BACKGROUND: Since its emergence in 2006, the TIP has mostly been a propaganda wing for anti-Chinese Uyghurs who fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The TIP, however, traces its legacy to Hassan Mahsum, a Uighur who served time in prison in Xinjiang for his role in attempted uprisings against the Chinese government in the 1990s. After his prison term, Mahsum took exile in Afghanistan, where he became the leader of other anti-Chinese exiles.
The group that Mahsum led has been referred to as the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" (ETIM), but there is no primary source evidence to support that any such group ever existed. Rather, the Uyghurs under Mahsum were subsumed under the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as per a directive from Taliban leader Mullah Omar, or they received refuge in al-Qaeda camps run by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but had no formal name. Consistent with this, in an interview in 2002, Mahsum said that his fighters did not have “any organizational contact or relations with al Qaeda or the Taliban … Maybe some individuals fought alongside them on their own.” Similarly, Uyghurs captured in Afghanistan and then detained in Guantanamo Bay denied knowing about “ETIM,” which was probably because no such group existed, although some did admit knowing Mahsum or his successors.
Mahsum was killed in a Pakistani army raid on an al-Qaeda compound in South Waziristan in 2003. His successor was Abdul Haq-Turkistani, who ran some militant training camps in Afghanistan before 2001 and then led Uighur fighters in Pakistan until he was killed in 2010 in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan while in a vehicle with the Taliban. It was under Abdul Haq that the TIP was formed with a media wing as sophisticated as any other in the al-Qaeda network. Its first video was called “Jihad in Turkistan” and released in 2006. Future videos, however, were produced by the TIP media wing, Islom Awazi (Voice of Islam) and discussed themes such the history of Muslims in China, the “crimes” of the Communist Chinese against Uighur culture, women and Islam, and broader themes, such as “liberating” Palestine. Since 2012, the TIP has also co-issued videos with the media wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is called Jund Allah Studios.
In 2008, The TIP also began publishing its quarterly Arabic-language publication under the editor Abdullah Mansour, which is called “Islamic Turkistan” and is now in its 13th edition. After the death of Abdul Haq’s successor, Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, in 2012, Mansour emerged as the TIP’s leader. Since 2012, the TIP has issued increasingly frequent videos praising attacks in Xinjiang, which is not surprising given that Islamic Turkistan’s editor, Mansour, is also now the TIP’s leader.
IMPLICATIONS: There are several networks of pro-Uighur organizations outside of China. First, there are Uighur organizations that peacefully advocate for greater Uighur autonomy in Xinjiang and more religious and cultural freedoms in China. These organizations are mostly based in Western countries in Europe and the U.S., including the World Uyghur Congress in Germany, but these networks also include some organizations in Turkey and Central Asia.
Second, there are a number of Uighur organizations in Turkey, which are likely more closely tied to militant Uighur groups in Pakistan or to formerly Turkey-based Uighur militant groups, such as the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO). The ETLO’s former leader said in 2003 that his group would seek to achieve “East Turkistan independence” by “peaceful means,” but that the formation of a military wing is “inevitable.” The TIP’s claims to be supporting the Syrian rebels with “humanitarian aid,” TIP materials that appear on the websites of Turkish Uighur organizations, and the existence of Turks fighting with the TIP in Pakistan and Uyghurs fighting with the Syrian rebels suggests that there may be some lingering connections between Uighur militants and Turkish organizations. These organizations in Turkey, however, rarely receive international media coverage, despite China’s concerns about them, but they may be influential among some of the tens of thousands of Uyghurs in Turkey.
Third, the TIP represents a minority of Uighur organizations around the world in that it promotes Jihad against China, openly affiliates with al-Qaeda and supports suicide attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and on Chinese security forces in China. It has even released videos and photos of its attackers training in Afghanistan-Pakistan border region before they carried out attacks in Xinjiang, such as Memtieli Tiliwaldi, who was involved in a car-ramming of Han pedestrians on the eve of Ramadan in October 2011, and Nuruddin, one of the TIP’s six “Turkish martyrs,” who carried out a suicide operation against NATO forces in 2013.
However, in 2013 the TIP is for the first time gaining international media coverage alongside the pro-democracy and pro-human rights Uighur organizations, such as the World Uyghur Congress. This is affording the TIP a voice to represent the Uyghurs, which used to be exclusively the domain of Western-based Uighur groups. For example, the TIP got much of the media attention after a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square in October 2013 was carried out by an Uighur husband, wife, and mother, who were reportedly seeking revenge against China for the government’s refusal to allow the family to build a mosque in Xinjiang. Reuters and the Guardian reported Mansour’s claim that the attack was a “jihadi operation” and the result of an Uighur “awakening” after sixty years of Chinese oppression.
Since 2013 was the most violent year in Xinjiang and more Uyghurs are starting to take arms against the Chinese government it is possible that even if the TIP does not directly command attacks, it will become the mouthpiece for militant-minded Uyghurs. The TIP, therefore, will increasingly shape the narrative of Uighur grievances and opposition to the Chinese government in Xinjiang. Xinjiang would therefore become more closely associated with other “jihadist theatres” like Kashmir and Palestine and may attract more attention from international jihadists who either donate funds to the TIP or other Muslims who join the preexisting Kazakhs, Turks (including Kurds), Uzbeks, Russians, and Uyghurs in the TIP.
CONCLUSIONS: With the emergence of Abdullah Mansour as the TIP leader, the TIP now has a media-savvy representative, who will likely be more effective than previous TIP leaders in issuing propaganda in defense of what he calls the “Uighur mujahedeen.” At the same, with the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the TIP and its allies in the IMU, whose spiritual leader Abu Zar al-Burmi claims China will be the next “number one enemy,” may experience less pressure in Pakistan and may be able to launch a new wave of attacks in Xinjiang or possibly deeper in “inner China,” such as Beijing or Shanghai. This would afford the TIP even more of a pulpit to spread its message and present its version of the Uighur narrative in international media. This would force China to not only defend against attacks operationally, but also to develop a coordinated counter-narrative to neutralize the potential impact of TIP’s violent messaging to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, ethnic Turks in Central Asia, and Muslims around the world.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.