Initially, American interrogators believed Qasim and his compatriots. During the Uighur detainees’ first year at Guantánamo, reports filed by interrogators found most of them not to be “enemy combatants,” and they were deemed eligible for release. For reasons that have never been made clear, though, they were not released—very likely, this was initially because there was no place to release them to, then because, except for a small number of them, the Bush Administration simply refused to let them go. Rushan Abbas, who had been a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Washington and who subsequently spent months in Guantánamo as the interpreter for the Uighurs, told me that Major General Michael E. Dunlavey, the commander of the task force responsible for interrogating the prisoners in Guantánamo’s early days, had said to her that he’d felt the Uighurs were being detained in error. Years later, he emailed her: “Every time when I read about how our government screwed up the release of the Uighurs, I feel very angry.” Multiple attempts to contact Dunlavey were unsuccessful, but those remarks are consistent with a statement he has reportedly made about Guantánamo detainees.
In Qasim’s case, a review by what was called the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, dated February 21, 2004, which was among a full set of such memos published by WikiLeaks, acknowledges Qasim’s “prior assessment” as “not affiliated with al-Qaeda or a Taliban leader.” But, it continues, “new information” indicated that Qasim “is a probable member” of ETIM, which “is a Uighur separatist organization dedicated to the creation of a Uighur Islamic homeland in China, through armed insurrection and terrorism.”
In describing ETIM in those words, officials echoed the portrayals of Uighur “terrorists” that Chinese propaganda had been disseminating. The United States had also been incorporating this sort of language into its official statements. In late 2002, reversing its earlier resistance, the State Department designated ETIM as a terrorist organization. A fact sheet on this decision described ETIM as a “violent group believed responsible for committing numerous acts of terrorism in China, including bombings of buses, movie theaters, department stores,” and other targets. Between 1990 and 2001, it continued, “members of ETIM reportedly committed over 200 acts of terrorism in China, resulting in at least 162 deaths and over 440 injuries. Its objective is the creation of a fundamentalist Muslim state called ‘East Turkistan.’”
Read: Is Guantánamo a terrorist-recruitment tool?
This statement repeats figures included in a document issued by China’s State Council, the country’s main governing body, in which China publicly laid out its case against ETIM and other Uighur radicals it blamed for violence in Xinjiang. Missing from the State Department fact sheet, and from other statements of the United States’ position, was any echo of Washington’s previous views—that Uighur grievances were local and could not be dealt with by counterterrorism methods, or that China made no distinction between those perpetrating violence and those advocating for greater freedom. In the post-9/11 frenzy, and in its eagerness to enlist Beijing’s support in the wider War on Terror, the United States had adopted China’s position without qualification.