Earlier this month the third rail that is Tibet shocked President Obama after he scrapped a meeting with the Dalai Lama, who had visited Washington to accept an award. Damage ranged from minor burns to loss of the senses. Some Democrats and Republics, and especially India, accused him of “kissing up to the Chinese.”
However, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters after the announcement, “The president has decided that he will meet with the Dalai Lama at a mutually agreeable time.” The Dalai Lama himself confirmed this statement, having been briefed beforehand by Valarie Jarrett on Obama’s visit to China.
“His holiness is looking forward to meeting President Obama after his visit to China,” read a press release from his office in September.
But though the uproar’s magnitude was unwarranted, Obama did raise real questions. Is he courting China at India’s expense? Is he afraid to move against China given current trade relations? Is he afraid to go near Tibet? These questions have been on the table for months.
“We firmly oppose any foreign forces interfering in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters on September 15th. “The U.S. side is well aware of our position on this issue.”
Surely Xinjiang is no different, yet here Obama may find even deeper troubles.
Tibet, righteous as the cause may be, falls under championing democracy and freedom, a charge Obama’s critics are levying in connection to his apologies for past American mistakes, such as Iraq. No one is complaining that Tibet is instrumental to America’s safety, but Xinjiang falls strictly under national security.
When Pentagon officials speak about predicting jihadist threats rather than reacting to them, they’re subconsciously warning about Xinjiang. Tibet will likely be on the agenda, if not his mind, when Obama travels to China. Silence could hurt his credibility, but silence on Xinjiang could eventually hurt America and the rest of the world.
Last week Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda leader and potential heir apparent, called for jihad against China.
“This massacre is not being carried out by criminal Crusaders or evil Jews who have committed crimes against our nation," al-Libi stated. “Today, a new massacre is being carried out by Buddhist nationalists and communists against the Muslim population in eastern Turkestan.”
Though al-Libi wasn’t the first to call for jihad in Xinjiang, he is one of the highest ranking members to do so, evidence that al-Qaeda is serious about expanding into China. Inroads will be hard to come by, but al-Qaeda is nothing if not persistent. Octopus Mountain has sounded the alarm before - al-Qaeda is looking ahead 5-10 years for new bases.
Xinjiang, the size of Iran and home to 8 million Sunni Muslims, would make an ideal haven despite China’s authoritarian tendencies. Few Uyghurs will be swayed by al-Qaeda’s transnational jihad, but more than a few could relate to Chinese repression, sufficient to get splinter cells up and operational. al-Qaeda could then begin to gradually funnel outside cadres over a period of years.
The situation could already be ripe. An influx of Han, from 500,000 in 1950 to over 7 million presently, has marginalized Uyghurs from society and power. Further government pressure poses a huge risk.
Listen to Rebiya Kadeer if not al-Qaeda. Days after a Chinese court convicted six Uyghurs to death for their actions in the July riots, the exiled president of the World Uyghur Congress warned, “This is not going to create peace and stability in the region, this will further enrage the Uyghur people.”
She pointed out that China’s only response to Uyghur complaints has been law enforcement; the underlying issue of the riots, a murky rape/beating/snitching, was ignored. Instead Urumqi, the capital, remains under heavy guard with roadblocks and Chinese police patrolling the streets. Security without a sincere redressal of historic grievances prepares fertile ground for al-Qaeda.
“There is no way to remove injustice and oppression without a true return to their religion and serious preparation for Jihad in the path of God the Almighty and to carry weapons in the face of those (Chinese) invaders," al-Libi said. “It is a duty for Muslims today to stand by their wounded and oppressed brothers in East Turkestan and support them with all they can.”
Weakened as al-Qaeda may be in the short-term, Abu Yahya al-Libi’s message cannot be underestimated in the long-term. Dell L. Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, told the NYT, “Abu Yahya is a senior Al Qaeda member, a top strategist for the group, and trusted and presented as one of the group’s most effective promoters of jihad.”
al-Qaeda is far from putting down roots in Xinjiang. The group’s operational existence is constantly questioned; some intelligence officials believe China specifically exploits the group to retain a free hand in Xinjiang. Few American officials, if any, would step between China and al-Qaeda, but this ambiguous approach could perpetuate the conflict.
China’s public actions indicate it’s only concerned with security, not political and cultural liberties - the exact mindset that spreads extremism. al-Qaeda nourishes its movement with oppression.
Whether it would use a potential base to launch attacks on China or America too is difficult to discern, but one suspects al-Qaeda would use Xinjiang for all their activities. Penetrating China won’t be easy, but al-Qaeda seems determined to do so. President Obama is unlikely to issue a public statement on Xinjiang when he visits China in November, but silence would fail to address world security, not just America’s. Obama must do as his military leaders advise and see three, four steps ahead.
Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Nigeria - China is the fifth and beyond.