Leaked ISIS documents suggest that Uighur fighters are seeking a new home and a sense of belonging.
Chinese state-backed media has claimed that 300 Chinese Muslims are fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and authorities have blamed the violence emanating from its restive northwest on radical Islamist ideology and residents’ ties to foreign terrorist networks. U.S.-based experts and human rights groups have disputed both claims, arguing that China’s repressive political and religious policies have caused the tensions and that, at any rate, the number of Uighur Islamic State fighters is negligible. But new documents, leaked by an Islamic State defector in early 2016, suggest that Beijing is likely correct about the scale of Uighur involvement with the militant movement — if not about the underlying cause.
A July 20 report from New America, a think tank in Washington, DC, examined more than 4,000 registration records of fighters who joined the Islamic State between mid-2013 and mid-2014. These rudimentary questionnaires asked basic questions of each fighter, including origin, travel history, level of education, former employment, and previous jihad experience. Analysis of the records revealed that at least 114 Chinese Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group concentrated in the northwestern Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, entered Islamic State territory during that time period. Nate Rosenblatt, the author of the report and an independent Middle East/North Africa researcher, obtained the data from contacts made during his previous research in Syria.
The report indicates that Uighur Islamic State fighters were poor, unskilled, and uneducated — precisely none reported having attended college. On average, the Uighurs had the skill level of construction workers. Seventy-three percent of Uighur fighters in the sample joined the Islamic State after its conquest of the key Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, an event which greatly strengthened the military organization and its image as a viable state. And Uighurs in the sample had the widest age range among all the groups represented, with the youngest registered fighter aged 10 and the oldest aged 80. This likely indicates that Uighurs were more likely than other groups to have brought their families along with them. “These people are extremely poor,” said Rosenblatt in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. “They don’t have jobs. They don’t have good education. They hardly travel. Because the cost of traveling — financially and psychologically — are likely very high, it appears they are moving to the Islamic State on a more permanent basis.”
The Uighurs in the sample were entirely new to jihad. When asked if they had any previous experience with jihad, 110 of the Uighurs replied that they had not; the other four left the question blank. Seventy percent of respondents indicated they had never left China before embarking for the Islamic State. Rosenblatt said this suggests the fighters are not part of “traditional Islamic separatist movements that have existed in China for some time,” such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist organization that China and the United States have labeled a terrorist organization. Beijing often blames Xinjiang unrest on the ETIM, while maintaining that Uighurs enjoy “unprecedented religious freedom” in China.
The lack of previous experience with jihad and the implied lack of contact with ETIM suggests that “it may not be that these fighters are as religiously motivated” as some fighters with origins elsewhere, said Rosenblatt, but rather that the they are looking “perhaps for a sense of belonging that they don’t get in China.” The Islamic State has targeted Uighurs with slick propaganda videos showcasing orderly classrooms full of children studying the Quran. “That is exactly what a lot of these fighters are looking for,” said Rosenblatt.
Chinese control hasn’t always sat well with the Uighurs, who have resided in Xinjiang for more than 1,000 years; after the collapse of two short-lived Soviet-backed republics in the 1930s and 1940s, small uprisings against Chinese rule have occasionally broken out in the region. Since the 1990s, pockets of Uighur society have increasingly turned to Islam as way to strengthen their resolve against state administrative control and Chinese cultural encroachment.
The security situation swiftly deteriorated after 2009, when ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s regional capital of Urumqi broke out between Uighurs and Han, China’s majority ethnic group. Almost 200 perished. Regional authorities shut off internet access for months after the riots and have heavily restricted foreign journalists’ access to much of the region. Chinese authorities have vocally blamed religious extremism for the unrest, while outside human rights groups have decried repressive religious and political policies and preferential economic practices that have benefited Han Chinese while marginalizing Uighurs in their own homeland. Authorities have implemented policies in Xinjiang which curtail common religious practices such as fasting, praying, wearing veils, and holding informal religious study groups.
The rise of the Islamic State has roughly coincided with increased violence that has spread from Xinjiang to the rest of China. In October 2013, five died when a car crashed into a group of pedestrians near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The al Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for the attack in a video, with the group’s leader proclaiming on camera, “O Chinese unbelievers, know that you have been fooling East Turkistan for the last sixty years, but now they have awakened,” using a Uighur separatist term for Xinjiang. In February 2014, a band of knife-wielding masked attackers, later identified as Uighurs, attacked civilians at a train station in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, killing around 30. The terrorist attack shook the nation. In October 2015, foreign-based news agencies reported that 50 people had been killed in an attack on a coal mine, apparently perpetrated by knife-wielding Uighurs against the primarily Han facility.
But despite Chinese claims of radical Islamist and ETIM involvement, it’s been difficult to verify what is truly transpiring on the ground, due mostly to strict information control and online censorship. Unconfirmed rumors of police massacres of civilians have swirled among Uighur expat groups.
It’s also been extremely difficult to verify how many Uighurs have left China to join the Islamic State. In December 2014, citing unnamed sources, state-run Global Times reported in that 300 Chinese Uighurs were fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. U.S.-based experts have previously disputed that number as “implausibly high.”
Uighurs within China are subject to travel restrictions, with local authorities confiscating passports and refusing to issue new passports. Even so, Uighurs seem to have left China in large numbers over the past two years as Chinese authorities have cracked down in Xinjiang. Since 2014, thousands of Uighurs have arrived in Turkey, many through human smuggling networks in Southeast Asia. In a 2015 interview in Istanbul with FP, Seyit Tumturk, the vice president of World Uighur Congress, a foreign-based Uighur organization that opposes Chinese rule in Xinjiang, said that some Uighurs in Xinjiang are desperate to flee, and that sometimes the only help they can find comes from extremist organizations.
“They don’t allow us to live as Muslims,” one Uighur refugee in Turkey told Reuters in 2015, referring to Chinese authorities. “You can’t pray. You can’t keep more than one Koran at home. You can’t teach Islam to your children. You can’t fast and you can’t go to Hajj. When you’re deprived of your whole identity, what’s the point?”
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