Uyghur Militants in Syria: The Turkish Connection

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The Chinese authorities have claimed that since 2013, “hundreds” of Uyghurs have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations; such claims have been used as justification for new counter-terrorism policies (Xinhua, July 29. 2014). Alleged linkages between rising incidents of violence in Xinjiang over recent years and jihadist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda (AQ) have also figured prominently in official statements surrounding China’s first counter-terrorism legislation that was passed unanimously by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on December 27, 2015. Just prior to the NPC’s passing of the legislation, for instance, China’s security czar, Mei Jianming, said that in formulating the new approach, the government explicitly “took the growing influence of Islamic State into consideration after it planned to recruit Muslims from all ethnic groups in China, posing new challenges for the country” (China Daily, December 17, 2015).

Uyghur Connections to Syria

Given these competing claims, what in fact do we know about the extent of Uyghur connections to the war in Syria, and what may be their implications for China? It appears from available evidence that a small but growing number of Uyghurs may be joining jihadist groups in Syria, often by circuitous journey through Central Asia or via people-smuggling networks in Southeast Asia. What remains unclear to date, however, is whether the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is simply tolerating or actively abetting this Uyghur presence.

The Martyrs of Eastern Turkestan”: The Uyghurs and Turkey

Turkey has long been a supporter of Uyghur aspirations in Xinjiang, China’s western-most province where most Uyghur’s live. It has also historically been a major destination for Uyghurs fleeing Chinese rule. During the great Turkic-Muslim rebellion (1864-1876) in Xinjiang against the Manchus, led by the Koqandi adventurer Yaqub Beg, the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul not only provided Beg’s prospective state in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar with weapons and military advisers, but also bestowed on him the title of emir. [1] In the 20th century, Turkey became a haven for Uyghur nationalists fleeing Xinjiang after it was “peacefully liberated” by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949. Prominent among these was Isa Yusuf Alptekin, who became leader of the Uyghur diaspora throughout the Cold War. Alptekin focused on a two-track approach to raise the profile of the Uyghur cause. First, he actively sought to cultivate links to Turkish political and military leaders with pan-Turkist leanings, most notably Suleyman Demirel and Turgut Ozal. Internationally, Alptekin attempted to enlist support for Uyghur nationalist claims through a broad appeal to anti-communist sentiments in the Muslim world, the non-aligned developing world, and Taiwan. These efforts bore little fruit due to Beijing’s limited ties with Turkey, its ideological offensives in the Third World, and its ability to paint Uyghur nationalists as aided and abetted by both “Soviet revisionism” and “reactionary” due to the links with NATO-member, Turkey.

The end of the Cold War and the creation of five independent Central Asian republics raised hopes among Uyghur and Turkic nationalists that this situation could be reversed. Their hopes were also raised by a revival of dormant pan-Turkist themes in political debates in Turkey that, in contrast to its late Ottoman antecedent, was primarily constructed as a “civilizational geopolitics” in which international behavior would supposedly be determined by civilizational attributes. This was also apparent, for instance, in Turkey’s activist diplomacy in the Caucasus and Central Asia where Ankara sought to create a leadership role economically and politically for Turkey as opposed to a supra-national union.

The Uyghur diaspora in Turkey thus appeared to have found a conducive environment in which to continue their lobbying efforts. In an episode that underscored this, in 1995, Erdogan – then mayor of Istanbul – named a section of the Sultan Ahmet (Blue Mosque) Park in honor of Alptekin. When officially opening the new section of the park, he declared, “Eastern Turkestan is not only the home of the Turkic peoples but also the cradle of Turkic history, civilization and culture. To forget that would lead to the ignorance of our own history, civilization and culture. The martyrs of Eastern Turkestan are our martyrs” (Eastern Turkestan Information Bulletin, August 1995).

