China, Xinjiang, and the Uyghurs in Global Jihadist Propaganda
By Lucas Webber
China’s Xinjiang policies have drawn the ire of transnational militant organizations and the topic of Uyghur repression has found rhetorical traction within global jihadist discourse. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), and others have explicitly threatened China and prominent jihadist figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have criticized Beijing’s treatment of Xinjiang’s Muslim population. While conflict in the region has not traditionally been a priority concern for most non-Uyghur jihadists, Xinjiang issues have become more international and mainstream in recent years. Militants of disparate geographies and of numerous languages have been devoting noticeably greater attention to Xinjiang in their propaganda content. Growing global media coverage and popular awareness of Chinese policy toward the Uyghurs has put additional pressure on jihadist organizations to publicly address the subject.
China’s Muslim majority Xinjiang region has long been the site of political unrest and separatist activity. Andrew Small describes how “For decades, this resistance was largely secular and pan-Turkic in inspiration, but by the 1990s, the impact of the religious revival across the region and the proliferation of transnational Islamist groups had started to give it a more explicitly Islamic character.” Beijing’s response to the instability has been to crackdown on the region through its “Strike Hard” campaigns and other strict security measures. China has been very aggressive in its efforts to combat the “Three Evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) often attributes the region’s political violence to jihadist organizations, but there is contentious debate amongst researchers over the extent of transnational involvement. What can be said for certain, however, is that China’s clampdown has inflamed animosities and become a subject of increased propaganda focus for jihadist organizations around the world.
Militants accuse China of occupying Xinjiang, a region they refer to as “East Turkistan”, as well as repressing Muslims, particularly the Uyghurs. While these have become commonly cited grievances within contemporary jihadist propaganda, the persistent and direct threatening of China by non-Uyghur militants is a relatively recent phenomenon. The jihadist organizations of the 1990s and early 2000s paid limited attention to the political affairs of Xinjiang and some actively sought to avoid such issues altogether. There were notable proponents such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Abu Musab al-Suri but overall, it was not a top concern for most at the time.
Al-Qaeda’s propaganda in the 1990s focused primarily on a defined set of priority enemies, which did not include China. There were reports of organizational linkages and interaction between al-Qaeda and individuals associated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) during this period, but scant evidence of any significant degree of overt public support for the Uyghur cause. In fact, during a 1997 interview Osama bin Laden said, “I often hear about Chinese Muslims, but since we have no direct connection with people in China and no member of our organisation comes from China, I don’t have any detailed knowledge about them.”
In 1990s Afghanistan, the Taliban pursued relations with Beijing and Mullah Omar forbid Uyghur militants from launching attacks on China from Afghan territory. Abu Musab al-Suri described the Taliban’s diplomatic approach toward Beijing in “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance”. The Chinese government continues to broker with the Taliban on a number of political, economic, and security issues.
The East Turkistan Islamic Movement had settled in Afghanistan in the 1990s and Uyghur militants attended training camps in Taliban territory. ETIM was eventually dealt a diminishing blow in a 2003 counterterrorism operation by Pakistani forces that eliminated its leader Abu-Muhammad al-Turkistani, but a successor organization, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), would emerge years later in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and later the Middle East. Compared to ETIM, the TIP has much clearer ties to and overt support from al-Qaeda as well as a greater international footprint and broader range of allies. There is some lack of expert consensus on whether ETIM was an actual organization or simply an umbrella label used to describe Uyghur jihadists located abroad, while with the TIP there is no such debate.
The Internationalization of Xinjiang and Uyghur Issues
It was in the late 2000s when China-related narratives gained a more discernible degree of traction within global jihadist discourse. Beijing’s perceived role in the 2007 siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, fueled anti-China sentiment in Pakistan and in the wake of the operation, militants responded by targeting Chinese nationals. In one instance, a Taliban spokesman justified a kidnapping as retaliation for “Chinese pressure to launch Operation Silence” against the Red Mosque. Jihadists in the region notably increased their support for the Uyghur cause in the aftermath of the siege.
The Jordanian professor Akram Hijazi, who Brian Fishman described as “a major intellectual figure for jihadi strategists”, warned in 2007 of China potentially supplanting American primacy to become the new “head of the snake.” Hijazi also argued that Arab and Muslim states have failed to provide sufficient support for Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. Similarly, in 2009 the Kuwaiti cleric Hamid al-Ali wrote about the “duty to stand with the plight of the Uyghur Muslims against Chinese repression”.
