Uyghur Militants in Eurasia a potential threat - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 29 Oct 2018 0 Comment

Uyghur Fighters in Syria


The restrictive measures undertaken by Beijing to undercut Uyghur militancy may have been triggered by reports of the Turkestan Islamic Party’s significant presence in Syria. There had been much speculation about the strength of the group. Of late, however, a number of reports claim the number to be close to 5,000. In December 2017, Russia’s Sputnik News quoted Syrian Ambassador to Beijing Imad Moustapha saying: “Our estimated numbers—because of the numbers we fight against, we kill, we capture, we wound—would be around 4,000-5,000 Xinjiang jihadists. China, as well as every other country, should be extremely concerned.”


In fact, often said to be high, that 5,000 number is less than half of what some others claim. Christina Lin of Asia Times, citing an unnamed reporter’s “undercover story” from Dubai-based Al Alan TV, reported in May 2017 that an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Chinese Uyghurs are living in Syria, concentrated especially in Idlib province’s towns of Zanbaq and Jisr al Shughour. (Chinese Uyghur colonies in Syria a challenge for Beijing: Christina Lin: Asia Times: May 21, 2017)


Christina Lin is not the only one who has reported this. At the time of this writing, as the battle for Idlib—the second one; the first was fought in 2012—began shaping up between Damascus and the rebels, the Syrian press was reporting the presence of thousands of jihadists in the province of Idlib who have formed a large colony of Uyghur ethnic Chinese in the province. Although the information has not been confirmed, one article noted that the Uyghurs installed there have transformed the town of Zanbaq, on the border with Turkey, into a real fortress. Little is known about what happens in that city, which no one has access to and where some 18,000 Uyghur people could be concentrated, including combatants and their families. (Syria: 18,000 Uyghurs in Zanbaq, Idlib Province: SECINDEF: Aug 20, 2018)


These developments are not a secret. China has exhibited its worries and has shown its willingness to take on the Uyghur terrorists on Syrian soil before they decide to sneak back to destabilize China’s XUAR region. On Aug. 1, the Middle East Media Monitoring Institute (MEMRI) reported a statement of Chinese Ambassador to Damascus Qi Qianjin to the pro-Assad regime daily Al-Watan: “The Chinese military would be willing to participate ‘in some way’ in the campaign in Idlib or in other parts of the country.” Ambassador Qi expressed his support for what he called Syria’s war against the terrorists and noted that there is cooperation between the Syrian and Chinese armies. The MEMRI report also quoted the Chinese military attaché in Syria, who said that the Chinese military wishes to enhance its relations with the Syrian military and expressed regret that Chinese Uyghurs are taking part in the fighting against the Assad regime.


In the same report, MEMRI also cited a similar statement to Al-Watan by the Chinese military attaché in Syria, Wong Roy Chang. When asked about “the possibility that China would participate in some way in the Idlib [military] operation, the attaché said: ‘The military cooperation between the Syrian and Chinese armies is ongoing. We have good relations, and we maintain this cooperation in order to serve the security, integrity and stability of our countries. We—China and its military—wish to develop our relations with the Syrian army. As for participating in the Idlib operation, it requires a political decision.’” (Chinese Ambassador To Syria: We Are Willing To Participate ‘In Some Way’ In The Battle For Idlib Alongside The Assad Army: MEMRI: Aug 1 2018)


How many troops China has already sent to operate in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not clear; what is evident is the Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) ongoing interaction with the Syrians. On Aug. 16, citing the Xinhua News Agency, the South China Morning Post reported the visit of a Chinese military delegation to Syria. It said the delegation was headed by Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of international cooperation at the Central Military Commission. He met with Syrian Vice Prime Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij and the Syrian Minister of Defense. “They reached consensus on enhancing personnel training, and Chinese military offering humanitarian aid to Syria,” said Xinhua. Al-Freij thanked the Chinese government, as well as the Chinese military, which stated, via Admiral Guan, that the Chinese PLA is willing to continue cooperation with the Syrian military. (Chinese military to provide ‘aid and training assistance’ to Syrian government: Liu Zhen: South China Morning Post: Aug. 16 2018)


Another report, this one in 2017 from Middle East Eye, pointed out that China had sent 300 military advisers to Damascus in April 2016 with the stated aim of providing medical and engineering training for the Syrian military. Over the course of last year, the Syrian military also hosted several Chinese military delegations as China stepped up its aid to Syria. (The Dragon and the Lion: China’s growing ties with Syria: Kamal Alam: Middle East Eye: Aug 2 2017)


The Chinese aim to help quash the Uyghur fighting groups, who have received firsthand training in fighting in Syria, also stems from the fact that the Uyghur groups, under the banners of TIP and ETIM and linked to al-Qaeda, have issued threats to China. Joseph Hope, writing in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief recently, cited an ISIS video from early 2017 depicting a group of Uyghurs issuing threats to China before ending with an Uyghur fighter executing a prisoner, while another Uyghur states, “We didn’t care how the fighting went or who Assad was. … We just wanted to learn how to use the weapons and then go back to China.”


