July 16, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Uighur Fighters of the Islamic State

• The steady trickle of news stories about violent Uighur separatists in China continues

• Many Uighurs seek to leave the country, and China fears that some may end up joining the Islamic State; some already have, and the group is keen to recruit more

• Turkish nationalist support for Uighurs has led to a spat with China, but it is unlikely to escalate

• China and Turkey value their relationship, and China sees Turkey, along with Iran, as a key regional power.


The Chinese authorities announced that they had broken up another terrorist cell of Uighurs on July 13, bringing the number of such operations to around 200 in little more than a year. Although difficult to gauge the extent and violence of the Uighur separatist movement, there is no hiding official concern. Although fatalities are limited, reports of attacks in train stations and markets, and of police raids, arrests, and trials, emerge sufficiently often to suggest that ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and the Uighur population are real and persistent.

Until now, the most prominent Uighur terrorist group has been the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), founded in the late 1990s and now based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. But Pakistan, with strong encouragement from China—its most important international partner—has made life difficult for the ETIM, and its membership is small. The so-called Islamic State therefore offers an attractive alternative, and Chinese officials estimated that 300 Uighurs had joined the group by November 2014. The current figure is likely to be higher.

The latest issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s online magazine, announced the release of two new music videos—one in Turkish and one in Uighur, a Turkic language spoken by about 10 million people who live mainly in the Xinjiang province of western China. Both videos extol the virtues of the ‘Caliphate’ and encourage viewers to join it, showing pictures of fighters and battles, with a strong overlay of religious justification. But unlike the one in Turkish, the Uighur version includes pictures of young children, quite likely Uighurs, and tries to sell the idea of the Islamic State as a long-sought, utopian homeland. This is not the first Islamic State video featuring Uighurs and it is clear that the group's leadership is keen to recruit more.

The possibility of Uighurs joining the Islamic State and returning to China as effective and trained terrorists has Chinese authorities highly concerned; they repatriated 109 Uighur refugees from Thailand last week, fearful that some might be on their way to Syria. This led to demonstrations in Turkey, where the Uighur community is steadily growing and is supported by a government that places a lot of store in Turkic ethnicity. Earlier reports in the Turkish press that Chinese authorities had forced Uighurs to act against their religious customs had led to other demonstrations and to a mild but official note from the Turkish Foreign Ministry expressing concern. In return, China issued a mild travel advisory warning to Chinese tourists about the dangers posed by the demonstrations. More seriously, some Chinese officials have publicly accused Turkey of helping Uighurs to leave China, suggesting that they are then funneled into Syria.

But despite the occasional row—and the last one was in 2009—the fundamentals of Turkey-China relations remain strong, and President Erdogan is due to visit Beijing at the end of the month. For all his strong nationalist sentiments, it is likely that he will focus more on arms deals and trade routes than on China’s treatment of its Uighur minority.

One thing that will certainly feature in the talks, however, is the question of regional security. China, as a member of the P5+1, played an important role in the Iran talks and took a softer line than its partners. The Iran-China relationship is based largely on energy, but on a deeper level, it also reflects the perception in both countries that the depth of their culture and history gives them a natural affinity. Despite improved relations with Arab states, China sees Iran as its closest regional partner and as a source of potential stability rather than of conflict.

Turkey and Iran are both countries that will play an outsized role in determining the future of the Islamic State, and although Chinese fears that the group's influence will reach into the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region may be exaggerated, its concerns that more Middle East discord will have negative economic as well as political consequences for China are more than fair.


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