China: Annual Assessment

Posted: March 5, 2022 in RSIS
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Another belated post from the last annual RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) overview of the threats over the previous year, this time looking at China, again with Nodir.

China

Xinjiang Province

For the fifth year in a row, China’s Xinjiang province was free from acts of reportedly politically motivated violence in 2021. Authorities asserted that this cessation in violence has been a product of enhanced security measures implemented in combination with re-education and labour transfer policies. In the jihadist sphere, the threat of Uyghur militancy continues to draw attention. Mainly, this stems from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which still maintains ties to varying degrees with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria. The Afghanistan connection in particular has grown in salience since the Taliban takeover in Kabul, and will be Beijing’s main point of focus with the new government for the immediate future.

Trends

It has been just under five years since there were any reported cases of politically motivated violence involving Uyghurs in China. The last reported incident was in February 2017, when three Uyghur assailants undertook a series of knife stabbings in Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang, an event which was followed by large displays of security presence across the region. According to Chinese counterterrorism authorities, Xinjiang has stabilised following the launch of the “special campaign against violence and terror” in 2014, which has led to crackdowns on more than 1,900 violent and terrorist gangs, the arrest of over 14,000 suspects, and the confiscation of more than 2,000 explosive devices so far.688 While it is difficult to assess these figures, it seems clear that China is keen to demonstrate it has a substantial threat it is fighting to keep under control. This crackdown builds on previous crackdowns which were conducted under the rubric of “Strike Hard” campaigns.689

The reasons for this cessation in violence in Xinjiang are hard to objectively analyse, but seem due in large part to the increasingly pervasive security blanket that exists across the region. This has two sides to it – on the one hand, a heavy security presence; on the other, widespread use of “re-education centres” and labour transfer policies within Xinjiang and other parts of China. While the implementation of the mass re-education programmes has been reportedly wound down, labour transfer policies appear to continue unabated.690 For instance, by March 2021, 250,000 Uyghur and other minority workers from Xinjiang’s Hotan Prefecture had reportedly resettled in other provinces under the ongoing state-run labour transfer scheme. Western governments and scholars have criticised this scheme as being a “system of coercion” that would ultimately aim to “thin out minority populations” in Xinjiang.691 In response, Chinese authorities and researchers have denied allegations of forced labour transfers, insisting that such programmes are a voluntary element of the state’s poverty alleviation strategy in Xinjiang.692

There is also little evidence that the security blanket has been much lowered, especially with the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Wang Haijiang to take over as PLA commander in Xinjiang. Formerly in charge of Tibet, the implication was that his approach to suppressing minorities might be the reason for his move to Xinjiang (following a pattern set by current Xinjiang Party Chief Chen Quanguo who had previously served in Tibet and brought many of his policies with him). It is likelier, however, that General Wang was picked due to his experience managing volatile borders. Ultimately, it is not PLA forces that are responsible for internal security in China.

The need for a military commander with experience in managing potentially volatile borders that China shares was illustrated by the change in government in neighbouring Afghanistan, where Beijing continues to be concerned about the potential overspill of violence. This potential threat emanates both from across the small direct border China shares with Afghanistan, the parts of Tajikistan or Pakistan that are close to China which also share a border with Afghanistan, and most substantially, from Uyghur militant groups who might use Afghanistan as a base to attack China or its interests at home or in the region. These concerns have escalated since the arrival of the Taliban-led government into Kabul.

Uyghur Groups in Afghanistan and Syria

Afghanistan and Syria continue to shelter a large number of Uyghur jihadist fighters from Xinjiang. The vast majority are known to be fighting under the most prominent Uyghur militant group, TIP. TIP retains fighting units in both theatres of conflict. Since the very early days of its participation in the Syrian conflict, the Syria-based TIP has introduced itself as the “Turkistan Islamic Party’s branch in Sham [Syria],” while indicating Abdulhaq Damullam (or Abdul Haq al-Turkistani), the long-standing leader of the Afghanistan-based TIP, as their “bash emir,” or supreme (overall) leader.693 United Nations reporting confirms that the two groups maintain direct, albeit limited, ties due to geographic distance and the difficulty of guaranteeing secure communication.694

