The Blog

Meet the Uighurs

What the press doesn't report about some of the Gitmo detainees released this week.

8:00 PM, Jun 12, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This past week, the Obama administration announced the transfer of four ethnic Uighurs from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to Bermuda. The South Pacific island nation of Palau has agreed to take a number of the remaining Uighurs, possibly all of them, as well. Thus, all seventeen of the Uighurs who were detained at Gitmo at the start of the Obama administration could soon be freed.

The agreements with Bermuda and Palau represent the end of a months-long problem for the administration. When the president announced that Gitmo would be closed within one year of his taking office, he and his administration clearly anticipated the Uighurs' cases would be among the easiest to settle.

Easy it wasn't. The New York Times reports that the administration contacted "around 100" foreign nations about the Uighurs. Only two, one of which (Palau) is heavily dependent upon U.S. aid, agreed to take them. For its troubles, Palau will also receive an additional $200 million in U.S. aid. (The administration disputes the notion that the aid was tied to Palau's decision to accept the Uighurs. But it is unreasonable to assume that hundreds of millions of dollars did not sweeten the deal.) Leading European nations, Canada, and Australia all rejected overtures from Obama. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the administration's other efforts to relocate detainees.

But, why were so many nations reticent to take the Uighurs? And why did the Obama administration, which initially considered releasing at least some of the Uighurs outright on American soil, decide not to free them here?

According to the U.S. media, the answer to the latter question is political pressure. For example, William Glaberson of the New York Times said the releases of the four Uighur detainees, as well as two other non-Uighur detainees, were "the biggest steps the administration has taken toward" its goal of closing Gitmo. Glaberson went on:

But the moves did not address central questions, including whether political pressure had made the administration back away from meeting the demand of some countries that the United States accept some prisoners for resettlement to gain their cooperation in accepting others.

Clearly, Republicans did make political hay out of the Obama administration's attempts to release the Uighurs in the United States. And without pressure from leading Republican congressmen and senators, the administration may very well have done so. But there is more to this story than the Times and other press shops let on. After all, "around 100" other nations decided they did not want the Uighurs released onto their soil either. It was not just the Republicans who objected.

The truth is that the Uighurs' stories, like so many other Gitmo detainees, have been colored by shoddy reporting. Most journalists start with the assumption that inmates at Gitmo are wrongly detained. The seventeen Uighurs who were detained at Gitmo have repeatedly been portrayed as either mere Chinese "separatists," who are not interested in attacking America, or even obvious innocents.

The reality of the matter is much more complicated.

All seventeen Uighurs were members or associates of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), otherwise known as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The ETIM/TIP is a U.S. and UN designated terrorist organization that is affiliated with al Qaeda.

Not only are all seventeen of the Uighurs allied with this group, but most of them were also trained in the ETIM/TIP's pre-September 11 training camp in Tora Bora, Afghanistan--a longtime stronghold for the Taliban and al Qaeda. There, their training was supervised by a noteworthy terrorist named Abdul Haq. Earlier this year, the Obama administration's Treasury Department designated Haq as an al Qaeda terrorist. The Treasury Department also noted that Haq is a member of al Qaeda's elite Shura (consultation) council, which is reserved for only those al Qaeda terrorists who are in its innermost circles. We know that the seventeen Uighurs were trained by Haq because at least eight of them have conceded as much during their hearings at Gitmo.

Some have argued that the ETIM/TIP is only focused on attacking Chinese targets and, therefore, the Uighurs once detained at Gitmo are not our concern. Indeed, the Uighur detainees repeatedly claimed that they were only interested in fighting China.

But this argument is incredibly myopic. It ignores the fact that the ETIM/TIP has already plotted against the U.S. embassy in Kyrgyzstan, according to the State Department. And members of the group have fought alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.