Skip to content
How China’s Repressive Policies Could Fuel the Jihad
Go to my account

How China’s Repressive Policies Could Fuel the Jihad

The CCP’s harsh treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang could very well drive more people into the arms of both al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on the status of believers from various faiths around the world. As in past reports, USCIRF devotes significant attention to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign of religious oppression. The report summarizes the CCP’s authoritarian crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists, Protestant Christians, Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners, and the adherents of other religions deemed to be out-of-step with the communists’ conception of national unity. 

Among the CCP’s horrors is its campaign of forced assimilation and repression in the northwestern Xinjiang region, where it is estimated that “between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps.” These camps were originally conceived as Maoist-style re-education facilities, but they have “increasingly transitioned … to forced labor as detainees were forced to work in cotton and textile factories.” The camps’ former “detainees report that they suffered torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses,” USCIRF notes. Minders are also stationed at mosques and within Muslim families, snooping around for any hint of “religious extremism,” which really includes virtually any form of religious expression. And “nearly half a million Muslim children have been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools.”

The CCP has built a dystopian surveillance state, using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to identify and keep tabs on ethnic Uighurs and others as they go about their daily lives. As the USCIRF has documented, this widespread digital snooping isn’t limited to Xinjiang and Tibet—the locales where it was first perfected—but is spread throughout the country. The CCP’s goal is to have total coverage of “key public areas” and “key industries” by this year. 

China’s surveillance architecture began with something the CCP called “Skynet,” an interconnected system of cameras that was installed around 2005 for the stated purpose of tracking down criminals. While this isn’t the “Skynet” of Terminator fame—that artificial intelligence system launched a nuclear war against humanity—the CCP’s version is nefarious. Whole populations of Chinese citizens are now monitored by the system to force behavioral compliance.

Which brings me to a point that is addressed only obliquely in the report. USCIRF points to a previous warning by U.N. experts. They stated that “disproportionate emphasis placed by the authorities on the repression of rights of minorities risks worsening any security risk” in Xinjiang. USCIRF doesn’t elaborate on what that “security risk” is, but it certainly includes terrorism.

The CCP’s forced assimilation and repression in Xinjiang are likely driving jihadist recruitment. Al-Qaeda has sponsored a predominately Uighur jihadist group known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) for the past 20-plus years. The TIP’s initial cadres came, in part, from disaffected Uighurs who fled to Afghanistan. And there is a very real risk that the CCP’s Orwellian oppression of the Uighurs, which goes far beyond any legitimate counterterrorism policy, is driving more young men and women into the jihadists’ arms. 

Consider this brief history.

The TIP has served as al-Qaeda’s Uighur group since the 1990s.

In the 1990s, a small group of Uighur men made their way to Afghanistan, where they were trained in joint al-Qaeda-Taliban camps and then fought on behalf of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate against the Northern Alliance and other foes. They were initially known as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a name that reflected their desire to establish an independent nation in Xinjiang and the surrounding area—a region they still refer to as Turkistan. The ETIM’s founder was a jihadist from Xinjiang known as Hasan Mahsum, who fled to northern Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Mahsum was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003. But his right-hand man, another Uighur known as Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, carried on with his mission. Abdul Haq has led the ETIM—now more commonly known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)—since then.

I’ve been researching and reporting on the TIP for more than a decade. The organization is clearly a part of al-Qaeda’s network—there is no real question about this fact. Al-Qaeda doesn’t hide its sponsorship of the TIP. And the TIP doesn’t hide its allegiance to al-Qaeda. But the CCP’s detestable policies in Xinjiang have led some democracy and human rights activists to downplay or dismiss the TIP’s overt jihadism. Some observers developed an especially bizarre view, holding that the TIP was really a fictional organization created by the CCP to discredit the entire Uighur opposition. There is no evidence that is true. 

I witnessed this curious line of argument firsthand during a congressional hearing in 2009, when I was invited by the House Judiciary Committee to testify concerning the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Twenty-two Uighurs were held at Guantanamo over time. All of them were eventually transferred to third countries. Their detention became a source of minor controversy. Two congressmen then on the committee—Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (a Republican from California) and Rep. Bill Delahunt (a Democrat from Massachusetts), both of whom have since retired—spent much of the hearing berating me for pointing to the ETIM/TIP’s relationship with al-Qaeda. It was the first time I testified before Congress and, believe me, it was very uncomfortable. My wife—then my fiancé—was in attendance. She didn’t think I’d ever testify again. My brother watched the hearing online and came to the same conclusion. I’m proud to say that I’ve testified before the House and the Senate on a range of issues 19 times since then.

Even if they are motivated by justifiable concerns regarding the CCP’s human rights abuses, the TIP denialists were wrong then and they are wrong now. The group is still part of al-Qaeda to this day. Its men are waging jihad in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban right now.

For starters, some of the 22 Uighur detainees once held at Guantanamo testified before their tribunal hearings that they attended a training camp in Afghanistan that was run by Hasan Mahsum and Abdul Haq al-Turkistani. While most (but not all) of the 22 were low-level fighters who denied any real knowledge of al-Qaeda, that was a significant admission. The camp was found in the foothills of the Tora Bora Mountains—Osama bin Laden’s infamous stronghold. Intelligence analysts working for Joint Task Force—Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) concluded that some of these same Uighur recruits even acted as a “blocking force” for bin Laden when his mountainous redoubt came under siege in late 2001. That could have been bin Laden’s last stand. Of course, it wasn’t—the al-Qaeda founder slithered away. The U.S. didn’t catch up with him for nearly 10 more years. 

