Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Isis Caliphate Meets China's Silk Road Economic Belt

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Isis Caliphate Meets China's Silk Road Economic Belt

Article excerpt

On July 4, 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr alBaghdadi called for jihad against countries that "seized Muslim rights," citing 20 countries around the world. That he named China first in the list is not lost on Beijing. In the video, alBaghdadi referenced Xinjiang numerous times and asked Chinese Muslims to plead allegiance to him. He even threatened to occupy parts of Xinjiang, which appeared on ISIS's caliphate map.1

While the idea of occupying Chinese territory currently seems farfetched, the Chinese have a legitimate reason to defend against what amounted to a declaration of war from this Islamist extremist organization. Chinese strategists will also worry about how ISIS's eastward pivot will impact China's own westward march across the Eurasian Silk Road.2


China had been facing its worst terrorist attacks since the early 2000s in Xinjiang and an uptick of violence spanning a period of 22 months. With over 100 people killed in July 2014, President Xi Jinping vowed to cast a wide net "from the earth to the sky" to capture terrorists in a "strike hard" counter-terror campaign. 3 Jacob Zenn, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said terrorism might come to dominate Xi's leadership in much the same way it did for President George W. Bush.4

Fears of homegrown radicalization of China's 20 million Sunni Muslims have been exacerbated by the capture of a Chinese national fighting with ISIS in Iraq in September 2014.5 China estimates there are about 300 Chinese jihadists fighting for ISIS, with additional fighters in Syria that have crossed over from Turkey, where more than 20,000 Uighur diaspora reside. 6 In July 2013, China's state press the Global Times accused Xinjiang terrorists of finding training and support in Syria and Turkey. Beijing pointed out Turkic Uighurs were being recruited by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), working alongside the Istanbul-based exile group the East Turkistan Educational and Solidarity Association (ETESA), and were being sent across the border to train in Syria with al-Qa'ida affiliates.7 Li Wei, an antiterrorism expert with the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said recent terror attacks had shown that the "East Turkistan secessionist terrorists had copied the international mode and used it in Xinjiang," while Meng Hongwei, vice minister of public security, likewise warned that Xinjiang terrorism was being influenced by overseas jihadists.8

Indeed another Xinjiang-based terror group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), has raised its profile among al-Qa'ida and other jihadi groups. TIP propaganda material is being coordinated by al-Fajr, an al-Qa'ida jihadi media forum, and TIP leader Abdallah Mansour has laid out grievances against China. Mansour also compared Xinjiang to other areas where jihadists are fighting, such as the Palestinian territories, Kashmir, and Syria. Al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri now mentions "East Turkistan" among other jihadi battlegrounds, and TIP has praised Syrian jihadists for combating the China-backed Asad regime. Similarly, "ISIS has openly listed China as a major threat to them and if they gain more influence, it's likely they will target Xinjiang and even other parts of China," said Dingding Chen, assistant professor at the University of Macau.9 A December 2014 Global Times article further highlighted this threat, revealing ETIM and TIP have added "IS" to the name of their organizations to signal their allegiance as a new sub-division under the Islamic State.10

With China's Xinjiang province increasingly on the radar of global terror groups, the government can no longer isolate the local "East Turkestan separatist" problem from the "global jihadi" problem. Given this, China is doubling up its "Strike Hard" campaign to fight terrorism in Xinjiang. While the world focuses on China's growing military budget and tensions in the East and South China Seas, scant attention has been paid to the fact that China's internal security budget has surpassed that of its military every year since the 2009 Xinjiang uprising. …

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