In Afghanistan, TIP has been one of the Taliban’s closest foreign jihadist allies for nearly 25 years. Before the former’s capture of Kabul in August 2021, TIP had approximately 400 Uyghur fighters, gathered primarily in the Jurm district of the country’s north-eastern Badakhshan province, which shares a small border with Xinjiang via the mountainous Wakhan Corridor.695 Before the fall of the Westernbacked Afghan government, a contingent of 1,000 fighters, including Uyghur militants, was under the command of TIP’s deputy commander Hajji Furqan, or Qari Furqan, who has reportedly also served as a deputy commander in Al-Qaeda (AQ).696 TIP fighters participated in several Talibanrun offensives and were reported by local officials as being highly effective fighters.697 According to various reports, the group also facilitated the transit of fighters from Syria, along various routes, including via Vietnam and Pakistan toward Afghanistan.698

A potential resurgence of TIP, which China blames for many attacks at home, has been the latter’s overriding security concern. Beijing has repeatedly urged the Taliban to sever its ties with the group. In response, the Taliban leadership has reassured that nobody would be allowed to use Afghan soil as a launchpad to carry out attacks against other countries. In September, the Taliban’s spokesperson claimed that many TIP members had left Afghanistan after having been asked by the movement to do so.699 Reports, however, surfaced in October alleging that the Taliban relocated the Uyghur fighters from Badakhshan to other areas, including in the eastern Nangarhar province, suggesting that they are still residing in Afghanistan.700 Various unverified reports suggest the Uyghur presence remains a point of tension between the Taliban and China.701

In Afghanistan, TIP is not the only terrorist group of concern to China. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that is reported to have bases in Afghanistan from which it launches campaigns in Pakistan, are both organisations that have recently been linked to incidents involving China. Until now, ISKP has not much discussed China and the Uyghur cause.702 This changed, however, on 8 October 2021, when ISKP claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque in Kunduz that killed nearly 50 and injured dozens. In its claim of responsibility, ISKP identified the suicide attacker as “Muhammad al Uyghuri” without providing any details about his nationality.703

Rumours have circulated about his possible Turkish background and experience in Syria.704 ISKP’s use of the kunya “Al-Uyghuri” in reference to the attacker is also notable, given most Uyghur militants are usually identified as “AlTurkistani.” According to ISKP’s statement, the attack targeted “both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghurs [from Afghanistan] to meet demands from China.”705 This explicit threat to China is something new from the group.

TTP is a more established group in some ways, though its attention has remained on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Recently, the group has shown an increasing interest in targeting Chinese personnel and officials.706 A suicide bombing by the TTP in April targeted the Serena Hotel in the Pakistani city of Quetta, barely missing China’s ambassador to Pakistan. Later in July, a car laden with explosives killed 12 Chinese engineers going to the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Chinese and Pakistani officials claimed TTP and TIP to be behind the attack, though no official claim of responsibility was issued.707

In Syria, TIP remains one of the most powerful, well-organised and well-trained foreign units fighting under the umbrella of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), AQ’s former Syrian ally. TIP commands between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters in the northwestern Idlib province. In line with its apparent attempt to pivot away from the global jihadist agenda and transition into a locally-oriented revolutionary insurgency, HTS has been pressuring militant outfits under its control, including TIP, to deprioritise or give up their external agendas and links especially with internationally designated terrorist groups such as AQ. This has apparently led to internal strife within TIP, particularly between lesser extreme (pragmatic) and hard-line elements. As a result, approximately 30 per cent of the group’s fighters defected to Hurras al-Din (HAD), a faction established by veteran AQ loyalists as a counter to HTS in Syria, after the former started to distance itself from AQ.708

Amidst such developments, Ibrahim Mansur, who rose to become the leader of TIP’s Syrian branch five years ago, defected from the group. Some extremist websites in Turkish claimed in September 2021 that Mansur was captured by police officers while applying for Turkish citizenship with a fake identity in Izmir. The website accused Mansur of committing a series of crimes (murder, robbery and others) in Turkey through TIP’s hidden cells when he was leading the group. While it is unclear exactly why and how he stepped down as the group’s leader, he might have been the target of HTS’ pressuring campaign to subdue rivals and solidify its dominance.709 According to TIP videos, “Abu Umar,” also known by the moniker “Kawsar aka” (Kawsar brother), has replaced Mansur as the group’s leader.710

TIP has a very strong online presence. During the period under review (January to December 2021), it produced more than 60 extremist propaganda videos and 280 audios and released them on its Uyghur language website, which serves as a primary distribution platform of its productions to other platforms such as Telegram and Flickr. However, the coverage of Afghanistan consists only a small percentage of the overall material on the website.

