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How Jihadist propaganda benefited from the Chinese Communist Party's repression of the Uighurs
For years, the Chinese Communist Party has been oppressing and persecuting Uyghurs in Xinjiang (or East Turkestan). (As News Now makes clear through several articles and comprehensive reports) without global humanitarian organizations or states, in general, doing anything real to stop this persecution.
According to surviving eyewitnesses, the Chinese Communist Party is taking draconian measures to destroy the Islamic identity of Uighurs, holding millions of them under strict electronic and physical surveillance. He persecutes them simply for having a copy of the "Holy Quran" at home or not drinking alcohol during Ramadan.
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However, the repressive state itself has "somehow" lost control of the thousands of jihadist citizens who fled China and travelled long distances until they reached the other half of the world to live and fight in Syria.
Using military and propaganda skills in conflict zones in the Middle East, these Turkestan "jihadist" groups have become more visible and vocal.
It could argue that the CCP’s harsh treatment of Uighurs, without talking about its effectiveness in curbing Uyghur national identity or jihadist bias, provided an excuse for the formation of these "jihadist" groups.
In recent years, many people have joined groups in different regions, and many have moved with their entire families to escape the ongoing genocide.
This analysis aims to shed light on the most prominent Uighur "jihadist" groups and what propaganda messages they use.
The author also tries to show, through a careful study of these jihadist groups, that anti-China groups show a complex picture in terms of their stated structures and goals.
Which anti-Chinese jihadist groups are active?
Three jihadist groups are currently active, but in other areas of operation: the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), Yurtugh Tactical and Katibat Ghuraba al-Turkistan (now known as Katibat Mujaheddin Ghuraba Division). The three groups will be briefly examined below.
Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP)
The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is a jihadist organization with separatist objectives, whose stated goal is 'the Uyghur home' and the liberation of Xinjiang from China.
The group has been accused of having links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but its leadership has always denied this claim, particularly since many of its fighters and leaders have often been photographed or shown on video in Afghan and Pakistani areas.
The TIP has certainly had relations with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham since 2015, since the establishment of the TIP's branch in Sham.
The current size and military capabilities of the central TIP (i.e., without considering the Syrian branch) are largely unknown, but, according to various United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reports, they number between 500 and 700 fighters. While the exact areas of activity and operations of the Syrian branch of the TIP are known, we do not know exactly where the central leadership of the TIP is located, which according to the UNSC is supposed to be in Afghanistan. The TIP leader is Abdul Haq al-Turkestani, his deputy is Abdul Salam al-Turkestani, Haji Furkan al-Turkestani is the general military commander.
The TIP has a long history of armed militancy and has been known by numerous names and acronyms, the best known and often still erroneously used being the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
After the attacks by al-Qaeda on 11 September, the Chinese government took advantage of the start of the global war on terror to claim that the Uyghur jihadist group had close links to al-Qaeda, to justify and undertake legislative and military activities against the Uyghur minority.
The ETIM/TIP was blacklisted for terrorism by the US government as early as 2002 but was later removed in November 2020.
The relations between the TIP and the Taliban and al-Qaeda are demonstrated by numerous photos and videos on Afghan and Pakistani territory (also published recently), which prompted the US to conduct several drone operations to try to kill members of the TIP leadership.
Although there have been relations between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, for reasons related to operational and logistical opportunities, over the years the TIP has greatly blunted its ideology and objectives, particularly since 2015. The TIP's propaganda in recent years, disseminated by the group’s official media channel Islam Awazi, has abandoned its anti-Western rhetoric, and focuses all its propaganda against China and its oppression and violence against the Uyghurs, calling for attacking China and its interests because “it is a sacred duty to fight against China”. The propaganda no longer shows the presence of doctrines belonging to the ideas of Global Jihadism, but towards jihadism focused on the struggle and armed resistance against the Chinese, necessary to liberate East Turkestan, and that their presence in other theatres of operation, such as Syria, is to support the oppressed Muslims “of the lands of Sham”.
