Xinjiang Province - The Islamic Jihad Battlefront in China

When the 2008 Summer Olympic Games were awarded to Beijing seven years ago, hope arose that China's new-found status as a modern, world power and position in the world media spotlight would prompt increased tolerance and democracy nationwide. Clearly, that optimism has been dashed by the turmoil in Tibet.

Stellar economic performance and reforms, viewed sanguinely by the West as a sure route to liberalization, have occurred in China devoid of political reform. China's use of brutal force and massive arrests against Tibetan protestors bear witness to this lack of progress. Indeed, China today stands revealed as one of the worst perpetrators of human rights violations and religious repression in the world.

Among those singled out for similar harshness and violence is a portion of China's 30-million-strong Muslim community: the Islamic jihadists of the northwestern province of Xinjiang and surrounding areas. With Tibet in mind, the West may be tempted to view this decades-long unrest in Central Asia as yet another example of Chinese aggression and expansionism against a beleaguered population seeking independence. Yet, such a view is shortsighted and dangerous. For, in truth, the Islamic Jihadists of China's Xinjiang are linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. Their terrorist methods and ideology are of a piece with the larger Islamic Jihadist goal to overthrow existing governments and install a religious theocracy. They, in fact, represent the Chinese battlefront of the worldwide Islamic Jihad.

China's Muslim Population

Inaccessibility to China's far flung regions and the exclusion of questions about religion in the last three national censuses make it difficult to obtain accurate figures about the Chinese Muslim population. But it is estimated at around 30 million, the second largest religious group in China after Buddhists. About 20 million are Hui, concentrated mostly in northwestern China. Another 8.5 million are Uyghurs who reside in Xinjiang province.  

The Hui, culturally similar to the majority Han Chinese, follow Islamic dietary laws and some customs of Muslim dress but have engaged in only limited jihadist activity. Evidence exists of uprisings in two Hui villages, as well as some protest activity against the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. However, discrimination and economic deprivation against the Uyghurs and their push for a separate state have made for more extensive and organized jihadist activities by the militant, Uyghur Muslims throughout Central Asia. The nature of this activity -- the extent to which it is an uprising for a separatist state or supports a pan-Islamist agenda -- is difficult to assess given Communist China's history of repression of religious groups, rampant human rights abuses and lack of a free press, but some conclusions can be made.

The Uyghurs

The desire for an independent Uyghur state is a fairly recent development, dating from the 1930's, but the Uyghurs themselves are a historically nomadic people of Turkic Indo-European origin who can be traced back to the 700s. 

The province in which they live, Xinjiang, is large and sparsely populated, representing one-sixth of China's total land mass. It borders Tibet, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyryzstan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian state of Kashmir. Xinjiang is rich in oil, gas and mineral deposits. It also has numerous military installations and, until 1996, nuclear testing facilities, giving it significant and strategic military importance to China.

The Uyghurs have a separate language, culture, religion and identity from the dominant Han, who are deemed the "true," ethnic Chinese. Uyghurs hold a multiplicity of identities, including Muslim, Uyghur, Turk or Chinese and have historically been opposed to Han or majority Chinese rule. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang maintain an informal ethnic apartheid. They view the Chinese as inferior occupiers, equate Confucianism and Buddhism with idolatry, and frequent their own stores and restaurants. An estimated 23,000 mosques exist in the region, with many small neighborhood facilities, some financed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. 

According to Igor Rotar, a Central Asia correspondent for The Jamestown Foundation, Uyghurs "tend to be more zealous Muslims than their Central Asian neighbors. The majority of local, married women wear burqas, which is quite rare in Central Asia, and middle-aged men prefer to have beards."[1]  Rotar says a Uyghur Muslim in Xinjiang explained to him that "In the Quran it is written that a Muslim should not live under the authority of infidels, and that is why we will never reconcile with the Chinese occupation." China's restrictive policy on family size is also a point of contention in this community. 

