ETIM crumbled after its leader, Hasan Mahsum, was killed in Pakistan in 2003. There are indications today that a revived movement may be integrating into the broader international jihadist movement in Central and South Asia.
China repeatedly refers to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as the main militant Uighur Islamist threat; however, in many Chinese studies, a more general “East Turkistan Movement” is referred to rather than any specific group. When a specific group is mentioned regarding a militant action or government raid, Beijing usually cites ETIM or the related East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), which is also on China’s most-wanted list. This ambiguity, and the fact that there are numerous variations of the movement’s name, has led many foreign observers to simply credit ETIM with all militant attacks or plots in China. (When the U.S. State Department listed ETIM as a terrorist organization, it credited it with the complete laundry list of attacks, assassinations and plots China said were the work of the entire East Turkistan separatist movement.)
While most reports trace the ETIM back to its rebirth under Hasan Mahsum and Abudukadir Yapuquan in 1997, the organization traces its own lineage back to 1940, when the Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan (Islamic Party of Turkistan or Turkistan Islamic Movement) was founded by Abdul Azeez Makhdoom (also transliterated as Mahsum), Abdul Hakeem and Abdul Hameed. From the 1940s through 1952, the three led the movement in a series of uprisings, first against local warlords and later against the Chinese Communists. During this time, Abdul Hakeem was imprisoned, Abdul Hameed was driven underground and later killed in 1955 and Abdul Azeez Makhdoom simply dropped out of sight (likely killed).
Around 1956, after Abdul Hameed’s death, the organization reformed as Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan Ash-Sharqiyah (Islamic Party of East Turkistan or East Turkistan Islamic Movement) under the new leadership of Mullah Baquee and Mullah Muhammad. The two led an uprising that was quickly defeated, leading to a decline of the organization and its activity until the late 1970s or early 1980s. While there were some uprisings in Xinjiang in the 1960s and 1970s during the Cultural Revolution, these were less ethnically or religiously motivated than linked to the broader sense of instability in China during that period.
In 1979, as Deng Xiaoping was launching China’s economic opening and reform, Abdul Hakeem was released from prison and set up several underground schools for Islamic study (a slightly more open environment in China contributed to a decade-long Islamic and ethnic revival in Xinjiang). One of his students in Kargharlak from 1984 to 1989 was Mahsum, who would later reinvigorate the ETIM. The 1980s also saw a resurgence of activism among Uighurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, triggered by calls for religious or ethnic rights, greater student freedoms and opposition to Chinese nuclear tests at Lop Nor in Xinjiang.
On Dec. 12, 1985, demonstrations broke out at Xinjiang University, led by a Uighur student organization, and quickly spread to universities and schools in other cities in Xinjiang. The December 12 Movement, as it was later called, was suppressed by Chinese security forces, but it did inspire a second movement in June 1988 triggered in part by leaflets found at the campus of Xinjiang University disparaging ethnic Uighurs. Once again, a Uighur student movement spearheaded the demonstrations, which spread beyond the Xinjiang University campus. A third student-led demonstration broke out in May 1989, when students marched in Urumchi to protest a book on ethnic sexual customs published earlier in Shanghai that allegedly insulted Muslims and Uighurs.
Many of these Xinjiang student protests in the 1980s were more a reflection of the growing student activism in China as a whole (culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident) than a resurgence of Uighur separatism. But there was also a movement in Xinjiang during the more open 1980s to promote literacy and to refocus on religious and ethnic heritage that saw a resurgence of Islamic schools and mosques. This movement was to take on a stronger role with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independence of the Central Asian states and the broader Islamic revival in Central Asia.
In 1988 or 1989, the group Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan Ash-Sharqiyah was revitalized once again under Dia Uddin, who planned a series of attacks in Xinjiang to push for independence from Beijing. The plots were discovered before they could be carried out, however, leading to a clash between government forces and Dia Uddin’s militants in Baren in 1990. The so-called “April 5 Baren Incident” involved some 200 Uighur demonstrators who fought back against government troops, though the core militants were only a dozen or less. After holding the town for nearly three weeks, most of the militants were either captured or killed in the city or in mopping-up operations in the countryside.
Prior to the Baren incident, a breakaway faction of the Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan Ash-Sharqiyah, called Hizbul Islah Al-Islami (The Islamic Party of Reformation), led by Abdul Kareem and Shaheed Idris bin Omar, carried out several car and bus bombings in Urumchi in 1989 and early 1990. This was not the only small faction to rise up during this time; several smaller Islamist or ethnic militant groups were briefly formed, and Uighur organized-crime groups grew more active as well, making it difficult to determine whether various attacks, robberies and assassinations were the work of separatists, political opponents or criminals.
