Are China’s Uyghurs Operating an al-Qaeda Network in Turkey? Ankara and Beijing Discuss Cooperation Against Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 30

Turkish State Minister Zafer Caglayan (L) with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during the former's August 31 visit

Turkish State Minister Zafer Caglayan paid an official visit to China and met Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as a special envoy of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 31. Caglayan is the first Turkish minister to visit China after July’s Uyghur unrest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in which 197 people died according to the official tally. “We want to strengthen and improve bilateral relations with the principle of mutual respect, equality and interest," Wen Jiabao said (Anadolu Ajansi, August 31).

Turks and the Muslim Uyghurs of China’s western province of Xinjiang have a common origin in Central Asia and speak related Turkic languages. In addition to a common Turkic origin and language, Turkey has been seeking large numbers of Uyghur migrants since 1949, when East Turkistan was seized by China. Approximately 80,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey, however their impact on forming public opinion is much greater than their numbers suggest because of the common ties between the two peoples.

Connecting Uyghur Separatism to the War on Terror

The East Turkistan Liberation Organization (Dogu Turkistan Kurtulus Orgutu – DTKO) and East Turkistan Islamic Movement (Dogu Turkistan Islam Hareketi – DTIH) are two extremist organizations that may have limited activity in Turkey, though the latter appears to be largely inactive since the death of its leader, Hasan Mahsum, at the hands of Pakistani security forces in 2003.  In 1998 and 1999, two attacks against Chinese citizens in Istanbul were claimed by the DTKO (Referans, July 11).

Since 9/11, China has found a suitable international climate in which to connect the Uyghur resistance to the global war on terror. In July, China’s official Xinhua news agency outlined what it described as the continuing relationship between “East Turkistan” separatism and international terrorism:

"With explosions targeting civilians, assassinations, arson attacks, poisonings and al-Qaeda style video footages threatening dire actions, the “East Turkestan” separatists have long been terrorists… The “East Turkestan” forces, under the influence of terrorism, extremism and separatism, pose a severe threat not only to China, but also to the Asian-Pacific region and the world at large… The “East Turkestan” forces play a major role in world terrorism” (Xinhua, July 23).

In April, China executed two Uyghur men in Kashgar for what it called a "terrorist" attack on August 4, 2008 aimed at sabotaging the Olympics that left 17 policemen dead (Guardian, April 9). While the men wrote a letter before the attack saying they intended to wage “holy war” against the communist regime, no link to al-Qaeda was established. Two weeks before Turkish president Abdullah Gul visited China on June 24, local party secretary Zhang Jian claimed that Chinese authorities had uncovered seven terrorist cells in the East Turkestan city of Kashgar (China Daily, June 3).  Kashgar is the administrative center of Xinjiang’s Kashgar prefecture and the cultural center of the Uyghurs, some of whom have raised a banner of revolt against Chinese rule. According to Zhang, the whole region faces an "ongoing threat" from terrorists who control local operatives from abroad by using the internet. The party secretary added that the border city of Kashgar has long been a launching ground for terrorists, with 350 attacks resulting in 60 deaths of government officials and civilians since the 1990s (Indianexpress.com, June 3).

In response, Rebiya Kadeer, the Washington-based leader of the World Uyghur Congress, said China made the allegations "without producing the slightest piece of evidence… I stress that the international community should view these claims with the utmost skepticism." Kadeer, who spent six years in prison in China, added, "These allegations are being made in such a way so as to associate peaceful Uyghurs with the scourge of terrorism" (AFP, June 3).

The Chinese press reported that August raids by the Chinese security forces uncovered a bomb-making operation in southern Xinjiang, foiling alleged plans to carry out attacks including suicide bombings (China Daily, September 17).  Six suspects were arrested and large amounts of bomb-making materials were seized in the raids, according to a notice posted on the Public Security Ministry website. Police claimed to have found 20 fully assembled explosive devices and three bomb making workshops set up on the outskirts of the city of Aksu, about 700 kilometers southwest of Urumqi. According to Chinese officials, two Uyghur men named Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut were arrested and accused of being the ringleaders of the terrorist operation. Allegedly the terrorists had planned to deliver bombs on cars, motorcycles, and employ people to “carry out terrorist sabotage activities,” but were prevented from doing so by timely police action (Shanghai Daily, September 17).

The Uyghur Response

In response to these allegations, Uyghur community leaders in Turkey strongly rejected attempts to associate the Uyghurs with terrorism. Seyyit Tumturk, the deputy chairman of the World Uyghur Congress and one of the best known leaders of the Uyghur community in Turkey, rejected the Chinese claims, arguing that these are the same old Chinese tactics used to criminalize the Uyghurs in the eyes of the international community. However, according to Tumturk, the “World Uyghur Congress and its members around the world operate under international law and you could not even find a single member of Uyghur communities who has faced any investigations in the democratic world” (Author’s interview, September 18).

The Chinese Government argues that the Uyghur attacks are well-orchestrated around the world. For instance, the official Xinhua news agency reports, “Only hours after the riots started in Urumqi… groups of Uyghurs gathered at China’s foreign missions to throw stones, eggs and Molotov cocktails (china-embassy.org, July 12). Seyyit Tumturk stated that at the same time as the July 5 Urumqi riot, “Uyghurs were protesting the Chinese government at the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul.” Tumturk rejects the Chinese allegations of well-orchestrated attacks on Chinese foreign missions and describes the timing of the two events on the same day as a “coincidence.” (Author’s interview, September 18)  
   
Due to the alleged presence of Uyghur militants in al-Qaeda networks, China attempts to relate all Uyghur demands and peaceful political activities to terrorism. In fact, after the riot in Urumqi, the Chinese embassy in Algiers warned Chinese citizens in Algeria of an al-Qaeda threat to Chinese workers in the nation after a London-based risk analysis firm claimed to have seen an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) document threatening such attacks (AFP, July 15).

