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China could face greater terrorism threat as US ‘delists’ East Turkestan Islamic Movement, experts say

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 07/11/2020 Laura Zhou laura.zhou@scmp.com
a close up of a person wearing a costume: Demonstrators wave the flag of East Turkestan during a protest in 2018 against China’s treatment of ethnic Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. Photo: AFP Demonstrators wave the flag of East Turkestan during a protest in 2018 against China’s treatment of ethnic Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. Photo: AFP

China could face a greater terrorism threat as a result of the US removing the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing has repeatedly blamed for violent acts in Xinjiang and elsewhere, from its list of terror groups, observers say.

However, China is unlikely to change its counterterrorism strategy on the back of the decision, they say.

The US state department announced the ruling on Friday, with a spokesperson saying the group was delisted "because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist".

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Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, said that regardless of the US decision, the ETIM would remain a terror group in Beijing's eyes, but the ruling could put further strain on the two nations' already troubled relationship.

"As long as the US prescribed the (ETIM as a) terrorist organisation it meant the US and China could look at counterterrorism cooperation as a possible point of engagement," he said.

"Now the US no longer recognises the group, the opportunity is gone."

a man holding a kite while standing in front of a flag: Demonstrators in Washington call on the US to take action against Beijing over its mass internment camps in Xinjiang. Photo: Owen Churchill © Provided by South China Morning Post Demonstrators in Washington call on the US to take action against Beijing over its mass internment camps in Xinjiang. Photo: Owen Churchill

The US listed the ETIM as a terrorist organisation about a year after September 11. The state department said at the time that the group had received training and funding from al-Qaeda and had fought alongside the Osama bin Laden-led organisation against US troops in Afghanistan.

The inclusion of the ETIM on the terror list was widely seen as Washington trying to win Beijing's support for its then president George W Bush's so-called war on terror.

The ETIM, which is still listed as a terror group by the United Nations, claimed responsibility for two attacks on government officials in Xinjiang in 2011, while Beijing blamed it for the 2013 car bomb attack in Tiananmen Square, in which five people were killed, and other attacks in Xinjiang.

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Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the US was wrong to delist the ETIM as the move could put China and Chinese people living abroad at risk.

"No geopolitical or political rivalry should compromise international, regional and national security," he said.

"The US should have never done it. The US and China have many differences and difficulties ... (but) they should have a bi-party approach on counterterrorism.

"This is a decision that should be revisited and reviewed by the new US government," he said.

a large building: China set up mass internment facilities in Xinjiang, which it claims offer © Provided by South China Morning Post China set up mass internment facilities in Xinjiang, which it claims offer

Besides the UN, the European Union, Britain and Turkey all classify the ETIM as a terror group, which according to Gunaratna means the potential security threat extends far beyond China's borders.

"The ETIM is not a group operating in Xinjiang," he said. "It is operating in Asia, in the Gulf, in the Middle East and in North America.

"If the ETIM is removed from the list, it will organise itself outside China and attack Chinese targets abroad, including Chinese organisations, Chinese tourists, Chinese airlines."

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The UN Security Council said in a report in July that the ETIM controlled between 1,100 and 3,500 fighters, most of them in the city of Jisr al-Shughur in northwest Syria, with about 500 in Badakhshan, a province in northeast Afghanistan that shares a 90km (56 mile) border with Xinjiang.

China has instigated sweeping counterterrorism measures in Xinjiang, including setting up mass internment facilities, which it claims offer "vocational education and training" to stop Muslims being drawn into extremist groups but which have been roundly criticised by national governments and human rights groups.

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Yue Gang, a military commentator in Beijing, said that in the wake of the US decision on the ETIM China might seek to increase its counterterrorism activities with its neighbours, like Afghanistan, and other nations.

"After years of crackdown, the progress of counterterrorism in Xinjiang has been apparent," he said. "The potential threat is outside China, like Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, where China should work hard to win the support of local governments."

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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