In the wide security sweep by Beijing following the Baren incident, Mahsum was detained and imprisoned from May 1990 to November 1991. Abdul Kareem was arrested around the same time and imprisoned for 15 years. Many other future leaders of Uighur/East Turkistan movements (political, militant and secular) fled China in the 1980s and 1990s, settling predominately in Central Asia, Turkey and Germany. Inspired by the newly independent Central Asian states, members of this Uighur diaspora held the first Uighur National Congress in Istanbul in December 1992. However, like most overseas and domestic attempts to unite the Uighurs under central coordination, this gathering failed to provide a center of gravity for the nascent Uighur movement.
In Xinjiang, the separatist movement continued to stumble along in the early 1990s, with a series of bus bombings in 1992 and a major demonstration against Chinese nuclear testing at Lop Nor, which degraded into a riot, clashes with security forces and the destruction of military equipment. There were several bombings in Xinjiang in 1993, some attributed by Beijing to the Eastern Turkistan Youths League or the World Uighur Youth Congress. In 1993, Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan Ash-Sharqiyah founder Abdul Hakeem died, and the movement was briefly reborn under the leadership of Abudu Rehmen and Muhanmmed Tuhit, both from Hotan. (The Islamist factions of Uighur activists arose mostly in the southwestern part of the province, with the secular political movements coming primarily from the center and north.)
In July 1993, Mahsum was imprisoned again and held until February 1995, when he was transferred to a labor camp in which he was confined until April 1996. During this time in prison, Mahsum was one of many Uighurs who shifted from a political Islamic philosophy to a more militant one. The various students, militants, criminals and bystanders picked up in China’s broader sweeps following the 1990 Baren incident began to reshape the militant ideology in prison, which became perfect militant training grounds.
By the mid-1990s, several smaller militant and criminal groups were active in Xinjiang, with names, memberships and ideologies frequently shifting. In 1995, China began to crack down on Islamic teaching in Xinjiang. In July of that year, authorities arrested two imams in Hotan, which led to riots and clashes with security forces. China further intensified its efforts to stem the rise of Islamist and separatist militancy in Xinjiang in 1996 by forming the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (at the time referred to as the Shanghai Five), establishing new security arrangements with Russia and Central Asian states and encouraging Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to clamp down on the political and militant activities of the Uighur diaspora in Central Asia.
This was followed by a series of so-called “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang by Chinese security forces. But rather than quell separatism and militancy, this move caused a flare-up in Xinjiang as Beijing tightened its grip. In 1996, Mehmet Emin Hazret founded the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), and future members of ETIM started their own militant groups in Xinjiang, carrying out a series of armed attacks against political, religious and business leaders. That same year, a larger flood of Uighurs left China, seeking shelter in Central Asia and Afghanistan. During one of the “strike hard” campaigns in August 1996, Mahsum was again briefly detained. Upon his release, he traveled from Urumchi to Beijing to Malaysia and on to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
From January to March 1997, Mahsum stayed in Jeddah and tried to convince the local Uighur community, including wealthy businessmen, to fund or join a Uighur/East Turkistan Islamist militancy and challenge Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang. He received very little support, with many of the economically or socially influential in Jeddah calling militancy a lost cause and urging Mahsum to change his mind and simply settle overseas. This is a repeating theme in the timeline of Islamist militancy in Xinjiang — the near lack of support by the broader community, both domestic and abroad, and particularly the economic elite.
In March and April 1997, Mahsum took his cause to Pakistan, then on to Turkey in April and May. Both missions met with similar results as his Jeddah initiative, despite reports of another Uighur uprising in Xinjiang in February 1997, resulting in several days of clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur protestors in Yining. Following the Hajj in Saudi Arabia in May, Mahsum and a small group of followers headed to Central Asia, likely Afghanistan, where they began to interact with the broader Islamist/jihadist movement.
Around September 1997, Mahsum and Abudukadir Yapuquan reformed ETIM, the direct descendent of his former teacher Abdul Hakeem’s Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan Ash-Sharqiyah. In March 1998, with about a dozen members present, ETIM formalized its ideology and mission, rejecting much of Dia Uddin’s ideas from the late 1980s and seeking broader regional ties. This new manifestation of ETIM sought closer cooperation with other Turkic peoples and non-Uighurs abroad and no longer focused on starting an uprising or holding territory in Xinjiang. In September 1998, ETIM moved its headquarters to Kabul, Afghanistan, taking shelter in the Taliban-controlled territory.
