Last week, a leading al-Qaeda figure called for a holy war against the People’s Republic of China. Will extremists now begin attacking Chinese citizens and interests at home and around the world?
In a video posted on jihadist websites, Abu Yahya al-Libi, considered the third-ranking figure in al-Qaeda, urged Muslims to rise up against the “satanic” Chinese for their treatment of the Uighurs — Turkic Muslims living in the country’s northwest area. He also urged “a vast media campaign” to publicize their fate at the hands of “oppressive” China. “Today, a new massacre is being carried out by Buddhist nationalists and communists against the Muslim population in eastern Turkestan,” said al-Libi, referring to the name the Uighurs have given their homeland. “It is a duty of Muslims today to stand by their wounded and oppressed brothers.”
Those brothers — and their sisters as well — have in fact been wounded and oppressed by the Chinese, who have taken their land, denied them their religion, and tried to eliminate their culture. Beijing says their territory is inalienably a part of China, but the Chinese name for the Uighur homeland belies that claim. On the maps, it’s labeled Xinjiang — or New Frontier. In fact, the Uighurs share almost nothing with the Chinese — not ethnicity, language, religion, or culture. The Han, the dominant group in China, and the Uighurs do not even appear to belong to the same race. China’s Turkic Muslims are, in fact, a conquered people. Virtually none of them want to be a part of the People’s Republic.
The Uighurs established their own republic — East Turkestan — in 1944, but they quickly lost their independence after Mao Zedong sent the People’s Liberation Army to Xinjiang in 1949. Since then, there have been sporadic acts of Uighur violence, but the remarkable aspect of this struggle for self-determination is, considering all the circumstances, how peaceful it has been.
Beijing, however, says Uighur society is full of terrorists. But terrorism has in fact been rare. Most incidents of violence have been directed at security forces of the state, not civilians. And almost all civilian deaths have occurred during insurrections, such as the one that began in early July in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, instead of as the result of targeted attacks. The Uighurs may be many things, but almost none of them are terrorists. That is why the Uighurs captured in President Bush’s war on terror — mostly on false information supplied by Beijing — are now being released from Guantanamo.
China somehow persuaded the Bush administration in 2002 to declare the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist organization, thereby permitting Beijing to brand all Uighur activists as militants. The American designation, however, has been questioned, in part because the weight of evidence suggests the group, often known by its initials ETIM, does not even exist.
Al-Qaeda, of course, does, but its efforts to penetrate the Uighurs have been largely unsuccessful. Last November, Muhammad Uighuri, a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda spokesman, announced that Osama bin Laden had appointed Abdul Haq Turkistani, a Chinese citizen, as the leader of al-Qaeda in China, a previously unknown group. There are reports that Turkistani was also named to head the Turkistan Islamic Party — TIP — which may or may not be another name for the shadowy ETIM. TIP has claimed responsibility for bus bombings in Shanghai and southwest Yunnan province. Beijing, however, has denied that TIP operates in China, and there are even doubts that it exists at all.
This July, al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Algeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, publicly vowed revenge for the deaths of Uighurs in the rioting in Urumqi. The call for action is considered by some to be the first time that bin Laden’s organization had targeted China. Soon thereafter, the self-styled military commander of TIP issued a video also vowing to attack Chinese. “Know that this Muslim people have men who will take revenge,” said Seyfullah. “Soon, the horsemen of Allah will attack you, Allah willing. So lie in wait; indeed, we lie in wait with you.”
It’s not clear that Seyfullah, whoever he is, represents anyone. But the exiled Rebiya Kadeer can claim to speak for the vast majority of her people, emerging as their global leader in recent months. Beijing calls her a terrorist, but she is not one and has consistently — and emphatically — rejected al-Qaeda support. She, not bin Laden, is the one who now sets the tone for the Uighurs’ decades-long campaign for freedom.
Despite al-Qaeda’s announcements and calls for jihad, it is not clear that its recent anti-China statements represent a change in operational focus. But al-Qaeda’s involvement is nonetheless a signal, in addition to street protests around the world and assertive statements from Muslim governments, that the plight of the Uighurs is beginning to inflame Muslim populations. That is what al-Qaeda’s announcement on Wednesday is really telling us.