The Uighurs and China’s regional counter-terrorism efforts

BISHKEK (TCA) — Authorities in China are taking tough measures against what they say are Uighur separatists and extremists in Xinjiang, but the persecution and crackdowns can backfire, making more Uighur Muslims join the ranks of such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State. We are republishing this article by Zachary Abuza* on China’s counter-terrorism policies, originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor:

Members of China’s Uighur population have played a small but important role in the spread of global jihad, and Beijing is playing an increasingly assertive role in pursuing them as China’s influence grows.

China’s Uighur exodus began following the 2009 riots in Xinjiang that led to the deaths of nearly 200 people. At first, China relied on economic instruments to pressure its neighbors into returning them — just two days after Cambodia returned 20 fleeing Uighurs, Beijing signed economic cooperation deals valued at $1.2 billion with Phnom Penh (Phnom Penh Post, November 4, 2010). China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative and the Asian International Investment Bank (AIIB) have allowed it to further flex its considerable economic muscle in order to get its way in the region. Meanwhile, in the background, China has also been more assertive in its use of legal and law-enforcement instruments.

Increasingly, China is pushing for extraterritorial policing powers, and its security forces routinely patrol the Mekong River in Laos and Myanmar waters. Despite a good deal of sympathy in the region for the plight of the Uighurs, Southeast Asian nations have been receptive to Chinese “counter terrorism” efforts.

A self-inflicted insurgency

Since the 1990s, China has responded to the growth of its Uighur insurgency with intense repression. The arrest of moderate Uighurs such as Ibrahim Tohti, the “Han-ization” of urban Xinjiang and the systematic repression of the Muslim community and the visible manifestations of their faith have led to a steady exodus of Uighurs from China to Turkey via Southeast Asia (al-Jazeera, December 12, 2014; al-Jazeera, March 12; al-Jazeera, April 1).

This is a self-inflicted crisis: “Between 1990 and 2010, the Chinese government gradually turned Uighur national identity and Islamic practices into national security threats, i.e., extremized/securitized them.” [1] Since then, the government has gone even further, passing laws that ban the use of Muslim names and forcing men to shave their beards. It has banned women from covering their heads, collected DNA samples en masse, seized passports and prevented children from receiving a religious education (The Guardian, June 23).

Crackdowns in Xinjiang escalated in 2013 and 2014, with an estimated 700 people killed in violence (Benar News, March 15, 2015). In Xinjiang in 2014, there were a total of 27,164 arrests, a 95 percent increase from 2013 (Tianshannet, January 23, 2015). In 2014, Chinese courts convicted 712 people for the incitement of separatism, terrorism and related charges. In 2015, that number jumped to 1,419. Almost all of those convicted were Uighurs (al-Jazeera, March 13, 2016).

While the majority of terrorist attacks were perpetrated within Xinjiang, militants were able to detonate a car bomb in Tiananmen Square in 2009. However, it was a wave of attacks in places like Kunming — knife wielding assailants killed 29 people and wounded 143 others in a crowded train station — that provoked outrage on Chinese social media and forced the government to intensify their already repressive measures.

The exodus of Uighur refugees and migrants turned into a steady stream (al-Jazeera, February 18, 2015). In April 2014, Thailand arrested 16 of them. That month, another 16 Uighurs tried to cross into Vietnam. After being detained, they attacked the Vietnamese police, resulting in a shootout (BBC, April 29, 2014). In December 2014, Vietnam returned 43 more Uighurs to China (al-Jazeera, December 24, 2014).

By 2014, there was increasing evidence of well-organized human trafficking networks. Thai police rescued some 200 Uighurs from a human smuggling ring in southern Thailand. In 2014, Thailand detained 350 Uighurs. In October 2014, Malaysian authorities detained 155 Uighurs, 44 of them children, who were found crammed into two apartments in Kuala Lumpur (The Star [Malaysia], October 4, 2014). Many of the Uighurs were carrying Turkish passports, which are suspected of being fake.

Changing global context: the rise of IS

The emergence of what was then Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in 2014, which spread like wildfire across Iraq and Syria and attracted foreign fighters from around the world, marked a significant change for China in relation to its Uighur exodus.

