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East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)

Insurgency Overview

The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or the East Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), is an Islamic separatist group composed mostly of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China who wish to create an Islamic state called East Turkestan that would include parts of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang (1). The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsoum. The US, beginning in the Trump administration, asserts that TIP and ETIM are two separate entities and have removed what they consider to be ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List, citing a lack of activity despite the fact that Uighur fighters are present in Syria and Afghanistan. According to a State Department spokesperson, "ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist as the same organization that was conducting terrorist attacks in Syria at the time of their designation." This stance has continued with the Biden administration (2).

For the purposes of this article, even though some sources describe TIP and ETIM as two distinct entities, we will assume that the organizations are one and the same as the UN and other sources make no distinction between the groups (3)(4)(5). In addition, Turkestan is also sometimes translated into English as Turkistan. The article will maintain the two different spellings when the latter is the more common way of describing groups or people in English.

History & Foundations

Xinjiang (officially the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, 新疆维吾尔自治区) has historically been on the borders of the various Chinese empires, and was a quasi-element of many of them before being officially annexed by the Qing in the 18th century. In 60 B.C.E. a military commandery named Xiyu was set up by the Western Han dynasty in modern-day Xinjiang, and an extension of the Great Wall was also built. After the third century the area came under control of Uighur people, but in 640 and 702 the Tang dynasty set up two more military commanderies in the region (6). During the Ming dynasty the region was ruled by various Muslim rulers, although Buddhism was still very much prevalent in the region (7). It was officially incorporated into Chinese borders in 1884, when the Qing made Xinjiang a province (6).

In the modern era, Xinjiang was under on and off independent rule in the period between the dissolution of the Qing empire and the start of communist rule in China, (1912-1949). The first Islamist uprisings occurred in this period, with the formation of the Islamic Party of Turkestan (Hizbul Islam Li-Turkestan) (8). These uprisings lasted from the 1940s until 1952, producing two short-lived republics (9). After communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, Xinjiang was established as an autonomous region in 1955 (6).

It is important to note that Uighurs are not the only Turkic peoples inhabiting Xinjiang. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars and Mongols also live in the region (9). We can see this somewhat in the naming of the parties, both the old Islamic Party of Turkestan and the modern East Turkestan Islamic Movement do not specify “Uighur” anywhere in their names.

During Deng Xiaoping’s reform period in the 80s there was a period of Islamic revival in Xinjiang. Importantly Abdul Hakeem, one of the founders of the Islamic Party of Turkestan, was released from prison during this period and began setting up underground religious schools. This helped lead to a period of ethnic and religious awakening in Xinjiang. One of Hakeem’s pupils, Hasan Masoum, would go on to found the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (8). Masoum was later killed by Pakistani forces in 2003 (3).

In the late 1990s increased economic investment as well as an influx of ethnic Han Chinese moving in from other parts of China have led to a situation in which there is growing economic inequality between the Han and Turkic peoples, leading to tension (6). Since the 90s there has been an increase in Islamist terrorist activity in Xinjiang, although one should note that many acts classified as terrorism by China can be considered normal crimes, such as robberies, that are classified as terrorism for political purposes (8).

ETIM first appeared on the world stage in Russian news reports in 2000. “A Russian press report in August 2000 claimed that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had provided military and material assistance to ETIM in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. This Russian newspaper reported that Osama bin Laden had convened a meeting in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 1999 that included the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and ETIM at which he agreed to give them money.” (8). Further evidence to a relationship with the IMU was provided when U.S. forces captured Uighur fighters under IMU command in Afghanistan (10).

Ideology & Objectives

ETIM is a militant Islamist nationalist group. Islamist because they have vowed jihad against the “Chinese occupiers of Xinjiang” and nationalist because they seek to form a state for Turkic peoples (8)(11). Their ideology then, is also their objective. ETIM has published a magazine called Islamic Turkistan that describes their ideology in their own words. We can look at a selection of articles from the magazine’s seventh edition to get a peek into the thoughts of the group. Interestingly, the magazine is written in Arabic, not a Turkic language, so most locals would not be able to read it, implying that it is meant to educate outsiders about ETIM.