The TIP is proud of Hasan Mahsum’s close relationship with bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 2015, for instance, the group released an image of Mahsum consorting with the two al-Qaeda leaders sometime prior to the 9/11 hijackings. Al-Qaeda continues to honor Mahsum as well. In 2016, for example, Zawahiri praised Mahsum for pledging allegiance to the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar, and for dedicating his life to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 

In 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Abdul Haq as a terrorist, noting that he had been a member of al-Qaeda’s elite shura (or advisory) council since 2005. Treasury described Abdul Haq’s TIP as a part of al-Qaeda’s “support network.” 

In fact, Abdul Haq worked directly for bin Laden. 

When the Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in early May 2011, they also scooped up a treasure trove of files. The cache includes account ledgers showing some of the groups and individuals who were on bin Laden’s payroll. One such figure: Abdul Haq al-Turkistani. See the second page of this translation of a monthly ledger, which lists “Shaykh ‘Abd-al-Haqq ((Turkistani))” as a regular recipient of bin Laden’s funds. That’s the same wanted terrorist who has led the TIP since 2003 and sat on al-Qaeda’s shura council. 

The TIP is still fighting to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. 

Today, Abdul Haq’s men continue to wage jihad in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban. Along with other al-Qaeda-affiliated parties, they are fighting to restore the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate to power. In early February 2018, the U.S. and NATO announced that a series of airstrikes were carried out against Taliban training camps in the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan, explaining that TIP fighters received instruction at the same facilities. Separately, a team of analysts working for the U.N. has reported that several hundred TIP fighters are located in Badakhshan.

Abdul Haq himself continues to signal his allegiance to both Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Taliban’s top leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada. In early 2019, he called on both Zawahiri and Akhundzada to do more to highlight the jihadists’ cause and Muslim suffering in his native Xinjiang. Al-Qaeda responded by declaring its undying “solidarity” with the TIP and the Muslims of Xinjiang.

On February 29, the U.S. State Department and the Taliban signed a withdrawal agreement, in which America pledged to leave Afghanistan within 14 months in exchange for the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances. There are many problems with the deal, which wasn’t necessary to withdraw American forces. One of the problems: There is no explicit mention of the TIP. The Taliban isn’t specifically required to do anything about the Uighur jihadists fighting alongside its men. 

The TIP technically could be covered by some of the accord’s counterterrorism provisions, but the text of the document is conspicuously vague, providing no verification or enforcement mechanisms. While the TIP is primarily invested in the Taliban-led insurgency, it does pose some degree of international threat. According to the U.N. Security Council and U.S. Treasury Department, TIP members were implicated in a possible plot against the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as early as 2002. We shouldn’t overstate the matter. As far as we can tell, the TIP doesn’t currently pose a major threat to U.S. interests. But it is part of al-Qaeda’s network and, therefore, should have been explicitly accounted for in the State Department’s agreement with the Taliban. It is always possible that TIP members will be repurposed for operations abroad in the future.

Tellingly, the Taliban continues to lie about the presence of TIP fighters, claiming they aren’t really in Afghanistan. There is no evidence showing that the Taliban is willing to break with its long-time allies from Xinjiang. None. 

The jihadist threat doesn’t justify the CCP’s widespread oppression.

One argument I’ve seen made in counterterrorism circles is that the TIP is really just a “nationalist” group focused on resisting the CCP’s oppression. That is obviously false. There is nothing “nationalist” about its participation in the jihad in Afghanistan. The TIP also maintains a sizable contingent in Syria, where its men fight alongside other al-Qaeda-affiliated parties and foreign fighters against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. That conflict is obviously far afield from Xinjiang, but the TIP has made it a priority. The group has even dispatched veteran leaders from Afghanistan to Syria to lead its forces in battle.

It is difficult to gauge just how much of a threat the TIP poses to the Chinese government, but its network inside Xinjiang is a legitimate security concern. Various reports point to a string of TIP attacks and plots inside China over the years. Abdul Haq openly threatened the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, reportedly ordering his men to plan a series of attacks, which were thwarted. Despite these terrorist threats, the TIP has failed, thus far, to launch a full-scale insurgency inside Xinjiang. While the CCP will claim this a triumph for its security efforts, it is also an indication that the TIP lacks widespread popular support.

Indeed, there is no good reason to think the vast majority of Muslims in Xinjiang have anything to do with al-Qaeda or jihadism. As I mentioned, I’ve been tracking the TIP for more than a decade. While this al-Qaeda-affiliated organization has grown over that time, it’s still small when compared to the overall population of Xinjiang. Most of its claimed operations are abroad—not within China itself. And we shouldn’t conflate the TIP with other, more legitimate Uighur causes. 

Still, the CCP’s actions could very well drive more Uighurs into the arms of both al-Qaeda and ISIS. The TIP regularly releases videos decrying the CCP’s campaign in Xinjiang. ISIS—which has its own contingent of Uighur jihadists—has increasingly highlighted the CCP’s actions in its weekly Al-Naba newsletter. These propaganda efforts are intended to portray jihadist organizations as legitimate outlets for Uighur anger. 

Therefore, the CCP’s assimilation campaign is not only morally abhorrent, it could very well lead to the rise of a new generation of jihadists from Xinjiang.

Photograph by David Cliff/NurPhoto/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.