China Power

Chinese Involvement in Global Jihad

Interactions between Uyghur militant groups and other terrorist networks pose a growing concern for China.

Chinese Involvement in Global Jihad
Credit: Screenshot from CCTV documentary

The Jerusalem Post reports an Israeli analyst has warned a Chinese delegation that Chinese extremists are becoming increasingly involved in international operations. According to the report, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) analyst Jacques Neriah believes that there are “1,000 Chinese jihadists” being trained at a base in Pakistan, and thousands more have joined the fighting in Syria. JCPA director Dore Gold (who is also a special foreign policy advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) warned China that these fighters abroad will pose “certain risks” when they return to China.

Beijing is already well aware of the risks of increased connections between Uyghur terrorist groups and more established organizations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which claimed responsibility for the deadly attack at Pakistan’s Karachi airport earlier this month. Chinese militant organizations like the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP, considered by some to be the successor group to ETIM) have increasingly interacted with other terrorist networks as they share space in Pakistan’s tribal regions. As ETIM trains with other groups, its own methods have become more sophisticated, including a huge increase in the number of online materials ETIM posts to attract and train new members.

As Jacob Zenn wrote for Jamestown Foundation back in May, interactions between Uyghur groups and more entrenched militant groups like al-Qaeda are gradually leading to similarities in strategy and technique. Already, the increase in Uyghur-led attacks targeting civilians — the October 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square, the March attack at a Kunming railway station, and the April and May attacks in Urumqi — reflects a shift in strategy. Previous attacks had largely targeted police or other security forces in the Xinjiang region. The shift to classic terrorism, targeting civilians indiscriminately, has come after several years of collaboration between TIP and other terrorist groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Accordingly, the growing internationalization of Chinese terrorist groups is a major concern for Beijing. The primary worry is that Chinese militants fighting in Syria or training in Pakistan will eventually return to China better equipped to carry out attacks and spread religious extremism. Global Times underlined this danger in its 2012 report on Chinese jihadist activities in Syria. As noted above, interactions with other groups have also helped TIP become more sophisticated in its recruiting methods.

However, the exchange also works the other way: groups like TIP are attempting to spread their vision of jihad within China. This concern was highlighted by a 2013 video purporting to show a Chinese man expressing support for the Syrian opposition and warning China that there will be consequences for its refusal to aid the rebels. That particular video warned of economic sanctions but the greater threat has always been that China will become a target of international terrorist groups.

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TIP is certainly trying to attract international support for its attacks on China. In an interview with Reuters, TIP leader Abdullah Mansour called China “the enemy of all Muslims” and said that the “fight against China is our Islamic responsibility.” This idea may be slowly gaining traction. As Zenn pointed out in his article, IMU leader Abu Zar al-Burmi has singled out China as a target in his speeches, calling it the “next number one enemy.”