Nearly a month after an intentional car crash in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square killed five and injured 40, a group called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the SITE monitoring service, the TIP released a Uyghur-language audio recording from leader Abdullah Mansour claiming responsibility for the attack. The Turkestan Islamic Party is a known alias for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the group that Beijing originally claimed was responsible for the attack. The video is likely to trigger an increase in Beijing’s counter-terrorist activities, especially because of its ominous promise of future attacks by its “holy warriors” against targets such as the Great Hall of the People.
Before the October 28 attack, few Chinese and even fewer outside China had even heard of ETIM. As Tyler Roney explained earlier on The Diplomat, human rights activists worry that Beijing exaggerates the influence of ETIM to avoid criticism for its aggressive crack-downs in Xinjiang. Some even claim ETIM might not actually exist. “Today, we do not believe ETIM exists as an organization. Nobody has any substantive evidence of its existence,” said Uyghur American Association President Alim Seytoff in an interview with The Diplomat.
Despite these doubts, ETIM does appear on the United Nations’ list of entities associated with Al Qaeda. The 2011 UN summary of ETIM estimates that the organization has 200 members worldwide and is supposedly active in planning attacks, including a plan to target the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan and attempts to disrupt the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, according to the UN report, ETIM had not actually carried out a successful attack since 1999 — until the October 28 car crash in Tiananmen. After TIP claimed responsibility for that attack, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang in Beijing called for an end to “double standards in fighting terrorism” and expressed his hope that other countries will partner with China to “increase counter-terrorism coordination.”
Even before the Tiananmen attack, Beijing was increasing its counterterrorism cooperation with neighboring countries, especially with Indonesia, Thailand, and the Central Asian members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In 2012, according to the U.S. State Department, China conducted joint counterterrorism training exercises with Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Thailand, and has conducted a similar number of joint counterterrorism activities in each of the past five years.
China’s major partner in these activities is Pakistan, a country that paradoxically enjoys a long history of close ties to China while also hosting the majority of ETIM members. Though a recent Chinese media report on the history of ETIM called Pakistan’s cooperation with China “sincere and effective”, the article also quoted former Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri as saying it’s no secret that Xinjiang extremists are living in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan is believed to be the base for ETIM, where off-shoots of Afghanistan’s Taliban and Al Qaeda provide training and monetary support for disgruntled Uyghurs. Then these terrorists supposedly re-enter China through “secret channels” to recruit more Uyghurs to their cause, or even carry out attacks.
Overall, the Chinese government seems satisfied with Pakistan’s level of cooperation on counterterrorism. Pakistani soldiers were responsible for the death of ETIM’s original leader Hassan Mahsum in 2003, and were diligent (although unsuccessful) at searching for Hasum’s successor, Abdul Haq. Every so often, Chinese media report, ETIM members are captured by Pakistan and extradited to China for trial.
Still, now that TIP has claimed responsibility for the recent attack in Tiananmen Square, we can expect to see China putting more pressure on Pakistan for help in combating terrorism. China recently announced the launch of the Pakistan Council on China, a new think-tank aimed at promoting Pakistan-China relations. It’s no coincidence that China is launching a new wave of cooperation with Pakistan at the same time that Beijing renews its focus on anti-terrorism. Pakistan is a crucial part of China’s counterterrorism strategy, just as it is for the U.S.
However, as the United States has found, there are limits to what Pakistani cooperation can do to root out terrorism. Fortunately for China, the United States has proven its willingness to strike at Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives within Pakistani border, with the perhaps unintended consequence of crippling ETIM.
Even though State Department officials recently declined to label the Tiananmen car crash a terrorist attack, ETIM itself was labeled a terrorist organization by the United States shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In 2009, the United States specifically designated ETIM leader Abdul Haq as a terrorist because of his organization’s tie to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. “Since late 2007,” the State Department alleged, “Abdul Haq has sent operatives to the Middle East to raise funds and buy explosive materials for terrorist attacks against Chinese targets outside China. In early January 2008, Abdul Haq directed ETIM’s military chief to attack cities in China, particularly focusing on the eight cities hosting the 2008 Olympic Games.” The U.S. Treasury Department further noted that Haq was a member of Al Qaeda’s executive leader council. Once the United States targeted Haq, it didn’t take long for China to reap the benefits — a U.S. drone strike is presumed to have killed Haq in 2010.
With Haq’s death, however, U.S. interest in ETIM seems to have died as well — the organization no longer appears on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. But should ETIM or its presumed successor the TIP reforge strong ties with Al Qaeda, Beijing might once again get to sit back and watch U.S. drones do their work.