China has long linked the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist movement, to al-Qaeda, and indeed ETIM had ties to al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. [2]

There has been a small but steady recruitment of Uighurs by Islamic State (IS). Using four different data sets from 2014 to 2015, Clint Watts, who has poured through the data, including Islamic State (IS) personnel files, estimated that between 0.6 to 4.3 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria were Chinese nationals (War on The Rocks, June 1, 2016).

Nate Rosenblatt’s analysis of IS personnel records identified only 114 fighters from Xinjiang. On a provincial basis, however, this makes Xinjiang the fifth highest source of foreign fighters in the Muslim world. [3] Largely untrained, they joined IS after the establishment of the Caliphate, although he concluded that the more militarily seasoned Uighurs fought with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) — the re-booted version of ETIM — rather than IS.

Ahmed Rashid has also reported that Uighurs are part of a Central Asian unit of al-Qaeda’s al-Nusrah Front (al-Jazeera, April 25, 2016). And China has pressured Pakistan to force Uighurs out of Taliban-linked madrassas. (al-Jazeera, February 18, 2015)

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has been the beneficiary of massive Chinese investment through its OBOR development program and AIIB lending. China, likewise, tied aid and assistance to Afghanistan in exchange for a crackdown on Uighurs.

In April 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi identified China in a sermon as a state that has systematically repressed Muslims (SITE, July 1, 2014). In 2017, IS central media singled out China in a video, which features a Uighur fighter issuing this threat before executing an alleged informant: “Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say. We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed” (al-Jazeera, March 1).

The Southeast Asia connection

However, not all Uighur militants found their way to Iraq and Syria, or Pakistan and Afghanistan. A handful also made their way to join Islamist militants in Southeast Asia. In September 2014, Indonesian authorities arrested four Uighurs in Poso in Central Sulawesi, fighting with the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), a splinter of the al-Qaeda affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which pledged allegiance to IS in 2014.

The four Uighurs traveled from Cambodia to Malaysia, to Makassar in South Sulawesi, before being taken to join the MIT in Poso, where they hoped to receive bomb-making and other military training (Benar News, June 12, 2015). Captured by Indonesian security forces, they were charged with terrorism related offences. Their trial, however, was complicated by the lack of a Uighur translator and the fact that the men, who were carrying Turkish passports, claimed to be Turkish. Turkey stood up for them, but the four were convicted in July 2015 and appealed their verdict (Benar News, July 16, 2015).

Nonetheless, the pipeline has continued. In sweeps of IS cells in December 2015, Indonesian police arrested a Uighur man in an IS militant’s house in Bekasi, West Java, confiscating a suicide vest and bomb-making materials.

Indonesian police arrested another Uighur in the Bekasi operation (The Age, December 23, 2015). Also, Indonesian security forces killed two Uighurs in Central Sulawesi in March 2016 (Jakarta Post, March 17, 2016). By August, security forces had killed six Uighurs fighting alongside the MIT (Jakarta Post, April 25, 2016; Jakarta Globe, April 27, 2016).

An IS cell based in Batam, Indonesia was broken up before it was able to stage attacks in nearby Singapore, and accused, alongside terrorism offences, of helping to smuggle Uighurs into the country (Today [Singapore], August 12, 2016; Straits Times, August 14, 2016). The leader of the cell received two payments, one for $2,000 and the other for $1,900, from suspected ETIM members through Western Union in October 2015. He used Telegram to arrange their travel (Straits Times, Aril 10). Indeed, the six-man Batam cell was convicted in June 2017, not for plotting terrorist attacks on Singapore, but for human trafficking.

In February 2017, Malaysian authorities arrested a seven-person cell planning to execute a car bomb attack. The cell was led by an Indonesian, who was unable to enter Syria, and included four Yemenis and a Uighur (The Star[Malaysia], March 6).

China takes notice

China has taken notice of the growing involvement of Uighurs overseas, identifying the international network as a direct threat.

Upon the arrest of the first four Uighurs in September 2014, China dispatched three intelligence officials to Indonesia to attend their trial, arrange for their extradition and enlist the support of Indonesia’s Densus-88 security force to go after other Uighur suspects.