In 1997, while Mahsum was abroad seeking foreign support for the Uighur Islamist militancy, the movement was taking a different direction in Xinjiang. A series of bombings that year against buildings and transportation infrastructure in Xinjiang was credited to various small militant groups — some with evocative names like the “Wolves of Lop Nor.” In March 1997, a bus bombing in Beijing was credited by some to Uighur militants and was even claimed by at least one overseas Uighur movement. However, some Chinese reports played down the link, suggesting the bus attack was a purely criminal act. If the perpetrators were indeed Uighur militants, the bus bombing would be the farthest successful Uighur attack in China away from Xinjiang. ETLO also was blamed for a series of attacks and assassinations in Central Asia in 1998.
As the Uighur militancy was picking up steam, social and political movements also began expanding their activities and boldness. Several social movements emerged focusing on AIDS awareness and prevention, stemming illegal drug use, promoting literacy and empowering women. Among these was the Thousand Mothers Movement, started by Rebiya Kadeer, who, as one of Xinjiang’s wealthiest business leaders and a member of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), had used the NPC session in Beijing in March 1997 to criticize China’s policies in Xinjiang. Kadeer was later arrested in 1999, and she eventually was released to the United States as a show of goodwill in March 2005, days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to arrive in China. Kadeer has since been characterized as the Uighur “Dalai Lama,” or the mother of the Uighur movement, and now lives in the United States.
Meanwhile, following the relocation of its headquarters to Kabul in late 1998, ETIM largely gave up on the wider overseas Uighur community (although it reportedly established an alliance with ETLO in March 1998) and began to take advantage of the regional jihadist movement, particularly in Afghanistan, for support and training. ETIM also began reaching back into Xinjiang, establishing contacts with criminal and militant groups such as the hybrid Hotan Kulex, which manufactured explosives and carried out a series of robberies and assassinations in Xinjiang in 1999.
On March 17, 1999, militants suspected of links to ETIM attacked a convoy of People’s Liberation Army trucks in the suburb of Changji City, some 50 miles from Urumchi. In less than a week, Chinese security forces issued a bulletin saying they had wiped out the militant cell responsible. In September 1999, police broke up a “political rebellion” in Hotan. Meanwhile, Mahsum and other ETIM leaders reportedly met in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden and other leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to coordinate actions. In response to this wider mandate, ETIM removed the “East” from its name, thus becoming the Turkistan Islamic Movement (not to be confused with the Islamic Movement of Turkistan, a name taken on by the IMU in 2003 as it sought to broaden its mandate beyond Uzbekistan). Despite the name change, most analysts and even Islamists continue to refer to the group by its more common English abbreviation, ETIM, just as the Islamic Movement of Turkistan continued to go by IMU after it changed its name.
For much of 2000 and 2001, ETIM sought to recruit Uighurs heading to Central Asia, Afghanistan or the Middle East for Islamic training. In addition, Uighurs gained experience at training facilities in Afghanistan and on occasional operations with the Taliban. ETIM had minimal connections back in Xinjiang during this time, though Uighurs also joined individually with the IMU and other movements in Central Asia. In February 2001, bin Laden and Taliban leaders reportedly met to discuss further assistance to the various East Turkistan and Central Asian Islamist militant movements, including ETIM. But al Qaeda’s attention soon shifted to the upcoming attacks on the United States, and the Taliban prepared to strengthen its operations against the forces of the Northern Alliance in anticipation of the al Qaeda strike and repercussions from Washington.
With the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, both ETIM and IMU were routed, along with Taliban and al Qaeda forces. The remnants of ETIM, including Mahsum, relocated to Central Asia and Pakistan, though there are suggestions that Yapuquan went to Saudi Arabia. In January 2002, Mahsum conducted an interview with Radio Free Asia, claiming that ETIM had no links to al Qaeda or the Taliban but admitting that some individual members may have fought alongside other militants in Afghanistan. With little international attention, sympathy or support for the Uighur movement anywhere (even among the Islamic community), Mahsum was seeking to avoid having the Uighur movement lumped in with the broader jihadist movement and coming under U.S. guns. It did not work.