These developments are consistent with the tendency of various branches of al-Qaeda and its inspired groups to move away from "global jihad" and pursue new goals by focusing on local issues. For example, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a senior HTS official, has twice called for the dissolution of al-Qaeda and called on his affiliates to focus on the domestic agenda.
Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) in the lands of Sham.
The Syrian civil war allowed many Uyghurs to escape Chinese repression and oppression and the TIP to establish a new “base of operations” in Syria to create operational and logistical links, set up training camps and strengthen its military and operational capabilities. In 2015, the Turkestan Islamic Party leadership decided to send the “Katibat Turkestani”, also known as the Turkestan Islamic Party for the Support of the People of the Levant, to fight in the Syrian civil war, taking part in the Jisr al-Shughur offensive.
The branch of the TIP “in the Sham” immediately forged important military links and collaborations with HTS and between 2015 and 2016 its fighters were decisive in numerous battles, such as the North-West Syria offensive (April-June 2015), the Al-Ghab offensive (July-August 2015), the siege of Abu al-Duhur airbase, the North-West Syria offensive (October-November 2015), the Latakia offensive (2015-2016), the Aleppo offensive (October 2015 to May 2016) the siege of Al-Fu’ah-Kafarya (2015), the Hama offensive (2017). In 2018, he was involved in the intra-jihadist infighting in Syria between Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (JTS), the Liberation Front of Syria and Ahrar al-Sham against Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Between 2019 and 2021, the TIP took part in numerous offensives against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies in the provinces of Hama and Latakia.
In 2022, it consolidated and strengthened its Ribat points in Jabal Al-Zawiya, Sahl al-Ghab, Jabal al-Turkman and Jisr al-Shughur and supported HTS brigades in several military operations. The Syrian branch has between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters, led by Kaiwusair al-Turkestani, but in their retinue, as shown by TIP propaganda, there are also thousands of elderly people, women and children.
It is aligned with the policies and rules of HTS and collaborates militarily with the “al-Fateh al-Mubin Operation Room”, but remains bound to the directives and rules of the TIP’s central leadership.
Yurtugh Tactical is a group composed exclusively of Uyghur fighters founded in 2018, founded by highly specialized and trained veteran fighters.
The objectives of the Yurtugh Tactical group are mainly threefold: to provide military knowledge and training to the Uyghur population, to fight the “Chinese oppressor regime” and to form the East Turkestan state. Despite sharing the goals of the Islamic Party of Turkestan (TIP) and collaborating with the Syrian branch of the TIP, the group’s spokesman emphasized in an interview that they are not aligned or linked to the TIP and that Yurtugh Tactical is completely independent.
The group’s name refers to the military term “Yurtugh”, which identifies a special military unit of the army of the Turkish Kanato Kara-Khanid dynasty.
Yurtugh Tactical has no relationship with other tactical groups such as Malhma Tactical, Fursan Tactical and Muhojir Tactical, but instead has operational and support links with Albanian Tactical. Yurtugh Tactical operating in Idlib does, however, have relations with HTS, it follows the directives in terms of operations of the “al-Fathul al-Mubeen Operations Room”, but no other relations with local jihadist groups. Yurtugh’s spokesperson, interviewed by the author, specified that the statement that they are called Contractors is incorrect, as they do not receive money or get paid for what they do, and all their operations are only focused on “liberating our land from the Chinese occupiers”.
Katibat Mujaheddin Ghuroba Division
In July 2017, a new jihadist group established itself in northwest Syria, the Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestan, which disseminated videos of its battles against the Assad regime alongside other jihadist groups. The group collaborated with Malhama Tactical between 2018 and 2019 and with other jihadist groups such as Katibat Tavhid va Jihod Uzbek and Liwa al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. It was recently integrated into HTS, within the Liwa Umar Ibn al-Khattab, with which it participated in several offensives in northern Hama and Aleppo. Since 2022, it has shown itself in its propaganda and operations under the name Katibat Mujaheddin Ghuroba Division or the “Ghuroba Community”.
