An audio recording attributing the fatal crash in China’s Tiananmen Square last month to an ethnic Uyghur “jihadi” organization surfaced this weekend on a website that monitors armed groups.
The recording, widely reported by international media, will be used by Beijing to justify its repression of the Muslim minority in the western region of Xinjiang and across the country, according to Uyghur affairs experts and rights activists.
But analysts also questioned the veracity of the audio and the existence of the armed group, The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which some analysts say is an invention of the Chinese government designed to corroborate its crackdown on Uyghurs.
“O Chinese unbelievers, know that you have been fooling East Turkistan for the last sixty years, but now they have awakened,” said the audio, reportedly from TIP leader Abdullah Mansour, according Adam Raisman of the Bethesda, MD-based Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute (SITE). East Turkestan refers to the term Uyghur separatists use for the region known in China as Xinjiang. “The people have learned who is the real enemy and they returned to their religion. They learned the lesson.”
Raisman told Al Jazeera in an email that TIP “release(s) material through websites and jihadi forums.” In a 2006 interview with The New Yorker magazine, SITE’s founding director Rita Katz “conceded that her group doesn’t check the scientific accuracy of each manual or the legitimacy of every threat.”
Nonetheless, Raisman told Al Jazeera he had verified the clip, saying “the voice matches prior releases from Mansour.”
“We’ve followed the group for the past several years, looking at its relationship with militant groups in Pakistan,” added Raisman.
It remains unclear, after several rounds of emails with Raisman, how SITE verified TIP’s online identity.
Groups like TIP are “so shadowy and nebulous that almost anyone could step in and say they were this group and get support from some crazy organization,” said Dru Gladney, a Xinjiang expert and professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
“Some say they are a creation of the Chinese government,” said Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), referring to TIP.
Seytoff said the WUC did not have any empirical proof that organizations like TIP were Beijing’s invention. But Gladney said that much of the information we have about these alleged “terrorist” organizations comes from the Chinese government. The videos and audio attributed to TIP are “surprising for Uyghurs,” said Seytoff.
“They just want human rights, religious freedoms and democratic rights respected,” added Seytoff. “That’s why a lot of Uyghurs are suspicious of the organization called TIP, and also their outrageous claims.”
Seytoff said the clothing, language and banners in TIP videos reveal that members are disconnected culturally and religiously from Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Allegations of organized armed groups conducting “terrorist attacks” offer “a convenient narrative,” said Gladney. “It serves a lot of people’s purposes,” he added. “Many people claim it provides a pretext for China’s repression of Uyghurs.”
The Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in China’s far west is of increasing strategic importance to Beijing, especially amid plans to import natural resources to the area from neighboring energy-rich countries like Kazakhstan. Analysts say Beijing’s repression of Uyghur unrest – a product of dissatisfaction with the government’s assimilatory and economic development measures there – is about securing the newly penned business deals in the region.
“Nobody denies there’s violence,” said Gladney. But incidents like the Tiananmen crash, which Chinese state media reported was an orchestrated attack by a Uyghur man, were what Gladney believes were isolated, “idiosyncratic” incidents.
Regardless of the group’s veracity, the WUC’s Seytoff says China will capitalize on the SITE video.
“Groups like SITE (near) Washington, D.C. say, ‘look at this organization.’ They have this jihadi message. (SITE) is exactly the kind of group that China wants to point to to justify its heavy-handed repression of Uyghur people,” Seytoff said.