In its latest report on the global terrorism threat, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) indicates that, following the Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan, “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history” (UN Security Council, February 3). In the assessment, one member state warns that “ETIM/TIP members,” in reference to Uyghur militants in the region, have frequently visited the Wakhan corridor, calling for a “return to Xinjiang for jihad.” This claim, closely aligned with recent Chinese official narratives, raises the spectrum of a Uyghur terrorist threat across the border and draws attention to how China is recycling post-9/11 narratives in the neo-Taliban context to justify its actions in Xinjiang.
Following 9/11, the Chinese government reframed contemporary ethnic conflict in Xinjiang as “terrorism,” situating the Uyghur region as China’s front in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Chinese officials then accused “East Turkistan terrorist forces” of threatening national security and international stability. Shortly thereafter, Uyghur-related ethnic unrest, which Beijing framed as “counter-revolution” or “violent separatism” in the 1980s and 1990s, became China’s “terrorism” problem. Crucial to this narrative shift, which sought the international legitimization of China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, was the projection of a hitherto unknown group, the so-called East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as a capable militant organization that threatened China from Afghanistan and had connections to Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the global jihadi movement. Despite the lack of credible evidence on ETIM’s existence and capabilities, the U.S. and the UNSC designated the group as a terrorist organization (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 22, 2004; Federal Register, September 6, 2002), lending credibility to China’s claim and facilitating an intensified repression of the Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities under the banner of counter-terrorism.
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) framing of the ETIM as an international terrorist force with the capacity to infiltrate and strike in China has served to legitimize the “people’s war on terror,” recently epitomized by the massive internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in re-education camps in Xinjiang. Twenty years after 9/11, with the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban to power, China continues to invoke the image of the ETIM to justify a counter-terrorism emergency in Xinjiang based on the threat that the group poses from Afghanistan.
Recycling the ETIM narrative
In light of the new Afghan context, Chinese authorities have promulgated the representation of the ETIM as a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity and a danger to regional peace and global stability (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 16, 2021; Ministry of Public Security, July 14, 2021; China Daily, August 31, 2021; Global Times, September 16, 2021). Reproducing core themes of the post-9/11 narrative, Chinese officials have described the group as an “international terrorist organization capable of transnational terrorist activities” or as “one of the most harmful terrorist organizations among terrorist forces” (Ministry of Public Security, July 14, 2021). Official reports have underscored the “close ties” of the ETIM with leading “international terrorist organizations” (Global Times, September 16, 2021). As they did during the early stages of the GWOT, Beijing has placed the ETIM at the forefront of the global jihadi movement, this time alongside ISIS and Al Qaeda (Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, August 16, 2021). As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian put it, the ETIM “is a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity, a scourge affecting regional security and stability” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 10, 2021). According to Wu Xin, deputy director of the National Anti-Terrorism Office, the group “continues to send its members to the country in an attempt to cause sabotage” (Ministry of Public Security, July 14, 2021).
In their latest narratives concerning Afghanistan, Chinese officials and state media have connected Uyghur militants living in China to the ETIM—the group that was first formally established as a threat back in 2001. In doing so, they have projected the ETIM as a resilient actor with a 20-year uninterrupted presence in Afghanistan, while asserting that the group is responsible for “violent and terrorist incidents in Xinjiang” (Huanqiu Shibao, September 16, 2021; Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, August 16, 2021). Chinese state media and some experts reproduced the tropes that followed 9/11, including references to the Uyghur militant Hasan Mahsum, killed in 2003, or the white paper, “‘East Turkistan’ Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away With Impunity,” released in 2002 and which retrospectively reframed past unrest in Xinjiang as “terrorist attacks” (Global Times, September 16, 2021; State Council Information Office, January 21, 2002). China continues to use this document, widely criticized for its inconsistencies and lack of evidence, to justify its repressive policies and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
In articulating the existence of a linear and resilient Uyghur militant threat to China that has been based in Afghanistan since the 1990s, Chinese official narratives have equated the ETIM to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) (Huanqiu Shibao, September 16, 2021). Despite the spatial, organizational, and historical gap between the Uyghur individuals based in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11 and the armed group that operates in Syria under the umbrella of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the ETIM and the TIP are often used interchangeably in security analysis and political discourse. Some member states in the UNSC routinely use the ETIM label to refer to Uyghur militants in Afghanistan. In a recent report, these states “identify this group as the Turkistan Islamic Party, which is a widely accepted alias of ETIM” (UN Security Council, June 1, 2021). Their inputs into UNSC reports broadly replicate the Chinese official narrative about the ETIM, which subsequently turns to these reports to demonstrate the ETIM threat (Renmin Ribao, October 7, 2021). These states claim that the ETIM has a “transnational agenda to target Xinjiang, China, and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor” and “seeks to establish a Uighur state in Xinjiang,” for which it “facilitates the movement of fighters from Afghanistan to China” (UN Security Council, May 27, 2020, July 21, 2021). They also suggest that the group maintains relationships with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIS-K) (UN Security Council, June 1, 2021).
