Could China Be the Next Al Qaeda Haven?

Among the thousands of casualties of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001, the death of Islamic militant Juma Namangani was scarcely noticed.

Namangani was the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and had traveled to Afghanistan in October 2001 to command the Taliban's fearsome 055 Brigade which fought alongside al Qaeda troops. Today, counter-terrorism experts know that sort of relationship is characteristic of al Qaeda — making common cause with other terror and fundamentalist groups.

Last October, a bomb exploded in Indonesia, a moderate Islamic country, killing 192 people, mostly foreign tourists. The suspects were linked to a small fundamentalist movement, Jemaah Islamiyah, which allegedly received funding from al Qaeda.

Secretary of State Colin Powell says al Qaeda has established a safe haven in Iraq, a secular country, with dissident Kurdish Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam.

"When our coalition ousted the Taliban, [al Qaeda collaborator Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi] helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp. And this camp is located in northeastern Iraq," Powell said.

With bin Laden's colleagues finding refuge and colleagues in more and more unlikely areas, the net is now being cast even wider for potential al Qaeda hiding places.

One area that has been examined is Xinjiang, a province in Western China, home to the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group. Xinjiang is one of the world's most isolated places, lying north of Tibet, south of Russia, and alongside some of the former Soviet republics that have become hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism.

Many Uighurs call the area East Turkestan or Uighurstan, emphasizing their traditional ties to the land. Xinjiang is the name given to the area by the late-arriving Han Chinese, they point out — a name, which means "new frontier."

Accordingly, the area has seen a number of separatist clashes. In addition, Uighurs have also been identified as members of many of the region's violent movements — including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Taliban.

At least four Uighurs are among the suspected al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners being held by U.S. forces in Cuba, and some 300 Uighurs are being held in camps in Afghanistan, according to Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Hawaii.

A Part of Al Qaeda?

China alleges that Uighur independence movements have been deeply financed by Osama bin Laden and have direct connections to the al Qaeda network.

In a report released in January 2002 titled East Turkestan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity, the Chinese government said "Bin Laden has schemed with the heads of the Central and West Asian terrorist organizations many times to help the 'East Turkestan' terrorist forces in Xinjiang launch a 'holy war.'"

According to the report, bin Laden met with the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in early 1999, and asked him to coordinate with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Taliban while promising financial aid.

In February 2001, the report continued, bin Laden and the Taliban "decided to allocate a fabulous sum of money for training the 'East Turkestan' terrorists," promised to bear the costs of their operations in 2001, and along with the Taliban and IMU, "offered them a great deal of arms and ammunition, means of transportation and telecommunication equipment."

In June 2002, Uighur activist Awuti Mamuti told the official China Central Television that he had attended camps sponsored by bin Laden , according to the Washington Times.

On Aug. 26, 2002, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced that Washington had placed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The group "committed acts of violence against unarmed civilians without any regard for who was hurt," he said.

The State Department said movement members attempted to attack the U.S. embassy in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, as well as other U.S. interests abroad. In May 2002, two members were deported to China for the plot.

The January 2002 Chinese government report listed over 200 terrorist incidents attributed to Uighurs, including bombings, assassinations and arson, resulting in at least 162 deaths and 440 injuries.

The most spectacular of them took place on Feb. 25, 1997, when three bombs went off nearly simultaneously on three buses in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, killing nine and injuring 68.

The careful handiwork of the attacks brought to mind the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that took place one year later and happened within minutes of each other.

Isolated and Misrepresented

Despite the bloody trail laid out by China, many point to a sub-agenda from Beijing as a reason for casting suspicion on the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

"Nobody denies there are groups like the ETIM," Gladney said — but he and other experts say the violence in Xinjiang is motivated less by Islamic fundamentalism than secular demands, like in nearby Tibet — and most notions of al Qaeda sympathies in Xinjiang are promoted because it is in Beijing's self-interest.

Like Tibetans, Uighurs say they are being colonized by China's majority Han, who are forcing them to abandon their heritage.

Uighurs are banned from using their language and following their traditions, they say. Government spies hide in mosques, and assimilated Uighurs are given preferential treatment — a powerful incentive in China, where the state controls everything from apartments to jobs.

Uighurs are further aggrieved by the increasing number of Han flooding into the area, who they say are motivated by Beijing and treated even better than the assimilated Uighurs.

Gulamettin Pahta, one of the first Uighurs to live in the United States, said when he left over a half-century ago, there was barely 500,000 people there, and 97 percent of the population was Uighur.

Now the total population is nearly 20 million, 40 percent are Han, and only 47 percent are Uighur. He predicted that given current migration patterns, Uighurs might soon be significantly outnumbered. "The situation is very bad," he said.

Fearing secession, Beijing has jailed, and in some cases executed Uighurs who have called for independence and resisted assimilation.

Just one month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Human Rights Watch issued a report condemning government human rights abuses in the area, and warned that Beijing might use the war on terror as "a pretext for gaining international support — or at least silence — for its own crackdown on ethnic Uighurs."

"The Chinese are quite definitely using the relating of worldwide terror to expand their crackdown," said Mickey Spiegel of Human Rights Watch.

Experts said Beijing's motives aren't hard to divine. They say another Chinese minority, the Hui, are also Muslims, but haven't been faced with as much of a crackdown because they are better-integrated with the majority Han.

In Xinjiang itself, there are 12 different ethnic groups, mostly Muslims, said Nury Turkel, general secretary for the Uighur American Association. "But almost all political prisoners are Uighurs," he said, "there's not one single Kazakh."

"Our fight, our cause, is purely existence," he said.

A Desperate Situation

Among Uighurs, there is very little confidence that Xinjiang will become a haven for al Qaeda because they say they hardly have any sympathy for the fundamentalist society of the Taliban.

Music and alcohol are not unfamiliar in Uighur areas, and women aren't sequestered like in other Muslim societies. "We didn't ever see any people like this talking about an Islamic government," Pahta said.

Before Beijing tightened the reins on the area, only about 6,000 Uighurs a year ever went on the Hajj pilgrimage — an obligation for devout Muslims — compared to some 30,000 from Malaysia, a Muslim country similar in population size to Xinjiang, Gladney said.

Gladney said before the current furor over Islam, many Uighurs had little knowledge of what has been the litmus test of Muslims, the Palestinian issue. "Muslims in China have never been really engaged," Gladney said.

In turn, while bin Laden has repeatedly tried to rally Muslims by mentioning the injustices done to Muslims in places like Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Iraq, he has never mentioned East Turkestan.

Supporters of the independence movement say it is largely secular, and has long upheld the United States as a model. "Every one of these groups, though Muslim, are pro-U.S." Gladney said.

But Uighurs say Washington values it relationship with China more than its relationship with them, given its priority for the war on terror — a relationship likely to deepen with Washington's need for Beijing's influence on the rogue regime of North Korea.

And the Uighurs cannot rely on its Central Asian neighbors, with whom they share traditional links, Turkel said — because their economies are beholden to China. That's why Uighurs were found in Afghanistan, he said — with diplomatic relations with few countries, fugitive Uighurs found it easy to take refuge in Afghanistan.

Turkel says he understands every country's first priority is its national interest, but he is hopeful. "It is sad that Uighurs is suffering and the world community is ignoring Uighur people but this does not mean the Uighur people will disappear."