China’s Nightmare: Xinjiang Jihadists Go Global

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China’s Nightmare: Xinjiang Jihadists Go Global

While fighting in Syria, the Turkestan Islamic Party has joined forces with global jihadist movements.

China’s Nightmare: Xinjiang Jihadists Go Global

Policemen detain a participant playing the role of an attacker during an anti-terrorism drill at a railway station in Yiwu, Zhejiang province (May 7, 2014).

Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Analysis of the world’s Islamic jihadist movements shows that over the past few months, the Internet-based propaganda activity of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has increased dramatically. The Turkestan Islamic Party, a group also called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), fights for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic State of East Turkestan in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The TIP’s members consist mainly of ethnic Muslim Uyghurs. Since 2001, the group has been affiliated with al-Qaeda. After the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), the ideological goals and the scale of hostilities of the Turkestan Islamic Party shifted. In 2013, the TIP moved to join the Caliphate, integrating, along with a pair of Uzbek groups, into a faction of Jabhat al-Nusra. Recently it was reported that on July 28, 2016 Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra announced that the group would be renamed as Jabhat Fath al-Sham.

Today more than 2,000 TIP fighters in alliance and under the leadership of Jabhat Fath al-Sham are fighting in the northwest part of Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to Al Arabiya News there are a few thousand Uyghur fighters in Syria, many of whom arrived with their families after a long and treacherous journey from China and Central Asia. They are believed to have been seen in large numbers in disparate regions of Idlib, including the strategic town of Jisr al-Shoghur, Ariha, and the highlands of Jabal al-Zawiya.

The analysis shows that in recent months the TIP has posted more than 30 videos and other propaganda material on the internet. A careful study of this material makes it clear that significant changes have occurred in the ideological and strategic goals of the TIP since 2010. The position of the Turkestan Islamic Party against the Chinese authorities has become even more radical. If previously the party’s strategic objective was to conduct a terrorist struggle against the power structures of China and to separate Xinjiang from Beijing, today it sets a more global objective. TIP fighters call on the world’s Muslims to join the jihad against Western countries in internet videos. Perhaps most worringly for China, the TIP believes that Muslims may fight locally using various means instead of coming to Syria and Iraq to conduct a “holy war” against the “infidel” Western regimes.

TIP’s Propaganda Work

In addition to military actions in Syria, the TIP has begun to focus greater attention on propaganda work. On August 5 it launched a new channel via the Telegram instant messaging service, which houses a variety of information on the nature of jihad propaganda. TIP fighter and members alike are capable of transmitting information to others on the private channel. The leader of TIP, Abdul Ahad Turkistānī (Abd al-Ḥaqq al-Turkistānī), is registered as a moderator of the Telegram channel. Overall, the messaging is a kind of blunt challenge to the coalition forces led by the United States, who are fighting against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Since 2008, the information center of the TIP has produced an Arabic print and online color magazine, “Islamic Turkestan.” In its latest issue (#19), published in May 2016, there were materials on a variety of topics, ranging from the Salafi doctrine of jihad to anti-Chinese articles. In contrast to earlier issues, the range of subjects has expanded. Earlier issues mainly focused on Beijing’s military suppression of Uyghurs in East Turkestan, while in recent issues the TIP gives political assessments of the events in Syria and Iraq. In particular, the Turkestan Islamic Party condemns what they call the “crusade” of Western states led by the United States against Syria. In the lead article, NATO is called an “Alliance of Crusaders,” which weakens jihad with airstrikes. The TIP also accuses Russia and Iran of providing military support to Assad. The lead article states that “the Russian planes and tanks will not save the Alawite regime of Assad, as the Mujahideen in Sham will soon destroy it with the support of Allah.” The article concludes with an appeal to TIP fighters to support the people of Sham and remain steadfast on the path of jihad which it states is “specified by the Messenger of Allah.”

