The Cable

Obama’s Foreign Fighters Campaign Is a Gift to the World’s Police States

China is not signing up for the U.S.-led fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But the Middle Kingdom has found a lot to cheer for in President Barack Obama’s growing push to rally international support for a crackdown on the Islamic extremists flocking to Syria and Iraq to expand the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate there. With ...

Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images
Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

China is not signing up for the U.S.-led fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But the Middle Kingdom has found a lot to cheer for in President Barack Obama’s growing push to rally international support for a crackdown on the Islamic extremists flocking to Syria and Iraq to expand the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate there.

With Obama presiding over a recent Security Council session on foreign terrorist fighters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embraced Obama’s initiative and made his case for targeting separatists back home. As the American leader looked on, China’s top diplomat pushed for imposing sterner measures to rein in separatist Uighurs in western China, a group Beijing frequently maligns as terrorists. Wang also joined in the call for tighter controls on terrorist financing and reinforced government controls over the use social media to prevent suspected terrorists from attracting recruits and carrying out attacks.

"Terrorist organizations and extremists ideologies are competing with us for our future generations. This is indeed a battle bearing on the future of our world," Wang said. "Resolute measures should be taken to stop the use of social media to spread [extremist] ideas, especially the releasing of audio and video materials of violence and terrorism. Internet companies … should exercise self-discipline. To this end, it is imperative to formulate as soon as possible a code of conduct for the global cyber industry."

Wang’s comments underscore a little-noticed aspect of last week’s United Nations General Assembly, which was overshadowed by the launch of a U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria. Beyond the airstrikes, the Obama administration pushed through a measure that requires member states to prevent their citizens from traveling abroad to participate in or finance acts of terrorism. It was unanimously approved by the assembled world powers, but the vote wasn’t the clear-cut win for American diplomacy that it may appear to be.

Instead, the measure, in a textbook example of the dangers of unintended consequences, could end up giving China and similarly repressive states such as Russia and Middle Eastern monarchies powerful new tools for cracking down on separatist groups branded as terrorists. The resolution, which is legally binding, is so sweeping and vague that it effectively leaves it to each country to decide who to target, and how, because there is no internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism. For instance, the resolution requires that law enforcement agents prevent people from traveling if they have "credible information that provides reasonable grounds" for suspecting they might commit terrorist attacks during their travels. The standard of proof required to ban travel is likely to vary sharply in democratic and autocratic countries, opening the door to potential abuse of, for example, political opposition groups and ethnic minorities.

"I am quite sure that [the resolution] will be used by repressive regimes exactly for the purpose of stigmatizing people who are not terrorists," said Martin Scheinin, who from 2005 to 2011 served as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism. Scheinin, who now teaches at the European University Institute, said the measure means groups seeking greater self-determination "will be equated with terrorism, and groups speaking for that will be targeted as foreign terrorist fighters."

Indeed, while the resolution explicitly discourages racial profiling, it implicitly invites law enforcement to step up scrutiny of Muslim communities. For instance, one provision encourages states to "employ evidence-based traveler risk assessment and screening procedures," including using a traveler’s previous itinerary as potential grounds for detention. Therefore, an immigrant visiting family in the Middle East or North Africa — where Islamist militants are most active — is naturally more likely to be stopped and questioned at an airport than a Swede or a Dane visiting in-laws in France or Spain.

For U.S. diplomats, the resolution’s passage marked a political victory at a time when the White House has been buffeted by setbacks in the Middle East. Following the vote, Obama highlighted the resolution’s legally binding nature in public remarks before the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, saying it "establishes new obligations that nations must meet." He added that "nations must prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups through their territory and ensure that their domestic laws allow for the prosecution of those who attempt to do so."

U.S. officials say that in drafting the resolution they were mindful of the risks that some measures might undermine the due process rights of suspected terrorists. They also sought to ensure that the resolution didn’t undermine basic civil rights enjoyed by American citizens, including free speech. During negotiations, the United States also sought to accommodate concerns by European governments that the resolution might infringe on their nationals to travel freely within the borders of Europe. "We have done a lot of consultations, especially with European partners, and we have a good idea of what the sensitivities are," said a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations. 

Another U.S. diplomatic official said that autocratic governments don’t need a Security Council resolution to justify their abuses, and that they have rarely invoked previous U.N. counterterrorism measures in the council to make the case for crackdowns on dissidents.

"Authoritarian regimes generally do not invoke international law to repress their people, and when they do so, it is decidedly against the spirit and the letter of that international law," the official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there "is clear language" in the resolution condemning such abuses and underscoring the "need to fight terrorism in line with international human rights obligations and to promote social inclusion, empower local communities, develop nonviolent avenues for conflict resolution and address conditions conducive for terrorism." If states were to take some of the resolution’s "provisions out of context to justify repression, then we could just as easily cite these other provisions to criticize any crackdowns," the official added.

