Invite the Guantanamo Uygurs Into the U.S.

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By Sean Roberts
Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Washington, there is much huffing and puffing over whether the presence of Guantanamo detainees on U.S. soil -- whether in prison or free to roam -- represents a national security threat. The best illumination is usually found on the margins, which in this case is represented by the 17 Uyghurs -- long ago absolved of any link to terrorism -- who remain imprisoned at Guantanamo. When I lived in Central Asia, the best expert on anything having to do with the Uyghurs was Sean Roberts, a fellow Almaty resident and Ph.D student who was immersed in these inhabitants of neighboring Xinjiang province. I asked Sean to write a guest column with his own opinion on the Guantanamo Uyghurs. His reply follows.

In the last two weeks, the issue of the 17 Uyghur men who have been in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay for the last seven years has come to the forefront of American politics. As somebody who has been studying the Uyghur people for almost 20 years, I am happy to see U.S. congressmen finally discussing Uyghurs and the complexity of their political predicaments. But I have also found the present debate disheartening in many ways. I support releasing all of the Guantanamo Uyghurs into the U.S. But I also believe that there needs to be a wholesale re-evaluation of the goals and tactics of the war on terror that brought them to Guantanamo in the first place.

According to Newsweek, the sudden interest in the Guantanamo Uyghurs began in April, when President Obama considered quietly releasing up to seven of them into the United States, presumably to be settled in northern Virginia. Several congressmen, led by Virginia’s Frank Wolf, sought to block the release. With the issue still unresolved, congressmen from both major parties have begun debating whether Uyghurs are in fact a threat to the United States, and whether these particular men are dangerous terrorists.

As one might expect, the loudest voices in this debate belong to those who oppose the settlement of the Uyghurs in the United States. Newt Gingrich, perpetually in search of a soapbox, suggested in a recent newspaper column that they could suddenly turn against us.

Particularly discouraging is how little U.S. politicians actually know about the Uyghurs despite it being seven years since we essentially identified them as enemies in the war on terror. Before I make the case why they should be released into the U.S., here is some background on how these Uyghurs came to be detained by the U.S. and what has happened to them since.

In June 2002, the U.S. military transported 22 Uyghurs from detention in Pakistan to Guantanamo. These men, who appear to be Uyghur nationalists opposed to Chinese rule in their homeland (referred to as Eastern Turkestan by most Uyghurs and Xinjiang by the Chinese state), had fled China, primarily to Central Asia, eventually seeking refuge in Afghanistan on their way through Iran to Turkey.

In Afghanistan, they presumably interacted with other Uyghur nationalists, and some allegedly underwent minimal military training by a Uyghur group referred to as the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

During the initial U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, these Uyghurs apparently fled to Pakistan and sought refuge with villagers who eventually gave them over to the U.S. military as alleged terrorists in exchange for a bounty (reportedly $5,000 each). According to declassified U.S. government documents (see the PDFs at the end of this page), the original accusations were based on their alleged relationship with ETIM.

All the men denied knowledge of the little-known ETIM, whose 2002 designation by the U.S. as a terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda was regarded by skeptics as a politically motivated effort to win China’s support for larger U.S. goals in the war on terror.

Since 2002, a series of reviews of the Uygurs’ cases has led to the clearing of all of any charges. But the U.S. government has also recognized that if they are extradited to China, they would inevitably be held or executed by Chinese authorities without a fair trial. Other countries have been reluctant to offer any of them refuge in fear that problems would result in their relations with China.

In 2006, Albania did agree to take five of the detainees, who had been determined to have the most tenuous connections with ETIM.

That left 17 in Guantanamo. In October 2008, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ordered that all of these men -- all 17 -- be freed into the United States immediately on the grounds that there was no evidence to justify their continued detention. Within days, however, the Justice Department was granted a stay on this ruling, arguing that the men posed too much of a danger to the United States to allow them refuge in America.

It is apparently on the grounds of this October 2008 court decision that the Obama administration is now considering their release.

So what is ETIM? Is it a terrorist organization?

The most disturbing aspect of the seven-year odyssey experienced by the Guantanamo Uyghurs is that little if any evidence has emerged showing ties between ETIM and Al-Qaeda, or even that it is a terrorist organization.

During my many years working in the Uyghur community of Central Asia, I never heard of ETIM. And most Uyghurs I know never encountered it or heard of it prior to 2001. If it was an active group, it was obviously marginal in the constellation of Uyghur diaspora political organizations.

