ISIS, the world’s most violent Islamist terrorist outfit, for the first time specifically put China on notice last weekend when it released a four-minute video in Mandarin aimed at recruiting China’s estimated 23 million Muslims. The catchy nasheed (chants) in the video calls upon “Muslim brothers” to shake off the “shameful” memory of a “century of slavery” and “awaken and fight on the battlefield”. It stresses that they will “abide only by the Quran and the Sunnah and no power can stop their progress”.
Coming amidst the hitherto unchecked violence by Uyghurs protesting Chinese rule in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, the video will further heighten the anxieties of China’s leadership. There has been no direct official Chinese response to the video yet and, in a bid to prevent spread of the video and its contents, the strictly-controlled official Chinese language media has blanked out its mention. Reference to the video has been noticed on only one blogsite on sina.com.
Posted on 11 December 2015, this blog referred to the nasheed and observed that ISIS, and Islamic outfits based especially in Turkey, had condemned China’s “anti-Islamic policies” in Xinjiang. Citing a survey done in 2010, it stated that China has about 10 million Uyghurs and 10 million Hui, both Sunnis and with the Hui nationality speaking Mandarin. The blog recalled that a group fighting Bashar al Assad released an online video in 2013 showing a Chinese ISIS “soldier” named Yusuf (Wang Bo in Chinese) and that in a speech in July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had said that citizens of twelve countries, including China, had joined the ranks of ISIS fighters. Also in 2014, Iraq’s Defence Ministry disclosed that it had captured Chinese nationals fighting for ISIS in September, but gave no details.
The release of this video in Mandarin appears to be a deliberate move by ISIS. It had earlier issued a map depicting large swathes of Chinese territory as part of the ISIS Caliphate and in July 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi identified China as a country that suppresses Muslims. Most recently, on 18 November, ISIS announced the execution of Fan Jinghui, its first Chinese hostage and Beijing native.
Release of the recruitment video by ISIS comes at an inopportune time for Beijing, when it is preparing to substantively raise its economic profile in Afghanistan and acquire land and build infrastructure projects in Pakistan’s northern areas to further consolidate strategic ties. This makes China a target. The steady radicalisation of Pakistani society will additionally make it increasingly difficult for Beijing to prevent fundamentalist and extremist Islamic elements from trying to fuel religious fervour and restiveness in adjoining Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, evidence of Uyghurs being involved with ISIS is increasing. Chinese officials estimate that 300 Uyghurs have joined ISIS. Other credible reports reveal that Uyghurs are fighting alongside ISIS and the Jabhat Al-Nusra. These state that two years ago, ISIS transferred thousands of Uyghur families, who had escaped from China to Turkey, to the village of Abyad in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa province and the area around the oil fields in Deir ez-Zo, and that ISIS is enlisting a thousand fighters from among them. Other reports state that “20,000 Turkistanis are being organised by Turkish intelligence” in Istanbul and placed in the charge of the Al-Nusra Front for use in Syria after Afghanistan. They say the Turkistani Islamic Party is preparing an army that will first fight in Syria and whose survivors will return to “Chinese Turkistan” some day. Confirming Turkey’s complicity, the state-run Global Times, citing Chinese police sources, reported this July that debriefing of “human smugglers” had revealed that Turkish embassies and consulate generals in Southeast Asia had “knowingly processed proof of citizenship and issued passports and travel documents to Chinese people from Xinjiang”. It said “they even falsely claimed these Uyghurs were their citizens and openly rescued and took them away”.
Xue Li, director of the International Strategy Research Office, World Politics and Economy Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned in October 2015 “that the ‘three forces’ (of religious extremism, ethnic splittism and violent terrorism) are spreading outside Xinjiang to Chinese provinces as well as beyond China’s borders. Terror attacks have taken place in big cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Kunming as well as in medium-sized cities like Wenzhou. … The number of cases in which the ‘three forces’ leave China for training and then returning to carry out terror attacks is increasing.”
Beijing’s problems are poised to escalate over the longer term too, when Soviet-era leaders in the Central Asian Republics disappear and Islamic organisations begin to occupy political space. The latter can be expected to ease border controls with China and allow material and other support to reach the Uyghurs and China’s other Muslim minorities.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. The views expressed are personal.