At the same time, however, Ankara was simultaneously becoming more circumspect about the impact of the Uyghur issue on its emerging relations with Beijing. China exacerbated these concerns by drawing attention to Turkey’s problem with its Kurdish population, pointedly noting the contradiction between Ankara’s rhetorical support for “self-determination” of “Eastern Turkestan” and its repression of the Kurds. In a symptomatic development, Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz issued a directive to his cabinet in February 1999 that Ankara would henceforth recognize Xinjiang as a part of China, and that government ministers should refrain from attending meetings or events promoting “Eastern Turkestan.” [2]

In the wake of 9/11, China has made concerted efforts to portray unrest and violence in Xinjiang as aided and abetted by “East Turkestan terrorist forces” based abroad. In its bilateral relations with Turkey since 9/11, Beijing has also repeatedly emphasized the need for both parties to combat the “three evil forces of separatism, terrorism and extremism” and “East Turkestan terrorism” in particular. Some Chinese observers went further than the official statements, suggesting that Turkey’s “harboring” of “East Turkestan forces” was analogous to the Taliban’s harboring of Osama bin Laden. [3] To dispel such perceptions, Ankara acceded to Beijing’s exhortation and cooperated with China on monitoring the activities of “East Turkestan forces” in Turkey for most of the 2000s although – in contrast to many Central Asian states – it did not extradite Uyghurs to China. Throughout this time, Turkish leaders reaffirmed the position, first stated by Prime Minister Yilmaz, that Xinjiang was a part of China. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reiterated this during Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s 2002 state visit, and argued that Xinjiang’s Uyghurs in fact constituted a “friendship bridge” between the two countries (Global Times, April 30, 2002).

Despite such assurances, much of China’s post-9/11 approach to the Uyghur issue in Sino-Turkish relations has been implicitly framed by the perception that Turkey remains “the political and cultural epicenter of pan-Turkism.” [4] This was strongly reinforced by Turkey’s reaction to the inter-ethnic violence that erupted in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi in July 2009. The violence, which claimed the lives of a least 200 people, and subsequent mass arrests of Uyghurs prompted Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Erdogan to denounce China in terms reminiscent of Alptekin, likening Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs to genocide and demanding China “abandon its policy of assimilation” in the region (Journal of Turkish Weekly, July 11, 2009).

Such rhetorical flourishes, while downplayed by Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were consistent with both the view of “civilizational geopolitics” that has come to characterize Turkey’s foreign policy under President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Uyghur Terrorism: From “Af-Pak” to Syria

Chinese authorities have long claimed that Uyghur separatism has been supported by external sources. During the Cold War, this was directed at exiles such as Alptekin and Moscow-based “socialist revisionists.” The 9/11 attacks and the United States-led War on Terror fundamentally changed this narrative. From 2001 onward, incidents of violence in Xinjiang were inevitably linked to “international terrorism” and rarely to Uyghur exiles in Turkey. Beijing’s first detailed document cataloguing terrorist incidents in or connected to Xinjiang was published in January 2002; it claimed that an unknown organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and “supported and funded” by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, had been responsible for many terrorist attacks in Xinjiang (China.org.cn, January 2002).

For the rest of the decade, Beijing repeated this charge, attributing violence in the region to the malevolent influence of ETIM and its successor organization, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). While the claim of al-Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, it is clear that ETIM and TIP have had a presence along the Af-Pak tribal areas, particularly in the Mir Ali region of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and an evolving relationship with the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). [5]

After 2009, Beijing began to shift some of its focus to the potential links of Uyghur militants with groups beyond the “Af-Pak” region. This, in part, was driven by the denunciation of China’s handling of the Urumqi events by a number of al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the Middle East such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghgreb (AQIM). The first public reference to possible Uyghur connections to Syria by a Chinese official, however, came in October 2012, with Chinese Major-General Yin Jinan stating that “East Turkestan organizations are taking advantage of the Syrian civil war to obtain experience and raise the profile of Xinjiang among jihadists from other theaters” (CNR, November 1, 2012). Global Times also published an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Imad Moustapha in July 2013 in which he said that at least 30 Uyghurs had travelled from jihadist training camps in Pakistan to Syria via Turkey and that the Syrian government was sharing its intelligence on the Uyghurs with Beijing (Global Times. July 1, 2013).

Reports of linkages between Uyghurs and the fighting in Syria increased in 2015. Al Monitor columnist, Metin Gurcan, reported last September that an “Ankara intelligence source” estimated “1500 recruits from Central Asia” – including Uyghurs – were already fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (Al-Monitor, September 9, 2015). Lebanon-based Meyadeen TV aired a report on September 3, 2015 that purported to show not only Uyghur fighters of the TIP engaged in the conquest of the town of Jisr al-Shughur but also the settlement of Uyghur militants and their families in nearby villages (Memri, September 3, 2015). Meanwhile U.S. analyst Christina Lin asserted the following month that the TIP had established training camps in Idlib, Syria (Asia Times, October 11, 2015). Finally, Al Masdar News reported on October 26 that a Uyghur terrorist identified as “Abbas Al-Turkistani” had been killed by the Syrian Army in Northwest Hama (Al-Masdar, November 26, 2015).