Although the organization itself does appear to at least have existed (under the name of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party) when it was classified as a terrorist group, its alleged leader at that time, the late Hasan Mahsum, told one journalist that it was not anti-American and never received financial assistance from the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

Generally, Mahsum’s assertions make sense. Uyghur organizations have never been anti-American in character, and have little reason to be, given that their political goals are exclusively related to their relationship with the Chinese state. Furthermore, as early as 1999 Indian sources reported on Chinese agreements with the Taliban that ensured that the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan would not support Uyghur separatists.

Since Mahsum’s assassination by the Pakistani army in October 2003, nothing has been heard from ETIM or specifically about its activities. Furthermore, reliable contacts of mine in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier who follow these issues have told me that they have not heard of any active Uyghur groups in the country’s tribal belt.

Even more interesting, there is no conclusive evidence that ETIM has ever perpetrated a terrorist attack. While the Chinese government has claimed that various acts of violence in Xinjiang and Central Asia over the last decade were the work of ETIM, this has never been proven; and the acts of violence to which they are referring also may not even have been terrorism. Moreover, no Uyghur group has ever been tied to well-known methods of terrorism such as car-bombings or suicide bombings, acts that could confirm links to sophisticated transnational organizations such as Al-Qaeda. Instead, they have been accused of organizing disturbances and assassinations, which could be alternatively explained by a variety of other motives from popular political dissatisfaction to personal vendetta and crime.

The incidents of violence in the run-up to last summer’s Olympic games are a prime example of the lack of clarity surrounding alleged ETIM terrorist attacks. The most publicized of the supposed terrorist attacks in China last summer allegedly involved two Uyghur men driving a truck into a group of Chinese soldiers in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, and then attacking them with knives and throwing homemade grenades. While a video on YouTube allegedly made by a group called the Turkestan Islamic Party or TIP (which “terrorist experts” tell us, with no supporting evidence, is another name for ETIM) claimed responsibility for this attack, the lack of sophistication demonstrated by its perpetrators invites skepticism. Furthermore, nobody in the international Uyghur community has indicated knowledge of who produced this video or others bearing the TIP brand. In all likelihood, these videos, which only recently began appearing, are disinformation prepared by either Uyghur nationalists or the Chinese state for the purpose of exaggerating the Uyghurs’ capacity to undertake terrorist attacks in the name of their political goals.

When one looks at all of this evidence (or lack there of), it is difficult to understand how the United States decided to place ETIM on a list of dangerous terrorist groups to begin with. Was this, in fact, a political act of appeasement to the Chinese government? Are there other groups on this list from elsewhere in the world that were likewise included among our enemies in the war on terror under dubious circumstances?

Undoubtedly, it is time to release the Guantanamo Uyghurs. In doing so, however, it may also be time to review our intelligence on ETIM and other alleged terrorist groups we are targeting in the war on terror, even indirectly through such methods as financial sanctions.

In all likelihood such a review will find that much of our intelligence on alleged terrorist groups like ETIM comes from foreign intelligence organizations in countries with a conflict of interest. It has not been a secret that we have increasingly relied on collaboration with intelligence services of tenuous allies in the war on terror, such as China, Russia, the Central Asian states, and Pakistan. Can such intelligence be trusted to help the United States decide who is our enemy?

In the case of ETIM, Chinese intelligence has good reason to suggest that there is a Uyghur terrorist threat. Beijing does not tolerate Uyghur political dissent, and international recognition of a Uyghur terrorist threat gives the government a freer hand in cracking down on internal political dissent in Xinjiang.

The Central Asian states and Pakistan likewise have reason to exaggerate the Uyghur terrorist threat in order to win favor with China. Equally, for the Central Asian states, a local threat of Uyghur terrorism provides a way to engage the U.S. in the war on terror without implicating their own people. And for Pakistan, it is yet another means of deflecting attention away from that country’s own indigenous terrorism problem.

If the debate over the Guantanamo Uyghurs facilitates a closer look at how groups like ETIM are being classified as terrorist organizations, it may play a critical role in helping the Obama administration to re-define the war on terror in a way that more clearly defines our enemies and that is ultimately more rational and winnable.

In the meantime, the 17 Uyghurs who remain in Guantanamo should be released into the U.S. now as a matter of preserving America’s image as a nation that upholds the rule of law and human rights.

I would gladly attend their welcoming party in Fairfax, Va.