The magazine also continues its focus on the oppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Headlines include: “East Turkestan is seething under Chinese repression,” “History of the suffering of Muslims,” “China has adopted controversial laws on the fight against terrorism,” “Gushing wound of East Turkestan,” “Crimes of the Chinese Communist Regime,” “Save Turkestan until it is too late,” “Crying of silk scarves of Uyghur mothers,” and others. The last page of the magazine states that “the emancipation of East Turkestan from the Communist China is the duty of every Muslim of East Turkestan.” Articles include colorful photos of Islamic scholars, TIP fighters in Syria, and violent repression by the Chinese police.

Analysis of published materials shows substantial and thematic similarities between the TIP’s magazine and other periodicals issued by radical Islamist terrorist groups.

It should be noted that all videos, statements, and audio materials from TIP have been prepared and posted on the Internet by the group’s the official media center,“Islam Awazi,” which translates as the “Voice of Islam.” In particular, on July 22, 2016 the Turkestan Islamic Party distributed a video titled “My Desire,” which highlighted photos of Uyghur fighters in Syria and their struggle with the Chinese army in the city of Urumqi. Behind the scenes, a song states in the Uyghur language, “We want to live according to the canons of Shariah as true Muslims and to conduct holy war against infidels on earth.” Half a dozen similar videos were posted over recent months in addition to several songs and music videos.

TIP Turns Against ISIS

Among the many videos of “Islam Awazi,” the audio message of TIP Emir Abd al-Ḥaqq al-Turkistānī posted on May 28, 2016 deserves special attention. It shows that he is alive and still runs the Turkestan Islamic Party. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik previously stated that  al-Haqq was killed in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan on February 15, 2010, but the TIP never confirmed the death of its leader. After four years it was reported in the media that he was able to recover from his injuries.

In a new audio message, al-Haqq called Uyghurs “in any corner of the world, wherever they may be” to join jihad. According to  al-Haqq, “today they are making jihad in Sham, helping their brothers, and tomorrow the soldiers of Islam must be willing to return to China to emancipate the western province of Xinjiang from the communist invaders.”

However, he also condemned ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as “illegitimate.” In his opinion, “the proclamation of Caliphate [by ISIS] was equivalent to unripened crop harvesting, since it was established without the approval of the Islamic leaders and the Ummah” (the international community of Muslims). He argued that the Caliphate had to be established on the basis of Shariah, and not on a political basis. He condemned the brutal executions of ordinary Muslims by ISIS fighters and questioned the theological knowledge of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At the end of his messages al-Ḥaqq explained the ideological and religious reasons for the split between the Turkestan Islamic Party and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

In August 2015, Usman Ghazi, the IMU leader, took the oath of allegiance to ISIS emir al-Baghdadi, and cut ties with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Uzbek militants from Central Asia who split from the IMU, remaining faithful to al-Qaeda under the wing of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), swore allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new leader of the Taliban. In December 2015, following the “betrayal,” the Taliban fought against and defeated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Afghan province of Zabul. According to al-Ḥaqq, the IMU leader’s fatal error led to the collapse of the group. But its defeat was in the interest of the TIP, since the two organizations  who sought to create a caliphate in Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang were secretly competing with each other for influence.

Uyghurs in the Arms of Global Jihad

“Islam Awazi,” the TIP’s media center, publishes three to four videos monthly in the column, “A Call From the Front Lines of Jihad,” which report about the military “successes” of TIP fighters. Also, a monthly “Tourism of the Believers” video is produced which demonstrates the “peaceful” and “military” life of Uyghur fighters in Syria. There are regular columns titled “Lovers of Paradise,” “Blessings Are the Strangers,” “Go Forth Oh Mujāhid.” “Islam Awazi” also posts letters, orders, statements, messages, and greetings from TIP leadership in PDF format.