The Taliban’s capture of Kabul has been an iconic moment for TIP and many other jihadist groups across the world. A few days after the fall of the Afghan government, TIP issued a statement lauding the Taliban’s “victory” and the “restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” In a video released in September, TIP’s military commander Abu Muhammad (Zahid) was shown in a video talking to a group of about 50 Uyghur teenagers studying in a madrasa (Islamic school). He claimed that the “discipline, unity, patience to struggle and investment in education” have been key for the Taliban’s “achievement of victory.” He also explained that “an independent Islamic state in their homeland” could be achieved only through “armed struggle,” while framing TIP’s involvement in the Syrian war as a necessary military preparation for its fighters.

Dozens of audio materials released by the group contain translations of the work of Abu Musab Suri, a notorious AQ-linked jihadist ideologue, and Abu al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi, the slain head of the Sharia Committee of AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This illustrates TIP’s continued subscription to the AQ ideology, despite HTS’ public commitment to pivot away from its AQ past. At the same time, the presence of Abu Al Harith Al Masri, an influential jihadist ideologue within HTS, in several TIP videos, shows that HTS continues to see TIP as an important partner. Overall, TIP has been more visible in Syria than in Afghanistan, assisting HTS to run checkpoints, police some villages and conduct offensives against Syrian armed forces. It remains to be seen how the fracturing witnessed within the group will play out in the longer term, or how this will affect fighter transfers from Syria to Afghanistan.711 What is clear, however, is that TIP continues to be an active force amongst the roster of international jihadist groups.

Responses

It appears unlikely that China will seek to lighten its security presence or approach in Xinjiang. From Beijing’s perspective, this process is working, and has helped ensure that there is no violence being reported in the region. Few in China seem publicly unhappy about the approach that is being taken, with most Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, appearing to be largely willing to accept the authority’s narrative of counter extremism being the primary motivation for the crackdown in the region. However, there is evidence that the Han Chinese in Xinjiang find the policies as oppressive as the Uyghurs (though it is not targeting them) and the overall environment in Xinjiang is reported as being highly oppressive for everyone.712 While some people in China have started to express anxiety about certain developments within their country,713 this is not a widespread sentiment, and the authorities in Beijing are unlikely to change paths. The external pressure brought by international sanctions and condemnation only appears to feed a nationalist sentiment around the policies, even further reducing the desire by Beijing to change course.

Separately, there appears to be some Chinese trepidation about the potential for trouble from Afghanistan to impact the threat picture in China. This has been expressed in a number of different ways. In the first instance, there has been a more visible presence of Chinese intelligence within Afghanistan, reportedly focusing on trying to proactively disrupt perceived Uyghur threats in the country. This was sharply brought into focus in December 2020, when a network of Chinese intelligence agents was reportedly disrupted and ejected from the country.714

There was also an increase in commentary by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggesting that the US might be seeking to use Uyghur groups in Afghanistan to try to destabilise China.715 And finally, the Chinese government sought to engage all sides in talks and highlighted concerns about militant Uyghurs in every format. This included meetings with security officials with the old government in Kabul,716 as well as with the Taliban.717 Though, as reports in October uncovered, there were some 35 Uyghur militants in Afghan detention, when the former government fell, who were freed, illustrating Chinese problems with both the old government and the Taliban.718 On their part, the Chinese press and expert community continue to publicly express concern about the potential for militant Uyghurs to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.719

