- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

A jihadist group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, threatened to attack the Summer Games in Beijing, charging the Chinese with “destroying Islamic schools.” The group is based across the border in Pakistan, where sources affirm it received training from al Qaeda.

The organization had previously claimed responsibility for bombings across the country. Over the past months and weeks, many clashes took place between jihadists and authorities, a plane hijacking was foiled, militants were arrested and arms caches and jihadist material was found. Interestingly, the Associated Press links the attacks exclusively to local ethnic tensions in one of China’s Western provinces: “Chinese forces have for years been battling a low-intensity separatist movement among Xinjiang’s Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people who are culturally and ethnically distinct from China’s Han majority.” The news agency has tried to set the agenda of the debate by scoring three points for the “radicals.” They are separatists, they are representative of a local ethnicity and they are Muslim - in a way a parallel to Kosovo, Chechnya and Kashmir. As framed by the Associated Press, the struggle of these “terrorists” is indeed legitimate even though the means are violent. But is it the case? Evidently the Chinese Communists are repressive against all minorities and political dissidents. But as in Russia and India’s Wahabi cases, one should investigate if these insurgents in China are local patriotic elements or international jihadists.

Chinese officials said the group had been trained by and was following the orders of a radical group based in Pakistan and Afghanistan called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM. The group has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United Nations and the United States. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang. So the “movement” is indeed terrorist-identified by the international community. But other than its violent means, is that group linked to al Qaeda?

There is a double answer to this question. First, the group is indeed Wahhabi-Salafi as its long-term objective is to separate a particular province from China but only to establish an emirate, a prelude to joining the world caliphate. Hence, ideologically it is part of the world web of internationalist jihadists, who identify with Osama bin Laden’s school of thought. Second, in many instances, al Qaeda produced material showing Chinese jihadists training in their camps. In the chat rooms, the Salafi commentators often cite the presence of “brothers” from the Xinjiang. And let’s remind ourselves that upon the fall of Tora Bora in 2001, Chinese officials asked the U.S. military to extradite Chinese nationals who were part of the Taliban and al Qaeda networks in Afghanistan.

So, the bottom line is that the bin Laden cohorts included jihadists recruited from inside China’s western province. As in Chechnya, a local ethnic separatist claim exists but the struggle was hijacked by jihadist terror forces.

Hence, as China is discovering al Qaeda in its own backyard, this begs powerful questions: 1) If these jihadists will escalate their terror against Chinese cities and installations and the recent discoveries indicate this trend, will Beijing find itself in the same trench as Washington, which is against al Qaeda and the Salafists? 2) And if that becomes the case, will China continue to pursue a policy of support to other jihadist forces, including the Islamist regime in Khartoum? 3) If Communism and jihadism clash again in the 21st century inside the Asian superpower, will its resource-rich western province become a new Afghanistan with jihadists converging from Central Asia and other parts of the world?

For now, Chinese officials are downplaying the danger altogether and dismissing the threat: “Those in Xinjiang pursuing separatism and sabotage are an extremely small number,” said a pro-government Uighur leader.

“They may be Uighurs, but they can’t represent Uighurs. They are the scum of the Uighurs,” a regional Communist official said. But that is what Russian officials always said about Chechnya, and what their Indian counterparts argued about Kashmir. Jihadism has demonstrated that its adherents can swiftly recruit and expand, especially if international Wahhabis are generous and committed. Hence, the answer to this critical new “jihad” will come from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the smaller principality of Qatar, where Al Jazeera can transform a local separatist movement into an uprising in the name of the umma.

Walid Phares is director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy.

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