August 8, 2008— -- In the lead up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, China has claimed that "terrorist" groups among its Muslim minority are linked to al Qaeda. While intelligence experts say China is exaggerating the connection, many analysts wonder whether China's heavy handedness toward the Uighurs is creating a new recruiting ground for global terror.
Already, political sentiment is changing. After years of harsh treatment at the hands of Chinese rulers, some members of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority in western China are turning to the global Islamist movement.
Among the recent developments is the presence of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which means the Party of Liberation, a group that advocates for a single Islamic state and preaches non-violent methods. Abdul Wahid, a leading member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in London, told ABC News that his group has active members in western China's Xinjiang region.
The adherence of some of China's Muslims to a global Islamist philosophy represents a departure for a population that has traditionally subscribed to a moderate form of Islam, and whose protests have been mainly directed against Chinese rule, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch researcher.
"The religious environment is so restricted, so tightly controlled that people feel persecuted," said Bequelin. "[In such circumstances] some people tend to take the risk to join underground religious organizations that are independent from state control."
The changing sentiment, however, does not mean that al Qaeda has gone into China, U.S. officials say. Former Central Intelligence Agency officer John Kiriakou, who served in Pakistan from 1998 to 2004, said the only link goes back to before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 when a group of Uighurs was found at an al Qaeda training camp. The U.S. military eventually took nearly two dozen Uighurs to Guantanamo -- some of whom have been released.
While the men had sought training and assistance from al-Qaeda, said Kirakou, they were organizationally distinct. Their goal was to resist authoritarian Chinese rule, a fight that was theirs alone, he said.
"The truth of the matter is al Qaeda welcomes any group that went to Afghanistan and offers to support it," he said.
And while al Qaeda leaders might have sought support from Uighurs, they never extended their reach into China, said Kiriakou. "The Uighurs are fighting that lonely fight by themselves," he said.
China's northwest region of Xinjiang, dominated by the Turkic Muslim Uighur population, has long been in opposition to the ruling Communist Party. The region had a brief period of independence before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 and settled the region with majority Han Chinese.
Inspired by the Tibetan independence movement in the 1990s, Uighur resentment bubbled up: while many separatists were non-violent, others launched sometimes fatal attacks.
Though the groups never embraced the spectacular displays of terror that have been the trademark of groups like al-Qaeda, China's repression of religion and culture in Xinjiang has affected even the most moderate Uighurs there, human rights groups say. Children and Communist Party members are prohibited from attending mosques, and the traditional role of imams has been usurped by the Party leadership, according to human rights groups and U.S. State Department reports.
Yet the Chinese government has continued to paint its fight against Uighur groups as part of the international war on terror -- a strategy, many experts say, intended to garner international support for its actions.
Chinese authorities say they have made dozens of arrests of terrorists within its borders this year. According to state-run media, authorities have broken up rallies, executed Uighurs suspected of terrorism, and closed down mosques.
In particular, Chinese authorities have identified a group called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as the greatest terror threat in China. After two Uighurs killed 16 border police in the western Chinese city of Kashgar this week, authorities there said that the suspects' homemade guns and weapons resembled those seized from an ETIM training camp last year.
But far from resembling al Qaeda, the group is more like the Basque separatist group ETA, which has used terrorist tactics of bombing to wage a war in Spain for their own state, according to U.S. officials. Unlike the Basque group, however, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement has not yet exhibited a substantial ability to conduct bombings or organize insurgency, the officials said.
Another group embracing violence has also appeared in recent months. Known as the Turkistan Islamic Party, the group has released two videos in recent weeks, calling for jihad and threatening an attack during the Olympics. It also claimed responsibility for recent bus bombings in the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Kunming. Chinese authorities have dismissed the group's warnings, and experts say there is no proof the group has carried out any of the attacks that it claimed responsibility for.Some terrorism experts say a continued crackdown could lead Uighurs to more violence.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, wrote in his recent report, "The ETIM Threat to the Beijing Olympics," that ETIM's goals have already changed from nationalist ones to global jihad.
In his report, Gunarata wrote that groups of Uighurs in Pakistan have joined al Qaeda and the Taliban, and constitute a real threat to the Olympic Games and targets outside China: "Today, ETIM follows the philosophy of al Qaeda and respects Osama bin Laden," he wrote. "Such groups that believe in the global jihad agenda do not confine their targets to the territories that they seek to control. ...ETIM presents a threat to Chinese as well as to Western targets."