A Post-Mortem Analysis of Turkistani Amir Emeti Yakuf: A Death that Sparked More Questions than Answers

Publication: Volume: 3 Issue: 10 October 31, 2012 06:04 PM

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Emeti Yakuf (Ministry of Public Security, People’s Republic of China)

In late August, a series of drone strikes in Northern Waziristan were reported to have killed a number of jihadist leaders. Most media attention focused on the possible demise of Badruddin Haqqani, son of the fabled mujahedeen leader, with conflicting reports about whether he had died or not. Almost as an afterthought, some of the stories highlighted that the strikes were believed to have also killed Emeti Yakuf, the current leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) (Dawn, August 24). This overshadowed death reflected the generally low profile that TIP is often given amongst jihadist groups, and highlighted once again the difficulties in obtaining information about the mysterious China-focused terrorist organization.

Emeti Yakuf first achieved prominence in the wake of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS) published a list of eight individuals it identified as members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). [1] Considered by the government as a “key member” of the organization, he was reported to also use the aliases Aibu Adubureheman and Saifula. According to Chinese MPS information, he was born on March 14, 1965, and was reported to have fled Xinjiang for “a South Asian country” (believed to be Pakistan) in November 1996. Once there, he is believed to have risen rapidly in the ranks of the organization and by 1998 was a leader in the group. By 2001, he was directing operations, recruiting individuals and generally serving the organization in a leadership role (Xinhua, October 21, 2008).

He moved into a new role of orchestrating attacks against China starting with the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A year before the Olympics, Chinese authorities believe he dispatched a team of ten from his base in Pakistan to carry out poisonings and bombings against Chinese citizens within and beyond China. During the Olympics, he is believed to have been the “Commander Seyfullah” figure who was responsible for a series of videos that directly threatened the Olympic games in Beijing. According to Chinese official claims, he “issued several directives to his followers to conduct terrorist activities targeted at the Beijing Olympics” (Xinhua, October 21, 2008).

Around this time he was allegedly in contact with extremists in Norway as well. In these communications that were overheard by Norwegian authorities, he purportedly identified Mikael Davud, a Uyghur-Norwegian citizen who was arrested two years later, as the leader of an Oslo-based cell that was apparently plotting to carry out an unspecified attack under direction from Rashid Rauf and other senior members of al-Qaeda (VG, July 30, 2010). This was the same network of cells that included Najibullah Zazi’s aborted attempt to attack New York’s subway system in 2009; it is unclear, however, whether he was involved in that plot at all. [2] Whilst under interrogation, Davud claimed to be planning to target the Chinese Embassy in Oslo, and his Uighur heritage makes the ETIM (or Turkistan Islamic Party, TIP, as they were by now identifying themselves) connection likely, the plot seemed to be something that was in fact directed by the al-Qaeda core. But it is worth bearing in mind other factors going on at this time. In May 2011, another prominent TIP member, Abu Sakoor Turkistani, was promoted to assume control over al-Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan. He played a key interlocutor role directing operations for the group, as well as being the amir of the Uyghur contingent in Pakistan. [3]

Additional reinforcement of Yakuf’s importance is his appearance as the seemingly key individual in a recording that the organization released in the wake of the July 2009 riots in Urumqi. Published with an Arabic transcript, the audio recording by Yakuf (using his title Commander Seyfullah) threatens revenge for Han Chinese actions in the province, calling them “genocide.” What is interesting about this recording is that it was released through the Al-Fajr Media Center, in contrast to the numerous videos that the organization released around the Olympics the year before which were for the most part released via YouTube. The Al-Fajr stamp suggests an official al-Qaeda imprimatur. Given the fact that now defunct al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi released a long video in October 2009 calling attention to the Uyghurs’ plight in China, it seems possible to conclude that the rioting in Urumqi seems to have acted as a catalyst that the TIP profited from to draw the organization closer to al-Qaeda.

Timings here are useful to note, as it seems that Mikael Davud, the Uighur-Norwegian, was in Waziristan during this time. Whilst Davud is reported to have trained at a separate camp from the other members of the network that Rashid Rauf and others were directing to carry out attacks in New York and northern England, he was in contact once he was back in Oslo with the same “Ahmad” who was acting as the point of contact for the U.K. and U.S. cells. According to court documents, Davud returned to Scandinavia in October 2009. [4] One thesis is that in the wake of the closer alignment between TIP and al-Qaeda, the TIP might have offered its European passport-bearing recruit to al-Qaeda. Given Yakuf’s prominent role and his connections to Davud, it would not be surprising if he had played a role in this link.

Much of this, however, remains speculative conjecture at this point. In court documents that emerged from Davud’s trial, there is no mention of Emeti Yakuf or Commander Sayfullah. Also, aside from the 2008 official biography provided by Chinese authorities, there is very little information about Yakuf available in the Chinese press. Further adding confusion to this picture is the fact that there is no mention of Yakuf or any of his aliases in a series of recent videos or the latest issue of Sawt al Islam released by TIP. Whether this is because the publications were prepared prior to his death or because he was not killed is unclear. What is interesting, however, is that the organization seems to have suddenly surged into action, publicizing itself once again. Whether this presages an assault—possibly something to coincide with the upcoming leadership transition in China—is unclear, but given the group’s low record of achievement in the past few years it seems unlikely that they would suddenly be able to carry out an attack of this sort. Whether this capacity is something that has been notably reduced by the death of Yakuf is unclear, though his death will doubtless complicate TIP’s connection with the  al-Qaeda core, as well as further weaken both organizations’ ability to launch attacks anywhere around the world.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

Notes:

[1] www.mps.gov.cn/n16/n1237/n1342/n803715/1634373.html.

[2] For more on this network, please see Raffaello Pantucci ‘Manchester, New York and Oslo: Three Centrally Directed al Qaeda plots,’ CTC Sentinel, vol. 3, no.8, August 2010.

[3] For more on Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, please see Jacob Zenn, “Al-Qaeda’s Uighur Jihadi: A Profile of the Turkistan Islamic Party’s Abdul Shakoor Turkistani,” Militant Leadership Monitor, vol. 2, no.12, December 2011.

[4] Oslo court documents, January 30, 2012.

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