Analysis: Jihad in Asia

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent  |  Feb. 1, 2008 at 10:56 AM
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BERLIN, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- A German terrorism expert in his new book warns not to ignore the Islamist terrorism in China and Russia.

In his book "Jihad in Asia," (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 15 euros) Berndt Georg Thamm, a Berlin-based terrorism expert, details the history of modern Islamist terrorism, which originated in Afghanistan and has since spread to terrify the West and also -- and that's Thamm's key message -- the East.

While China and Russian aren't exactly role models when it comes to civil rights, Thamm argues that their problems with Islamist terrorism should nevertheless be taken seriously in the West. Between 19 million and 22 million Muslims live in Russia, with some 20 million Muslims living in China.

"Islamist Jihad does not separate the world in East and West, but in a world of believers and nonbelievers, and militant Islamists count to the group of infidels Europeans and Americans, as well as Chinese and Russians," Thamm says.

Thamm notes that al-Qaida was only able to flourish and plan its attacks in the United States and Europe during a period of safety in Afghanistan, after the Taliban, which in the 1980s had been supported by Washington, had driven out the Soviets. Those Taliban today are viciously fighting Western soldiers in the Central Asian nation.

In Asia, Thamm writes, several ethnic conflicts have been "Islamized" since 1996, meaning that the hate and misery created during those conflicts are exploited by militant Islamists to recruit fighters for the creation of an Islamic Caliphate that encompasses the Central Asian nations, including the Russian province of Chechnya and the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

"Before, Muslim ethnic minorities in Russia and China were fighting for autonomy, for independence from a central government; today, they are increasingly fighting against 'infidel occupiers' on the territory of Islam," Thamm writes.

Asian governments have reacted to that terror threat as early as 1996, when Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan founded the Shanghai Five, to cooperate, among other issues, on security matters. When Uzbekistan joined in 2001, the members renamed the group the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Thamm based his book mainly on lengthy talks with Chinese and Russian security sources; it tells in great detail the historical and political aspects of the conflicts in the various countries affected (Afghanistan, Russia, China and the Central Asian countries), details the history of different Islamist organizations and lists their threat potential in Asia and Europe. There continues to be concern over tensions in the region, centering on Uighur cultural aspirations to independence, and resentment toward what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch describe as repression of non-Han Chinese culture.

Yet Thamm cites 200 terror attacks in Xinjiang until 2001, and notes that several Uighur fighters have supported the Taliban in Afghanistan.

On Jan. 5, 2007, Chinese security raided a terrorist training camp in the mountains near the Pamir Plateau in southern Xinjiang. According to reports, 18 terrorists were killed and another 17 captured in a gun battle between the East Turkestan Independence Movement and Chinese security forces. Beijing said more than 1,500 hand grenades were seized.

Europe should be concerned by the terror movements in Russia an Asia, Thamm writes, mainly because of the continent's geographical proximity. The book also examines the Islamic Jihad Union, a terror group most active in Central Asia, which in the past has threatened to attack Germany and Austria. Moreover, Thamm writes, terrorist attacks in Russia seemed to be a test runs for attacks in Europe: In December 2003, Islamists bombed a Russian commuter train. In March 2004, an attack on commuter trains in Madrid killed more than 190 people. In February 2004, an Islamist woman detonated explosives in a Moscow subway, killing 39 people; not even three months later, Islamists attacked London's subway system, killing more than 50.

Thamm therefore argues that the West should deepen its security cooperation with the East -- politically, militarily and economically. The European Union, Thamm writes, could aspire to receive observer status to the SCO.

While security cooperation with China and Russia is tricky, given the danger that these rather authoritarian governments may use anti-terror methods that aren't in line with human rights, one has to call to mind that U.S. anti-terror moves have been similarly questionable: Europe has repeatedly called on Washington to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the world has been shocked to hear about extraordinary renditions, torture of terror suspects and the gruesome images taken at Abu Ghraib prison. Thamm is a strong proponent of international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

He argues it is an uphill battle to only fight the Taliban in Afghanistan while other conflicts in bordering countries are rallying more and more people for jihad.

"Observers in Islamabad, Kabul, the Central Asian republics, China and Russia experience the Jihad as a movement coined by the Turkic people, a world that has ties reaching ultimately Turkey -- and that is the edge of Europe," Thamm writes. "This … dangerous movement can't be fought by the West or East alone. Only the cooperation of East and West is able to ward off this danger of the 21st century."

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