In direct contrast to this view, visiting Associated Press reporter, William Foreman, recently observed, "Most Uighurs practice a moderate form of Islam. The men wear ornate skullcaps, or "doppi," while most women favor head scarves but rarely cover their faces. Many can be seen dressed in tight skirts or stylish hip-hugging designer jeans and high heels."[2]

As a non-Han people, Uyghurs have been viewed by the Chinese as inferior and portrayed as untrustworthy, shiftless, warring troublemakers. They have been discriminated against in employment and are victims of economic deprivation in an underdeveloped area. Drug use, particularly opium and hashish, is rampant and has added to the hopelessness and poverty. A high incidence of AIDS due to heroin injection appears to have attracted little government intervention to combat the problem.     

The Push for Uyghur Independence

In the 1930s, Uyghur separatists proposed a constitution for a Uyghur republic that referenced Islam and shariah law but focused primarily on economic development and political freedom. The occupation of northern Xinjiang in 1949 by China's military, the People's Liberation Army, was viewed as a hopeful sign because China's leader, Chairman Mao Zedong, pledged an end to "Great Han chauvinism." In reality, Chinese Communists valued Xinjiang, not for egalitarian reasons, but as a strategic and natural, resource-rich asset. Meanwhile, the Han-dominated, Communist Party asserted a unified, Chinese identity and sought to eliminate the distinct Uyghur culture and history.

During the Cold War, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, surrounded by the Chinese and the USSR, had limited options for self-determination. In the 1980s when restrictions eased in China against ethnic minorities and religious practices, the Uyghurs spoke out about discrimination and injustice. They reasserted their demands for a homeland, which continue to this day. An active Uyghur exile community in Central Asia, estimated at 400,000, has sought to draw attention to the plight of the Uyghurs and their quest for a separate state. 

The Uyghur-Jihadist Link  

Motivated by legitimate desires for independence, militant Turkic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang have, since the 1970's, engaged in terrorist activities. These include killing police and military officers, robbing banks, rioting and bombing. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang, members of the 400,000-strong Uyghurs in the diaspora and other Islamist groups in Central Asia have become part of a pan-Islamic movement that developed since the mid-1980's and includes terrorist activity that intensified after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Islamists in Xinjiang have reportedly received financial support and training from the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan.

The potential for the Islamization of the region and the ability of Islamists to capitalize on the existing conflict between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government is a real concern to the Communist government.

The strongest militant Islamist groups in the region include the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), allegedly linked to Al Qaeda. The IMU renamed itself the Islamic Party of Turkistan and publicly declared that it seeks to create an Islamic state across Central Asia and expand its recruitment efforts throughout the region. For traditional Uyghur separatists, these groups represent a source of wealthy supporters who offer funding, weapons support and terrorist training. They also help buttress and reinforce the global Islamist movement into China. For example, in 1989, Al Qaeda set up a base in China with links to the ETIM and the IMU. 

Xinjiang's porous border with Kazakhstan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan facilitates the conducting of terrorist training just outside of China, as well as the movement of weapons, explosives and terrorist operatives. It also enables the indoctrination of Muslims in extremist ideology out of the reach of China.

China reports that the ETIM has ties to Central Asia Uyghur Hezbollah in Kazakstan and that 1,000 Uyghurs were trained by Al Qaeda. They maintain that 600 of them escaped to Pakistan, 300 were caught by U.S. forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan and 110 returned to China and were caught. At the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan, U.S. forces did, in fact, report that 15 Uyghurs were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

According to B. Raman, former head of the Counterterrorism Division of India's external intelligence agency, the Uyghurs have been approached by the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a political party whose goal is to unite all Muslim countries in a unitary Islamic state. The Hizb ut-Tahrir in Pakistan and in other parts of Central Asia, has sought to use the Uyghurs to set up sleeper cells in Xinjiang.