In September 2002, the U.S. State Department listed ETIM as a terrorist organization, following an August warning that ETIM could be planning attacks against U.S. interests in Kyrgyzstan. While there were disagreements in the U.S. intelligence community at the time (with several arguing that ETIM was a fractured and largely defunct organization after it fled Afghanistan in 2001), the listing not only undermined any potential sympathy ETIM might have gained in its fight against Beijing, it also weakened the wider political Uighur movements, which had to fight an assumed link with international Islamist terrorism.
In 2003, ETIM experienced what seemed to be its last gasps, with Beijing claiming to have cracked a small ETIM cell in Hebei province (which borders Beijing) and with Kazakhstan claiming to have dismantled another suspected ETIM cell. The biggest blow to the organization came in October, when Mahsum was one of several killed in a joint Pakistani-U.S. operation against multinational militant targets in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan. Mahsum’s death left an already-fractured ETIM largely leaderless. With the exception of ETIM’s being listed as one of China’s most-wanted terrorist organizations in December 2003, there was little mention of ETIM activity until 2007, when Beijing began ramping up security ahead of the Olympics.
In the latter half of 2006, a video was circulated on the Internet urging a new jihad in Xinjiang. Much of the media and literature that began readdressing the Uighur cause emanated from Pakistan, where some ETIM remnants and other militant Uighur Islamists had integrated with multinational jihadist forces. By late 2006, there were reports that ETIM remnants had begun reforming in the far western reaches of Xinjiang, preparing to take the fight back to Chinese territory.
In early January 2007, Beijing raided a camp of suspected ETIM militants in Akto County, which sits along the Chinese border with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing 18 and capturing another 17, along with firearms and homemade grenades. By that time, Beijing started to grow worried that Uighur militants training in Pakistan were beginning to filter back into Xinjiang to recruit and plan attacks. In May, Beijing urged Pakistan to detain some 20 Uighurs linked to ETIM who Chinese intelligence thought were hiding in the Pakistani trial areas.
In January 2008, Chinese security forces carried out another raid on a suspected ETIM camp, this time in the Tianshan district of Urumchi, killing two and detaining 15, as well as uncovering a cache of knives and axes, “terrorist” literature and plans to carry out attacks during the Olympics. (Later reports suggested the plans were to carry out attacks to mark the anniversary of the February 1997 uprising in Yining.)
The January raids were discussed on the sidelines of the March NPC session in Beijing, when officials also reported an attempt by a Uighur militant to down a Chinese passenger jet on March 7. In that case, Turdi Guzalinur, a 19-year-old Uighur, allegedly smuggled two containers of gasoline aboard China Southern Airlines flight CZ6901 from Urumchi to Beijing and attempted to set a fire in the restroom in order to crash the aircraft. Chinese state security officials said she was trained by her husband, a Uighur from Central Asia, and was traveling on a Pakistani passport. Some reports suggested that as many as four individuals were involved in the plot, either directly or indirectly, and that the mastermind had fled China for Central Asia.
The attempted jetliner bombing triggered a series of changes in Chinese airline security to tighten up search and carry-on regulations already on the books but only sporadically enforced. The incident was quickly overshadowed just over a week later, however, when protests in Tibet broke into open riots and international attention shifted away from the Uighurs to the Tibetans. A March 23 anti-government protest in Hotan went nearly unnoticed, as did a series of counterterrorism raids by Chinese security forces between March 26 and April 6 that netted 45 alleged militants as well as explosives and jihadist literature. According to Chinese security officials, the raids also uncovered plots to attack Beijing and Shanghai during the Olympics.
Following the raids, Beijing warned India of potential ETIM members infiltrating New Delhi to carry out terrorist acts coinciding with the Olympic torch run, and Beijing repeated its accusation that ETIM was still active and operating from Pakistani territory. At the same time, security forces in Beijing and Shanghai were also alerted to look for Muslims in Beijing and Shanghai who could be infiltrating schools and office buildings to survey them for possible attacks. In addition, there were increased warnings to be on alert for foreign Muslim women, who could be conducting surveillance of potential targets in Chinese cities or even preparing for attacks themselves. The focus on foreigners, rather than just Uighurs, was a further recognition of the internationalization of the jihadist movement against China.
There are indications that a small number of Uighur militants remain among groups of foreign militants in Pakistan, either in the tribal areas or in Kashmir, and occasionally travel back into Afghanistan and Xinjiang. If the March 7 airline incident is any indication, the foreign influence and connections in the Uighur movements in Xinjiang are continuing to expand, and the overseas training and study are facilitating the sharing of tactics, experiences and preferred target sets.