China says a group of religious extremists plotted and carried out a violent attack Sunday in the remote region of Xinjiang, and that their leaders received training in camps run by a banned terrorist group - the East Turkestan Islamic Movement - based in neighboring Pakistan. Regional terrorism analysts say this is not the first time that China has blamed the group for attacks and, most likely, not the last. But what is ETIM? What do the United States and China know about the group and their history and their connections to acts of terrorism?
A little more than two months after the September 11 attacks, China released a document that outlined what it called the terrorist activities of more than 40 East Turkestan organizations, both inside and outside of Chinese territory. The document also linked the groups to al-Qaida and the Taliban and outlined how Uighur fighters were being trained and receiving funding in Afghanistan.
Ethnic Uighurs are a minority group in Xinjiang. Many resent China's policies in the remote region and some support the effort to establish an independent state of East Turkestan in Xinjiang.
Al-Qaida, Taliban connection
In the Chinese document, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was among eight organizations listed as openly advocating violence. It also says members of ETIM and its leader at the time, Hassan Makhsum, were working with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It says they received funding from bin Laden and trained in his camps.
Several months later, in January of 2002, China gave a more in-depth accounting of what it called East Turkestan terrorist forces, including ETIM, and blamed groups inside and outside of China for more than 200 incidents in Xinjiang between 1990 and 2001.
The United States has placed the group on two terrorist lists - one for finance in 2002 and another for immigration in 2004. Washington has as yet to add the group to the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
A State Department description of the group says ETIM militants fought in Afghanistan against U.S. troops alongside al-Qaida and Taliban forces. The State Department says ETIM leader Makhsum was killed in 2003, during raids on an al-Qaida-associated compound in western Pakistan.
Elusive organization in decline?
Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore's International Center for Violence and Terrorism Research says ETIM was a very well structured organization when it was in Afghanistan and before Makhsum was killed.
“Hassan Makhsum was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003, and subsequently, the U.S. and Pakistanis shared information about his death with the Americans and the Chinese. And the Chinese confirmed that based on DNA that it was Hasaan Makhsum who was killed,” he said.
Rohan Gunaratna adds that, although its membership is not as big now as it was in the past, the group still has significant propaganda capabilities.
“Since then, ETIM's membership is below 2,000 members and they have mostly been working with al-Qaida and the Islamic Jihad Union because they don't want to operate by themselves as an organization,” he said.
ETIM drew public attention ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when the group, under the name of the Turkestan Islamic Party, claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Xinjiang and deadly bus explosions in Shanghai and Yunnan.
In a video released at that time, the group threatened to carry out more attacks, even biological attacks during the Olympics. However, that did not happen and Chinese officials deny ETIM was linked to the bus explosions.
In 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the current leader of the group, Abdul Haq, calling him a “brutal terrorist". In a statement, the Treasury Department says the forces he commanded sought to sow violence and fracture international unity at the 2008 Olympic Games in China. It also said that, since late 2007, Haq had sent terrorists to the Middle East to raise funds and buy explosives materials for Chinese targets outside China.
In their book on the group, The ETIM: China's Islamic Militants and the Global Terrorist Threat, terrorism analysts J. Todd Reed and Diana Raschke wrote that, although some claims of responsibility by ETIM were dubious, it is likely they were responsible for at least some of the violence that occurred in the run up to the Beijing Olympics.
Such ambiguity about ETIM’s activities is common, leading some to question its capabilities and even its existence.
The State Department states that the group's strength is “unknown” and that U.S. and Chinese government information “suggests” ETIM is responsible for various terrorist acts inside and outside China.
Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, who studies Xinjiang and the Uighurs, says,“There is no reliable independently verified information on this organization, there's widespread suspicion among experts that this so called ETIM is an umbrella term for several small groups or individuals acting alone and that there is actually no bona fide active ETIM organization that is coordinating attacks in China or elsewhere for that matter.”
Terrorism analysts say that the United States obtained first-hand information about the group from Uighurs detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Rohan Gunaratna says these detainees in fact provided key insights for investigators.
“The U.S. is fully aware of ETIM links to al-Qaida and has very good access to ETIM structures and ideologies and operations, because the number of ETIM members arrested in Pakistan and Afghanistan were given by the Pakistani government into U.S. custody. The U.S. incarcerated ETIM members in Guantanamo Bay and the Americans debriefed them,” said Gunaratna.
Most of the ETIM-linked detainees at Guantanamo have since been released. Gladney says that fact has raised more questions than answers about their insights into the terrorist group.
“The fact that most Uyghur detainees from Guantanamo have been released suggests that the U.S. has determined that they were not members of any terrorists organization or combatants,” said Gladney.
Gunaratna says, although ETIM may be a rag-tag organization, it is still a significant movement.
No group has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in Xinjiang's western city, Kashgar. Gunaratna suspects the attackers were mostly inspired by ETIM and that perhaps one or two members of the group were involved. He says that will not become clear until China completes its investigation into the incident.