Counter Terrorism Perspectives: CTP

TM: "Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Reinvigorating East Turkistan Jihad"

May 30, 2019

China is increasingly facing transnational jihadist threats as a result of the long-standing plight of its ethnic Uighur Muslim citizens, who are mostly concentrated in the country’s northwestern region of Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region). Amid mounting Western criticism of China’s handling of its minorities in Xinjiang, especially over the last couple years, there has been a puzzling lack of outcry from the larger Muslim world. However, ongoing state-sponsored religious restrictions and persecution in China continue to give enough fodder for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) to raise their virtual jihadist campaigns against China and its interests abroad.

Over the past several decades, China has suffered a number of violent incidents (e.g. riotings, arson, knife attacks, and bombings) perpetrated by suspected Uighur militant separatists. The majority of incidents have targeted the ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang and critical infrastructure such as railways. Among the most notable and recent attacks were the October 2013 suicide attack in Tiananmen Square, Beijing; violence in the city of Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang) in May 2014; and attacks in Pishan in Xinjiang in February 2017 (SCMP (Hong Kong), November 1, 2013; China Daily (Beijing), May 22, 2014; SCMP (Hong Kong), February 15, 2017). China blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its offshoot, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), for anti-Chinese violence in Xinjiang and beyond.

The United Nations—along with several countries, in- including the United States, United Kingdom, and Pa- Pakistan—have listed the ETIM as a terrorist organization which aims to create an independent ‘Uighurstan’ or ‘East Turkistan’ comprised of a geographical area that would include parts of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang region of China (UNSC, April 7, 2011; State Department, September 2002). Most of its members are operating abroad, coopting or aligning with other jihadist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (formerly Jabhat al-Nushra) in Syria, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Central Asia.

Although the full details regarding the emergence of ETIM remain murky, it was founded by Hasan Mahsum (Abu-Muhammad al-Turkestani), a Uighur from Kashgar region, possibly in the late 1990s. The group received a major ideological and financial boost with the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s support to wage war against China during its formative years. With the death of Hasan Mahsum in Pakistan in 2003, however, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani took over the reins of ETIM and became a core member of al-Qaeda’s executive leadership council in 2005. With his expertise on the Islamic concept of jihad, oratorical skills, and a position within al- Qaeda’s rank and file, he became a go-to person for the rival Taliban factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. During this time ETIM virtually ceased to exist as it had previously, and the TIP emerged under Abdul Haq al-Turkistani in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. After a few years, most of the TIP’s leadership and cadres shifted to Syria to participate in the civil war there, alongside al- Qaeda’s affiliated factions. Though it is difficult to estimate TIP’s Uighur fighters in a war zone like Syria, according to some estimates, there were upwards of 3,000 TIP fighters engaged in the Syrian conflict in and around Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs in 2016 (al-Arabiya, December 17, 2018).

For Complete Article, Read, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Reinvigorating East Turkistan Jihad, Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), May 17, 2019.