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The ETIM Question: Taliban’s Moment of Truth

Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Ms Saman Ayesha Kidwai is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 29, 2021

    In recent months, China has urged the Taliban government to make a “clean break” with the UN-designated terrorist organisation, East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).1 In October 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the acting Taliban Deputy Prime Minister, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, that Beijing expects Kabul to “take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them (c.f. ETIM and related militant groups)”.2

    China has reiterated such demands regardless of Taliban’s repeated assurances, such as the one given in September this year by the latter’s spokesperson Suhail Shaheen to the Chinese English daily Global Times that many ETIM members have already left Afghanistan after the Taliban leadership had urged them to migrate.3 China might have been reassured had the Taliban cracked down on ETIM members rather than leave it to Uyghur jihadists to leave the country on their own.

    China’s growing concerns with jihadist groups in its neighbourhood notwithstanding, it welcomed Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August this year by calling it “an end to anarchy”, albeit it has not yet officially recognised Taliban’s government. However, China has since pledged 200 million yuan ($31m, £22m) worth of aid to Afghanistan, including food supplies and coronavirus vaccines.4 In September 2019, the three governments of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan even agreed to officially extend CPEC into Afghanistan, with plans to build a highway between Kabul and Peshawar.5 According to Jason Li of The Stimson Center, “In China’s calculation, the planned extension of the $61 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan could be an essential solution to create a stable and terrorist-free Afghanistan in the long term.”6 Still, relations between the sides hinge on China’s assessment of the Taliban’s commitment to taking action against jihadist groups like the ETIM inside Afghanistan.

    ETIM and the Threat to China’s BRI and CPEC

    The ETIM is a Uyghur jihadist organisation founded on the objective of creating an independent East Turkestan state out of China’s Western province called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The UN Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee has listed ETIM as a terrorist organisation since 2002, although the United States removed the group from its list of terrorist organisations in 2020 because it claims “there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist”.7

    Although China calls the group ETIM, the jihadist organisation calls itself Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). According to a book titled Ethnic Identity and National Conflict in China, the group was founded by three individuals—Abdul Hakeem Makhdoom, Abdul Azeez Makhdoom and Abdul Hameed—in 1940 and has been known under various names. However, its main focus has been to incite local uprisings in Xinjiang.

    Around the 1980s, the group’s co-founder Abdul Hakeem is said to have started imbibing radical Islamic concepts, which he started to impart to his Uyghur recruits. Although the group first identified itself as the ETIM only in 1997 under the leadership of Hasan Mahsun and Abudukadir Yapuquan, Chinese authorities held the group responsible for carrying out over 200 terrorist attacks in Xinjiang between 1990 and 2001. In 1998, Mahsum moved ETIM's headquarters to Kabul, taking shelter under the then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Although belonging to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam like the Taliban, the ETIM developed links with Salafi jihadist global terror conglomerates such as Al-Qaeda and some of its members have recently collaborated with the Islamic State (IS) as well, following Taliban’s reluctance to support them.

    Terrorism is not necessarily a method of warfare employed by all Uyghur secessionist groups. These would include the Washington-based East Turkistan Government-in-Exile (ETGE), the umbrella World Uyghur Congress, the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, etc. Although mainly Hanafi Muslims, these non-violent organisations are modern and secular in outlook and do not subscribe to the worldview of the ETIM or even the fundamentalist Taliban. However, the ETIM seems to have increasingly stifled the call for peaceful Uyghur resistance against China. This has undermined an emerging international consensus towards the cause of Uyghur independence.

    In fact, the ETIM has conducted gruesome terrorist attacks in China over the years. For instance, they are said to have carried out deadly bus explosions in Kunming and Shanghai in 2008. A riot in Uruqmi (the capital of XUAR) between ethnic Han and Uyghurs is reported to have killed at least 200 in 2009, mostly from the Han community. In 2014, ETIM engineered three significant attacks. In March 2014, 130 people were injured, while 29 died during an attack in Kunming.8 In April 2014, three people lost their lives and about 79 people were wounded during a knife and bomb attack in Urumqi.9 Furthermore, in September 2015, suspected Uyghur terrorists attacked workers and security guards at a coal mine in Aksu City, Xinjiang, leaving at least 50 dead and over 50 injured.

    China views the ETIM as a potential threat not only to its internal security, but also as a security hazard for its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Xinjiang is the lynchpin on which the success of the BRI depends on, as vital trade routes run through this region.

