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."

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