Evidence keeps accummulating that a clandestine Turkish government program to enable Uyghur emigration from the PRC–for motives either noble, sinister, or both–has turned into a major security cock-up, embarrassment for Turkey, and a serious issue in PRC-Turkish relations.
I wrote this on July 11 on the occasion of the forcible repatriation of over one hundred Uyghur men from Thailand to the PRC amid PRC allegations that the Turkish government, in addition to providing diplomatic and consular support to the Uyghurs, had crossed a line by providing fake travel documents:
Please note that the PRC Foreign Ministry, as well as Global Times, were already raising the passport issue at the beginning of 2015. First the PRC employed the polite fiction that some profit-minded freelancers were selling Turkish passports to Uyghurs; then it was “consulates and embassies of unnamed countries” were dishing out documents; now, unambiguously, the PRC is pointed the finger at the Turkish government.
The only remaining grey area is whether all the Uyghur men who end up in Syria are simply hapless “cannon fodder” recruited by jihadis, or whether the Turkish security services identify some particularly capable Uyghur militants, provide documents, and enable travel, training, and battlefield experience in Syria in order to cultivate Turkey-friendly assets in Syria or potentially in AfPak/Central Asia. Might never get to the bottom of that one, unless the PRC decides to crank up the evidentiary apparatus another notch in order to make sure Western journos finally get the point.
The PRC is busy fleshing out this story, and added the new wrinkle that the Turkish scheme had facilitated terrorist activities within the PRC.
The PRC has embarked on a major push to justify its insistence on what the West has condemned as the refoulement of Uyghur refugees, to allege that the Uyghurs who left the country were not political refugees protected by the principle of non-refoulement; instead, they were illegal emigrants, candidate militants seeking participation in jihad.
The implications for Turkey are embarrassing, since a central allegation of the PRC’s case is that the Uyghurs it wants back from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. were militants recruited and exfiltrated from the PRC by jihadi networks with the collusion of…
…with the assistance of Turkish embassies and consulates in South Asia…
…and the PRC alleges that some of the refugees were not recruited just to fight against the Assad regime in Syria; they were trained and facilitated to return to the PRC to conduct terror attacks inside China.
That’s a nasty, toxic brew.
The only shoe that hasn’t dropped yet is an open PRC accusation that the passport mischief was organized by the Turkish government in Istanbul, either by its security apparatus as part of its jihadi-related scheming or with knowledge of the government leadership, and not a spontaneous initiative simultaneously kicked off by several Turkish consular offices in South Asia and miraculously complemented by Turkish border police at the airport in Istanbul.
On July 18, Xinhua offered case studies of three Uyghur “illegal immigants” repatriated back to China. Here are some excerpts:
Memetaili, 25, was the only son in his family. When he was a freshman in a medical school in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital, some people approached him in the name of imparting “religious knowledge.” The “textbooks” they used were audio and video materials made by overseas terrorist groups, according to the CCTV report.
After watching the material, Memetaili felt the urge to “sacrifice” for his religious beliefs. The group then introduced him to a “fellow countryman” abroad, who asked Memetaili to join him.
He was soon transferred to southwest China and was not allowed to take anything indicating his Chinese nationality with him during the trip.
“I was required to dispose of my clothes that had Chinese on them, my ID card, and even socks,” he said.
“They told us if we were arrested in Thailand, we should say we were from Turkey,” he said, adding local police could not repatriate them because they had no identification on them.
In Malaysia, Memetaili and other migrants were taken to the Turkish embassy.
“We told the people in the embassy that we were illegal migrants and could not go back, or we would be arrested. They agreed to help us, sent a letter to the Malaysian government and issued identifying papers based on our real names,” he said.
With the identification from the Turkish embassy and counterfeit passports they made themselves, they were able to buy air tickets to go to Turkey.
“If we were arrested at the airport, officials from the Turkish embassy would admit that we were their nationals, even though the passports were crudely made,” he said.
In Turkey, Memetaili found that several different groups, including the World Uygur Congress and the U.N.-listed terrorist group of Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), were competing to manipulate them.
“Some of us were sent to Syria. If you wanted to join ISIS, some other people would take you there,” he said.
[It’s unclear what happened to Memetaili after he became disillusioned with IS in Syria.]
[Another case history]
Chinese police arrested several terrorists who sneaked into China and prepared to commit terror and violence in 2015.
Ekber is one of them. He received training from the ETIM in Syria and was sent back to China to conduct terrorist attacks.
Ekber first came to Turkey and then Syria, where he received military training for three months. During that period, he learned how to use guns and create explosives.
Instigated by “Aili,” Ekber went back to China in early 2015 and planned to conduct a terrorist attack in Shijiazhuang, capital city of Hebei Province, which neighbors Beijing.
Ekber was arrested before carrying out the plan.
As a sidebar, I should point out that an important objective of these articles is for the PRC to assert that returned Uyghurs not regarded as guilty of crimes against the PRC are being generously reintegrated into local society, not imprisoned and mistreated, in order to blunt refoulement-related criticism. Not an unexpected development, at least to China Matters readers, since I wrote this on July 11:
I would expect the central government would arrange for the ostentatious pampering of these refouled Uyghurs (rather than the standard brutal treatment at the hands of the local security outfits in Xinjiang) in order to reconcile neighboring nations to the PRC’s demands.