Hope wrote: “Notably, Malhama Tactical, a for-profit jihadist military training group, also made a threat against China in early 2017 and claimed to have added Chinese nationals to its instructor ranks. Importantly, the group is known to operate in Idlib, where there may be a large Uyghur population, and has trained numerous TIP fighters. While the group itself does not carry out terror attacks, it is providing training to Uyghur fighters and apparently marketing itself somewhat to Uyghurs in Xinjiang. While actual figures on fighters returning to Xinjiang are likely withheld from the media, Jacques Neriah of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs claims that the Chinese government has arrested around 100 returning fighters as of the end of 2017.” Moreover, the number of returning fighters intercepted at the Chinese border reportedly increased ‘tenfold’ in 2017, according to Ji Zhiye of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, although the actual number of arrests was withheld. (Returning Uighur Fighters and China’s National Security Dilemma: Joseph Hope: Jamestown Foundation:  China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 13: July 25, 2018)


According to Christina Lin, Beijing first noticed Chinese Uyghurs travelling to Syria for jihad in 2012. In October 2012, Major-General Jin Yinan of the People’s Liberation Army’s National Defense University disclosed that Chinese militants belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement/Turkistan Islamic Party were joining anti-government rebels in Syria, with then-Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei issuing a stern warning that these militants “seriously harm China’s national security” as well as regional peace and stability.


The Turkish Angle


Because the Uyghurs belong to the Turkic stock, Turkey has repeatedly expressed its views on the Chinese handling of its Uyghur citizens in XUAR over the years. While this has created some bad blood between China and Turkey, the two countries’ economic cooperation, particularly on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has kept the issue from getting out of hand. Solidarity with the Uyghur struggle against Chinese assimilation has long been a part of domestic Turkish politics. And that explains the large number of Uyghurs in Turkey, estimated at some 50,000 people. In 2015, after reports came out that Chinese authorities had banned fasting during the Islamic holy days of Ramadan, demonstrations took place in Istanbul and Chinese flags were burnt in front of the Chinese Embassy. China issued a notice urging Chinese tourists to avoid visiting Turkey.


In July 2015, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China, the issue of Chinese “repressive measures” against the Uyghurs was very much on the table. Erdogan had repeatedly accused China of systematic oppression against the Uyghurs, who share close linguistic, cultural and religious ties with Turks. The president had previously accused Beijing of “genocide” in the region. Though China-Turkey relations have improved significantly since 2015, Beijing will nonetheless have to acknowledge that it would receive little or no support from Ankara in its efforts to eliminate the TIP and ETIM fighters based in Idlib.


From Syria to Eurasia


It is evident that the growing Chinese support to Syria is not meant simply to protect the al-Assad regime, but is aimed at eradication of a potential threat to China’s internal stability. The fear in Beijing is that once the war in Syria comes to an end, the experienced TIP and ETIM fighters in Syria will move over to Eurasia. There, the fear is that they will join hands with other terrorist groups to stir up trouble in China’s XUAR and also work toward undermining China’s prime foreign and economic policy instrument in that region—the BRI. How credible is such a fear?


There have been some reports of Uyghur fighters returning to Xinjiang from Syria. According to a July 2014 report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), analyst Jacques Neriah said he believes that there are “1,000 Chinese jihadists” being trained at a base in Pakistan, and that thousands more have joined the fighting in Syria. JCPA Director Dore Gold (who is also a special foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) warned China that these fighters abroad will pose “certain risks” when they return to China.


Again, in January 2018, the South China Morning Post reported a rising tide of Uyghur terrorists arriving in West China. Reporting on an international relations forum in Beijing in December 2017, the Post cited Ji Zhiye, head of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, saying that China faces a “prominent” risk of terror attack. “The number of jihadists captured on China’s borders [in 2017] was more than tenfold the number of the previous year,” Ji said. Ji’s estimates were echoed by Li Shaoxian, director of the China-Arab Research Institute at Ningxia University. Li told a forum at Renmin University on Jan. 6 that Xinjiang was facing “severe” terrorist threats. (Rising tide of jihadists stopped trying to return to China, Chinese advisers say: Wendy Wu: South China Morning Post: Jan 8, 2018)


Since neither Ji Zhiye nor Li Shaoxian provided details, it is difficult to assess the extent of the threat. Moreover, the lack of transparency in China’s internal policies vis-à-vis XUAR, in particular, makes any kind of assertion dubious. It is likely that China’s expressed fear about the TIP and ETIM fighters’ return to XUAR to rev up terrorist activities could also be a justification to clamp down further in Xinjiang and launch its “re-education” programs.


