Beijing has adopted a very harsh attitude toward the separatist movement. Practically all of the interviewees stated they could receive a lengthy prison sentence simply for expressing support for Uighur independence in private conversations. Yet it is precisely such measures which have prompted separatists to establish close ties with Islamic radicals from Central Asia, where there is a significant Uighur diaspora (approximately 400,000). Foreign headquarters of Uighur separatists operated openly in Almaty and Bishkek in the mid-1990s. However, under pressure from Beijing, Central Asian leaders have demanded that Uighur populations not support their ethnic brethren across the border - at least not openly - driving Uighurs underground, where they began to seek out ties with radical Islamic groups.
The Chinese repression has pushed some elements of the Uighur movement toward radicalism -- and Newt is right that some have indeed been captured fighting against American forces alongside al-Qaeda -- that isn't the whole story:
But while experts agree hundreds of Uighurs left China to join al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, some China specialists doubt the ETIM [the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement] currently has significant ties to bin Laden’s network. Beijing has a long history of falsifying data, they say, and since September 11 the Chinese have repeatedly tried to paint their own campaign against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang as a flank of the U.S.-led war on terrorism—and to get Washington to drop its long-standing protests over Chinese human rights abuses in its crackdowns in Xinjiang. ETIM leader Hahsan Mahsum was killed in raids on camps linked to al-Qaeda in 2003.
Indeed, it's necessary to point out that the movement long predates, and has little real connection to, Islamic terrorism as it's understood in the context of the Bush War on Terror(ism):
The latest wave of Uighur separatism has been inspired not by Osama bin Laden but by the unraveling of the Soviet Union, as militants seek to emulate the independence gained by some Muslim communities in Central Asia.
Beijing brooks no dissent, and it's a shame that Bush caved to Chinese pressure to add the Uighur movement to his terrorist watch list.
This brings us to Newt Gingrich's article today in the Washington Examiner. His broad idea is actually just fine, and I have no real problem with it -- that the closing of Guantanamo has real, and very problematic, consequences. But in his zeal to spook the broader American public into pushing to keep Gitmo open, he makes obnoxious and irresponsible overstatements about the Uighurs and their aims:
The goal of the Uighurs is to establish a separate sharia state... The goal of the ETIM is to establish a radical Islamist state in Asia.
The scare tactics are straight out of the more reprehensible parts of the Rove playbook, and it disgusts me that Newt, who is positioning himself to be the leader of the Republican revival, is pandering to it. There are legitimate arguments to make about the problems of releasing the Gitmo detainees into American prisons, but Newt should be ashamed of the broad strokes he uses here.