Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Nov. 6 that he is revoking the “terrorist organization” designation of the supposed “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM)—an entity that may not actually exist in any organized sense but has been used to justify China’s mass detention of the Uighurs in Xinjiang region. Reaction has been perfectly predictable. The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project called Pompeo’s decision “long overdue” and a “definitive rejection of China’s claims.” It was likewise applauded by the DC-based self-declared East Turkistan Government in Exile. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry, in turn, accused the US of “backpedaling on international counter-terrorism cooperation,” and expressed China’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the US decision.”
Official news agency Xinhua quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying: “As a co-sponsor of the ETIM’s listing in the 1267 Committee of the UN Security Council, the United States has flip-flopped on the designation of ETIM as a terrorist organization, once again exposing the current U.S. administration’s double standard on counter-terrorism and its repulsive practice of condoning terrorist groups as it sees fit.” This appears to be a reference to the Security Council’s listing of ETIM as a terrorist group in September 2002.
There has been much media confusion on the matter, rooted in the multiple “Terrorist Designations” maintained by the State Department. The Council on Foreign Relations reported in 2012 (archived at the Wayback Machine): “ETIM, classified as a terrorist organization during the Bush administration, is not listed as Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) anymore in the list updated in January 2012.” Yet the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization page does not list the ETIM even among “Delisted Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” It does, however, now appear among “Groups Delisted” from the Terrorist Exclusion List. This is a separate list established by the 2001 PATRIOT Act that allows the US to “exclude aliens associated with entities on the TEL from entering the United States.” The better-known FTO list was created by a 1997 amendment to the Immigration & Nationality Act. It is unclear what exactly changed in 2012.
Pompeo’s actual note in the Federal Register doesn’t make this any clearer, stating: “I hereby revoke the designation of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, also known as ETIM, as a ‘terrorist organization’ under Section 212(a)(3)(B)(vi)(II) if [sic] the INA.” Note that this appears to reference the wrong legislation, as well as containing an outright proof-reading error (“if” instead of “of”). Is Pompeo paying attention to his own official memos?
Whatever the bureaucratic minutia of the move may be, the politics of it are clear. ETIM was listed by the State Department in the post-9-11 period, when China was wooed as an ally in the “Global War on Terrorism.” (Via Executive Order 13224 of Sept. 23, 2001, to be precise.) It is being delisted now in the context of Washington’s New Cold War with China, and US efforts to groom the Uighurs (who certainly have legitimate aspirations to independence) as political proxies.
Chinese security forces continue to carry out operations against the supposed ETIM in Xinjiang.