Revoking the Terrorist Organization Designation of “ETIM” Was Long Overdue

9th November 2020

While most of the world had their eyes fixed on the contentious American Presidential election, the following brief statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was published in the Federal Register on November 5th (statement dated October 20th): 

“Acting under the authority of Section 212(a)(3)(b)(vi)(II) [of] the INA, as amended, I hereby revoke the designation of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, also known as ETIM, as a “terrorist organization” under Section 212(a)(3)(B)(vi)(II) [of] the INA…”

This statement is unlikely to get coverage by any major media organizations – and it probably wouldn’t even at a moment that wasn’t consumed by electoral politics. But the action being taken here by Secretary Pompeo constitutes a major positive step in pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) genocidal policies in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), also known as East Turkistan. 

In order to truly understand the importance of the revocation of the ETIM designation as a terrorist organization, it is essential to know how it was made in the first place, as well as the controversies surrounding that earlier decision. 

The first public mention of ETIM was in November of 2001, just two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and President Bush’s subsequent declaration of the “Global War on Terror.” The People’s Republic of China (PRC) released a document titled Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by “Eastern Turkistan” Organizations and their Ties with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. It was followed two months later, in January of 2002, by the release of a more elaborate white paper titled “East Turkistan” Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity, which detailed purported terrorist incidents in Xinjiang stretching back over the previous decade. Each of these PRC documents also pointedly drew a connection between the operations of jihadist organizations in Xinjiang and those of jihadists across the border in Afghanistan – as the first document’s name suggests. 

The official designation of ETIM as a terrorist organization by the United States came in August of 2002, following a statement from the US embassy in Beijing that used language strikingly similar to the PRC’s white paper. The next month, the United Nations Security Council added ETIM to its list of terrorist organizations as well, at the behest of China and the United States. 

Since 2002, a number of think tank reports and statements, scholarly articles, and books have been published on ETIM, with most of them largely relying on evidence found in the PRC’s white paper. This ready acceptance of the PRC’s claims about ETIM by reputable voices in the security community has lent credence to China’s overarching narrative of the intractable crisis of jihadist terrorism in Xinjiang – a line China is leaning on today to cover for its ongoing abhorrent oppression of the predominantly Muslim Turkic groups in the region.

This is particularly unfortunate because there is very little hard evidence that a group called ETIM has ever existed. 

As Georgetown University historian and Central Asia expert James Millward convincingly argues in his 2004 report titled Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Report, many of the claims made in the PRC’s 2002 white paper are highly questionable. For instance, Millward notes that “while its preface claims that terrorist acts killed 162 people (and injured 440) over the past decade, the document itself only enumerates 57 deaths.” Of those 57 deaths specified, “most of these people died in small-scale incidents with only one or two victims.” As Millward rightly points out, this raises questions not only because of its obvious mathematical inconsistency, but also because “attacks” resulting in only one or two deaths might suggest that some of them were cases of ordinary murder rather than Islamist or separatist terrorism. Additionally, the white paper is incredibly sloppy in its treatment of the parties that the CCP holds responsible for the attacks, and “relies frequently on such vague terms as ‘the East Turkistan’ terrorist organization,’ which it intersperses confusedly with references to specific groups…” Viewed alongside the white paper’s other discrepancies and lack of substantive proof, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder whether this sloppiness was an intentional deception. 

What’s more, the testimonies from alleged former ETIM members detained in Guantanamo Bay beget more questions about the veracity of the official PRC narrative. As Sean Roberts of George Washington University lays out in his 2012 report titled Imaginary Terrorism? The Global War on Terror and the Narrative of the Uyghur Terrorist Threat, these testimonies are “the closest thing we have to raw eyewitness accounts of ETIM and its operations.” The following is an illuminating excerpt from Roberts’s report:

“Although all of the Uyghur detainees who were in this camp were forthcoming in their statements at various Guantanamo hearings about their distaste for Chinese rule in their homeland, they all denied belonging to ETIM, and most suggested they had never heard of the group until they were brought to the detention facilities. Interestingly, most of them also said they had notheard of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, or even of the Taliban until coming to Guantanamo, and those who had heard of them demonstrated no interest in the global jihad ideology of these groups. Finally, all of them made a point of refuting any allegations that they saw the United States as an enemy. As one detainee noted in making this point, ‘a billion Chinese enemies, that is enough for me; why would I get more enemies?’”

Roberts goes on to note that the detainees described the only known ETIM “training camp” – outside of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where the majority of them had passed through – as their living in a squalid building on the brink of collapse, with no training to speak of aside from daily runs and a single opportunity to fire a couple of shots out of the “camp’s” one Kalashnikov rifle. In fact, Roberts says, “the majority suggested they went there as a temporary refuge as they sought ways to get to Turkey where they hoped to settle as refugees.” 

Of course, it is conceivable that the numerous inconsistencies and curious omissions in the publicly-available evidence regarding ETIM are simply errors in need of clarification. The Uyghur Guantanamo detainees also conceivably could have all been lying in their testimonies (although it seems implausible that each of them told roughly the exact same story). And it could conceivably be the case that all of these ostensibly discrediting issues would be easily explained by secret evidence that has not yet been made public for entirely legitimate reasons. Indeed, the US State Department has insisted that its 2002 designation of ETIM as a terrorist group was based on credible non-Chinese intelligence, and a State Department official who had been involved with the decision to make the ETIM designation noted in 2009 that this intelligence still remained classified at that time. 

But the evidence that is available seems to provide little reason to believe that ETIM ever even existed – and if it did, that it almost certainly never had the capacity to pose any credible threat to the stability of Chinese rule in Xinjiang. It also suggests that the State Department officials who were in charge of making the ETIM designation probably did rely heavily on the PRC white paper, despite their claims to the contrary, and that they were, at best, not thorough enough in verifying the information within it. Furthermore, the timing of the designation – which came after the US had already invaded Afghanistan, and just months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq – also raises serious questions about the possibility of some sort of quid-pro-quo, since China made the somewhat uncharacteristic move of tacitly supporting the US in both of these campaigns. 

Even if we were to grant every facet of the CCP’s argument about ETIM, that for decades the group has been a formidable, internationally-connected jihadist organization that poses an existential risk to stability in Xinjiang, it would still come nowhere close to justifying the pervasive genocide taking place in the region now. Ideally, the State Department would admit in explicit terms that its initial designation of ETIM was unwarranted (unless it can produce evidence to show that it was warranted), and that this mistake inadvertently emboldened the CCP in its oppression of the non-Han groups in Xinjiang. 

To be absolutely clear on this point would make it impossible for the CCP to now seek to deliberately mis-frame this move by the State Department as an indication that America is acknowledging the success of China’s tactics in eliminating the threat of Islamist/separatist terrorism in its far-western region. Nevertheless, Secretary Pompeo’s revocation of the ETIM designation is still a significant and meaningful action that demonstrates a hopeful shift in the outlook by US officials in regards to the situation in East Turkistan.