The terror group has kept strangely quiet about China’s ‘re-education camps’, where over a million Uygurs have allegedly been interned
Is it too busy waging jihad against America or has China’s clampdown made it too difficult for it to operate in Xinjiang? Or is it simply biding its time?
For a terrorist group that touts itself as the defender of oppressed Muslims the world over, Islamic State (or Isis) has been remarkably quiet about the situation facing the Uygurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
On the face of things, the plight of Xinjiang’s 11 million Uygurs would seem an obvious rallying cry for Isis. Human rights groups claim more than a million Uygurs have been interned in facilities described by Beijing’s critics as “concentration camps” (and by Beijing as “re-education camps”, aimed at imparting vocational skills and rooting out extremist thoughts). In even stronger language, the United States has recently gone as far as to claim the centres and other efforts by Beijing to erase the Ugyurs’ ethnic identity amount to “genocide”.
Strange then, that the terrorist group would adopt what a recent commentary referred to as a “near total, systematic silence” on the matter.
Experts are split on what’s behind this silence. Some suggest it is a strategic move, as Isis prioritises ending the American military presence in the Middle East and South Asia. Others suggest Beijing’s repressive state apparatus and surveillance methods in Xinjiang have made it too difficult for militants to recruit from China.
Yet others warn the silence may simply be a temporary blip, caused perhaps by the collapse of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate across swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq following its military defeat by a US-led coalition at Baghuz in March 2019. They warn that the group, while weakened, remains a potent force in command of an estimated 10,000 fighters and insurgent cells and affiliated groups throughout the region. In other words, it might just be reorganising, rebuilding and biding its time.
“The integrity of its ideology remains,” says counterterrorism analyst Ahmad El-Muhammady of the International Islamic University Malaysia. “Isis may be organisationally destroyed, but we can’t kill ideology.”
On the same day Middle East analyst Elliot Stewart noted the terror group’s silence in a commentary for the foreign policy journal War on the Rocks, the United States’ then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was busy telling the world that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang constituted “genocide and crimes against humanity”.
Pompeo’s accusations, which came in the final days of the Donald Trump administration, included a claim that Chinese policies were “designed systematically to discriminate against and surveil ethnic Uygurs as a unique demographic and ethnic group, restrict their freedom to travel, emigrate, and attend schools, and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech, and worship.”
The Chinese embassy in the US responded that Beijing’s actions targeted not ethnic minorities but ethnic separatists, religious extremism and terrorism.
Even allowing for the fact the claims of genocide were being made by Isis’ sworn enemy, Stewart’s observation that the terror group had “almost entirely ignored the plight of the Uygurs” was difficult to square with its “self-appointed role as violent defender of Muslims everywhere”.
Intriguingly, as Stewart pointed out, back in 2017 Isis had taken provocative steps against China, including producing a video featuring Uygur foreign fighters training in Iraq and pledging to shed “Chinese blood like rivers to avenge the oppressed”, and executing two Chinese teachers abducted in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.
But since then, based on his reviews of Isis videos, magazines and more than 190 issues of its long-running newsletter, Al-Naba, Stewart could find only one explicit mention of the Uygurs and a single page dedicated to China’s rising influence.
Stewart concluded that Isis appeared to have abandoned the issue to prioritise its fight against the US.
“Islamic State seems to have determined that a less provocative approach to China is more advantageous,” he wrote.
“Specifically, the group believes an unprovoked China can play a constructive role in achieving an overriding objective: ending the US military presence in the Middle East and South Asia.”
Stewart added: “The overiding reality for the Islamic State is that the US today maintains 60,000 troops in the Middle East while China does not.” The estimated 2,000 Chinese troops in Djibouti – Beijing’s first overseas military base – had done little to “alter this fundamental imbalance”, he said.
“The Islamic State further understands that an unprovoked China is deeply uninterested in taking on the responsibilities of regional security provision, even in a post-US regional order.”
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, agreed that Isis was more focused on getting the US out of the region but this did not mean that Isis was “strategically choosing to not target China”.
Pantucci said it was wrong to infer from the relative silence that Isis did not support the Uygurs.