Home-Grown Uyghur Terrorism

However, it would be inaccurate to characterize the Uyghurs as completely influenced by outside jihadists, for, their own history is rife with violence in the name of Islam. The first major uprising of Uyghur Muslims took place in Northwestern China in 1990 with a series of protests. As a result, China deployed troops and began to conduct military exercises in the region.

In 1996, following the first meeting of the countries that would later form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), China began clamping down on the Uyghur Muslims. In an effort toward political stabilization, the Chinese implemented measures to improve the economy of the area and built roads, rails and pipelines connecting Xinjiang with Central Asia. But an unanticipated result of this economic expansion was the establishment of alliances in border states for Islamic terrorist training and the smuggling of drugs, arms and people.

In 1997, Uyghur Islamists were responsible for several bombings, including a bus bombing in Beijing. Although an Uyghur terrorist group claimed responsibility for the Beijing bombing, Chinese media covered up this fact as they did with many other terrorist attacks prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.

China's Position on Terrorism - Pre & Post 9/11

This attitude began to change just prior to 9/11, when Taliban fighters from Afghanistan began incursions into Xinjiang. The activities prompted formation in June of 2001 of the China-initiated, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO was designed to combat Islamism by setting up a terrorist monitoring center, promoting economic development throughout the region and establishing Chinese and Russian hegemony over the area.

At its first meeting, it reached an agreement calling for cooperation to prevent terrorism and insurgency, mutual identification of terrorists and terrorist organizations, suppression of terrorist activities and extradition of terrorists. Member states also agreed to create rapid deployment forces, conduct joint military exercises, investigate sources of terrorist financing and exchange information on illicit WMD manufacturing, purchase, storage and movement. 

This represented a huge step forward because, up to 9/11, the Chinese government was not open about the existence and extent of jihadist activities within its country. Chinese authorities viewed acts of terrorism as a police, law-and-order issue rather than a global jihadist effort and believe that disseminating public reports on crime spreads the activity and increases unrest. 

After 9/11, China changed its position to show that it, too, was a victim of the Islamist jihad. The government admitted the proliferation of terrorist activities over the previous decade, listing explosions, assassinations, poisonings, rioting and vehicle fires. At the time, they claimed to have uncovered links between Uyghur Muslim groups and Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

At a press conference in Pakistan in 2002, Chinese government officials publicized the arrest of a high-level Uyghur terrorist by Pakistani authorities. The Chinese also requested that the United States repatriate 300 Uyghurs captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, who were alleged fighters for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. 

In 2003, China signed an extradition treaty with Pakistan to remand terrorists from the ETIM and the ETLO, whom they believed were affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and who had received training and funding from Osama Bin Laden. The Chinese government pressured Pakistan, known for its alliance with the Taliban and its promulgation of jihadist ideology, to turn over known Uyghur militants who had escaped to Pakistan. This appeal has not produced significant results. 

Recent Uyghur Violence

Jihadist violence has continued to escalate over the last few years. In 2004, Uyghurs trained by the IMU were suspected of involvement in an explosion in Balochistan, Pakistan, in which three Chinese engineers were killed. The following year during the Eid-al-Adha religious celebrations, two explosions from suicide bombings near the Kazakstan border in Xinjiang killed 13 people and injured 18.

In January of 2007, the Chinese raided an ETIM terrorist training camp close to the Afghanistan and Pakistan borders. The raid, in which 18 terrorist suspects died, yielded a large explosives and weapons cache. Also seized was a 32-minute video urging Uyghur Muslims to make use of key public events as a platform to publicize their grievances worldwide. It contained references to a "World Islamic Resistance Book" and the establishment of China as a jihad zone, plus included an impressive display of weapons and explosives and a demonstration of vehicle bombings.

On March 7, 2008, two men believed to be Pakistanis and a Uyghur woman who was trained by a Pakistan-based terrorist group attempted to sabotage a China Southern Airlines flight from Xinjiang to Beijing. The woman, who traveled first class, carried flammable liquids onto the aircraft that but failed to ignite them in the plane lavatory. All three terrorists involved carried Pakistani passports. 

