By Uran Botobekov*
Uighur Foreign Fighters: Al Qaeda’s Connection
Analysis of military actions in Syria in the past month shows that Uyghur militants of Turkestan Islamic Party(TIP) hold their positions taken up earlier in Idlib province and are in no haste to go back to China. On November 23, 2017, the media center of TIPIslam Avazi (Voice of Islam)via Telegram posted a video in which jihadists destroyed two tanksТ-62 and nearly ten soldiers of the Syrian army. TIP used advanced anti-tank weapons, armored vehicles and drones, which confirms its good military technical capability.
The Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan established in the 80s of last century in Chinese Xingjian was later renamed into the Turkestan Islamic Party and since 1997 it has been known to be based in Afghanistan. Since then, TIP is actively cooperating with terrorist groups al Qaeda and Taliban. In 1998, the leader of TIP, HasanMahsum, received a passport from the Taliban in Kabul. As was reported by the Permanent Mission of the PRC to the UN, in October 2000 Osama bin Laden financed the TIP with $300,000.
Close cooperation with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has radicalized the ideology of the TIP and jihadism has become a key element of the party platform.The TIP adopted the ideology of al Qaeda along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose members were the natives of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.The Uyghur and Central Asian militants underwent joint military training in camps based in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Qandahar, Sheberghan, and Wardak. After the commencement of the military operation of the Afghanistan-based US forces and the fall of the Taliban regime, the base of TIP became Waziristan. After Hasan Mahsumwas killed in 2003 in the joint operation of the U.S. and Pakistan armed forces in South Waziristan, the leader of TIP became Abd al-Haqq al Turkistani. He managed to unite a vast number of Islamic radicals from Central Asia and China scattered throughout Waziristan, who fled prosecutions and repressions in their motherland. Abdul Haqq was appointed to al Qaeda’s elite Shura Council in 2005. Today Abd al-Haqqis located in northern Syria and continues to be the leader of the TIP.
After the outbreak of the civil war, Syria became the site for the deployment of many terrorist groups in the world. In February 2012, on the recommendation of al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri, TIP jihadists moved to Idlibprovince, and together with Jabhat al-Nusra are fighting against government forces of Bashar al-Assad.
Thedata on the number of Uyghur TIP militants located in Syria varies. According to Dubai-based Arabic Al Aan TV, from 10,000 to 20,000 Chinese Uyghurs moved to Zanbaq and Jisr al Shughour to join the military wing of al Qaeda in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which significantly changed the demography of Idlib province. But this version is hardly probable. Syria’s ambassador in Beijing, Imad Moustapha, had said that there are about 5 000 Uyghurs fighting against the Syrian army. But based on an analysis of independent sources, Turkish and Arab media, as well as videos from the scenes of fighting and drills posted by Islam Avazi Media Center, we had claimed earlier that there were more than 2,000 Uyghur militants of Turkestan Islamic Party in Syria. Moreover, about 600 Uyghurs joined ISIS, most of whom have died so far or fled back to Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It should be noted that many Uyghurs, who fled from China, came to Syria with their wives and children. The Media Center Islam Avazi regularly produces video reports on how children of Uyghur militants of TIP undergo military training and learn the basics of Sharia law. According to the Islam Avaziin Telegram, “hundreds and hundreds of Uyghur children are brought up in Syria and in the future will become real soldiers of Allah and will liberate the land of East Turkestan from the unfaithful Chinese through jihad.”
The transportation of a family can sometimes cost up to $10,000. To reach Syria, the Uyghurs use different routes. Due to low travel expenses, many people prefer to travel to Turkey through the countries of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan) and then cross the Syrian border. Some arrive through Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is considered a more established route. There are people among TIP militants who covered a long distance through the countries of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore), even coming through Australia. But the main transport shipment point is Turkey. The Erdogan government, due to linguistic, religious and ethnic similarities, is more supportive of Uyghur refugees and provides consular support to them.
The evolution of the Jihadist ideology of the Turkestan Islamic Party
The ideology of TIP has come a long way from Uyghur nationalism, the struggle for independent Uyghurstan to the global jihad. The ideology of the group sharply radicalized in 2000-2012, when the leaders of TIP fully adopted the concept of global jihad from al Qaeda and the Taliban. Close cooperation with Ayman al-Zawahiri finally proved to the leader of TIP Abd al-Ḥaqq and his closest associates that “the path of jihad is the only way to prevent Chinese repression, protect our religion, language, national culture and liberate the lands of East Turkestan from the government of Beijing.”
Despite the widening range of ideology, the anti-Chinese slogan and call for jihad against Beijing remains the main doctrine of TIP. All Islam Avazi propaganda materials raise the issue of Xinjiang and express concern about the repression of Uyghur Muslims in the XUAR. TIP leaders are constantly appealing to issues that are traditionally painful for Uyghurssuch as the no-growth policy, the expansion of Xinjiang by the Chinese, discrimination against national minorities and the persecution of Islam by Beijing. “Fighting against China is our Islamic responsibility,” one of the Islamic ideologists of the party, Abdullah Mansour, said. According to the logic of TIP leaders, the armed struggle against China is not a political task of the party, but the will of Allah. Thus, throughout its existence, the TIP combines two categories in its ideology: global jihad and a narrow anti-Chinese direction. Yet the ultimate goal of both directions is the establishment of the Caliphate.
