By Giorgio Cafiero
30 January 2018
In recent years, jihadists born in dozens of countries worldwide from Albania to Zimbabwe have joined extremist groups operating in the Levant. Since ISIS lost its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa last year, security apparatuses across several continents have been deeply concerned about the threat of their own citizens, who became further radicalized, highly-trained, disciplined, and battle-hardened in Iraq and Syria, returning home to wage terrorism.
China is a case in point. As of May 2017, 4,000-5,000 radicalized Uyghurs from China’s north-western Xinjiang Province, where the country’s Turkic-speaking Muslim minority is concentrated, had entered the ranks of ISIS and other extremist entities in Syria, according to Damascus’ ambassador to Beijing. These Uighur fighters, who came to Syria via Turkey and Southeast Asia, have engaged in direct combat with the Syrian Arab Army amid decisive battles throughout the conflict.
The dominant Uighur faction involved in the Syrian crisis has been the al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Movement (TIP). In Syria, the TIP had joined the umbrella of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formally known as al-Nusra Front, yet the hard-line Uighur jihadist faction’s agenda in Syria has always been about more than just overthrowing Assad. The TIP has fought in Syria to gain greater recognition among global jihadist networks, raise international awareness about the Uighurs’ grievances in Xinjiang, and send a message to authorities in Beijing about the its strength as a fighting force.
With a growing number of Uyghurs flowing into Syria to join the ranks of extremist forces, jihadists on the ground have sought to capitalize on China’s growing oppression of Uighur/Islamic identity in Xinjiang. ISIS’ publications in the media have included Uighur-language editions and the TIP has released many propaganda videos from Syria vowing to spill blood in China. Laws in Xinjiang that restrict Uyghurs’ right to practice their religion and preserve their culture such as the ban on “abnormal” beards and veils have fed into the jihadists’ anti-China narratives.
Protecting China’s Eurasian Frontier
At this juncture, officials in Beijing are increasingly alarmed by the potential for such militant Uyghurs to make good on their threats to bring their violence from the Syrian battlefields back to north-western China. In recent years, militant Uyghurs have attacked police and civilians in China, as well as Chinese diplomats in Kyrgyzstan and tourists in Thailand. Such deadly acts of terrorism have involved bombs and knives.
At the heart of Beijing’s main concerns about China’s jihadist crisis is the reality that terror and unrest in the northwest significantly threatens the country’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative that aims to establish China as the centre of global trade in the 21st century. As OBOR relies on Xinjiang as a corridor linking eastern China to Central Asia and, by extension, Europe, China has sought to protect its Eurasian frontier from terror threats with a security-centred strategy.
The Chinese will build a “Great Wall” in Xinjiang to fortress the restive province from militants in neighbouring countries, according to a January 23 state-run media report. By tightening the screws on political, social, and cultural practices in Xinjiang, encouraging Hanifaction, and pushing an economic modernization program, Chinese authorities are determined to weaken Uighur aspirations for independence and/or greater autonomy in the northwest. In practice such policies, while responsible for fuelling economic growth in Xinjiang throughout the 21st century, have also displaced Uyghurs in large numbers and contributed to grievances stemming from “aggressive attempts to assimilate Uyghurs into Han culture” via educational institutions and work programs.
Regardless of the debate over the extent to which Uighur violence is more an outcome of legitimate grievances or a nihilistic and radical ideology, the growing crackdown in Xinjiang risks reinforcing rebellious attitudes toward the Chinese Community Party that Uyghurs have held for decades. Jihadist factions in Xinjiang and beyond have exploited such perceptions of oppression and human rights abuses to radicalize more marginalized Muslims in north-western China. Such trans-regional terrorists will continue to do so as Beijing’s “security state” in Xinjiang imposes further restrictions on Uighur life.
Simultaneously, with conflicts raging on in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere throughout Greater Central Asia and the Middle East that have lured jihadist Uyghurs from Xinjiang, China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis these regions will become increasingly intertwined with Beijing’s quest to promote OBOR’s spirit of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness” in China’s north-western frontier.
In late 2015, China signalled it was considering deploying the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police outside of the country to conduct counter-terrorism operations, highlighting Beijing’s growing unease about threats posed to Chinese interests abroad by militant Uyghurs. Odds are good that China will conduct a more assertive foreign policy in Greater Central Asia and the Arab world aimed at countering jihadist menaces involving Uyghurs. Whereas China’s non-intervention and economic-centred approach to international affairs largely limited Beijing’s hand in such regions’ security environments in the past, menaces in Xinjiang will likely shift China’s foreign policy in a new direction based on rising levels of interest in coordinating counter-terrorism efforts with allies in the Muslim world’s conflict areas.
Giorgio Francesco Cafiero is an analyst of Gulf Cooperation Council geopolitics and CEO and co-founder of Washington DC-based Gulf State Analytics. He has four years of experience publishing articles on the Middle East (Al Monitor, Middle East Policy Council, Atlantic Council, Middle East Institute, LobeLog, and The National Interest). Cafiero also has two years of experience at corporate due diligence consultancy.