Last week, the details of the plot to bomb New York City subways in 2009 expanded dramatically. We learned that the NYC plot was connected to two others, in the UK and Norway, and that all three can be traced back to senior al Qaeda leadership in northern Pakistan. The reporting on the Norway branch of this attempted terrorist trifecta included an interesting nugget of information. Here is how the New York Times reported it yesterday (emphasis added):
The arrests on Thursday of three men in Norway and Germany accused of orchestrating a terrorist bomb plot seemed like another routine raid by a Western government in the continuing campaign against groups linked to Al Qaeda. But one detail stuck out: Norwegian officials said one of the men was a Chinese Uighur, and all three supposedly belonged to a group that advocates separatism in western China.
If the Norwegian officials are right, the bomb plot was a rare instance in which the group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, had tried to carry out an attack in the West that was unrelated to its goal of gaining independence for the restive region of Xinjiang, in China’s hinterlands.
Terrorism experts say the plot in Norway indicates that Al Qaeda and the few members of the Turkestan Islamic Party, or TIP, who trained in the tribal areas of Pakistan see some mutual benefit in cooperating. The use of relatively obscure ethnic Uighur recruits could allow Al Qaeda to penetrate more deeply into the West.
Back when I first wrote about the Uighurs held at Guantanamo, I noted that they were all members or associates of the TIP. (See here and here, for example.) They had all been trained at the TIP’s camp in the Tora Bora Mountains, and most of them had admitted ties to senior TIP leaders during their hearings at Gitmo.
Despite these facts, there was talk of releasing the Uighurs held at Gitmo into the Washington, D.C. area because it was assumed their terrorist organization had no interest in attacking non-Chinese targets. As the Norway example demonstrates, that isn’t true.
In fact, the TIP’s evolution is typical for al Qaeda’s affiliates. They start off as “local” terrorist and extremist groups, but are then folded into Osama bin Laden’s international jihad – pooling their resources, personnel, training facilities, and arms into one jihadist pot. These “local” affiliates invariably end up fighting on behalf of al Qaeda in conflicts that have little to do with their original purpose. The chief reason for this transformation is ideological. Once they become committed to fighting Islam’s supposed enemies in one area of the world, it is a short step to waging jihad against Islam’s supposed enemies elsewhere. Their ideology transcends local grievances.
The TIP’s transformation follows this pattern. As the U.S. State Department has noted, “two [TIP] members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for plotting to attack the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan as well as other US interests abroad” in May of 2002. Foggy Bottom has also noted that TIP members fought alongside Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan against coalition forces in late 2001. Moreover, the TIP’s chieftain, Abdul Haq, was so closely tied to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri before his demise that he was named to al Qaeda’s elite Shura council.
Now we learn that TIP members were involved in an international plot in Norway that was tied to a plot against New York City.
So much for the TIP’s alleged “China only” focus.
There is one more point worth mentioning. As the Times account notes, there are some “Western scholars” who doubt the TIP’s existence: “They say officials have never produced evidence that actually proves the group’s existence.” This is nonsense, but it has even been repeated by some members of Congress.