State Department Removes East Turkestan Islamic Movement’s Terror Group Designation

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quietly removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in late October. The reversal of the 2002 decision classifying the ETIM as a terrorist organization has its roots in concerns about the Chinese government’s mass internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang. China has long justified its crackdown on Uyghur life as a counterterrorism effort. In recent years, this crackdown has turned into a campaign of mass incarceration and extreme surveillance, among other repressive measures.

At The Wall Street Journal, Sha Hua wrote on the impact of Pompeo’s decision:

The U.S. listed ETIM as a terrorist organization in 2002 as Washington was seeking Beijing’s cooperation with its global War on Terror in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. While Chinese officials blamed a number of terrorist attacks on the group and has used its existence to justify a harsh crackdown on the Muslim population in Xinjiang, U.S. policy makers and scholars have long cast doubt on the group’s significance and reach.

[…] “The group has not really existed since the early 2000s,” said James Millward, a professor of Chinese and Central Asian history at Georgetown University. “Listing ETIM in the first place was the mistake.”

[…] The delisting of ETIM will have very little direct impact on the lives of Uighurs in Xinjiang, said Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at Nottingham University and expert on Islam in China.

“The damage of this designation is done. ETIM as a terrorist organization and specter has already become entrenched in Chinese thinking,” he said. The group still appears on the sanctions list of the United Nations Security Council’s al-Qaeda/Taliban Sanctions Committee, he noted. [Source]

Chinese authorities have variously described Uyghurs as religious extremists, adherents to “Pan-Turkism” or “Pan-Islamism,” and inherently violent, as opposed to “pacifistic” Hui Muslims. In 2019, CGTN, a Chinese state television channel, released a documentary portraying Xinjiang as a violent place wracked by terrorism, until the 2018 advent of the gulags. Some U.S. scholars have argued that fear of violent extremism drives the PRC’s repressive policies in the region. Others contend that such framing is an attempt by the PRC “to flatten the multi-faceted destruction of an indigenous people into a pragmatic if extreme counterterrorism exercise.” On November 5, Global Times baselessly connected a recent terror attack in Vienna and the coronavirus pandemic to separatism in Xinjiang, thereby justifying “practical systems of countering terrorism.” At Human Rights Watch, Akshaya Kumar laid out the recent history of Chinese officials defense of mass-incarceration on counterterrorism grounds:

In a letter to the editor in The Economist, a senior Chinese diplomat in London suggested that his government’s policies in Xinjiang follow “principles embodied in a number of international documents on counter-terrorism, such as the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.” But at the risk of stating the obvious, no UN counterterrorism principle would ever countenance the surveillance, family separation, mass arbitrary detention and forcible political re-education of millions of people, as is the case in Xinjiang.

By dragging the UN into the debate, the Chinese government is racheting up its move to cast the oppression of Turkic Muslims as counterterrorism, and trying to cloak these mass crimes with the legitimacy of multilateralism. Previously, top UN officials have often been loathe to question the Chinese government’s characterization of their campaign as counterterrorism, or demand that Xinjiang’s detention camps be closed. But not everyone is willing to toe the Chinese government’s line. UN member states and UN human rights experts have increasingly been willing to challenge Beijing’s rights record. While the Chinese government has faced isolated violent attacks in Xinjiang, a responsible and rights-respecting counterterrorism response does not involve arbitrarily detaining a million people. Indeed, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy that China cited actually emphasizes the need to uphold human rights, and warns that violations of human rights and rule of law can fuel terrorism. [Source]

The State Department’s decision to remove the ETIM from the official terrorism list was met with dismay from Chinese officials. Government-connected think tank scholars accused the United States of nefarious aims while hinting at unintended consequences: “By delisting the organisation, the US is trying to encourage, support and indulge activities that could threaten China’s national security[…] But terrorists are terrorists – they won’t limit their targets as the US hopes.” At a daily press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin voiced the Chinese government’s anger at the State Department decision:

Wang Wenbin: China deplores and firmly opposes the U.S. decision. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a terrorist organization listed by the UN Security Council and known as a terrorist group by the international community. It has long been engaged in terrorist and violent activities, causing heavy casualties and property losses, and posing serious threats to security and stability in China, the region and beyond. Fighting the ETIM is a consensus of the international community and an important part of the international endeavor against terrorism.

As a co-sponsor of the ETIM’s listing in the 1267 Committee of the UN Security Council, the United States has flip-flopped on the designation of ETIM as a terrorist organization, once again exposing the current U.S. administration’s double standard on counter-terrorism and its repulsive practice of condoning terrorist groups as it sees fit. Terrorism is terrorism. The United States should immediately correct its mistakes, refrain from whitewashing terrorist organizations, and stop reversing the course of international counter-terrorism cooperation. [Source]

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Sean Roberts explained that the revocation of the ETIM’s terrorist group status is unlikely to deter Beijing from further persecuting Uyghur people:

Roberts said the revocation will raise questions about whether Beijing’s policy of mass incarceration in the XUAR has any justification as part of a counter-terrorism strategy.

“In many ways, it serves as a demonstration that, as far as the U.S. is concerned, they don’t believe that’s a legitimate argument,” he said.

“Now whether that will have any salience in China is probably not likely because I don’t think the policies that the Chinese government is undertaking are really about counter-terrorism anyway. I think they’re about wanting to basically settle and develop the Uyghur region as they see fit and do so in a manner where Uyghurs are unable to object to that.” [Source]


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