BACKGROUND: Though the TIP was founded by Uighurs from Xinjiang who were in a secessionist struggle, in the 2000s it became much closer to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and adopted the narrative of the global jihadist movement. It was not until clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, Xinjiang in July 2009, however, that the TIP began attracting the attention of other jihadist groups. From 2009 to 2011, IMU and al-Qaeda leaders began appearing in TIP videos and offering support for the “Uighur mujahideen.” The TIP’s use of propaganda, which was mostly in Arabic, to summon support from other jihadist groups was largely successful in drawing attention to Xinjiang and associating Xinjiang with other jihadi theaters like Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine.
In 2011, when the civil war in Syria broke out, the TIP, like the IMU, did not initially change its propaganda strategy. A shift only occurred in October 2012 and July 2013 when TIP said in its quarterly online magazine Islamic Turkistan it had the right to provide “humanitarian aid” to the Syrian people and included an article called “The Truth Has Supporters as the Tyrant Has Soldiers.” The article compared the Syrians’ war against al-Assad to the Uighurs’ war against China. Later in October 2013, in an article in Islamic Turkistan called “Oh Chinese and Russian Regimes, the Arab People’s Revolution Will Never Forget Your Shameful Stances,” the TIP criticized the Chinese and Russian regimes’ positions against the “Syrian revolution.”
In June 2014, the TIP continued with its focus on Syria by claiming that it has a branch in Syria led by Abu Ridha al-Turkistani, an Arabic speaker who claims to lead a Uighur brigade that is featured in TIP videos with neat, green camouflage uniforms. In al-Turkistani’s videos, he has also claimed attacks in China, including a suicide “martyrdom” bombing in Urumqi in May 2014 and a suicide car bombing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October 2013. In October 2014, the TIP also released on its website sadiqlar.com, which is likely administered in Turkey, an online Uighur language booklet from the TIP’s “Syria branch” that offers “advice to Muslim women.” A longer online book was also released that explains why Syria and Damascus are important in Islam and why it is necessary to wage jihad there.
IMPLICATIONS: The TIP’s new focus on Syria is consistent with other groups around the world ranging from Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines to Boko Haram in Nigeria that also have declared support for the Islamic State and shifted their propaganda to praise Syrian jihadists. The TIP’s new Syria-focused media strategy is also consistent with its long-standing propaganda efforts to bring attention to and attract funding for its mission to wage war in China. However, no longer does the TIP reach out to al-Qaeda like it did from 2009 to 2012. Rather, it is now likely reaching out to ISIS and Syrian themes because funding opportunities are coming from ISIS donors and supporters in the Middle East.
In addition, the TIP has long existed alongside and associated with the IMU and Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas. For example, after IMU military leader Usman Ghazi announced his support for ISIS, the IMU spiritual leader Abu Zar al-Burmi issued a statement using the TIP media wing, Islom Awazi (Voice of Islam), declaring the need for a Caliphate. The TIP later issued a statement in support of the Muslims in Arakan State, Burma, which is al-Burmi’s ancestral homeland. The Pakistani Taliban, of which several factions have pledged their support to ISIS, also now includes China among countries like Afghanistan, India and Iran, whose borders it promises will “cease to exist” and will become “dominated by Islam.” As a result, the TIP likely followed the example of its “protectors” in the Pakistani Taliban and IMU and showed greater support for the war in Syria and ISIS. One direct effect of the TIP’s new Syrian profile appears to be that new flows of funding to the group are being used to upgrade the professional quality of its media wing and to purchase higher-grade uniforms and weapons for its training camps.
A final area where the TIP’s influence in Syria may be having an impact is the growing number of Central Asian fighters in Syria. Though the Chinese government reports up to 100 or more Uighurs in Syria and the TIP has implied that its members are fighting in Syria, there are few substantive reports to prove that Uighurs are in the country. Yet videos of Kyrgyz and Kazakh families, including children in training camps (like the TIP’s videos from Pakistan), growing numbers of Uzbek fighters, and dozens of Tajiks in leading roles in Syria shows that several hundred, and possibly well over one thousand, Central Asians are in Syria.
The Uighurs present in Syria likely blend in with other Central Asians and Turks. Should the Uighur militants in Syria return to the South or Central Asia, they can bring their newly acquired militant skills to those regions and open up a new front against China and other Central Asian countries with the IMU. For the interim, however, the primary impact of Uighurs and other Central Asians in Syria is to use the Internet and social media as well as their own personal networks to spreads their extremist ideology to their compatriots in their homelands.
CONCLUSIONS: The attraction of Syria to Central Asian militants continues to play a key role in their funding and recruiting, and the TIP’s adoption of Syria as the center of its propaganda strategy reflects this new trend. The ideological ramifications in Central Asia are already observable in the increasing numbers of Central Asians finding their way to fight in Syria, even if they sometimes do not travel directly from Central Asia but transit through nearby countries, such as Egypt, Turkey or Russia.
The prospect of the Syrian conflict affecting Central Asia more directly will likely require a change in the dynamics of the security environment in South or Central Asia. This could include the Pakistani Taliban declaring a Caliphate in the country’s tribal areas, the Taliban or IMU attacking across the border from Afghanistan into Turkmenistan or Tajikistan, or a resource, border, ethnic or succession crisis breaking out in Central Asia that weakens the region’s resilience to counter terrorist groups. The TIP and its allied groups are likely waiting patiently in their bases in Pakistan for such an opportunity, while also carrying out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan to weaken those countries’ governments and recruiting new members by exploiting the Syrian conflict.
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.
(Image Attribution: VOA via Wikimedia Commons)