Abu Zar al-Burmi: Jihadi Cleric and Anti-China Firebrand
By Lucas Webber
(Image source: Jihadology)
The global jihadist movement has grown markedly more hostile towards China as a result of the country’s domestic security policy in Xinjiang as well as its foreign policy and growing influence in the Islamic world. Uighur jihadists have traditionally spearheaded anti-China propaganda efforts, however, in recent years China-related issues have gained rhetorical traction throughout broader international militant discourse. Jihadists of disparate geographies and numerous languages have notably increased their focus on Chinese policy in their media content. Yet there are few non-Uighur militants that really stand out as being particularly ardent, outspoken, and persistent critics of China. Such figures play a role in giving anti-China narratives the added momentum to further transcend the Uighur jihadist realm and reach a more global audience. The rise of China is perhaps the defining nation-driven phenomenon in 21st century international politics, while jihadism represents the world’s most pervasive form of non-state militancy — it is at the conflicting nexus of these two trends where the cleric Abu Zar al-Burmi operates.
Al-Burmi is a distinctive figure in the jihadist scene of South Asia and is uniquely situated in the realm of anti-China militancy given his national and ethnic identity, rhetorical and linguistic abilities, organizational links, operational longevity, and persistence in railing against Beijing. He is peculiar as a non-Uighur jihadist, an early adopter of anti-China positions, and a highly visible cleric. With this said, it would be erroneous to characterize al-Burmi as a single-issue propagandist. His content is often very detailed and covers a range of religious and political issues.
Abu Zar al-Burmi (known also as Abu Zar Azzam) is a national or resident of Pakistan and is of Rohingya Burmese descent. He claims to have been a teacher at an Islamic school in Karachi where he reportedly taught Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Qari Hussain Ahmad Mehsud, the cousin of former Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Al-Burmi is believed to have made contact with jihadists in the mid 2000s and later linked up with militant elements in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions. He is perhaps best known for being the former leading mufti of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Details about al-Burmi’s history are scarce in some areas and conflict in others, however, there is some evidence to suggest his linguistic abilities and background as a religious scholar enabled him to ascend rather quickly within the regional jihadist milieu. Al-Burmi is multilingual and known to speak at least Arabic, Urdu, and Uzbek.
According to Jacob Zenn, “Abu Zar first entered the jihadist scene in Pakistan as a replacement of Qari Zafar, who was the head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and died in a U.S. drone strike in Waziristan in 2010.” He notes, “Although Abu Zar never precisely filled Qari Zafar’s shoes in Lashkar-e-Janghvi, he did become the IMU’s leading mufti and featured prominently in IMU, Pakistani-Taliban and the Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) videos and traveled throughout Pakistan giving sermons to tribal members.” Zenn explains al-Burmi’s role as an “interlocutor between the IMU and its Urdu-speaking Pakistan hosts in the tribal areas” and how “as a muhajir, or migrant, by ancestry, Abu Zar could legitimately represent other migrants from Central Asia.” Florian Flade succinctly describes al-Burmi as an example of “Jihadi globalization” — “a Pakistani-educated cleric of Burmese origin … preaching the idea of International Jihad to foreign fighters in Pakistan’s tribal areas in fluent Arabic and Urdu.”
Al-Burmi became a “spiritual leader” and “chief juridical voice” for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and formed close ties with TTP leadership. Though he eventually found himself in a precarious position following IMU leader Usman Ghazi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in 2015 — a clear violation of the organization’s historical alliance with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Al-Burmi initially supported this decision and operated for a time under the IS umbrella. In response to the betrayal, Taliban militants hunted down scores of IMU members and, according to several accounts, killed Usman Ghazi. Al-Burmi went underground, staying silent for a period following the IMU leader’s reported death.
Al-Burmi resurfaced in 2016 appearing in a series of videos released by the Imam Buhari Brigade (IBB), Turkistan Islamic Party, and a newly founded jihadist group in Myanmar. He explained publicly why supporting the Islamic State was wrong and ultimately denounced the organization. The Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their allies allowed al-Burmi back into their coalition and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) even featured his apology in their newsletter. Al-Burmi has since continued his involvement in media production but has kept a comparatively lower profile.