Michael Clarke, an associate professor at the National Security College of The Australian National University, expressed that view recently. “Domestically, Beijing has used the threat of terrorism to justify the development of a well-documented high-tech ‘security state’ in Xinjiang, in parallel with an intensification of a ‘people’s war’ against ‘terrorism’ featuring the heightened presence of security forces and intense controls on Uyghur religious and cultural practice,” Clarke stated, adding: “Increasingly, the state appears to be framing Uyghur identity itself as an almost biological threat to the health of Chinese society, with government officials variously describing Uyghur ‘terrorism’ as a ‘tumor’ to be eradicated and Islamic observance as akin to drug addiction.” This is borne out by details of what occurs in Xinjiang’s “transformation through re-education” centers, where detainees undergo enforced indoctrination, including singing of patriotic “red songs,” “study sessions” on Xi Jinping Thought, Chinese language, Chinese law and the dangers of Islam, and “self-criticism” sessions. (China is using terrorist threats to culturally cleanse its west: Michael Clarke: June 20, 2018: ANU College of Asia and Pacific)


At the same time, it is likely that the “securitization” of the XUAR may not prevent the Uyghur terrorists from operating in Eurasia. In early February, U.S. forces conducted airstrikes in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan, in the Wakhan Corridor, supposedly targeting support structures of the ETIM. Questioning the veracity of the U.S. assertion, the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) pointed out in March that according to their Afghan sources in Badakhshan, there were around 250 foreign fighters and 60 noncombatant family members of such fighters in the province, almost all of them in Warduj and Jurm districts, where the latest airstrikes took place. Most of these foreign fighters were apparently from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but Uyghurs were said to be among them. A former United Nations employee stated that, as of the end of 2016, between 50 and 100 Uyghur extremists were residing in Afghanistan or nearby Pakistani areas. Roughly 75 percent of those Uyghurs were believed to be in Chitral or neighboring Badakhshan. This source estimated that there are currently about 70 to 80 Uyghur fighters in Badakhshan itself. (Tilting at Windmills: Dubious U.S. claims of targeting Chinese Uyghur militants in Badakhshan: Ted Callahan and Franz J. Marty: AAN: March 19, 2018)


Notwithstanding AAN’s skepticism regarding the U.S. claim, there are many reports that indicate China has in fact been keeping a close watch over that little sliver of Afghan land connecting Afghanistan to Xinjiang called the Wakhan corridor. In 2014, Estonian political science student and China expert Kristina Ainuvee, who was then working at the Chinese Embassy in Tallinn, wrote: “There are several reasons for China’s active involvement, one of them being drug flow into China from Afghanistan that brings along the spread of radicalism into China’s most rebellious province—Xinjiang. The so-called Wakhan corridor is a gateway for heroin from Afghanistan to mainland China through rebellious Xinjiang province. The separatist movement in Xinjiang has ethnic roots, since the main actors in this movement are Uyghur Muslims. They demand secession from the People’s Republic of China and the creation of an independent Uyghuristan or Eastern Turkistan on the basis of a relatively large part of China. The internal conflict is aggravated by the Muslim funding and training from abroad. Moreover, it is suspected that neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan play a key role in destabilizing China’s internal security by supporting local separatists.” (The Role of Afghanistan in the Uighur Separatist Movement: Why the People’s Republic of China should take over NATO after 2014: Kristina Ainuvee: IAPSS: Political Science Journal: Vol 26 2014)


Chinese Presence in Little Pamir?


There is also evidence that China was aware that the Uyghur militants had developed links with al-Qaeda as early as the 1990s. According to Human Rights Watch in 2005, “China claimed that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan had provided the ‘Eastern Turkestan’ terrorist organizations with equipment and financial resources and trained their personnel, and that one particular organization, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was a major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.” In other words, China realized long ago that the Uyghur militancy was no longer confined within XUAR but had become a part of an international terrorist organization.