A similar assessment of Isis material would probably “uncover a similar lack of chatter around other oppressed Muslim groups” such as the Chechens in Chechnya or the Rohingya in Myanmar, Pantucci said.
Ahmad agreed, saying it would be misleading to assess Isis and its strategy on its public expressions and narrative.
He said Isis had a sophisticated propaganda wing, that understood the concept of agenda setting, the framing and priming of news and how to exploit these to its advantage. The group had even coined the term “al-ilam al-jihadi” to refer to information warfare that prioritised cyberspace as a battleground.
Ahmad said the relative silence did not mean the Uygurs had become less important to Isis; neither did it mean that Isis was less likely to appeal to would-be militants in Xinjiang.
Indeed, he suggested that Isis now had less of a need to keep the Uygurs’ plight in the public eye because the international community and Western media was already doing this and the constant exposure would serve to radicalise individuals elsewhere in China.
Another possibility, said Nodirbek Soliev, a senior analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, was that Isis saw China as less threatening because it had not been involved in military operations against it in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
Soliev said Isis’ advocacy for the Uygurs might have been largely confined to rhetorical support because it had lost Uygur recruits to its rival Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria and Afghanistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party.
“The Turkistan Islamic Party’s years of long dominance and strong ideological influence among the Uygur militant elements in and beyond China has left Isis with very little opportunity to promote its influence among the Uygur community,” Soliev said.
Soliev warned that, unlike Isis, the Turkistan Islamic Party continued to pose a threat to China’s security and interests.
Three years before the 2017 “river of blood” video, Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 singled out China as a battlefield to “wage jihad for the oppression” of the Uygurs in Xinjiang. Propaganda videos featuring Uygur fighters aimed at recruiting more Uygurs promptly followed.
But Soliev said that even at its peak in 2014 and 2015, Isis had only a small group of Uygur fighters under its command in Syria, and since 2017, ISIS-linked Uygur militants had nearly disappeared from the online domain.
“Since then, there have been no propaganda materials in the Uygur language and Uygur fighters have not appeared in any other propaganda videos and photos,” Soliev said, suggesting this was because most of them had died in battle.
However, he added that since Isis lost its stronghold of Baghouz in 2019, the whereabouts of its Uygur fighters in Syria had remained unknown and it was unclear if Isis was still actively recruiting from the ethnic group.
Sumit Ganguly, distinguished political science professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and co-editor of
, said Isis was unlikely to have stopped recruiting Uygurs.
Rather, given China’s vast surveillance capabilities, it was more likely Isis was finding it difficult to recruit from Xinjiang.
Like others, he said that while China’s policies were “repugnant” to Isis, Beijing was “not its immediate enemy”. But that, he warned, may change.
“Isis, for the moment, remains focused on the US. However, as China’s footprint expands, Isis will pay greater heed,” Ganguly said.
Shyam Tekwani, a professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said that following the 2017 “river of blood” video, China’s deradicalisation measures, such as a ban on long beards and veils, and the setting up of the “re-education” centres, had “subdued” the Uygurs in Xinjiang.
Tekwani said this restrictive environment made it hard for “broader jihadist fantasies” to take hold among China’s ethnic minorities, adding it would “not be easy” for the “insignificant number of foreign fighters from Xinjiang to slip back into China”.
“Control is tight, and vigilance extraordinarily fierce,” Tekwani said.
Tekwani said Isis would continue to recruit Uygurs when possible, though it saw Southeast Asia as a greater potential source for recruitment. He, too, warned that Isis’ priorities could change.
“While the case of the Uygurs does not justify expending energy and resources now it could become a rallying cry later,” Tekwani said.
Even if Isis is ignoring China for now to concentrate on its greater foe in America, as China’s influence grows the terror group’s equation could change.
Pantucci said a longer-term concern for Isis was that China would emerge as an “oppressive, invasive power” in the Middle East that would prevent the group from achieving its goal of building a global caliphate.
“Isis worries that China will start to displace the US as the major supportive power in the region towards governments that are thwarting the groups’ ability to achieve its goals”, Pantucci said.
Or, as Ahmad put it: “Isis will fight anyone, regardless of who they are, if they oppose Isis. China included.”