After careful analysis of the video, audio, and printed materials from “Islam Awazi” it can be concluded that almost all of them contain anti-China slogans as well as a call for jihad. Despite the transition of its main fighting force to Syria and its initiation within the global jihad, throughout the entire period of its existence the TIP has maintained a position against China specifically. All of its promotional materials raise the problem of Xinjiang and express concerns about the repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Turkestan Islamic Party attempts to appeal to traditionally painful issues for Uyghurs, such as the Chinese birth control policy, expansion of the Han in Xinjiang, and discrimination and persecution of Muslims by Beijing. There is a call for jihad at the end of each message, regardless of format.

The TIP attempts to legitimize its terrorist activities by invoking the name of Allah. “The fight with China is our duty to Allah,” says Abdullah Mansour, one of the Islamic ideologues of the party, who justifies his political objectives with theological rhetoric. According to Mansour’s logic, the armed struggle against China is not a political objective of the TIP; it is the will of Allah. TIP leaders argue for their two main objectives — the separation of Xinjiang from China and the establishment of the Islamic state of “East Turkestan” in its place — using verses of the Quran.

The ideology of the Turkestan Islamic Party has undergone a number of significant changes resulting from rapprochement with al-Qaeda in Waziristan (2001-2010) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria (2013-2016). In particular, the TIP has expanded the geographic reach of its interests and has strengthened links with radical Islamists from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Maghreb. Today, the TIP has become a serious contender in global jihad. As a result of the impact of transnational radical Islamic groups on the TIP, the doctrine of jihad has been permanently entrenched as the basis of the organization’s ideological platform. The TIP’s propaganda materials have acquired a pronounced jihadist hue. “Islam Awazi” has obviously adopted the style and form of presentation of other extremist groups in preparing its videos, particularly following the models of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The TIP has also successfully started to mimic the tactics of the Taliban while conducting terrorist attacks. Before 2003 the targets of TIP attacks were officials, police, and members of the Chinese security forces. After its integration with al-Qaeda, Uyghur fighters began carrying out attacks in crowded and busy areas. This has led to an increase in “the damaging effect” of attacks and an increasing number of victims. The terrorist attacks in 2013-2014 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Urumqi, and the attempt to hijack the aircraft Hotan-Urumqi indicate a change in targets and places for the attacks. Today ISIS-inspired radicals in Europe repeat the experience of TIP fighters, who massacred Han Chinese at stations in Kunming and Guangzhou using knives, axes, and machetes in 2014.

Ruse of the “Red Dragon”

The globalization of Uyghur jihadists from the Turkestan Islamic Party, along with their separatist ideology, have become major problems for China. Beijing’s repressive policies in Xinjiang have pushed some Uyghurs to move from nationalism into the arms of Islamic extremists. Demonstrated violence against the Uyghurs, violation of their human rights, and restrictions and prohibitions on Islamic practices contributed to the development of the terrorist threat. Beijing, with its aggressive policies in Xinjiang over the past 15 years, has strengthened the position of the TIP which, in turn, exacerbated the problem of Uyghur nationalism and separatism, which rose to join the ranks of global jihad. Leader of the ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has said that China is the target of the Islamists.

China pursues purely personal interests in the fight against ISIS. The Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec has made multimillion dollar investments to develop oil and gas fields in Iraqi Kurdistan. This provides Beijing with an opportunity to influence Turkey, which tacitly supports Uyghur separatists out of a sense of ethnic solidarity. China has not forgotten the statement of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that “Eastern Turkestan is not only the home of the Turkic peoples, but it is also the cradle of Turkic history, civilization, and culture. The martyrs of Eastern Turkestan are our own martyrs.”

However, as experience has shown, China takes a passive position in the struggle against global Islamic jihad in Syria and Iraq. Beijing has not sent its troops to the Middle East to fight ISIS and has instead confined itself to diplomatic support for Russia and the United States. The Chinese government uses the attacks of Islamic jihadists to persuade Western countries to support Beijing’s position on Xinjiang and turn a blind eye when the freedom and rights of Uyghurs are harshly suppressed by Chinese security forces. Therefore, China is not perceived by the West as a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism.

Uran Botobekov has a Ph.D. in political science and is an expert on political Islam.