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Taliban soldiers stand guard near the scene of an operation against Islamic State militants in Kabul on July 7. Photo: EPA/EFE

Uygur separatist group rebuilds bases in Afghanistan even as China-Taliban ties grow

  • ETIM is continuing to grow its operations in Afghanistan almost a year after the Taliban vowed it would stamp out terror groups when it returned to power, the UN says
  • Analysts say even though ETIM, which is aligned with al-Qaeda, has kept a low profile, it remains a ‘ticking time bomb for China’
The separatist Uygur East Turkestan Islamic Movement ( ETIM) that China blames for terror attacks in its far-western region of Xinjiang remains in Afghanistan, and is believed to have rebuilt several of its strongholds there, according to analysts and a United Nations Security Council report.
After the Taliban returned to power last year, China pledged support for the leaders while demanding it crack down on ETIM, also known as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).
ETIM operates in Afghanistan and Syria and has close ties with a number of militant groups, including al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which analysts say is one of the Taliban’s closest allies.

“Several member states noted that ETIM/TIP is continuing to strengthen its relations with TTP and Jamaat Ansarullah, augmenting its military training on the manufacture and use of improvised explosive devices, focusing on morale and planning to carry out terrorist attacks against Chinese interests in the region when the time is right,” said the UN report on July 15.

Jamaat Ansarullah is a radical Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda.

The group [ETIM] has reportedly rebuilt several strongholds in Badakhshan, according to the UNSC report.

The report added that ETIM had reportedly rebuilt several strongholds in Badakhshan, northeast Afghanistan, and “expanded its area of operations and covertly purchased weapons, with the aim of improving its capabilities for terrorist activities”.

The assessment comes almost a year after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan and vowed to stop terror groups from operating on its soil.

China has since August last year carefully stepped up engagement with the Taliban while pressing it to act against ETIM, which it has long accused of promoting Uygur separatism in Xinjiang.


Why China is keeping a tight grip on Xinjiang

Why China is keeping a tight grip on Xinjiang

‘Ticking time bomb for China’

Faran Jeffery, deputy director and head of the South Asia terrorism desk at the Britain-based Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism (ITCT), estimated that ETIM had about 1,000 ETIM/TIP fighters in Afghanistan. Their numbers are expected to grow as Syria-based Uygur militants will soon return to Afghanistan.

Jeffery said the Taliban had made no effort to expel ETIM militants from Afghanistan despite pressure from Beijing. “However, Taliban did relocate some ETIM/TIP militants in Badakhshan away from the Chinese border in an attempt to exert some control over the group, as well as to show Beijing that it has no need for any concerns,” he said.

Afghanistan and China share a 74km (46-mile) border along the remote Wakhan Corridor, a narrow, inhospitable and barely accessible strip of land, extending about 350km from the far northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan to China’s mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Militant group ETIM, which has been targeted by China, still active in Afghanistan

Jeffery said the Taliban was “certainly strong enough to convince ETIM/TIP not to launch any attacks against China from Afghanistan” but that it was keeping ETIM as a “trump card” against the Asian superpower.

The group has close ties with local militant commanders and many ETIM militants had also obtained Afghan identity documentation, Jeffery said.

“Although ETIM/TIP, like al-Qaeda, has been keeping a low profile for now, it is really a ticking time bomb for China in its neighbourhood,” he added.

Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Programme, said the UN Security Council reports tended to be “pretty accurate, reflecting intelligence assessments from several countries”.

“What seems to be happening is that the Taliban have restrained ETIM/TIP activities – including their propaganda activities – at China’s behest, and promised that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for attacks.”

This is the same model that the Taliban have adhered to where they do not hand over, expel or kill Uygur fighters, but discourage them from conducting operations directed at China.

China, Pakistan, Iran: who can the Taliban count on?

“This still gives the group a relatively permissive environment in which to live, just not one in which they can comfortably expect to be able to plan and mount attacks on Chinese targets,” said Small.

In the short term, ETIM is unlikely to be an especially significant threat to China, and less so than the TTP or the Balochistan Liberation Army that has attacked Chinese interests in Pakistan.

“But from Beijing’s perspective, there is a question as to what they might expect from the TIP in the medium term if the situation in Afghanistan changes or if the Taliban (or factions within the Taliban) backed away from some of these commitments to restrain them,” Small said.


Taliban thanks China for earthquake relief in rare joint press conference

Taliban thanks China for earthquake relief in rare joint press conference

Isis-K draws Uygur fighters

Meanwhile, ITCT’s Jeffery warned that China could also be targeted by Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan (Isis-K), as the group has been recruiting Uygurs.

In the UN report, one member state reported the defection of 50 Uygur fighters from ETIM to Isis-K. Several member states reported that Isis-K’s higher salaries aided in its recruitment.

“When the Taliban discourages Uygur militants from carrying out any attacks against China from Afghanistan, many Uygur militants might see this as a betrayal and that could lead to defections to Isis-K, which has been already heavily targeting Taliban and its attempts to forge ties with non-Muslim countries like China,” Jeffery said.

Why did Isis-K say its suicide bomber was Uygur?

China and India often feature prominently in Isis-K’s anti-Taliban propaganda.

An Isis-K suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque in Afghanistan in October by a Uygur militant hinted at what was to come.

“This was quite significant. Isis-K was sending a message to both the Taliban and China, that it has the ability to recruit Uygur militants and cause a lot of problems for Taliban and its relationship with China,” Jeffery said.