U.S. government narratives have rendered the Chinese official narrative credible by referring to Uyghur militants in Afghanistan as part of the ETIM. A 2018 report by the Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations described the group as “an Islamist Uighur separatist movement from China that operates along the border with Afghanistan” and equated it to the TIP (Lead Inspector General, January-March, 2018). Meanwhile, the Lead Inspector General Report to the U.S. Congress determined in 2019 that the “Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement” had an estimated one hundred members in Afghanistan (Lead Inspector General, July-September, 2019). In February 2018, the Pentagon announced that U.S. forces “conducted air operations to strike Taliban and East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, training facilities in Badakhshan province” (U.S. Department of Defense, February 7, 2018). It described the ETIM as “a terrorist organization that operates in China and the border regions of Afghanistan.” The U.S. adoption of the ETIM label to refer to Uyghur militants in Afghanistan proved to be erratic when, in November 2020, the Trump administration revoked the ETIM’s designation as a “terrorist organization” (Federal Register, May 11, 2020). This decision was made on the basis that “for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist,” prompting the question of how U.S. forces could have cited in 2018 an organization as a threat, which had ceased to exist a decade earlier (Congressional Research Service, January 4, 2021).
As it happened in 2002, the Chinese government capitalized on the international acceptance of the ETIM as a credible threat and the unclear U.S. position regarding the group’s existence and capabilities. Examining the new Afghan context, Chinese officials have observed the inconsistent U.S. position on the ETIM (Ministry of Public Security, July 14, 2021; Global Times, September 16, 2021). Subsequently, the Chinese government has systematically reproduced the UNSC listing of the group as a terrorist organization in 2004 to sustain their claims around the threat of Uyghur terrorism (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 10, 2021; Huanqiu Shibao, August 17, 2021). As they did following 9/11, Chinese officials have also called for the international community to “share the responsibility to firmly reject, curb, crack down on and eradicate the ETIM,” which they see as “an important part of international counterterrorism efforts” and “in the world’s interest” (Renmin Ribao, October 7, 2021; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 10, 2021).
Presence and Scope of Uyghur Militants in Afghanistan
The presence of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan has been confirmed by multiple sources, including from the deposed Afghan national government as well as by member states in the UNSC that have estimated the presence of several hundred Uyghur militants in Badakhshan and the neighboring Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Takhar (Gandhara RFE/RL, February 12, 2018; Twitter, July 5, 2021; UN Security Council, June 1, 2021; UN Security Council, May 27, 2020). Chinese experts have also acknowledged that “ETIM members” or “ETIM militants” operate in Afghanistan, noting their participation in attacks against the Afghan government forces before the Taliban rose to power in mid-2021 (Renmin Ribao, January 11, 2021; Global Times, September 16, 2021).
Other Chinese scholars, however, have estimated that Uyghur militants in Afghanistan pose a much lesser threat than suggested in the PRC’s official narratives. Specifically, they argue that it is highly unlikely that extremist and terrorist groups could enter China through the Wakhan corridor (Global Times, July 13, 2021). Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Afghanistan Research Center at Lanzhou University, pointed out that the “physical impact” of the new Afghan scenario on China, in the sense of Afghan-based “extreme terrorist forces” crossing the Chinese border, is “extremely small” (Pengpai Xinwen, August 16, 2021). This casts doubt on PRC claims that the ETIM uses the Wakhan Corridor to train and send militants from Afghanistan into China to plan and execute terrorist attacks (Ministry of Public Security, July 14, 2021). As per the nature and level of organization of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, Chinese scholars such as Li Wei have underscored that they are in a “dispersed state” to the extent that “it cannot be said that an armed or paramilitary force has been formed” (Huanqiu Shibao, September 16, 2021). According to Fudan University Professor Zhang Jiadong, the ETIM has such a small sphere of influence in Afghanistan and other countries that it makes it almost “invisible” and hence difficult to eliminate (Global Times, September 16, 2021). Both experts believe that the ETIM has maintained a low profile in recent years.
