FILE PHOTO: A frame from a video purportedly from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), taken from the Internet, shows a man speaks in front of a black banner © Reuters
Tom Fowdy is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.
Mike Pompeo has decided that after 18 years, the violent East Turkistan Islamic Movement should no longer be considered a terrorist group – a move calculated to bring trouble to China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Whilst the world is distracted by the ongoing drama of the US presidential election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at work on Thursday making a very subtle, yet significant move.
He quietly announced to the United States Federal Register that the US had de-designated the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization.
ETIM is a Uyghur jihadist group which advocates independence for China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. It was listed as a terrorist organization by the US for 18 years, as well as having been blacklisted by the United Nations Security Council for links to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).
And it has been linked with numerous terrorist attacks within Xinjiang itself, as well as providing members who participated alongside Islamists in the Syrian Civil War.
The move by Pompeo is subtle, but significant and inherently political. It follows a long-established pattern of US foreign policymakers defining what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ – and what does not – in accordance with geopolitical preferences.
Now, as it looks like Pompeo might end up leaving office, he’s seeking to leave a legacy which makes life difficult for China. The long-term goal? To potentially transform Xinjiang into ‘China’s Afghanistan’ and purposefully incite unrest in the region.
Xinjiang has been an increasing focus of Pompeo and US foreign policy as of late. America has sought to push a broader narrative that China is imprisoning over one million Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group, in a re-education system that has been likened to concentration camps. It has accused China of severe human rights abuses and oppression.
While Beijing admits to the existence of these facilities, it argues their purpose is to facilitate counter-terrorism in the region and calls them ‘vocational training centers’, a claim which has drawn plenty of skepticism. Either way, it is quite obvious that the issue is being weaponized in order to manufacture consent for a US-led confrontation of China.
And herein lies the subjective debate as to what constitutes ‘terrorism’ and what does not. As the saying goes “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” and never has that been more true than with the US, which happily interchanges the label as it wishes to push its political agenda.
For example, the Mujahideen fighters the US pitted against the USSR in Afghanistan were called ‘freedom fighters’, until of course they turned against America itself and played an instrumental role in the horror of 9/11, at which point they became terrorists.
North Korea is listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” despite the fact it has no involvement with terrorism at all. Sudan was listed too, until it agreed to recognize Israel and then suddenly it wasn’t.
Likewise, Pompeo goes around the world demanding groups funded by Iran, such as Hezbollah, be described as terrorist organizations.
But ETIM is apparently now acceptable, despite its UN blacklisting and association with a number of other groups the US considers to be terrorists.
The change in terminology for geopolitical motivations could not be more obvious and will now clearly be used to China’s detriment.
And the implications are as follows: the US will no longer place sanctions on the group, crack down on its members (who have previously been detained in Guantanamo Bay) or blacklist it from the financial system.
This will allow ETIM to have an effective ‘safe haven’ in the US where its members can seek political refuge, pool resources and evade Beijing’s influence.
The US hopes the long-term strategic goal to potentially encourage unrest and insurrection in Xinjiang itself will ultimately promote opposition to the Chinese Communist Party, which Pompeo frames as a cause for freedom and liberation.
It’s a reversal of nearly two decades of American foreign policy and a perfect example of what constitutes ‘terrorism’ shifting for strategic ends.
After all, this is a region that is a geographic cornerstone of China’s Belt and Road initiative and the country’s main route into greater Eurasia, connecting it to the south with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into the Indian Ocean and to the north with Russia and Kazakhstan.
Why would Pompeo stifle a group whose primary focus is China itself? As the clock ticks on his own term in office, he’s just made a decision that could have long-term and far-reaching consequences..