Human rights advocates, however, have long claimed that counterterrorism measures imposed by the Security Council following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., have led to the passage of a flood of laws abridging human rights. In 2009, then U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said such laws had "a very serious negative impact on human rights." 

In a sense, Obama successfully rallied a divided international community behind a singular mission, with even its usual antagonists on the council — Russia and China — signing on to the measure. But their support for a clampdown on suspected terrorists masked sharp differences in their approaches to the war on terror.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that Western and Arab governments’ propensity for "making allies" with anyone opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, including extremist militants such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, helped fuel terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. resolution, he suggested, was an admission by the United States that it had erred. He said that Moscow hoped that American officials would also recognize that Assad, Russia’s chief ally in the region, is an essential partner in the war on terror. "As the saying goes, better late than never," Lavrov added.

Russia’s blast against the United States underscores the uncomfortable reality that behind the seeming consensus on the need to battle extremism many of America’s allies hold vastly different views on the identity of the enemy they are fighting. For instance, Gulf states who joined the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, don’t necessarily view the Islamic State as the region’s main problem. According to these countries, Assad is the greater enemy. Ending the slaughter in Syria requires his removal from power.

"We have to be clear and not derailed from the right track," Qatar’s foreign minister, Khaled al-Attiyah, told the Financial Times earlier this month. "Terrorism is not just beheading — it is that, and it is ugly — but it is also throwing barrel bombs at women and children."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani alluded to these divisions in his address to the U.N. General Assembly last week. "The extremists of the world have found each other and have put out the call: ‘Extremists of the world unite.’ But are we united against the extremists?"

From Iran’s perspective, the region’s current terrorist crisis dates to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, during which the United States armed and supported mujahadeen fighters. The subsequent U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan perpetuated a series of errors that have only further empowered the enemies Washington seeks to defeat. "The strategic blunders of the West in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus have turned these parts of the world into a haven for terrorists and extremists," Rouhani said. "Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hand of the madmen, who now spare no one."

But Russia might have another reason to support the American initiative. It provides greater political cover for its own hard-line policies against ethnic Chechens and other Muslim minorities inside Russia. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin has described his brutal efforts to suppress unrest in Chechnya as an extension of the war on terror — and has used such rhetoric to justify extensive human rights abuses.  

Recent events in China provide a powerful example for why Beijing’s diplomats showed such palpable enthusiasm for the measure — and why some observers believe American diplomats should have considered more carefully how the resolution might be misused. A day before the Security Council convened to discuss the foreign fighter phenomenon, a Chinese court sentenced the Uighur academic Ilham Tohti to life in prison after he was accused of promoting separatism in the western Xinjiang region.

Tohti’s crime was starting a website that promoted understanding between the Chinese-speaking Han majority and Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority. The site served as a kind of information hub, with investigative reports, opinion, and some aggregation. In doing so, Chinese authorities allege, Tohti "spread separatist notions" and "bewitched and coerced" some of his students to join a splittist clique. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the sentence as "retribution for professor Tohti’s peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China’s ethnic Uighur citizens."

Elliot Sperling, a professor at Indiana University who helped arrange for Tohti to study in the United States, said "China is always happy to use allegations of terrorism to justify its actions toward the Uighur minority and they have tried to link separatism and terrorism."

The Chinese government has a long, tense relationship with Xinjiang’s mostly Muslim population and has imported millions of ethnic Han Chinese to solidify its rule there. Using torture, murder, and re-education camps, the government has brutally repressed Islam in the region. Deadly riots in 2009 exacerbated tensions, and Uighur separatists periodically carry out terror attacks in China. Authorities blamed Uighur separatists for a March knife attack on a Kunming train station that left 29 dead.

This has led China to adopt a militant approach and tie its ongoing crackdown on the Uighurs to broader, global efforts to combat international flavors of Islamist terrorism.

The new resolution could make that even easier by calling for "deradicalizing" potential terrorists, potentially giving political cover to China’s ideological re-education and propaganda programs. It urges states to develop "rehabilitation and reintegration strategies for returning foreign terrorist fighters" and promotes "peaceful alternatives to violent narratives espoused by foreign terrorist fighters, and underscores the role education can play in countering terrorist narratives." Because Chinese authorities equate separatism with terrorism, a Uighur activist attending a conference in the United States to learn about drafting a constitution, for example, could be slapped with the offense of receiving terrorist training abroad.

Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said the binding resolution "strikes me as reactionary and not well thought out. It will be used as an excuse to pass more repressive laws or to enforce [heavy-handed governments’] existing problematic laws.

"It allows states to claim publicly for political purposes that they are required to take the steps that they are going to take, some of which are going to be repressive actions, whether it is pursuing political opponents or criminalizing so-called terrorism offenses," she added.      

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy@columlynch

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@EliasGroll

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