Chinese scholarly analysis coincides with assessments from Afghanistan that suggest that Uyghur militants in Badakhshan have formed no separate unit and have primarily served as trainers for other insurgents (Afghanistan Analyst Network, March 19, 2018). According to these sources, “Uyghur combat power” is not a “decisive factor on the battlefield” in Afghanistan. Chinese scholarly analysis and alternative assessments thus erode the credibility of assertions of the existence of an Afghan-based Uyghur insurgent outlet threatening China with cross-border terrorist attacks, noting instead the fragmented, weak, and indirect nature of Uyghur militants in the country.
The Political Drivers of the ETIM’s Portrayal in China’s Counter-Terrorism Narrative
As it happened following 9/11, the representation of the ETIM as a capable Uyghur militant group threatening China from Afghanistan has proved crucial for Beijing to legitimize its crackdown in Xinjiang. Facing a novel Afghan context, Chinese state narratives have articulated a two-decade linear history of uniformity, endurance, and strength of the group in Afghanistan. By invoking the ETIM cross-border threat, the PRC can claim that China is “still facing the real threat of terrorism” and that “a high degree of vigilance” continues to be required (Ministry of Public Security, July 14, 2021). As one Chinese expert puts it, “as long as they [the ETIM] exists, the unstable factor for terrorist activities exist” (Global Times, September 16, 2021).
By drawing attention to “the ETIM’s nature as a terrorist organization and its grave danger,” Chinese officials sustain the case that the issue of Uyghur violent unrest is about “counter-terrorism, anti-filtration, anti-separatism, and anti-interference” as opposed to “ethnicity, religion, or human rights (Global Times, November 15, 2021; China Daily, October 8, 2021). This, in turn, facilitates calls to perpetuate the repressive measures underway in Xinjiang. As Xu Guixiang, spokesperson of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Government, emphasizes the “policy measures” adopted in the region have obtained “remarkable results” toward eliminating “the threats of terrorism and extremism” (Dongfang Ribao, August 30, 2021). For some Chinese experts, the threat stemming from Afghanistan calls for adhering to “the current domestic anti-terrorism and de-radicalization policy unswervingly” (Huanqiu Shibao, September 16, 2021).
Finally, the figure of the ETIM and the UNSC sanctioning of the group as an anti-China international terrorist outlet with the capacity to infiltrate the country allows Beijing to project itself as a responsible international counter-terrorism actor that calls for a global “counterterrorism united front” under “the central coordinating role of the UN” (China Daily, October 7, 2021). In these and other forums, the PRC also exploits the ETIM to delegitimize Uyghur political activism as “terrorism.” By connecting the World Uyghur Congress or Uyghur-related human rights organizations to the ETIM, Chinese officials, experts, and state media attach a violent terrorist character to Uyghur peaceful activism (CGTN, September 17, 2021; Global Times, September 16, 2021).
In the context of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, Chinese authorities have moved swiftly to recreate the same discursive conditions they established after 9/11. Chinese state narratives have reproduced some of the core themes that then situated Afghan-based Uyghur-related “terrorism” as a threat to China and the world. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement continues to play a fundamental role in Chinese official assessments of Afghanistan. China’s projected image of the ETIM provides a linear, compact, and capable nature to what independent assessments describe as a weak, fragmented, and discontinued Uyghur militancy detached from the realities of political violence inside Xinjiang. In these efforts, the Chinese government has benefited from the erratic, imprecise, or politicized use of the ETIM label and, by recycling past problematic analysis of the nature and scope of Uyghur-related political violence, the Chinese authorities continue to deploy the discourse of “terrorism” to legitimize an extreme counter-terrorism agenda in Xinjiang that is increasingly understood as a “genocidal” effort in Western legislatures and scholarship.
Dr. Pablo A. Rodríguez-Merino is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His research explores political violence, terrorism, and security narratives, with a focus on China and Xinjiang.