The anti-Chinese slogan of TIP is actively supported by the leader of al Qaeda Ayman al Zawahiri. He has repeatedly praised “the heroism of Uyghur Muslims for their commitment to jihad all over the world.” Zawahiri lauds leaders of the Turkistan Islamic Party ShaykhHasanMahsum and Abd al-Ḥaqq. Zawahiri blasts the Chinese government as an “atheist occupier,” saying that Chinese authorities prevent the Muslims of East Turkistan from “performing their religious rites” and forces them to “change their religion.” This is the tactics of al-Qaeda. Al Qaeda has consistently portrayed Muslims as the victims of various aggressors, thereby seeking to capitalize on the discontent within local Muslim populations.
In the competitive struggle between alQaeda and ISIS for leadership in the global jihad, the head of TIP Abd al-Ḥaqq strongly supported the position of his spiritual mentor Zawahiri. He said that the proclamation of the “Caliphate” was like reaping the unripe harvest because it was created without the approval of Islamic leaders and the Muslim ummah. In his opinion, the Islamic State had to be declared on the basis of Sharia law, not political interests. He compared ISIS with a bastard, which is considered to be the gravest sin in Islam. Abd al-Ḥaqqroundly condemned the actions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and urged the Uyghurs to leave the territory of the so-called Islamic State.
This position of TIP has been caused by the three factors. First, while supporting Zawahiri, the leader of the Uygur jihadists tried to observe the continuity of the ideological concept of jihad adopted from alQaeda. Secondfactor was the desire to preserve the core structure and independence of TIP. Third factor was not to lose leadership within the group. As practice has shown, the choice of Abd al-Ḥaqq in favor of alQaeda proved to be justified from the point of view of survival and preservation of Uyghur militants amid the fall of ISIS. Therefore, the TIP group still acts as an independent participant in transnational radical Islamism. TIP managed to combine ethnic identity and the principles of global jihad, which contradict each other.
After a careful analysis of the speeches of the leaders of TIP on the Internet, articles of Islamic Turkistan(تركستاناإلسالمية) magazine in Arabic, video and audio materialsin the Media Center Islam Avazi, we can conclude that the ideology of the Turkestan Islamic Party is based on Wahhabism and militant Salafism. It was the religious works of Islamic thinkers Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiya, SayyidQutb, Ayman al Zawahiri that became the ideological basis of the TIP together with the Uyghur mentality. The ideological doctrine plays an important role in the radicalization of the Uyghur youth, as well as in the search for and attraction of more potential supporters to TIP. Radical Wahhabism and Salafism had a significant impact on the mindset of Uyghur militants.
Another peculiarity of TIP is the desire of Uyghur militants to adapt to local environment, mix well with local residents of Idlib and not toadvertise, unlike ISIS, cruel executions in their propaganda materials on the web. According to political scientist Colin P. Clarke, TIP works well with locals in the territories where it is present and has readily cooperated with a number of non-Uyghur jihadists who are part of JFS in key battlefield operations in Latakia and Aleppo. In those towns occupied by JFS, TIP members are relatively popular because they are not associated with administrative issues, such as levying taxes or enforcing Sharia law.
This practice corresponds to the doctrinal strategy of al Qaeda, whose leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said, “We adapt to the practical reality wherever it is. We would take into account the circumstances of each jihadist arena and what achieves its interests.”
The foggy future of Uighur Jihadists
Today, while ISIS has almost been destroyed and the government of Bashar Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, is trying to take control of the country’s main cities, many jihadists of the Islamic State are leaving Syria. But unlike them, Uyghur militants of TIP are in no haste to return to China, although they promise to return to their homeland in their propaganda materials and conduct jihad against Chinese atheists.
First, this is dueto the tactics of guerrilla warfare of alQaeda, which has experience of underground survival in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the African subcontinent.
Second, many Uyghurs came to Syria with their families and spent considerable financial resources on the trip. According to the analyst of Al Arabiya MohanadHage Ali, some sold their homes, businesses to raise money for the trip. During their stay in Syria, many of them managed to settle down, adapt to local conditions. Therefore, they intend to stay in the Middle East for a long time.
Third, the strategic ally of TIP Jabhat Fateh al-Sham acting as a defender of the Muslim Sunnis of Syria will play a significant role in armed struggle with the government forces of Syria and will support the Uygur jihadists, who are also Sunni. Therefore, the massive return of TIP militants to China should not be expected.
But if the military situation in Syria does not develop in favor of TIP, the Uyghurs will seek an underground shelter in the countries of Central Asia, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this won’t reduce the threat to China. On the contrary, different branches of the Turkestan Islamic Party in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East will pose a great threat to Beijing’s implementation of its super-project “One Belt One Road”.
Therefore, China is interested in the military defeat of the radical Islamic groups operating in Syria and Iraq and the physical destruction of the maximum possible number of Uyghur militants fighting therein. The Chinese government has already announced its willingness to participate in the post-war reconstruction of Syria and Iraq. Beijing and Damascus have already begun discussing post-war infrastructure investment in Syria.This provides additional leverage for Beijing to persecute and expel Uyghur militants of TIP from Syria and Iraq.
About the author:
*Uran Botobekov, Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy