As I noted in Al-Qaeda After the Rise of ISIS: India, al-Qaeda has seemingly reconceptualized both the group’s role and its scope of strategic operations in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
On September 3, Ayaman al-Zawahiri announced the formation of a new al-Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Comprised of a myriad number of groups to include Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, affiliates of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Turkistan Islamic Party, the group ostensibly announced its presence to the world with a dramatic failure. In an attempt to raid a frigate in the port city of Karachi, they were repelled by Pakistani naval forces in grand fashion. Most of the fighters were killed in the attack. However, even in the wake of that failed effort, Al-Qaeda command does not appear to have been deterred from broadening its scope by the failed operation.
In mid-October, al-Qaeda announced its intent to focus their operational planning on China. Noting specifically the conflict beginning to boil in China’s restive northwestern Xinjiang Province, al-Qaeda announced the move in the first issue of Resurgence, a magazine produced by the al-Qaeda propaganda wing “Al-Sahab.” Xinjiang is home to the Uighur minority in China, a Turkic ethnic group of predominantly Muslim Chinese citizens. In recent years, attacks by Uighurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China have both raised the profile of the Uighur separatist movement and drawn increasing attention from Chinese security forces.
Last week, The Diplomat published an interesting overview of the contents of the magazine article. Among the highlights was the crux of al-Qaeda’s argument for their involvement:
…the first issue also contains an article entitled “10 Facts About East Turkistan,” which refers to the name given to Xinjiang by those who favor independence from China. The ten facts seek to cast Xinjiang as a longtime independent state that has only recently been brutally colonized by Han Chinese, who are determined to obliterate its Islamic heritage. (Zachary Keck, The Diplomat, October 22)
More intriguingly, the al-Qaeda missive goes into the history of Xinjiang, making the case for al-Qaeda’s involvement. The article notes theories about Chinese oppression of the minority Uighur population in Xinjiang and highlights events designed to elicit emotional reactions from the inhabitants of the region in support of an insurgency:
“In the last 1,000 years of its Islamic history,” the article says, Xinjiang “has remained independent for 763 years, while 237 years have been spent under Chinese occupation at various intervals.”
This occupation has been costly, the article argues, alleging that: “In 1949, 93 percent of the population of East Turkistan was Uyghur, while 7 percent was Chinese. Today, as a result of six decades of forced displacement of the native population and the settlement of Han Chinese in their place, almost 45 percent of the population of East Turkistan is Chinese.”
The article goes on to claim that teaching the Quran in Xinjiang is punishable by up to ten years in prison, and that Muslim women caught wearing the hijab can be fined more than five times the average annual income of the area. Al-Qaeda also claims that following its takeover of the mainland in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party murdered some 4.5 million Muslims in Xinjiang. The group further claims that China has conducted no less than 35 nuclear weapon tests in Xinjiang, and the radioactive fallout from these are estimated to have killed 200,000 Muslims. In 1998 alone, the article adds, 20,000 babies were born deformed in Xinjiang as a result of these nuclear tests. (Keck, The Diplomat, October 22)
Al-Qaeda’s pivoting toward operational planning to support Uighur separatists in Xinjiang follows a previous commitment by ISIS to do the same. In early August, a popular Chinese periodical made ISIS threats against China its cover story:
The glossy cover of the Phoenix issue features a picture of masked gun-toting jihadis advancing through a desert landscape. The piece inside sounds the alarm over a July 4 speech in Mosul, Iraq, by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in which he urged Muslims around the world to pledge their allegiance to him. It quotes Baghdadi saying that “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine” and more than a dozen other countries and regions. “Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” Baghdadi told his followers. Phoenix noted that China was mentioned first on Baghdadi’s list. (Alexa Olesen, Foreign Policy, August 11)
More interestingly, and in typical fashion, was the Chinese public reaction. As has been the case with previous attacks in Xinjiang attributed to the Uighur Muslim minority, Chinese public opinion toward the conflict in Iraq and Syria was obviously conflated with the country’s own problems in Xinjiang:
Online, Chinese are both agitated and bemused. One Chinese reader wrote on the social media site Weibo:
“This is good. It offends all five of the hooligans on the UN Security Council” — that is, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — which means the IS jihadis “are going to be roadkill.” Another responded to a photo of Baghdadi: “Looking at this bearded pervert makes me sick. Hurry up and incinerate this kind of trash, and send him to enjoy his 72 virgins in heaven.” A third wrote that ISIS seemed to have “a death wish,” but that people should be grateful because the jihadist group was giving Beijing “a reasoned and evidence-based opportunity to crack down on terrorist activities.” (Alexa Olesen, Foreign Policy, August 11)
The problem was later complicated by news out of Iraq that Chinese nationals were fighting on behalf of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In early September, the Iraqi government announced the capture of “…a Chinese national…” fighting for ISIS in Iraq. While accounts of the incident and the capture were uncorroborated by outside sources, it bears mentioning that this capture (if proven) could represent the beginning of a shift in Chinese policy towards both the conflict in Syria and Iraq:
“URGENT,” read the Iraqi News headline of its September 3 posting. “First Chinese ISIS fighter captured in Iraq says Ministry of Defense.”
The Iraqi Army has captured an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighter from China, the Baghdad-datelined report said. Two pictures accompanied the report: one showed the captured militant in fatigue pants and a bloodied shirt, lying on the ground; another showed him escorted by an Iraqi soldier, his face seemingly swollen.
If true, he would be the first Chinese national to have been caught fighting with ISIS militants. (CNN, September 5)
While the claims of Chinese government officials remain clouded by conjecture and speculation, one thing’s clear: The Beijing government, mindful of the capacity of international Islamist destabilization of large swaths of territory in the Middle East, is carefully watching statements by both ISIS and al-Qaeda with regard to operational support of separatism in Xinjiang.
With the announcement of al-Qaeda’s intent to focus operational planning on support of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang while continuing to battle the Chinese government, questions of policy and security strategy arise in Beijing. While Chinese foreign policy has moved to more assertive postures in the South China Sea in recent years, the overall characterization of China’s strategy remains focused on diplomatic engagement with important geopolitical partners and competitors. Among these competitors is India—the recently announced target of renewed al-Qaeda focus on the subcontinent.
It remains to be seen whether Chinese foreign policy will reflect any observable change in the wake of the statements of ISIS and al-Qaeda leaders pledging support for the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Chinese government officials have shown remarkable restraint from both participation and comment on issues involving international Islamist terrorism in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. However, given Chinese interest in these areas and the growing investment of significant amounts of Chinese capital in places such as Sudan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, Chinese involvement would be an intriguing aspect of the wider effort to contain and defeat international Islamist terrorism.
You can find more on the background of the Uighur separatist movement, attacks, and Chinese government responses in my previous articles here at SOFREP and at www.Foreign-Intrigue.com:
- Xinjiang and the Geopolitics of an Insurrection
- Insurrection in Xinjiang
- At Foreign Intrigue: Daily Intrigue: June 23, 2014
(Featured Image Courtesy: uscnpm.org)