Although condemnation of China has become more common in jihadist media discourse, it most often entails fleeting mention of Xinjiang, or “East Turkistan,” alongside a host of other locations where Muslims face oppression. On occasion, organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have explored China-related issues in somewhat greater detail, but what sets al-Burmi apart in this sense is that he was an early advocate of the Uighur cause and has made it a priority to consistently criticize, threaten, and call for attacks on China. Jacob Zenn notes how the emergence of “Abu Zar al-Burmi as a prominent anti-Chinese jihadist leader in Pakistan has led to Xinjiang gaining more attention among jihadists.” This is also true of his emphasis on China’s foreign policy and growing international influence.
Al-Burmi has called China the “new superpower” and predicted it would become the “next number one enemy.” He placed China on the shortlist of great power adversaries of Islam when he reminded his audience, “Our war is against the Russians, Chinese and Americans.” He warned, “Mujahidin should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.” In a video message titled “Let’s Disturb China” al-Burmi referred to the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as “a victory for the Taliban movement in the region” and identified the country as an opportune battlefront stating, “our next target will be China.”
For al-Burmi, Chinese aggression against Islam begins at home and extends out into the international arena. He views China as an occupier of Xinjiang and supporter of illegitimate, hostile, and repressive state governments abroad. In a video released through the Turkistan Islamic Party’s media outlet Sawt al-Islam he said:
“I was asked what you know about eastern Turkistan. I answered that it is part of our Ummah (Islamic nation) and the people living there are our brothers and sisters. Thus how can our Muslim fighters not know our brothers and sisters who are living in an oppressed land? I came from Burma and we were oppressed by the Buddhists and Chinese too. I very well know what our brothers and sisters are facing … We are not Uighurs, Pakistanis or Burmese in principle, but we are Muslims inside out.”
Abu Zar al-Burmi displays a strong connection to Pakistan and Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) region. He accordingly regards the internal political affairs of these countries as issues of particular concern. His rhetoric emphasizes sovereignty, Islamic unity, and the imperative need to expel malign external actors and their corrupting influence from Muslim lands.
The relationship between Beijing and Islamabad as well as China’s expanded footprint and influence in Pakistan have drawn the ire of al-Burmi. He criticizes Pakistanis for perpetuating the “mantra of Pak-China Friendship” and presents China as an imperialistic and a colonizing power that has “conquered” Pakistan. In one instance, he compared Chinese economic activity in Pakistan to that of the British East India Company. “We should be aware of the fact that while the United States is the father of the Pakistani system and government,” he said, “China is the mother of the Pakistani government” and “the Pakistani government drinks its milk from the Chinese government.” Al-Burmi derided Islamabad for dealing Gwadar Port to China and exhorted Muslims to attack Chinese nationals and commercial interests. He has often lamented China for its perceived role in the 2007 siege by Pakistani forces on Islamabad’s Lal Masjid or Red Mosque.
Al-Burmi holds Pakistani political leadership in contempt, once saying
“The president visits China every four months and goes and bows, kneels and prostrates before those atheists, who do not believe in God, and in return he comes back with aid ... We should all be aware of the fact that there is no border between Pakistan and China … the border that is along the Gilgit-Baltistan region is actually a border with East Turkistan.”
He similarly deems China complicit in the suffering inflicted upon Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslim community, an ethnic and religious group he himself belongs to. Al-Burmi has even gone so far as to allege the atrocities are part of a targeted Chinese plot to remove the Rohingya from regions containing oil resources. In a sermon titled “A Lost Nation” he scorned the governments of “Burma, China and Germany … for supporting massacres and mass killings [of Rohingyas] in Arakan.” He expressed his sorrow saying, “We are heartbroken by the massacre…committed by a pagan Buddhist enemy which is the infidel, aggressive, oppressive, licentious state of Burma with support of China.”
Abu Zar al-Burmi has proven to be an influential figure and pronounced voice in the sphere of anti-China jihadism. For years he has featured prominently in a diverse range of jihadist media productions disseminating anti-China messaging to global audiences. Al-Burmi is simultaneously reflective of broader anti-China jihadist sentiment and ideological currents as well as an active purveyor of supporting narratives. It will be worthwhile to observe how figures like al-Burmi approach China going forward given Beijing’s expanding role within the rapidly changing regional and international political landscape.