According to military reports, the Islamic State (ISIS) and armed groups associated with al-Qaeda have been suffering heavy losses in Syria and Iraq since early 2017. On March 1, Syrian government troops backed by Russian air support liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS. Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and Arab Sunni tribes backed by U.S. air support actively attacked Mosul. The combined forces have taken back Mosul International Airport and liberated western Mosul from control of the Islamic State, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve said. The U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria have begun attacking Raqqa, which is the main stronghold of the Caliphate. The Islamic State’s losses are increasing every day.
Meanwhile, on February 20, an al-Qaeda deputy, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Idlib province in Syria. He had been a member of the group’s secretive Shura Council since its formation in the late 1980s and a close confidante of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,
Despite significant losses on the battlefield, ISIS and al-Qaeda are intensifying propaganda activities in the virtual world. Last month, both groups released media targeting China specifically.
One of the first videos was prepared by the Islamic State on February 25, 2017. The video was published on the ISIS website, Furat Media, which was designed mainly to target citizens of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The second video, published on February 27, was prepared by the Turkestan Islamic Party.
TIP is a militant Uyghur separatist group that has always focused its attentions on China. However, the group has recently increased its ties to al-Qaeda. Thus, the final days of February 2017 saw both ISIS and a group affiliated with al-Qaeda target China specifically. Given that both have carried out devastating terrorist attacks, it’s reasonable to say that Beijing needs to take the Islamists’ threats seriously.
In order to clearly distinguish between the common positions and the specific differences between the Islamic State and TIP’s views on China, we will try to briefly analyze the content of these two videos. It must be noted that these two groups have similar strategies of jihad against Beijing and anti-Chinese propaganda tactics. The main characters in both videos are Uyghur militants fighting under the auspices of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq. Both videos feature calls to the Muslim world to wage jihad against the kafirs (non-believers) of China and to perform acts of revenge for the deaths of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The 30-minute video prepared by the Islamic State starts with a narrative about the daily lives of the Chinese Uyghurs in the Caliphate, their namaz (prayer rituals) and combat workouts. Then it cuts to footage of the detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by the Chinese state, images of violent torture in prisons, and escape to the Islamic State. The authors inserted an excerpt of a speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from July 2014, when he broadly declared the Caliphate to include parts of China. Next, a bearded Uyghur militant wearing camouflage and surrounded by jihadists speaks in Uyghur promising to wage a “holy war” to the bitter end until sharia law has been spread throughout the world. He recites poetry in Uyghur and swears loyalty and love to al-Baghdadi.
The video has a separate section where Uyghur children demonstrate good knowledge of the Quran and martial arts. A militant teacher with his head covered stands in front of the children and says, “Today we are fighting against kafirs all around the world. Soon the black flag of Tawhid (Unity of Allah) will be hanging in the capital cities of the United States, Russia, and China.”
Then the same bearded militant wearing camouflage appears on the screen and addresses the authorities of Beijing, “Oh, you Chinese, who do not understand what people say! We are the soldiers of Allah, will make you understand Islam with the tongues of our weapons. We will come to you to shed blood like rivers and avenge the oppressed.” After that, he brutally decapitates a prisoner dressed in red, who is hanging upside down.
It should be noted that a specific peculiarity of ISIS propaganda materials, in contrast to al-Qaeda, is the abundance of violent scenes, public murders, and executions. In another episode of the ISIS video a Uyghur boy aged 8 or 9 executes a prisoner with a gun and threatens China by saying that every kafir would share the same fate.
Unlike the ISIS video, the Turkestan Islamic Party’s video has no scenes of violent execution. Al-Qaeda has denounced the decapitation of hostages, a tactic used widely by ISIS. The information center of the TIP, Islam Avazi, has never decapitated Chinese hostages as propaganda.
Interestingly, the video prepared by ISIS takes aim both at China and at the TIP. The video shows one of the Uyghur militants criticizing the affiliation of Uyghur compatriots in the Turkestan Islamic Party with the new rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. He calls these Uyghur fighters murtadd, betrayers of Islam. Some al-Qaeda affiliates are known to have established a new armed alliance of Sunni jihadists, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) in late January in Syria at the initiative of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Analyzing this event in The Diplomat, I argued that the conflict between ISIS and al-Qaeda may lead to the fratricidal war between the Uyghurs standing behind opposing Islamist groups.
However, the new jihad against Beijing unites the two rival Islamist factions. The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has labeled China an enemy. Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, has also threatened China by stretching the boundaries of the Islamic Caliphate from Morocco to Xinjiang. The leader of the TIP, Abdul Haq, said that “China is not only our enemy, but also the enemy of all the Muslims. Therefore, the fight against China is our Muslim responsibility and we will discharge it.”
Beijing has responded to these videos through Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang, who said at a press conference on March 1 that he has not seen the video, yet noted that “East Turkestan terrorist forces pose a grave threat on security and stability of China and the region. We will work with the international community in jointly fighting East Turkestan terrorist forces.”
According to the Shanghaiist, the authorities of China held a large-scale military parade in Urumqi on February 28 with 10,000 armed police officers in order to intimidate Uyghur terrorists and separatists. At the rally, Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary, urged the assembled ranks of armed police to realize “the grim conditions” facing the region’s security. “Bury the corpses of terrorists and terror gangs in the vast sea of the people’s war,” Chen said. According to the South China Morning Post, China is planning to increase its military budget by 7 percent this year and it will exceed $144 billion. Much of this increase is expect to be allocated to combat Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang.
The production of anti-Chinese propaganda and the announcement of jihad against Beijing are not random events, but reflect both groups’ operational aims and present circumstances. First, ISIS and al-Qaeda want to divert the attention of new recruits away from military defeats faced recently in Syria and Iraq. Second, the burst of Islamist propaganda is intended to attract new militants from the Uyghur population of Xinjiang and Central Asia. Third, the leaders of global jihadist movements are likely to want to relocate the center of the conflict area closer to China, Central Asia, and Afghanistan after the downfall of the Islamic State in the Middle East. To accomplish all of these tasks, serious ideological training and propaganda among jihadists is required. These videos are evidence of that process underway.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.