Legitimate or not, the threat highlights the risks faced by China as it expands its economic investments in risky territory overseas. The Uyghur American Association (UAA) and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) issued a statement detailing both organizations’ absolute opposition to al-Qaeda and all forms of political violence  
 (unpo.org, July 15). Despite their forceful condemnation of al-Qaeda, there is evidence that some Uyghurs operate within al-Qaeda’s networks. For instance, a Turkish jihadi website broadcasts video footage of the “East Turkistan mujahideen” in training. [1]  

Is the Uyghur Resistance a Threat to Turkey?

Generally, the Turkish security apparatus does not consider the Uyghur community as a security threat to Turkey’s interests. Yet, due to political and economic concerns, former Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz sent a confidential circular order in 1998 to the Turkish bureaucracy instructing it not to participate in any Uyghur activities and to prevent Chinese flag burning during protests at the Chinese embassy. In the order, the Turkish Prime Minister emphasizes that the Uyghur community’s activities create concerns surrounding Turkish-Chinese relations. “In order not to harm our growing relations with China, one of the five permanent members of the U.N., it should not be [prohibited] to carry signs that may hurt China and East Turkestan flags at the public protests against China” (Vatan, July 9).  

As is seen in the order, Turkey’s position on the Uyghurs relates more to political and economic concerns than to terrorism or other security concerns. However, since 2003, the Turkish security apparatus has been very vigilant about al-Qaeda activities and their possible connections with recently migrated communities, i.e. the Chechens, Uyghurs, etc.  Though security officials in the Turkish security bureaucracy do not have a tendency to tie the Uyghur communities to al-Qaeda activities, a security bureaucrat told Jamestown that “some of the recent immigrants who have spent some time in Afghanistan then migrated to Turkey have had contacts with [the] al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and maintain their relations with local al-Qaeda cells in Turkey. But this is an isolated issue and has nothing to do with Uyghur nationalist activities in Turkey” (Author’s interview, September 18).

Uyghur community leaders insist that Uyghurs have no relations with al-Qaeda or any other Islamic extremist groups.  “It would be a grave mistake on behalf of Uyghur communities to join any terror organization” said Seyyit Tumturk (Author’s interview, September 18).
    
Answering allegations regarding the Uyghurs in Afghanistan and their connection to al-Qaeda’s network, Tumturk, underlines an interesting issue. “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, put pressure on Uyghur communities in their countries and even deported some Uyghur activists to China where they were executed. Afghanistan was the only country [in which] Uyghurs could safely live for a temporary period. During their stay, al-Qaeda may have recruited from Uyghurs as well but it is nothing to do with the greater Uyghur communities around the world” (Author’s interview, September 18).

China’s View of Uyghur Diaspora Organizations in Turkey

It seems that Zafer Caglayan’s visit to Beijing may produce better relations between Turkey and China and establish cooperation in the security field. Within Turkey, the Turkish War College is one of the first government institutions to begin teaching the  Chinese language (kho.edu.tr, September 10).  During Caglayan’s visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi underlined that his government is ready to begin cooperating with Turkey in combating terrorism to better fulfill the common task of safeguarding national unification and territorial integrity and opposing separatism.  Given the fact that both China and Turkey face a separatist threat, the Chinese Foreign Minister sees discussions with Turkey as an opportunity to develop the common tasks of protecting national unification and territorial integrity. The two countries have enjoyed a long-standing coordination in security fields, including anti-terrorism (Chinaview.cn, August 30).

In addition, the Chinese embassy in Ankara emphasized the following points in response to an inquiry by Jamestown:

• The Kayseri-based Eastern Turkistan Culture and Solidarity Association, whose main purpose is to promote the independence of Xinjiang and separation of China, cannot represent the political will of all the Uyghurs living in Turkey. There are also many Uyghur organizations in Turkey which support the unity of China and would like to see the sound development of a bilateral relationship between China and Turkey.

• Seyyit Tumturk is the chairman of the Eastern Turkistan Culture and Solidarity Association and also the deputy chairman of the World Uyghur Congress. The fact is that the World Uyghur Congress incited the Urumqi incident and their purpose is to incite the conflict and hatred between the Han Chinese and Uyghur nationalities. Any democratic country which is ruled by law will treat the incident as a serious crime against the law.

• After the incident, Tumturk and some Eastern Turkistan organizations misled the Turkish media and people by distorting facts and telling lies, and they pushed the Turkish Government and people to take a position in opposition to China. They intended to realize their goal by sacrificing the development of the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

• China and Turkey are facing a common challenge in confronting national separatism and maintaining national unity. The two countries have cooperated on anti-terrorism, especially during the time of the Beijing Olympic Games. The Chinese side would not like to see the Urumqi incident create a negative affect on this cooperative relationship and firmly believe that the Turkish Government will fulfill its international obligations on anti-terrorism. Beijing is glad to see that the Turkish side maintains a healthy and stable bilateral relationship with China—one that is in line with the national interests of Turkey as well as one that will preclude anyone from carrying out actions on Turkish territory aimed at separating China (Author’s interview with Chinese officials, September 18).

It is still too early to predict whether China and Turkey could actually cooperate on terrorism and security issues.  Turkish public opinion about China’s attitude towards the Turkic Uyghurs of the Xinjiang region is not very positive and that could have a strong impact on the pragmatic Turkish government.

Notes:

1. http://www.sehadetzamani.com/haber_detay.php?haber_id=2188, accessed September 18.