Could China Be the Next Al Qaeda Haven?

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.

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