Turkestan Islamic Party leader Abdullah Mansour says ‘fight against China is our Islamic responsibility and we have to fulfil it’
Entrenched in secret mountain bases on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Uighur fighters are gearing up for retribution against China to avenge the deaths of comrades in Beijing’s crackdown on a separatist movement, their leader told a foreign news agency.
China, Pakistan’s only major ally in the region, has long urged Islamabad to weed out what it says are militants from its western region of Xinjiang, who are holed up in a lawless tribal belt, home to a lethal mix of militant groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda.
A mass stabbing at a train station in the Chinese city of Kunming two weeks ago, in which at least 29 people were killed, has put a new spotlight on the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority from Xinjiang, where Beijing says armed groups seek to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
Beijing has called the Kunming bloodshed a “terrorist attack” carried out by militants, and says separatists operate training camps across the rugged border which abuts Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In a rare but brief interview, Abdullah Mansour, leader of the rebel Turkestan Islamic Party, said it was his holy duty to fight the Chinese.
“The fight against China is our Islamic responsibility and we have to fulfill it,” he said from an undisclosed location.
“China is not only our enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims … We have plans for many attacks in China,” he said, speaking in the Uighur language through an interpreter.
“We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge.”
Mansour spoke on a crackly line using a mobile phone with an Afghan SIM card in a brief statement which gave the news agency no chance to ask about the Kunming attack.
The separatists hide mainly in the troubled North Waziristan region, where they are treated by their Pakistani Taliban hosts as guests of honor, militant and Pakistani intelligence sources say.
The Turkestan Islamic Party, which China equates with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), keeps a low profile in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban, it almost never posts videos promoting its activities or ideology. Its exact size is unknown and some experts dispute its ability to orchestrate attacks in China, or that is exists at all as a cohesive group.
Getting hold of leaders such as Mansour is almost impossible and interviews are usually very brief and conducted from undisclosed locations through a Pashto-speaking translator.
Pakistani intelligence sources say they number about 400 fighters, and are clustered around the remote Mir Ali area, sharing bases with other foreign insurgents, particularly Uzbeks, who speak a similar language.
In Afghanistan, two security reports sent to expatriates working there this year warned of attacks on a Chinese hotel, Chinese companies and other targets in Kabul. There have been no attacks so far.
According to Afghan Taliban sources, there are about 250 Uighur militants in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces.
“They live here with us but are always concerned about their people and mission in China. They are nice people, good Muslims and the best fighters,” a senior Taliban commander said.
He added that Uighur militants were not fond of guns, and resorted mostly to knives and daggers.
China has stepped up security in Xinjiang after a vehicle ploughed into tourists on the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October, killing the three people in the car and two bystanders. China labeled it a suicide attack by militants from the region.
Mansour released a Uighur-language video weeks after the Tiananmen incident, calling it a “jihadi operation” by its holy warriors.
“The Chinese militants in the tribal areas are mostly clerics and fighters. They have their families here and are mostly focused on Afghanistan,” said one Pakistani Taliban commander.
Saifullah Mahsud, head of the Pakistani think tank FATA Research Center, which has extensive sources in Pakistan’s tribal areas, agreed their power and capacity to carry out major attacks are exaggerated by China.
“It’s survival, basically. They can’t go back,” he said. “This is the only place where they are welcome.”
But attempts by Taliban insurgents to carve out new hideouts in northern areas of Pakistan near China’s border have helped create a new corridor for Uighurs leading into their homeland.
“In the last couple of years, Taliban militants have got nearer and nearer to the Chinese border,” said Mahsud. “There has been a lot of movement there. Perhaps that gives them the logistical support that they require to cross over into China.”