A preliminary agreement was signed with Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency, Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme (BNPT), stating the Uighurs would be prosecuted and that: “Once the indictment is completed, they will be returned to China. After that, it’s up to the Chinese government whether they want to detain them, sentence them to death, or free them. It depends on the laws in force there” (Benar News, March 19, 2015).

The sensitivity of these arrangements cannot be overstated. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, there is considerable public sympathy for the Uighurs, and since 2013, Malaysia had been an important transit corridor for Uighurs making their way to Turkey.

The Malaysians, however, have come under intense pressure from the Chinese. Between 2013 and 2016, Malaysia deported 28 Uighur militants to China, based on an intelligence-sharing agreement between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, finding the Chinese evidence that all 28 were members of ETIM convincing enough to warrant deportation (Straits Times, January 13).

The Erawan shrine bombing

Thailand was also an important part of the overland corridor for fleeing Uighurs. In 2014, following the country’s military coup, the unpopular ruling junta quickly tilted toward China. While much media attention has focused on Thailand’s deepened bilateral military ties to China, the first post-coup agreement was in fact on intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism.

Thailand and China signed an agreement paving the way for the return of some 300 Uighurs (al-Jazeera, December 24, 2014). But Thai courts were not fully on board and resisted returning some of those accused (al-Jazeera, March 27, 2015). In June 2015, Thailand sent 173 Uighurs, mainly women and children, to Turkey, despite Chinese protests, claiming that they were Turkish citizens (al-Jazeera, July 9, 2015). The following month, however, Thailand returned 109 Uighur men to China in a shocking manner — the men were filmed handcuffed, hooded and with an escort of one Chinese policeman per returnee. The Thai government was defensive about this decision, arguing that at least it had not sent back all of those it detained (Reuters, July 9, 2015). Subsequently, anti-Thai riots, including an attack on the Thai embassy, took place in Ankara, Turkey.

On August 17, 2015, a bomb ripped through a crowded Hindu shrine in downtown Bangkok, killing 20 people, mostly ethnic Chinese tourists. The Thai government’s handling of the attack was lacking, with shoddy police work likely intended to conform to the wishes of the military leadership that sought to pin the attack on its political opposition.

Most of the suspects fled, but one was arrested on August 30, trying to cross into Cambodia. Days later, a second arrest uncovered a safe house in Bangkok with a large stash of explosives, detonators and chemical precursors, as well as dozens of fake Turkish passports (al-Jazeera, August 30, 2015). Yusufu Mieraili, one of the men detained, was carrying a Chinese passport, giving a Xinjiang birthplace, while the lawyer for the other suspect claimed his client was born in Xinjiang, but moved to Turkey in 2004 where he received Turkish citizenship. Named Bilal Mohammed, he held a Turkish passport in the name Adem Karadag.

The Thai government remained in complete denial that this was an act of international terrorism. As soon as it failed to conform to their narrative, they wanted the case to go away. It was not until September 15 that the Thai government formally linked the shrine bombing to the Uighurs (Asian Correspondent, September 15, 2015).
They received almost no help from the Turkish government, although many of the suspects had been tracked to Turkey. Malaysia arrested eight people in connection with the Bangkok attack, four of them Uighurs, in September 2016, but Thailand never bothered to extradite them. Malaysia simply linked them to human trafficking networks (al-Jazeera, September 23, 2015).

In April 2016, Malaysia detained two more Uighurs at Thailand’s request, but again Bangkok did not extradite them. Even then, senior Malaysian officials suggested they were involved in human trafficking and not terrorism (The Star[Malaysia], April 9, 2016; Straits Times, April 12, 2016).

Of 17 arrest warrants, there were only two arrests, and the trial of those two accused has been shambolic. By June 2017, there had only been two hearings at a military court, due to the lack of a translator (Khaosod, May 11, 2017). Thai authorities should be rightfully concerned that their own police work and procedures will be on trial, and they seem to have little interest in moving the case forward. Legal analysts suggest that the case could drag on until 2022 (Khaosod, June 26).

