Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide: Whither Jihadism in China?

Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide: Whither Jihadism in China?

Publication: China Brief

By: Jacob Zenn

The Jamestown Foundation

Introduction—Ethnic Conflict in Xinjiang and the Government’s Response

Over the past year, political re-education camps in the western Xinjiang Province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have attracted much international attention due to allegations that hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims are being detained in the camps. This is being done with intent to assimilate the Uighurs into the dominant Han culture and to make them loyalists of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but is conducted under the guise of additionally providing them with vocational education (Lowy Institute, May 25, 2018; China Brief, May 15, 2018). The Chinese government’s defense of the camps is that they serve the interests of “anti-terrorism” (fankong, 反恐) and “de-extremification” (qu jiduanhua, 去极端化). China also claims that these camps help to defend the Uighur population from the “harms of terrorism” (People’s Daily, March 19).

The creation of the Xinjiang camp system began a few years after major clashes took place in June 2009 between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest city—an outbreak of violence that led to several hundred deaths (Renmin Wang, March 18). Those clashes were followed by a subsequent campaign of attacks by Uighurs militants on typical terrorist targets (such as train stations and markets) mostly in Xinjiang, but also cities elsewhere in China—including an incident at Tiananmen Square in October 2013 (Sydney Morning Herald, November 26, 2013). PRC authorities put much of Xinjiang under virtual martial law after June 2009, cutting off the Internet for over a year and establishing ubiquitous police posts throughout Urumqi and other cities. In particular, PRC commentators cite the June 2009 clashes and the 2014 assassination-by-stabbing of Juma Tahir (the head imam of Kashgar’s famous Id Kah mosque) as key motivators for the government’s “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremification” measures (Renmin Wang, March 18).

The tactics of the attackers after June 2009 were generally unsophisticated, to include car rammings, knife-stabbings, and small-scale bombings. This was true even when the death tolls in some attacks ran into the several dozens—such as in a train station knife-stabbing incident in Kunming in March 2014, and a market car-ramming and bombing in Urumqi two months later in May 2014. Though the attacks were not necessarily orchestrated by the main Uighur jihadist group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), it was still the TIP that claimed responsibility or otherwise praised them (China Brief, January 25, 2016; China Brief, May 23, 2014; China Brief, March 6 2014).

The Jihadist Movement in Western China from 2009-2014

Until 2013, the TIP’s several hundred fighters were nominally active in Afghanistan (or the border region with Pakistan) and formally allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, the group became best known for serving as the mouthpiece for Uighur jihadism in the PRC through its high-quality videos and publications—a media campaign that began with threats to disrupt the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and grew  in the year after the June 2009 clashes (Terrorism Monitor, March 17, 2011). Profiles of Uighurs involved in violent incidents after the June 2009 events in Xinjiang indicated that, in general, they had consumed some Islamist or jihadist literature. However, they were also seeking vengeance for social grievances, such as the inability to build mosques in Xinjiang, or to emigrate from China to other countries such as Turkey (China Brief; September 10, 2014, Qz.com, November 7, 2013). There were also broader structural factors involved, such as grievances over Xinjiang’s shift in character from a Uighur-dominant culture to a Han-dominant culture—the result of continued mass migration into Xinjiang by ethnic Hans, and the Communist Party’s encouragement of Uighur out-migration from Xinjiang to other parts of China for work.

The Syrian war, which commenced in 2011, may have further exacerbated Uighur militancy: it both attracted Uighurs travelling to Syria to fight, and also coincided with an escalation of attacks in Xinjiang. The TIP, for its part, relocated from Afghanistan to Syria in 2013 (China Brief, October 10, 2014). PRC authorities, in response, began to further monitor Uighurs in China and their travel because of concerns that Uighur “foreign fighters” would return to Xinjiang to launch attacks, or organize attacks in other regions of China—similar to the ways in which some European citizens have engaged in terrorism after returning from Syria to their home countries. Therefore, even though the concept of “re-education through labor” has decades-long roots in the PRC, it was the series of events between 2009 and 2014—the June 2009 clashes, the Syrian war, the sporadic terrorist attacks ranging from Kunming to Beijing, and the assassination of Juma Tahir—that provided the context behind Beijing’s ultimate decision around 2014 to set up the vast network of political re-education camps in Xinjiang (China Brief, May 15, 2018).