Chinese Counter-terrorist Measures

To curtail incidents like those cited above of a potentially burgeoning Islamist threat, the Chinese government maintains strict supervision over Xinjiang and has dealt harshly with terrorist activity. China has successfully altered the demography of the region by repopulating it with Han Chinese, now the majority. To curb the influence of Islam, the government engages in surveillance of mosques, restricts the participation of youth and women in mosque activities, monitors the content of services and curtails participation in the Haj. Muslim clerics or imams who serve in the region must complete their training at a state-controlled seminary and teach "moderate" Islam under the leadership of the state. 

A heavy police presence around the mosques and the military exists at the border to prevent smuggling of people and weapons. Police routinely cordon off areas in which terrorist incidents or rioting occurs and remove and imprison the agitators before they reopen the area. 

Potential Threats to U.S. Security

The Xinjiang-inspired violence is not restricted, however, to attacks just against the Chinese. In May of 2002, a planned attack by the ETIM on the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Kyrgyzstan was thwarted. At the time, Pakistani authorities found blueprints indicating the location of the embassy, the American military base and a synagogue. 

In view of the strategic military and economic importance of Central Asia, the need to protect its interests in the region and pressure from the Chinese, the United States agreed to classify some local groups, like the ETIM, as terrorist organizations and freeze their American assets. Of course, geopolitical concerns over maintaining good, Sino-U.S. relations played a major part in the State Department's classification. The United States wants to ensure continued U.S. military presence in Central Asia in the midst of China's growing economic and political power in the region and any Chinese attempts to check U.S. influence in the region. 

Politics is also playing a larger role as the Olympics draw closer and the international spotlight focuses on China's oppression of Tibetans, Falun Gong and other repressed groups. While some may be prone to view the Uyghur Muslims through the prism of China's historical crackdown on religious groups and ethnic minorities, the record of historical, jihadist terrorist activity, listed above, would argue against it.

Despite the Unites States' own grievances with China, serious questions should be raised to better understand the global jihad, its role in China and our fight in the war against Islamic terrorism. 

We should ask: how much of the Uyghur separatist struggle has been co-opted by the Islamists and is being used to breed fellow travelers for the jihadist agenda? Who are victims -- the Uyghurs, China or both? Is it realistic for China to fear Islamic extremism, territorial expansion and the spread of insurgency to other aggrieved groups? Is China using the excuse of terrorism as an excuse for a crackdown on the Muslim Uyghurs or is China a victim of the extensive network of Islamic terrorist groups in Xinjiang and Central Asia? Have the Islamists joined forces with Uyghur separatists to capitalize on the struggle in Tibet? Is the West failing to differentiate between radical Islam and legitimate human rights grievances? Is China's "Strike Hard" policy serving to radicalize the Uyghurs and causing them to find common cause with the Islamists? Finally, how can the United States assist China in the mutual fight against global Islamic terrorism and, at the same time, successfully address issues of religious repression and civil rights? 

As China faces world scrutiny and the threat of disruptions and boycotts against the upcoming Olympics for its ruthless civil rights violations, we should be mindful of the growing Islamization of the Xinjiang province under the Uyghur conflict. Clearly, jihadist groups are active in the region and have coordinated terrorist actions, recruitment, training and financing. They are dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Central Asia, related to the worldwide Islamic jihad.

As has been evident in other parts of the world, Islamists deftly graft their agenda onto regional political struggles to form unholy alliances and advance their pan-Islamist agenda. We should not be deceived by our zeal to focus on human rights abuses in China or focus entirely on Tibet and the separatists. Instead, this important component of unrest in Central Asia needs its own specific analysis, political action and focused response.

[1] Rotar, Igor, "The Growing Problem of Uighur Separatism", China Brief, Volume 4, Issue 8, The Jamestown Foundation, April 15, 2004,

[2] Foreman, William, "China Faces Muslim Resentment in West," Yahoo News, April 9, 2008,

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