The Chinese Uighurs are back in the news. The Uighurs are a separatist group from West China. A group of them, members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), were among those captured in Afghanistan and detained at Gitmo. They have frequently been cited by those who oppose our detention policy as the type of detainee who can be safely released into the U.S. After all, the theory goes, their beef is with China.
This argument is misguided. As Tom Joscelyn has pointed out, the Uighur detainees are not master terrorists on par with the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but they are all affiliated with and/or members of a designated terrorist organization and they received training at a training camp in the al Qaeda/Taliban stronghold of Tora Bora. .
Late last week, the New York Times reported that Uighurs were implicated in a bombing plot in Norway, one that was connected to a similar plot to bomb the New York subway:
The arrests on Thursday of three men in Norway and Germany accused of orchestrating a terrorist bomb plot seemed like another routine raid by a Western government in the continuing campaign against groups linked to Al Qaeda. But one detail stuck out: Norwegian officials said one of the men was a Chinese Uighur, and all three supposedly belonged to a group that advocates separatism in western China.
If the Norwegian officials are right, the bomb plot was a rare instance in which the group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, had tried to carry out an attack in the West that was unrelated to its goal of gaining independence for the restive region of Xinjiang, in China’s hinterlands.
Terrorism experts say the plot in Norway indicates that Al Qaeda and the few members of the Turkestan Islamic Party, or TIP, who trained in the tribal areas of Pakistan see some mutual benefit in cooperating. The use of relatively obscure ethnic Uighur recruits could allow Al Qaeda to penetrate more deeply into the West.
Considering that there was talk of releasing the Uighurs held at Gitmo into the Washington, D.C. area, the last statement is even truer than the New York probably supposes.
Joscelyn finds that the TIP’s evolution is typical for al Qaeda’s affiliates:
They start off as “local” terrorist and extremist groups, but are then folded into Osama bin Laden’s international jihad – pooling their resources, personnel, training facilities, and arms into one jihadist pot. These “local” affiliates invariably end up fighting on behalf of al Qaeda in conflicts that have little to do with their original purpose. The chief reason for this transformation is ideological. Once they become committed to fighting Islam’s supposed enemies in one area of the world, it is a short step to waging jihad against Islam’s supposed enemies elsewhere. Their ideology transcends local grievances.
Left-wing analysts, and perhaps some nerdy analysts who are overly impressed by their own erudition, like to construct arguments purporting to prove the near impossibility of collaboration among certain terrorist groups and/or states. Saddam Hussein would never cooperate with al Qaeda because he was a secularist; the Uighurs aren’t a threat to the U.S. because their target is the Chinese, etc.
It should be clear by now that these sorts of a priori arguments are too slender a reed upon which to basis real-life anti-terrorism policy.