Outlook

TIP’s (or other Uyghurs) fate in Afghanistan will depend on the Taliban’s political will and ability to balance complex internal and external challenges. The current Taliban government in Afghanistan is highly focused on trying to gain international legitimacy, and so is incentivised to instruct militant groups in the country to not use it as a base to launch attacks elsewhere. However, the Taliban are also ideologically motivated and likely feel a certain degree of loyalty to TIP (amongst others), who have been fighting alongside them for over two decades. According to jihadi precepts, any unreasonable disavowal of existing oaths of allegiance would be viewed as a serious offence. The Taliban may therefore choose to settle the issue through informal but non-aggressive methods – moving militants around as has already been suggested, ask individuals to leave or disarm them. Whether this will work, and how far they will go to enforce this is unclear. Any violent suppression may turn some TIP militants against the Taliban, or even lead them to join ISKP. The problem is that it is equally unclear whether a path of compromise will be adequate for outside powers like China that the Taliban are keen to cultivate to help gain greater international acceptance.

By claiming publicly to have mobilised a Uyghur fighter to launch its Kunduz mosque bombing and by portraying the attack as a retaliation for the Taliban’s ostensible cooperation with China against Uyghurs, ISKP is giving a clear signal that it will have a more hands-on stance towards China. This is a direct challenge to evolving Taliban-China relations and helps bolster ISKP’s narrative of being the leading anti-Taliban organisation in Afghanistan. In using this messaging, the group may be willing to position itself as a new protector of the Uyghurs after the Taliban’s stated incentive to curb its ties with Uyghurs, so that it could recruit disaffected TIP militants and others to swell its ranks. In Syria, more pragmatic and less extreme members of TIP remain aligned with HTS, assisting this alliance to consolidate its local control. Although HAD, with its more global and extreme outlook, may keep attracting hardline Uyghurs, it will likely continue to focus on local priorities given pressure coming from both HTS and the Syrian government.

Overall, however, there remains little evidence that any of the many Uyghur factions has developed a capability to strike within China, though an increase in the targeting of Chinese nationals and messaging focusing on China going forward is likely, involving an ever-wider range of militant organisations.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

688 “ETIM Is a Big Threat as It Keeps Sending Members to China to Plot Terrorist Attacks: Ministry of Public Security,” Global Times, July 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228823.shtml.

689 This is a term used by the Chinese government to characterise the ‘harder’ side of their response to dealing with instability and terrorism in Xinjiang. The term has been used a number of times over the years, but most recently in 2014 in the wake of a visit to the region by President Xi Jinping. See “‘Strike Hard’ Campaign Aims to Restore Harmony in Xinjiang,” Global Times, July 7, 2014 https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/869084.shtml.

690 John Sudworth, “‘If the Others Go I’ll Go’: Inside China’s Scheme to Transfer Uighurs Into Work,” BBC News, March 2, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china56250915. There is also some dispute on whether the Xinjiang government is actually winding down its re-education camps.

691 Ibid.

692 Xie Wenting and Fan Lingzhi, “Xinjiang Workers Enjoy Full Freedom and Benefits Working in Guangdong, Academics Find Through 9-Month-Long Field Study,” Global Times, March 23, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219241.shtml.

693 It should be noted that some sources including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refer to the TIP’s Afghanistan-based core as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). ETIM continues to be designated by the UNSC and several countries as an international terrorist organisation. However, the U.S. Department of State and some scholars insist that the ETIM is not a real organisation, but just a mislabel used to describe Uyghur jihadists who fought in Afghanistan. As TIP’s Syrian branch and its core in Afghanistan currently identify themselves only as TIP, the authors use TIP in this article to refer to both branches.

694 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

695 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 19-20, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486; “Chinese Uighur Militants Operating Under Taliban Umbrella in Badakhshan,” KabulNow, March 1, 2021, https://kabulnow.com/2021/03/chinese-uighurmilitants-operating-under-taliban-umbrella-inbadakhshan/.

696 Ibid., 20.

697 Tamim Asey, “China’s Borderland Relations: Afghanistan,” Young China Watchers Online Discussion, September 2021, https://www.youngchinawatchers.com/chinasborderland-relations-afghanistan-with-tamimasey/.