Alright, enough patting myself on the back.
Meanwhile, the most interesting Uyghur/Turkish passport case continues to provide entertainment and enlightenment in Indonesia.
This case involves four Uyghurs whose passports, unlike Memetaili’s, were so impeccable that the Indonesian police—apparently with no useful assistance from Turkey—have been unable to refute their authenticity.
Three of the Uyghurs were recently convicted in Indonesian court on terrorism charges.
They were suspected of journeying to a remote Indonesian island to attempt to hook up with a notorious Indonesian militant whose organization has reportedly declared fealty to ISIS; and the PRC claims they are implicated in the horrific attack at the Kunming railroad station that left over 30 dead and over 100 wounded.
It is safe to say that nobody is going to try to invoke the principle of refoulement for these guys.
However, possibly to protect the rather tattered secrecy of the passport scheme, the Turkish government is still loathe to withdraw its protection.
Here is the report from BenarNews which, in contrast to pretty much every major outlet, has assiduously followed and reported this most interesting case:
A lawyer for three Uyghur men found guilty of trying to join an Indonesian terrorist group is appealing the verdict, BenarNews has learned.
The appeal was filed Wednesday after consultations with Turkish officials in Jakarta, according to defense attorney Asludin Hatjani.
“The embassy of Turkey sent staff to talk with the four defendants at Brimob Headquarters a day after the verdict. They agreed to appeal and I lodged the appeal yesterday after the talks,” Asludin told BenarNews on Thursday, referring to the police’s Mobile Brigade unit (Brimob).
“Currently we are waiting for a memorandum of appeal from the High Court.”
Turkey’s involvement corroborates that his clients are Turkish, he said.
“I can confirm they are citizens of Turkey, because their documents themselves are still recognized by the embassy and the police. Even the court itself stated their nationality is Turkish,” Asludin said.
During their trial at North Jakarta District Court, the men last month could not sing the Turkish national anthem or name its title when prosecutor Nana Riana challenged them to do so.
“How is it that a citizen doesn’t know the national anthem of his own country? I’m Indonesian. My national anthem is ‘Indonesia Raya,’” Nana said in court on June10.
The men’s citizenship could determine where they are sent once the trial is over, she later told BenarNews.
“Going forward, their citizenship status may influence the extradition agreement between Indonesian officials and the government of Turkey or China,” Nana said.
“If they are not Turkish citizens, possibly the court will destroy their passports.”
Earlier, the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) indicated that the four Uyghurs could be extradited to China after their trials.
The four are believed to have entered Indonesia using false Turkish passports via Malaysia. During an earlier court session they described taking a motorboat from Malaysia to Pekanbaru, Riau Province, on Sumatra island.
They flew to Jakarta, and visited Bogor and Bandung in Java before flying on to Makassar, in Sulawesi.
Shortly thereafter police arrested the four in Central Sulawesi province. Police said they were on their way to join the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), which is believed to be based in Poso regency in Central Sulawesi.
MIT is believed to have sworn allegiance to IS, and its leader Santoso – Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist – has welcomed foreign mujahideen to join the group, security officials say.
“We have no other intention but vacation,” Basit testified in court.
To sum up the overall “Passports for Uyghurs” affair, the preponderance of evidence indicates that Uyghurs going to Turkey with Turkish consular help is definitely a thing. The PRC allegations that some of the Uyghurs were recruited and exfiltrated with the help of militants and some Turkish accommodation is, for me, persuasive.
The possibility that the Turkish government is systematically playing the Uyghur militant card to increase its leverage in the Middle East and Central Asia as yet unproven. But, motives aside, it is difficult to entertain the idea that “passports for Uyghurs” was a local brainwave of Turkish consulates and not a decision taken somewhere high up in the Turkish government.
In any case, the Indonesian affairs indicates to me that blowback from the reckless passport program—enabling pretty unequivocal terrorist activities–has already begun.
It is interesting to look back as recently as two years ago when Western outlets routinely downplayed evidence of Uyghur violence in order to undercut the PRC’s justification for its repressive Uyghur policies in Xinjiang. In 2013, in covering the “SUV with Uyghur banners runs over tourists and catches fire in Tiananmen” incident, AFP ran: Uyghurs pour scorn on China Tiananmen ‘terrorist’ claim.
Think that ship has sailed. Only question is if and how West will reconcile itself to heightened Uyghur militancy against the PRC.
Global Times, in its signature pugnacious style, pushed back against foreign criticism of a bloody security operation in Shenyang on July 13 that left three alleged Uyghur terrorists dead and sixteen detained:
The West never admits they support terrorist forces in Xinjiang. But through the mouth of the ETIM organizations, they clearly expressed their bias toward the terrorists. The terrorists in Xinjiang have been counting on Western support and believe their use of terrorism is justified.
Chinese people are clear that some Western forces are pushing the terrorist activities in Xinjiang.
“Some Western forces.” Hmmm.
Wonder if, for the purposes of PRC invective on Uyghur matters, we should take “West” as “Turkey”. Or maybe it’s both? This story isn’t over, so I think we’ll find out sooner or later.