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An Innocent Abroad? By: Thomas Joscelyn
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, June 26, 2008


In the wake of the Supreme Court's Boumediene decision earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has now decided that the Bush administration was wrong to label Gitmo detainee Huzaifa Parhat an "enemy combatant." The Court of Appeals decided that Parhat should be released, transferred to another country, or granted another tribunal session.

Predictably, the decision has been celebrated by critics of the Bush administration and the Guantánamo detention facility. They have cited the decision as further evidence of the unjustness of America's detention policies. And some, including the editors of the New York Times, have highlighted Parhat's own "insistence that he was an innocent swept up in the chaos in Afghanistan."

However, Parhat is far from an obvious innocent. A closer look at documents released by the Department of Defense, as well as information from other sources, reveals that his story is not clear-cut. Because the opinion contains classified information, the Court of Appeals has not yet released it. And we may never see the classified evidence the court relied upon in making its determination. Nevertheless, given what is known about Parhat and his affiliations, there are ample reasons to think he was a threat, albeit perhaps a low-level one.

According to the DOD, 22 citizens of China have been detained at Gitmo. Five of them have been released, but 17 of them remain at Gitmo. Like Parhat, all of these men are Uighurs, that is, natives of China's Xinjiang region, or East Turkestan, as Uighurs call it. The Uighurs, who have been oppressed by various Chinese policies, have been fighting for their independence for decades. And given the deplorable human rights record of the Chinese regime, they have won at least some international support for their efforts.

Not all Uighur separatists are created equal though. A minority of them in the early 1980s formed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group rooted in radical Islamic ideology and dedicated to jihad. And by the early 1990s, the ETIM had become a significant fighting force with a presence throughout Central and South Asia. It was only a matter of time before the ETIM's members would cross paths with their Arab and Afghan ilk.

By the late 1990s, Hasan Mahsum, the ETIM's leader, began mingling with Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda's CEO reportedly gave Mahsum $300,000--although, this claim may come from the Chinese government, which is not always the most honest broker of information. However, we know for certain that bin Laden gave Mahsum's forces training space inside Afghanistan. In particular, the ETIM opened a training camp at Tora Bora.

And that is where Parhat was in October 2001 when, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, American forces bombarded the ETIM's Tora Bora training camp. The bombings sent the Uighurs, including Parhat, scrambling to Pakistan where they were arrested. During his tribunal session at Gitmo, Parhat admitted that he attended the ETIM's Tora Bora camp from June 2001 until the bombing began. During those months, he admitted to being trained in the use of small arms, including the Kalashnikov rifle and a pistol.

At his tribunal session, Parhat denied having any "Arab" (that is, al Qaeda) trainers at the Tora Bora camp or having had anything to do with al Qaeda. But he did admit that Mahsum was the leader of his group:

Q: There is an important gentleman in the Uighur community by the name of Hasan Mahsum; do you know who this man is?

Parhat: Yes. I saw that person.

Q: Who is he, please?

Parhat: He is a Turkistani person. [Note: As the DOD transcript notes, the Uighurs frequently refer to themselves as "Turkistani."]

Q. Is he the leader of your Uighur group?

Parhat. Yes.

Q. Would he give the Uighurs in the camp guidance and instruction on what to do?

Parhat. Maybe he would do that and there was another person and he was the leader of the camp guiding all the people. I saw this person twice at the camp. I forgot the leader name.

Q. Would that be Mr. Abdul Haq?

Parhat. Yes. . . .

Q. There is a concern that Mr. Hassan Maksum may have relationships with al Qaeda people. Do you know any thing about this?

Parhat. I don't think so. The people in Turkistan will not associate with al Qaeda.

On this last point, Parhat is either lying or ignorant of the relationship between the ETIM and al Qaeda. As the Combatant Status Review Board noted in its summary of evidence (a document used to determine whether or not a Gitmo detainee is an enemy combatant) for Parhat, the ETIM's training facilities at Tora Bora "were funded by Bin Laden and the Taliban."

Parhat denied this specific point too, but there is abundant evidence indicating that the Tora Bora training camp was an al Qaeda-Taliban-ETIM joint venture. For example, as terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna rightly noted in an interview earlier this year:

We have seen that al Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have released a number of statements and videos where ETIM is training in al Qaeda camps with their instructors. Hasan Mahsum, the leader of ETIM, was killed in South Waziristan--the area that al Qaeda was operating in 2003--by the Pakistani forces. There have been a number of ETIM members arrested in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are working very [closely] with Al-Qaeda. Abu [Zubaydah], the operations chief for Al-Qaeda, met with Uighur radical groups entering Pakistan. The relationship between the two is very strong.

Former Indian intelligence officer B. Raman has similarly explained the relationship between the ETIM and al Qaeda. Raman has written that the ETIM "is a major component of the terrorist network headed by bin Laden" throughout South and Central Asia. Raman further claims:

Hasan Mahsum, the ETIM ringleader, used to hide in Kabul and had an Afghan passport issued by the Taliban. Bin Laden asked the ETIM to stir up trouble in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then stage an organized infiltration into Xinjiang. The "Turkistan Army" under the ETIM fought along with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This "Army" has a special "China Battalion" with about 320 terrorists from Xinjiang. The battalion is under the direct command of Hasan Mahsum's deputy Kabar.

The Times's editorial noted that supporters of Parhat and his fellow Uighur detainees "maintain that they were captured by mistake and had no hostile intentions toward the United States." This is a common defense of the ETIM-associated detainees at Gitmo. They are supposedly only interested in targeting the Chinese regime, so the U.S. should look the other way.

But as disgusting as the Chinese regime's human rights record is, there is no moral equivalency between legitimate opposition and terrorists who seek to hijack their cause. Osama bin Laden's grand vision was to unite terrorist groups around the world by bringing nationalist, ethnic and other sectarian groups under the banner of his jihad. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were at least partially successful in this endeavor in Algeria, Somalia, Chechnya, Bosnia, Southeast Asia, South and Central Asia, as well as Iraq. There is every indication that he was successful in incorporating the ETIM into his global designs as well. Moreover, it is not true that the ETIM targets only Chinese interests. As Raman points out, the group has also "fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan" among other locations. ETIM trainees may profess a lack of hostility towards the United States, but once allied with al Qaeda, there is no telling where they may be asked to wage jihad.

We do not know what basis the Court of Appeals had for determining Parhat was improperly labeled an "enemy combatant." We may never see the classified evidence they relied upon. Perhaps there are mitigating factors that trump Parhat's disturbing ties. We can only hope that the Parhat decision was not grounded in an ignorance of the ETIM.


Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).


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