    The Xinjiang Province, which the ETIM refers to as “East Turkestan”, is a strategically important region having a 76-km border with Afghanistan. In medieval times, it was closely associated with the region taking its name from the famous city of Kashgar. Secessionist Uyghur groups, including the ETIM, claim that China annexed East Turkestan in 1949 and renamed it Xinjiang, which means the “new frontier”. The province is rich in oil and natural gas resources and produces a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is also vital for China to access the broader Central Asian region.10

    Taliban: The Tenuous Transition to State Actor

    It appears that the Taliban is in a critical stage of its evolution, from being a non-state, fundamentalist militant organisation into a responsible, state actor on the international stage. On the one hand, its fledgling government runs the risk of losing its core fundamentalist constituency in its attempt to gain greater international respectability. On the other hand, the gaining of international recognition is critical for the new dispensation to receive much-needed aid to rescue Afghanistan from a major economic and humanitarian crisis.

    For its part, the international community has been asking the Taliban to jettison its jihadist baggage, including its continuing links with global terrorist forces (like Al-Qaeda and ETIM). For a variety of reasons, Taliban may be reluctant to do so, as such a move could challenge many of its core beliefs and even make it renegade in the eyes of  old jihadist ‘brethren’, who may now turn hostile against it. Ironically, this might happen soon after the Taliban was being valorised by most Islamists around the world on its so-called “victory” against the US after coming to power in Afghanistan.11 The ETIM itself had effusively congratulated the Taliban on the occasion by calling Taliban’s ascension to power as “a fruit of long and arduous struggle and God’s big gift to Muslims worldwide”.12 Taliban may also fear losing diplomatic leverage against regional and international powers once it severs its ties with fellow jihadists.

    Still, China’s dangling of the precious carrot of economic aid and development has made it considerably difficult for the Taliban to refute the charge of jihadist groups like IS-K (Islamic State-Khorasan) that it has sold out its radical cause to gain political power. Thus, the Taliban’s relations with China in the context of its action against the ETIM operatives in Afghanistan have become a litmus test for its future political fortunes. Countries like the US, China and even Pakistan are getting increasingly frustrated with the Taliban’s ambivalent behaviour on the issue of disowning its erstwhile jihadist allies, Al-Qaeda, ETIM and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan respectively.

    For its part, China is concerned that the Taliban’s lack of decisive action against the ETIM is allowing the Tehreek-i-Taliban and IS-K to garner support of jihadist Uyghur groups in the region. Before his death in 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Caliph of Islamic State) had issued a call for jihad in the mainland China. The bomb blast at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad, a Shia Hazara mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on 8 October 2021 is one of the most recent examples of how IS-K has brought the Chinese state into its line of fire.13 Although this was not a direct attack against the Sino-centric sphere of influence, the IS-K’s decision to disclose the attacker’s ethnic identity as an Uyghur was clearly geared at sending a message that the group was getting closer to terrorist elements against China.

    Upsetting the Ethnic Applecart

    One of the major challenges for Taliban, even if it finds the political will to crackdown on ETIM militants, is that the Uyghur terrorist group are reported to have about 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly in Badakhshan. This region has only recently joined Taliban ranks, with several Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen ethnic fighters joining the Pashtun-dominated Taliban for the first time.14 These militants have had longstanding ties with ETIM jihadists, as Badakhshan province itself joins the Xinjiang via the Wakhan Corridor. To launch an operation against the ETIM would put Taliban’s tenuous relations with newly raised cadres of non-Pashtun origins. This could threaten Taliban’s attempts to bring all ethnicities of Afghanistan under its fold.

    Even China may refrain from placing the Taliban under too much pressure lest the latter decides to turn away and jeopardise Xi Jinping’s pet BRI and CPEC projects. Furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would be averse to militarily intervene in Afghanistan in any circumstance. China would not risk entering Afghanistan, proverbially known as the “graveyard of empires”15, which would then allow jihadist groups and even some Muslim states to turn against China and undermine its regional aspirations and internal security.16 Having said that China is worried about ETIM’s ties with at least three terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region that have communicated explicitly anti-Chinese positions, and followed through with violence, namely Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, IS-K and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

    Thus, the coming of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan has the potential to upset the geopolitical applecart in Central Asia and adjoining regions. The growing association of radical Uyghur groups, like the ETIM, with IS-K and the spread of jihadist operations in Central Asia could have significant implications for regional and international powers, particularly for China and its ambitious plans for Silk Road imperialism.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.