By Kabir Taneja
On March 1, for the first time, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) released a video showcasing militants from the Uyghur ethnic minority from China’s restive Xinjiang province in its ranks. The video proceeds to directly threaten Beijing with violence on behalf of ISIS before the Uyghur members of the terror group are shown executing an alleged informant.
“Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say. We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed,” the video narrates according to lose translations corroborated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The timing of the video’s release could be seen as deliberate with China over the past month orchestrating a show of power in its Xinjiang province, where Uyghur Muslims have been at odds with the state over issues of religious freedom, ethnic autonomy and in some cases secessionist Islamist ideologues wanting to set up a fundamentalist Islamic state in the region. As a result, Xinjiang has seen a host of knife attacks against its own people, and retaliatory policies by the Chinese government against Uyghur protestors that have reportedly killed hundreds over the past ten years.
However, like most such extremist movements, the topography of jihadists in Xinjiang is not black and white in nature. The new ISIS video purports a fresh threat to the region on China’s western front, with returning ISIS fighters and ones already operating there that can be influenced via online propaganda to start doing so under the branding of ISIS. While this video highlights ISIS’s threat towards China, jihadism in the country has till date largely been led by the Turkestan Islamic Party (earlier known as the East-Turkestan Islamic Movement) which has been fighting the Chinese government for the formation of an independent nation of East Turkestan (or Uyghurstan). The TIP has largely been known as an affiliate of Al Qaeda, receiving funds under the reign of Osama Bin Laden to orchestrate operations in Xinjiang province, and even reportedly getting training by jihadists in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, in 2013, two years after the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan, TIP announced its allegiance to ISIS’s Caliphate, joining other Uzbek jihadi groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in this integration. One-year prior, in 2012, Chinese Major General Yin Jiang had made the first reference of a possible Uyghur – Syria nexus, blaming groups belonging to the ‘East Turkestan’ movement for participating in the civil war in northern Syria, using smuggling routes via South East Asia and Turkey to get themselves to the Syrian theatre. With a historical backing by Turkey to the East Turkestani movement still largely in place, and the country being a large host to pro-TIP leaders, Ankara is also on the cusp to play a critical role in an event of a large ISIS claimed attack in China. Some Chinese observers over the past years have compared Turkey’s alleged harboring of such TIP elements analogous to the Taliban in Afghanistan shielding Osama Bin Laden for years.
In a 2013 interview, the Syrian Ambassador to China, Imad Moustapha, had told China’s Global Times newspaper that Damascus had intelligence suggesting over 30 Uyghur jihadists had travelled from a Pakistani terror training camp to Syria via the porous Turkish border. In 2015, Al Monitor columnist Metin Gurcan highlighted that 1,500 jihadists from Central Asia, including Uyghurs, were fighting with ISIS as per intelligence sources. The same year, UAE based Al Masdar News announced the death of a Uyghur terrorist known as ‘Abbas al-Turkistani’, allegedly killed by the Syrian Army in Hama province. The Syrian government, as per Moustapha, is sharing all such instances and intelligence from the ground with China. In 2016, despite its previous views, TIP’s emir Abd al-Haqq al-Turkistani denounced ISIS as “illegitimate”. However, what remains debatable is the extent of the rift between TIP leaders over the emir’s opinions that came six years after he was critically injured reportedly in a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan (important to note TIP aligned with ISIS while al-Haqq was thought to be incapacitated).
Despite the number of Uyghurs joining ISIS or other groups in Syria’s civil war being very small, the implications of this for China in Xinjiang could be significant. The Uyghurs themselves in Xinjiang are far from united in the causes supported by groups such as the TIP. While some demand a fundamentalist Islamist state, others are split between fighting for greater autonomy under the Chinese system, while some are even content to integrate with Beijing’s stance on Xinjiang as they look to be part of the country’s economic success story and move away from Xinjiang, which in itself is seen as a threat by Beijing.
Despite fractures within the Uyghur’s historical fight for rights, the jihadists also have strong fault-lines amongst themselves. The video released under the banner of ISIS also warned jihadists fighting with the TIP itself, highlighting the conflicting schools of thought in the TIP that are aligning with ISIS and those shunning it. Regardless of such differences, online propaganda along with returning fighters pose a threat of breaking onto the shores of Syrian jihad and ebbing away back into Xinjiang’s complicated ethnic social fabric with further radicalization and now, war experience. It is possible that potential terror activities in China, not just in Xinjiang but the major coastal hubs as well, could take place under the flag of the so-called Islamic State. The Chinese government clearly seems to be gearing up for that eventuality.