The Turkistan Islamic Party, a successor to ETIM and predominantly Uyghur organization, made international headlines for threatening to attack the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “Whilst these first videos from TIP were fairly amateurish,” Rafaello Pantucci writes “future videos released by the group were issued by the formally al-Qaeda-linked al Fajr media centre.” The July 2009 Urumqi riots and Beijing’s forceful response proved to be significant developments. There was an identifiable shift in al-Qaeda's messaging during this period, “in the wake of the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang, and the global attention that was suddenly drawn to the plight of the Uyghurs in China, there was clearer and more public evidence of al-Qaeda adopting the Uyghur cause.” In 2009, al-Qaeda’s Abu Yahya al-Libi urged Uyghurs to prepare to fight against China and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatened reprisal on Chinese workers in Algeria.
At the turn of the decade, narratives alleging Chinese occupation and repression of Xinjiang’s Muslims had spread further internationally and had been propagated by a more diverse array of jihadist groups. This development tracked with events on the ground in Xinjiang as political violence gained momentum and Beijing escalated its security response.
Anwar al-Awlaki accused the Chinese of occupying Muslim lands in a 2010 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine. In 2011, Dokku Umarov, the Chechen leader of the Caucasus Emirate, identified with the Uyghur cause as did the Kavkaz Jihad Blog on multiple occasions. The following year, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) murdered a Chinese tourist as “revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers in the Xinjiang province.” Statements by al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda’s Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti further illustrated the permeation of Uyghur issues into global jihadist discourse. In 2014, Abu Zar al-Burmi, a top spiritual leader for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) at the time, claimed China would replace the United States as “number one enemy”. The Global Islamic Media Front referred to Xinjiang as a jihadist battlefront and, likewise, online print magazines such as AQAP’s Inspire, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) Resurgence, and the TTP-linked Azan helped to globalize anti-China narratives.
The Turkistan Islamic Party is a particularly important actor in this context and has functioned in part as a jihadist vanguard for the Uyghur cause. The TIP has developed its propaganda apparatus, enhanced its organizational capabilities, and has gained credibility on the battlefield in Syria. It has also demonstrated its diplomatic and strategic ability in forming and balancing relations with numerous organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and others.
In 2016, al-Qaeda and the Turkistan Islamic Party publicly reaffirmed relations in seemingly corresponding media releases. In an audio address, TIP emir and reported member of al-Qaeda's Shura Council Abdul Haq al-Turkistani declared the Islamic State’s caliphate illegitimate and praised al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio describe the statement as further “indication that the TIP is part of al Qaeda’s international network”. A few weeks later in the ninth episode of his “Islamic Spring” series, al-Zawahiri commemorated the East Turkistan Islamic Movement’s founder, Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani, and included him in the pantheon of legendary jihadist figures. Al-Zawahiri commended the Muslims of East Turkistan for waging jihad around the globe and referred to the Chinese government as “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders.”
The Turkistan Islamic Party has at times leveraged the organization’s standing with its allies to advance the Uyghur cause. In a message published in March 2019, TIP’s Abdul Haq al-Turkistani urged influential jihadist figures, including Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, to show renewed public support for the Uyghur cause and to be more vocal about Chinese abuses in occupied Turkistan. Al-Turkistani claimed there is a lack of awareness about the “media blackout, the muffling of mouths, [and] the shameless policy of China” and “very few know that there is a land called East Turkistan.” Weeks later, al-Qaeda's general command responded with a statement of solidarity, which was released through as-Sahab. Jihadist clerics such as the Jordanian Sami al-Uraydi and the Syria-based Abdallah al-Muhaysini also extended their support. Animesh Roul describes how “al-Muhaysini has reinvigorated the pro-Uighur solidarity movement and anti-China operations by launching an online “I Support East Turkistan” campaign”.
One particularly striking example of the internationalization of Xinjiang issues and the normalization of support for the Uyghur cause is the show of solidarity by Malhama Tactical, an Islamist private military contractor (PMC) sometimes referred to as the “Blackwater of Jihad”. The organization has worked with a number of jihadist groups including the Turkistan Islamic Party and claims to have trained both Uyghur and Han fighters. Malhama Tactical operates in Syria, is largely made up of militants from Russia’s Muslim republics and former Soviet countries, and now claims to have incorporated Uyghur fighters into the organization. The group stated “O our brothers in Turkistan [Xinjiang]! We have not forgotten about you. You are our beloved brothers. We promise that the help will come to you. Allah is with us. There is no blessing in those who, after all of these, say that the time of battles has not come. Now, the time of battles has come!” Researchers for the Jamestown Foundation noted how, “The message is a departure from the group’s previous statements, which have been aimed at the Syrian government and its allies — Russia and Iran.”