In the years since 2014, Uighur militancy in China has come to a gradual halt. The last known significant terrorist attack in the PRC occurred in December 2016, when four people in a car detonated explosives at a CCP headquarters building in Xinjiang; the four people in the car were shot dead, and one other person was killed in the explosion (The Guardian, December 29, 2016). From the perspective of the authorities, the political re-education camps, the mass monitoring of Uighurs, and other security measures have therefore been effective. This has made the TIP not only less relevant in its bases far away from China’s borders in Syria, but also has left the group literally calling for help from the global jihadist community out of desperation for its circumstances.

The Struggles of the Turkistan Islamic Party

Since relocating to Syria, the TIP has been allied with al-Qaeda-aligned militants in the northwest of the country. According to the Syrian government, the TIP most recently has been operating near a village called al-Mashri in the eastern Sahl al-Ghab plains of Hama, where it has attacked Syrian Army checkpoints (Al-Watan, April 8). In 2018, the TIP also claimed attacks in al-Mushrafiya in the southern Idlib countryside, indicating that the group’s operations extend well beyond Hama. The location of al-Mushrafiya, which straddles the border with Turkey, also suggests that some TIP militants (and their family members) move back-and-forth between Syria and Turkey, and that they may receive some support from Turkish intelligence and security agencies (Terrorism Monitor, September 7, 2018).

Notwithstanding the TIP’s role in the fighting in Syria and its probable havens in Turkey, one mission has been consistent for the group since it first arrived in Syria in 2013: promoting the narrative that Uighur jihadists’ support to the Syrians should be reciprocated by other jihadists’ support to the TIP’s struggle in Xinjiang (which it refers to as “East Turkistan”) (Islamic Turkistan, August 17, 2013). This was the main point of TIP members in a January 23, 2019 video of eight of their fighters in Syria, who claimed that:

  • “We are preparing at the religious and military levels to come rescue you [the Uighurs of Xinjiang] from this atheist government;”
  • It is important to “acquire the agreement and support of the suffering people” in Syria so that “our jihad can continue until we liberate Turkistan, in sha Allah, and free our oppressed brothers from China;” and
  • “Uighur men in Europe and other countries” should “return to their faith and jihad.” [1]

To further convey its support for the largest al-Qaeda-aligned group in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), on February 5th Abu Umar al-Turkistani, the TIP’s “general amir,” was one of the signatories of a document declaring “solidarity” with HTS. [2] This further demonstrated the TIP’s desire to be seen as standing with al-Qaeda in the hopes that other al-Qaeda supporters would do the same for the TIP. (Other signatories were from Uzbekistan, the Caucasus, Albania, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, the Maldives, and Gaza.) Following this, in March 2019 Abdul Haq al-Turkistani—the overall leader of TIP, and arguably the longest-standing Uighur jihadist, who first fled to Afghanistan around 1997—was featured in another audio statement produced by the TIP’s media wing, Islom Awazi. In the audio, al-Turkistani lamented:

  • The Islamic world’s “suspicious silence towards a population that is being exterminated” [in Xinjiang];
  • The “secret jails” for Uighurs in Xinjiang;
  • The ignorance of Muslims (including Muslim scholars) regarding the status of Muslims in China, and Muslims’ “abandoning us in these trying times;” and
  • That Chinese rule in Xinjiang was the same as the Israeli occupation of Palestine. [3]

Clearly, al-Turkistani was also directing his speech to al-Qaeda leaders, since in the online advertisement banner of the speech there were images of various al-Qaeda leaders, including Aymenn al-Zawahiri. The audio prompted a response in March 2019 from one of the leading al-Qaeda clerics in Syria, Abdullah al-Muhyasini, who advocated for a one-week social media campaign called “I Support East Turkistan.” In April 2019, the “al-Qaeda General Command” also declared in a statement posted online that it is “obligatory to help our oppressed believers and brothers… in the Turkistan Islamic Party, led by the mujahid Shaykh Abdul Haq al-Turkistani (alsahabmedia.net, April 4).”