698 Ibid. Asev clearly made reference to the Vietnam/Pakistan route. The transit has been reported in the UN Monitoring Group’s reporting, though there are also some dissenting views from Turkey suggesting this transit may not be taking place to the scale suggested. See “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib To Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsanedenger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

699 Wen Ting Xie and Yun Yi Bai, “Exclusive: New Afghan Govt Eyes Exchanging Visits With China; ETIM Has No Place in Afghanistan: Taliban Spokesperson,” Global Times, September 9, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1233876.shtml.

700 Reid Standish, “Taliban ‘Removing’ Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan’s Border With China,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, October 5, 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-uyghurmilitants-afghan-china/31494094.html.

701 “China’s Intelligence Chief Mounts Pressure on Sirajuddin Haqqani to Extradite Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan,” Sify.com, October 9, 2021, https://www.sify.com/news/chinasintelligence-chief-mounts-pressure-on-sirajuddinhaqqani-to-extradite-uyghur-militants-fromafghanistan-news-national-vkjjktfjhbehf.html.

702 Elliot Stewart, “The Islamic State Stopped Talking About China,” War on the Rocks, January 19, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/01/theislamic-state-stopped-talking-about-uighurs/.

703 Although the bomber’s nom de guerre (“Al Uighuri”) suggests that he could be an ethnic Uyghur, it does not mean that he was necessarily from Xinjiang. Despite the fact that a majority of ethnic Uyghurs reside in Xinjiang, there are Uyghur immigrant communities in many foreign countries including Afghanistan.

704 Saleem Mehsud, “Some interesting details about ISIS-K Kunduz suicide bomb Muhammed al Uyghuri-was Boxer; former solider of Turkish Army; migrated to Khorasan with his elder brother to join ISKP etc; his elder brother killed in classes with Taliban in Khogyani district of Nangrahar, Afghanistan,” Twitter, October 8, 2021, https://twitter.com/saleemmehsud/status/1446762669713895428?s=12.

705 “Afghanistan: Dozens Killed in Suicide Bombing at Kunduz Mosque,” Al Jazeera, October 8, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/8/blasthits-a-mosque-in-afghanistans-kunduz-duringfriday-prayers.

706 Xin Liu, Hui Zhang and Yun Yi Bai, “TTP’s Enmity Toward Pakistan Creates Risk for Chinese Projects: Analysts,” Global Times, September 18, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234606.shtml.

707 “Truth on Dasu Terror Attack Surfaces Amid Unanswered Questions, As China And Pakistan Step Up Security For Chinese,” Global Times, August 13, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231423.shtml.

708 United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

709 HTS has a record of removing non-abiding commanders with corruption and criminality charges (framed or actual).

710 UN reports identify him as “Kaiwusair.”

711 “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib to Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsaneden-ger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

712 “’The Atmosphere Has Become Abnormal’: Han Chinese Views From Xinjiang,” SupChina, November 4, 2020, https://supchina.com/2020/11/04/han-chineseviews-from-xinjiang/.

713 Darren Byler, “‘Truth and reconciliation’: Excerpts From the Xinjiang Clubhouse,” SupChina, March 3, 2021, https://supchina.com/2021/03/03/truth-andreconciliation-excerpts-from-the-xinjiangclubhouse/.

714 “10 Chinese Spies Caught in Kabul Get a Quiet Pardon, Fly Home in Chartered Aircraft,” Hindustan Times, January 4, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/10-chinese-spies-caught-in-kabul-get-a-quietpardon-fly-home-in-chartered-aircraft/storyYhNI0zjmClMcj6T7TCCwVM.html.

715 “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 27, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml.

716 “Zhu afuhan dashi wang yi huijian a di yi fu zongtong sa li he pibo mei ‘she jiang shengming’,” February 3, 2021, http://af.chinaembassy.org/chn/sgxw/t1850986.htm.

717 “Wang Yi Meets With Head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 28, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1895950.shtml

718 “Exclusive: Uyghur Jailbreak Complicates Taliban’s Ties With China,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/worldnews/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreakcomplicates-talibans-ties-china/.

719 “Will Afghan Taliban Honor Its Promise to China to Make a Clean Break With ETIM,” Global Times, September 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234477.shtml.

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