervised by Abdul Haq. During his CSRT testimony Bahtiyar Mahnut explained, "The person running the camp [at Tora Bora] was named Abdul Haq, and he was a Uighur."

"The first day I came to the camp, Abdul Haq told me that I had to give him my passport and whenever I wanted to leave I could ask for it back," Mahnut elaborated. "He then took my passport from me."

The practice Mahnut describes is common. New jihadist recruits typically turn in their passports when they arrive at guesthouses or training camps. This is al Qaeda's standard modus operandi as well. The recruits are given new jihadist identities and their paperwork is kept for security reasons.

The Long War Journal's review of the DOD's unclassified documents demonstrates that a number of the Uighur detainees admitted ties to senior ETIM leaders Hassan Mahsum and Abdul Haq. This is a significant red flag because both men are committed jihadists with longstanding ties to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the international jihadist network. That the Uighur detainees had dealings with these men is not surprising because most of them attended Mahsum's and Haq's training camp at Tora Bora.

The ETIM, and Abdul Haq, remain a threat.

The Uighur detainee's ties to the ETIM's senior leadership is particularly troubling given the ETIM's and Abdul Haq's continued operations. The ETIM has not been put out of business. Instead, it has evolved into possibly one or more organizations, with some members simply blending in with their fellow jihadists in northern Pakistan. The core of the ETIM remains focused on launching terrorist operations.

According to the State Department, Chinese authorities broke up an ETIM training camp in January of 2007. In the process, they killed 18 ETIM members and arrested 17 others. "According to police reports," the State Department explained, "Chinese police seized hand grenades, unassembled explosives, detonators, and the equivalent of $38,705 dollars in cash." This raid followed several other ETIM-related incidents in recent years.

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The Turkistan Islamic Party threatened to attack the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

Then, earlier this year, a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party released a video threatening to target the Beijing Olympics. The organization behind the video is widely believed to be the ETIM, which simply adopted a new name. According to a translation of the video provided by Laura Mansfield, the ETIM spokesman on the video warned:

"This is our last warning to China and the rest of the world. The viewers and athletes, especially those who are Muslim, who plan to go to the Olympics should change their plans and not go to China. The Turkistan Islamic Party plans military attacks on people, offices, arenas, and other activities that are connected to the Chinese Olympic Games."

The attacks did not happen. But the threats were serious enough to warrant stepped up security and at least some experts, like Gunaratna, considered the ETIM to be the "pre-eminent threat" to the Olympic Games. In addition, the ETIM spokesman also claimed credit for several other earlier attacks, including a series of bus bombings. These claims may have been hyped, but it is clear that the ETIM remains a viable force.

There is one last item worth noting. According to some accounts, the brain behind the threat made against the Olympic Games and the ETIM's ongoing operations is Abdul Haq - the same man who once trained the Uighur detainees at Gitmo. Haq remains at large.

And if a US federal court gets its way, his trainees will soon be free men (presumably under surveillance) on American soil as well.



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READER COMMENTS: "Evaluating the Uighur Threat"

Posted by KW64 at October 9, 2008 10:44 AM ET:

Thank you Bill. A very helpful, informative and timely posting. I wonder how much of this the judges ordering their release (In Washington DC?) really appreciated?

One also has to wonder, if Gitmo is closed, how many more cases like this are there where no one wants to take these people but the courts do not see enough admissable evidence to get a conviction of a crime at trial that would allow them to be held in a Stateside prison. And what do with do with suspects captured abroad that we want to hold for long term interrogation and preemptive detention

Posted by David M at October 9, 2008 2:41 PM ET:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/09/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by Icon at October 9, 2008 9:04 PM ET:

Why should we care if they are deported back to China and suffer the consequences? They were afforded more legal protection in seven years here than they would have enjoyed in their own country. We owe enemies of the U.S. nothing.

Posted by jeandon at October 10, 2008 4:49 AM ET:

We need to sort the Uighur sheep from the Uighur goats. Democratic dissidents, wanting only independence from the oppressing Chinese dictatorship, should be encouraged, supported, and released somewhere in the exUSSR flyspeckistans. Islamic fascist terrorists, if they cannot be confined for the duration of the war, should be sent to Chechnya.