It is important to note that some of the reports cited above do not accurately distinguish between Uyghur and other Central Asian militants. The Meyadeen TV report, for example, uses footage that reportedly shows an Uyghur child soldier, “Abdallah al-Turkistani,” in the service of Islamic State executing two alleged Russian spies. The same footage, however, was taken from an Islamic State propaganda video that was covered widely by international media as an Islamic State-recruited Kazakh child soldier (RFE/RL, January 14, 2015).

Uyghurs in Syria: Implications for Beijing

Even with this caveat, it appears that there is a Uyghur presence, albeit of unknown number, in Syria. The broader question – given Turkey’s record of support for Uyghur refugees and Ankara’s current support of anti-Assad forces – is whether the Turkish government has facilitated the presence of Uyghurs in Syria.

Such speculation has gained traction over the past few years due to a number of developments. First, there have been well-documented cases of significant Uyghur trans-migration through South East Asia since 2009, in which Uyghurs detained by authorities in transit countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have been traveling on either forged Turkish passports or have claimed Turkish citizenship (Asia Times, October 10, 2014). This issue achieved prominence in the aftermath of the bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok on August 18, 2015, which some reports speculated was perpetrated by Uyghurs in retaliation for Thailand’s earlier deportation of 109 Uyghurs discovered by Thai authorities in a human trafficker-run camp in southern Thailand (The Diplomat, July 2015).

Secondly, in January 2015, the Chinese authorities announced they had broen up a human smuggling ring when they arrested 10 Turkish citizens and a number of Uyghurs in Shanghai (Huanqiu, January 14, 2015). According to Global Times, the ring was orchestrated by an “Uyghur living in Turkey and a Turkish suspect” who “charged 60,000 yuan [$9,680] per person,” as well as procured Turkish passports for their prospective clients (Global Times, January 14, 2015).

Third, media reporting from the Middle East asserts that Turkey has supplied fake Turkish passports to Islamic State and other jihadist groups in order to facilitate recruitment of militants (Today’s Zaman, April 9, 2015). This charge has been echoed in China, with Chinese media reporting on cases of prospective Uyghur recruits being supplied with forged Turkish documents and directed to seek the assistance of Turkish embassies if apprehended in Southeast Asia (Xinhua, July 18, 2015)

There are a number of troubling implications flowing from these developments for Beijing. The apparent linkage of Uyghur militants not only to long-standing sanctuaries in the “Af-Pak” frontier region but also to the jihadist “witches brew” of Syria points to an unprecedented trans-nationalization of Uyghur terrorism. While the number of Uyghurs involved would appear to be small, the danger for Beijing is that some may either return to Xinjiang or seek to influence or recruit others.

To date, China has avoided entanglement in the Syrian crisis due to its much-touted foreign policy doctrine of non-interference and a calculation that its core national security interests are not directly compromised. An attack on Chinese nationals or economic interests in the Middle East by Syria-based Uyghurs or a TIP attack in Xinjiang, however, could change this calculus and prompt some form of Chinese intervention in the Middle East or closer to home in the Af-Pak region. That such a scenario is being countenanced in Beijing is reflected in China’s new counter terror legislation of December 27, 2015, which would permit the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP) to seek approval from the Central Military Commission (CMC) to conduct counterterrorism operations abroad (Global Times, December 28, 2015) [6].

Dr Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, ANU. He is the author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia – A History (Routledge 2011).

Notes:

[1] Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia, 1864-1877, Hodong Kim (Stanford University Press, 2004).

[2] “Dynamics of Sino–Turkish Relations: a Turkish Perspective,” Selcuk Colakoglu, East Asia, March 2015, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 7-23.

[3] “Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations,” Yitzhak Shichor, Policy Studies, No. 53, East-West Center, 2009.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See: Zenn, Jacob, “Jihad in China? Marketing the Turkistan Islamic Party,” Terrorism Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, March 17, 2011, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37662&no_cache=1.

[6] See: Mattis, Peter, “New Law Reshapes Chinese Counterterrorism Policy and Operations,” China Brief, The Jamestown Foundation, January 25, 2016, www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/.

Source:

http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=45067&cHash=5313cc8748eb909bc0ae771ec0102e99

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