However, these statements seemed to mirror the proverbial “hashtag campaigns” encountered in Western social media, wherein activists tweet support for a cause but engage in few practical or long-term steps to actually do anything about the problem. Moreover, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani’s audio seemed to emerge as the result of a spate of mostly Western reports condemning Chinese policies in Xinjiang, and not voices from Muslim countries or even jihadists themselves. Little evidence exists, however, that al-Qaeda is willing or able to orchestrate attacks in China, or to help the TIP to do so; al-Qaeda as an organization has other priorities, and presumably little room to operate in Xinjiang considering the PRC’s control and monitoring of borders, social media, and virtually all communications within the region.

Future Prospects for Uighur Militancy

It is not only al-Qaeda, or other actors within the global jihadist movement, whose support to the Uighurs has come across as insufficient (or as merely rhetoric, with no action). This is also true for major geopolitical actors, including Muslim governments: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, for example, dismissed the political re-education camp issue altogether when he said in a January 2019 interview that he “did not know much” about it (Tribune (Pakistan), January 8, 2019). Another neighbor, Kazakhstan, has accepted some Uighurs in the country as asylum-seekers, but the PRC has publicly acknowledged Kazakhstan’s “support” for its policies in Xinjiang (PRC Foreign Ministry, March 28). Even the Taliban, which has historically hosted Uighur jihadists, has failed to support the TIP: the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan, its Islamo-nationalistic ideology, its focus on Afghanistan, and its disinterest in provoking Beijing has meant that it has generally sought to restrain the TIP. Moreover, the TIP is no longer as close to the Taliban as in previous years because of its relocation to Syria. Turkey may now be the most important state actor for the TIP; however, while Turkey facilitates the TIP’s fight in Syria and Turkish leaders have occasionally voiced support for the Uighur cause and allowed Uighurs to organize anti-China protests in the country, there is little evidence that Turkey supports militants in Xinjiang or anywhere else within the PRC itself.

Much of the international support for the Uighur cause comes not from Muslim countries who rely on China for economic or diplomatic reasons, but rather from governments and organizations in the West. However, PRC spokespeople and media have been quick to dismiss any criticisms from the West, noting the West’s own struggles—and, in many cases, failures—to prevent terrorism. The state-controlled Global Times, for example, published an editorial after the March 2019 terrorist attack in New Zealand stating that “migrants, especially Muslims, cannot integrate into Western society… the living standards of Western lower-class white people have declined in recent years… [and] the West currently lacks the conditions to duly reflect” on terrorism or to develop “long-term solutions” (Global Times, March 17). At the same time, the fact that terrorist attacks have decreased, or ceased altogether, in the last few years in China has evidently given the PRC confidence to continue its policies regardless of what Western governments and media might say.

On the one hand, the reduction of terrorist attacks in China could lead one to expect that PRC authorities would scale back the “political re-education” program to avoid international criticism. The terrorism problem it was intended to solve, after all, is perhaps no longer such a big problem. On the other hand, the apparent “success” of the policy may lead Beijing to believe that the policy should not be stopped; but rather, that  aspects of it should be expanded to other regions of China that may experience ethnic or other forms of unrest. The lack of any indications that the camps are being curtailed in Xinjiang suggests that the latter course is more likely.

Jacob Zenn is an adjunct professor on Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program (SSP), and is a fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation. He has written on international law and security for Jamestown’s Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, Militant Leadership Monitor, and Eurasia Daily Monitor; Jane’s Intelligence Review-China Watch; and many other publications.

Notes

[1] Video titled “Advice of Fathers,” posted on Telegram on January 23, 2019.

[2] Document posted by (@f_13l) on Twitter on February 6, 2019.

[3] Audio released on the Islom Awazi Telegram channel on March 18, 2019.

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Photo source: Police stop and frisk citizens on an unidentified street in Xinjiang. (Source: BBC) was uploaded in the original article by The Jamestown Foundation

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