““Turkistan Seeks Help…Is There a Supporter?” is based on a lecture given in Afghanistan by Shaykh Abu Mohammed al-Turkistani (Abdul Haq al-Turkistani), who reminds listeners of the importance of being prepared for fighting both spiritually and externally. Al-Haq gives an introduction to Turkistan’s geography and its wealth and resources. He says (incorrectly) that Turkistan is the second biggest oil-producing region in the world. The final paragraph is about the war against Muslims in Turkistan to end the region’s Islamic identity and annihilate the mujahideen. This is what he says gave rise to the emergence of [ETIM] in May 1988.”

“The Commandment of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam,” is a reminder to all that jihad is a duty for every Muslim. "Your life is jihad…Your pride is in al-jihad…Your existence is closely linked to Jihad." The Jordanian-Palestinian jihad ideologue and spiritual founder of al-Qaeda Abdullah Azzam recommended that Muslim scholars, women and children focus on the religious duty of Jihad.” (11).

We also must realize that, similarly to any nationalist group, just because some Uighurs and Turkic peoples desire a state of their own, there are also those who wish to remain a part of the PRC. In addition, ETIM is far from the only Uighur separatist organization, and there are many that are not extremist in nature and do not condone violence (1).

Approach to Resistance

ETIM is a propaganda-savvy group that will also use violence to carry out its political objectives (10)(11). In China the group’s violent side can be exaggerated by the group itself. For example, between 2008 and 2011, ETIM claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in China, but only one can be credibly linked to the group. Regardless, the PRC is happy to agree with ETIM and attribute the attacks to them in order to justify their treatment of Uighers, blaming the group for more than 200 attacks (1)(10). Overall, the effectiveness and presence of ETIM on Chinese soil is rather low, perhaps due in part to the massive state security infrastructure China contains. Outside of China, however, particularly in Syria, the ETIM is very active.

ETIM’s first known instance of participating in combat occurred in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. As mentioned previously, Uighur fighters were captured in Afghanistan working under the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

ETIM has a presence in Syria known as the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria - which we will also refer to as ETIM - that is participating in the Syrian Civil War. One of the more famous jihadists in Syria, abu-Omar al-Turkistani, who was titled as an emir, was from Xinjiang. In addition to leading the Syrian branch of ETIM, al-Turkistani was also in a senior leadership position with the al-Nusra Front. He was killed in 2017 in a U.S. drone strike (12).

ETIMS has participated in the “Northwestern Syria offensive (April-June 2015), Al-Ghab offensive (July-August 2015), Siege of Abu al-Duhur Airbase [2012-2015]… Northwestern Syria offensive (October-November 2015), Latakia offensive (2015–2016), Aleppo offensive [October-December 2015], Siege of Al-Fu’ah-Kafarya (2015), Aleppo offensive (April 2016) and the Aleppo offensive (May 2016)” (13).

Furthermore, ETIM trains child soldiers in Syria at a camp in Idlib, willingly advertising this fact in propaganda posts. The children have been shown learning how to use firearms and attending Sharia classes. ETIM refers to these children as “little jihadists”, and there are girls involved in the training as well. (14)(15)

In part due to the activity of ETIM in Syria, China supports Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. “On August 16, 2016, a Chinese military delegation visited Damascus and, beyond bilateral cooperation, it discussed the issue of eliminating Turkestan Islamic Party fighters.” (16). Chinese advisors have been training government forces in Syria since 2015 and the al-Assad government in return has supported Chinese claims in the South China Sea (16)(17).

Relations & Alliances

ETIM maintains close ties with and has received support from both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. These ties are exacerbated by the harsh crackdowns by China in Xinjiang on Uighurs and Muslims in general, forcing the most militant Muslims into neighboring countries like Pakistan or Uzbekistan where they have much more access to Islamist groups (1)(3). As mentioned earlier, ETIM also has relations with Uzbek Islamist groups as well, and from the fighting in Syria many Uighurs have ties with various Middle Eastern Islamist groups.

Works Cited (TBC)

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Additional Resources


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