The geographical expansion of Uyghur militancy and the greater integration of these fighters into international networks throughout the 2010s aided the advance of China-related issues within the global jihadist milieu. There was a degree of ideological transmission during this period as Uyghur fighters extended their presence from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and brought their causes into the organizational ranks and alliances of jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Michael Clarke explains how the “core external locus of Uyghur militancy has shifted from Af-Pak to the wider Middle East, particularly with the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and the rise of Islamic State” and suggests “the apparent linkage of Uyghur militants not only to long-standing sanctuaries along the Af-Pak frontier but also to the jihadist “witches’ brew” of Syria, points to an unprecedented trans-nationalization of Uyghur terrorism.” This trans-nationalization was evident in the media content produced during this period as Uyghur militants appeared in the propaganda of various organizations to recruit, threaten, and incite violence.
The Islamic State Movement
The Islamic State movement drove China-related narratives deeper into global jihadist consciousness through its unprecedented media apparatus and distinctly bellicose temperament. The organization has been very explicit in threatening China and criticizing Beijing’s Xinjiang policies. “Where Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar judiciously weighed the risks of taking China on as an enemy,” Andrew Small writes, “the newer generation of militants, whether the TTP or ISIS, have had no such qualms.”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani made several notable references to China and “Turkistan”. In one statement al-Baghdadi called upon Muslims to rise against tyrannical rulers and “support your people and your brothers in Sham, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, the Philippines, Africa, Indonesia, Turkistan, Bangladesh, and in every place.” In other instances, he claimed, “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China” and cited “the extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkistan” with Muslims being denied “their most basic human rights.” Questioning Saudi inaction, al-Baghdadi asked “where is the relief of the rulers of Mecca and Medina for the Muslims in China?” Similarly, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani described China as a country where Muslims face killing, abuse, imprisonment, and displacement. In another address he claimed, “the crusaders, the Hindus, and the atheists” commit “massacres, crimes and atrocities against the Muslims in Burma, Turkistan, Indonesia, Kashmir, the Philippines, Palestine, Bosnia, Central Africa, Chechnya, the Sunnis of Iran, and the Muslims everywhere else.”
Statements from prominent IS leaders certainly bolstered China-related narratives and the Islamic State’s various media branches backed their efforts with aligned content. IS produced online print, video, and audio material in several languages aimed at specific target audiences, including in Uyghur and Mandarin. The Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba has also periodically provided commentary and updates on Xinjiang affairs. Dabiq magazine contained several references to China and featured a full-page image of executed Chinese citizen and hostage Fan Jinghui. Dabiq’s successor series Rumiyah devoted considerable attention to Xinjiang in one issue and, more recently, the Southeast Asia-focused Voice of Hind magazine condemned China’s policies.
The Islamic State movement’s focus on China was markedly increasing in 2014 and 2015. Maps illustrating the caliphate’s territorial ambitions were posted online and included swaths of Xinjiang. One video featured an eighty-year-old cleric from Xinjiang urging viewers to join IS and kill “Chinese infidels.” The production showed young Uyghurs in a classroom and one of the children proclaimed, “O Chinese infidels ... we will come to you and raise this flag in Turkestan.” Al-Hayat later released a Mandarin-language nasheed calling on supporters to “wake up” and “take up weapons.” In a February 2017 Furat Media video, a Uyghur militant threatened China before executing an accused informant: "Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say. We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed". A short while later Amaq News Agency claimed responsibility for killing two Chinese teachers in Pakistan.
Animosities toward Beijing came to the forefront during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The Islamic State’s media channels and their online supporters declared the virus divine retribution against China for its treatment of Xinjiang’s Muslims. The Islamic State’s al-Naba and Quraysh Media were among the numerous sources disseminating this narrative. IS spokesman Abu Hamzah al-Quraishi claimed “God, by his will, sent a punishment to tyrants of this time and their followers ... which can’t be seen by the naked eye”.
Accusations of Chinese occupation in East Turkistan and the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang have entered the mainstream of international jihadist media. Additionally, jihadists have become more explicit in threatening China and more pronounced in their support for the Uyghur cause. Prominent organizations and high-profile jihadist figures around the world are now purveying these narratives in their propaganda. Uyghur militants have certainly been most vocal and ardent in their opposition to China and have worked to elevate their cause from within transnational organizations and through their alliances with them. However, despite these topics gaining greater rhetorical traction within global jihadist discourse in recent years, they have not yet become top priority issues for most groups. It remains to be seen just how far these narratives can transcend and if “East Turkistan” has the potential to become a true cause célèbre for the greater Islamist movement.