Although both China and Afghan officials categorically deny the presence of any Chinese military personnel on Afghan soil, there is overwhelming evidence of joint patrols by Afghan and Chinese troops in the Little Pamir, a high plateau near the Afghan-China border, according to Franz J. Marty in a Feb. 3, 2017, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst article, “The Curious Case of Chinese Troops on Afghan Soil.” Marty wrote: “The overwhelming evidence leaves virtually no doubt that patrols involving Chinese vehicles and troops were indeed conducted, one can only speculate about the reasons for the Afghan denial. One possibility could be that the central government in Kabul was not aware of what happened in the very remote Little Pamir or that certain Afghan officials (local, regional or national) knew about the patrols, and maybe even gave permission to the Chinese side, but did not properly notify other responsible Afghan authorities.”


Beside the joint patrol by the Afghan and Chinese troops to prevent Uyghur militants moving into Xinjiang, there had been reports saying China is planning to set up a military base in Badakhshan. This report has been denied more than once by both Beijing and Kabul. Nonetheless, writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., and citing the Fergana News Agency, Paul Goble stated: “In January 2018, Afghan General Davlat Vaziri told the Fergana News Agency that Afghanistan’s armed forces were going to establish a new military base in the northern province of Badakhshan, which was made possible thanks to Beijing agreeing to finance and supply the entire project (, Jan. 3). The accord was reached when (acting) Afghan Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami visited the Chinese capital at the end of last year.” (What Is China’s Military Doing on the Afghan-Tajik Border?: Paul Goble: Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 15 Issue: 20: February 8, 2018)


Although reports of setting up military bases have been denied by Beijing, it is a fact that Bahrami visited Beijing. Goble wrote that Bahrami’s “representatives said in Kabul, on January 2, that China had ‘agreed on the construction of a military base in the northern province of Badakhshan.’ Finally, Fergana notes, the Afghan defense ministry press office said at the time that China had agreed to assume all costs for the arming and equipping of Afghan soldiers at the new base. But now that China has disavowed any such agreement or commitment, Kabul finds itself in a difficult position; and both Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan appear worried about just what is likely to happen next (, February 6).” Goble concluded that perhaps because Washington does not want to see a Chinese base in Badakhshan, China is denying plans to build one.


However, China has reason to be worried. According to Goble, who cited unnamed Afghan officials: “Uyghurs in northern Afghanistan have developed close ties with their co-ethnics in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; and having learned of those connections, the Chinese decided they needed a military presence to block an Uyghur resurgence in the countries of Central Asia and in China’s Xinjiang Province.”


Another incident of Uyghur unrest in Central Asia was the suicide bomb attack in front of the Chinese Embassy at Bishkek. The suicide bomber whose car rammed the gates of the embassy on Aug. 30, 2016, was an ethnic Uyghur who held a Tajik passport in the name of Zoir Khalilov, the Kyrgyz security service, GKNB, said in a statement. “The investigation established that the terrorist act was ordered by Uyghur terrorist groups active in Syria and affiliated to the terrorist organization the Nusra Front whose emissaries ... financed the terrorist action,” the GKNB said. (Kyrgyzstan says Uighur militant groups behind attack on China’s embassy: Olga Dzyubenko: Reuters: Sept. 6, 2016)




Despite all the evidence of Uyghur militants’ presence in Syria and likely migration of those fighters to various hiding places in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation is most likely not as grave as Chinese officials portray it. It is nonetheless the case that these militants, at least some of them, are receiving training across the border in Pakistan and are building a capability to conduct terrorist acts within China—and thus constitute an implicit threat to Beijing.


An important factor in whether or not this threat materializes is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is more vibrant now than ever before having included both India and Pakistan as full members. China is the top gun in the organization, sharing authority with Russia. SCO is beginning to emerge as a potential security-provider for Eurasia. Along with all of the SCO members, both China and Russia are keen to stabilize the Eurasian region for both security and economic reasons. Under the circumstances, with all the regional countries pitching in to secure the region and the might of Russia and China backing such an effort, it is highly unlikely that a few hundred, or a few thousand, Uyghur militants will be able to destabilize the area.


The threat does exist; the Uyghur militants, by aligning themselves with al-Qaeda, have made clear their intention to project themselves as an arm of the international Islamic Jihad. Other than China, Russia and India, all SCO members are Muslim-majority nations. Most Central Asian nations practice a type of moderate Islam, heavily based on Sufism. Nonetheless, it is possible that the Uyghur militants, carrying their Islamic flag, could garner covert financial and arms support from wealthy Islamic countries and from wealthy individuals who for their own convoluted reasons would back the Uyghur militancy. That possibility should not be overlooked. Should such a possibility get coupled with the determination of a few thousand trained fighters, it could turn into a real threat.



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