China, for its part, has been surprisingly quiet about the case, confident that it will get the cooperation it needs from Thailand going forward, although in mid-2017, it was still pressing Thailand to return 62 Uighur men and women.

Three other scenarios

Beyond the Uighur issue, terrorism in Southeast Asia will be a growing concern for China for three reasons.

The first is the devolving security situation in the Philippines, including the eleven-week siege of Marawi and the Abu Sayyaf’s campaign of maritime kidnappings, which could put Chinese mariners at risk and inhibit trade.

Second, pogroms against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, could threaten China’s oil and gas pipelines and other investments in natural resource extraction. The plight of the 1.1 million Rohingya, who are denied basic legal protections, including citizenship, has been seized upon by Islamist media in general, and IS-linked media in particular. [4]

The rise of the armed movement Harakat al-Islamiyah (HAY) is troubling, but unsurprising, and the refugees in Myanmar provide a new pool of talent to recruit from and networks to penetrate (Benar News, April 15, 2016).

Finally, while IS has received the attention of security forces across Southeast Asia over the past three years, the regional al-Qaeda affiliate, JI, has quietly rebuilt its networks. [5] JI could pose a sizable threat to Indonesia should it resume violence, and the al-Qaeda connection with ETIM may prove to be important.

There is a further change afoot. Chinese private military corporations (PMCs) have proliferated since 2010, in particular along the OBOR corridor (see Jamestown’s China Brief, October 4, 2016). While most of the 3,200 PMCs deployed abroad in 2016 were in Africa and Central Asia, the number in Southeast Asia is poised to grow. China has made it very clear that it wants its PMCs to be able to operate in any country along the OBOR corridor. Similarly, it may be only a matter of time before Chinese PMC’s arm ships in the pirate-infested waters of the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Likewise, its new bases in the South China Sea give the PLA-Navy the capability to conduct its own patrols.

China is going to play a far more assertive role in “countering terrorism” — much of that related to pursuing Uighurs overseas — and with highly indebted neighbors and partners, Beijing will use its economic clout to demand further extra-territorial policing powers. For example, China is building $7 billion high-speed railway in Laos, whose GDP is only $10 billion.

In one of the clearest and most authoritative statements on Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, Madame Fu Ying of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee wrote that one of the three pillars of Chinese foreign policy was “cooperative security” (The Diplomat, June 22). But make no mistake, any collaboration is going to be driven by China.

* Zachary Abuza is Professor of National Security Strategy at the US National War College. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect the opinions of the US Department of Defense, National Defense University, or the National War College.


[1] Patrik Meyer, “China’s De-extremization of Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” New America Foundation Policy Paper (June 2016), at; see also Bob Woodruff and Karson Yiu, “What Happened When I Went to the Alleged ISIS Breeding Ground in China,” ABC News, (March 29, 2016), at
[2] The exact number will probably never be known, but it is likely relatively small. By 2001, roughly a dozen ETIM fighters were based in Kabul under the command of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an ally of the Taliban (al-Jazeera, February 18, 2015).
[3] Nate Rosenblatt, All Jihad is Local: What ISIS’ Files Tell Us About Its Fighters, New America Foundation (July 2016), at The top four were Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (252), Qassim, Saudi Arabia (135), Tunis, Tunisia (134), and Mecca, Saudi Arabia (124).
[4] In a speech on July 1, 2014, al-Baghdadi alluded to the Rohingya as among “oppressed” Muslim populations worldwide that IS was looking to defend.
[5] See “The Re-Emergence of Jemaah Islamiyah,” (April 27, 2017) IPAC Report No. 36, at; and Gullnaz Baig, “Indonesia’s veteran jihadists disapprove of the ISIS generation,” Jakarta Post (April 20, 2017).

Sergey Kwan

Zachary Abuza

Sergey Kwan has worked for The Times of Central Asia as a journalist, translator and editor since its foundation in March 1999. Prior to this, from 1996-1997, he worked as a translator at The Kyrgyzstan Chronicle, and from 1997-1999, as a translator at The Central Asian Post.
Kwan studied at the Bishkek Polytechnic Institute from 1990-1994, before completing his training in print journalism in Denmark.

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