The group is mainly composed of Uyghurs, but there are many Uzbeks and Tajiks within it. The areas where it is established and operates are the governorate of Idlib and Aleppo. There are about 150 fighters. They are mainly involved in attacks against Syrian government army positions and the fortification and control of Ribat points in the northern areas of the Aleppo governorate. They also hold a training camp, where they train their recruits, particularly in the use of sniper rifles and AKs.
Through G’uroba Media, the group disseminates its propaganda in Uyghur and Uzbek languages, particularly photos and videos, in which it often publishes propaganda videos against China and Russia in addition to showing meetings, training and military operations.
The propaganda of the Uyghur jihadist groups
All three groups shown produced a lot of propaganda, but it differs for several reasons. Yurtugh Tactical’s propaganda is exclusively military. The media products of videos and photos published over the past eight months all focus on the military training “necessary for the Uyghur people to lead the armed struggle against the Chinese oppressor”.
More varied and abundant is the TIP’s media production, especially that of the Syrian branch. The videos and photos published by the Syrian branch of the TIP covered a wide range of topics, from showing training courses for fighters and women, schooling for children, economic support, distribution of provisions and food for the local population, prayers in mosques, construction, and fortification of Ribat points, and military training. In March and April 2023, it released numerous photos and 4 videos to show how the Uyghur fighters and population in Syria performed “virtuous actions during Ramadan”, including praying and giving charity.
Among the most important videos published by Islam Awazi are an 18-minute video published in September 2022 entitled “Guardians of the Quran #5” which shows young Uyghurs of different ages studying the Quran, exercising outdoors, playing football matches, training in hand-to-hand combat, having lunch together and swimming in a pool. Much of the video, however, is devoted to showing images of Chinese repression and oppression and condemning China for its policies against the Uighurs. A second video was released in December 2022 and is entitled “East Turkestan Today”. It lasts about seven minutes and shows numerous scenes of the oppression experienced by Uyghurs in the Xinjiang areas. Another video, also released in December 2022, is about four minutes long and titled: “Jihad Followers”, and is focused on Xinjiang, Uyghurs and Chinese oppression. It shows numerous scenes of Uyghurs being victims of violence and aggression and explains the way to free themselves from oppression through Jihad and armed struggle (showing the training of TIP fighters in Syria). At the end of December 2022, Islam Awazi Media released a nearly 6-minute video entitled: “Our Way”. The first 3 minutes are dedicated to showing the oppression, violence, abuse, and humiliation suffered by Muslims at the hands of China. China is thus referred to as an oppressor on a par with the “crusaders”. Many scenes of Chinese “re-education” camps, arrests, violence and abuse against Uyghurs are shown. Halfway through the video, it starts showing TIP fighters training and conducting military operations in Syria.
At the end of 2022, a long statement by Abdul Salam al-Turkestani, the deputy emir of the TIP, entitled “We are not from China, our homeland is East Turkestan” was published. The document was published in English, Uyghur, Arabic, Pashto, Persian and Urdu. The document argues that East Turkestan (Xinjiang) is “the fortress of Central Asia” and this “fortress must be protected”. It emphasizes that the Uyghurs do not belong to China but are your Muslim brothers and sisters in East Turkestan (addressing the entire world Muslim community). It also claims that China has invaded East Turkestan by imposing its tyranny and that the TIP poses no threat to any country, organization, or nation, as its enemy is the Chinese government. Of particular interest is also a two-page statement released in January 2023, signed by the TIP’s deputy leader, Abdul Salam, addressing the “World Council of Muslim Communities (TWMCC)”, which criticizes and condemns the visit conducted by one of its delegations to Xinjiang, guilty of ignoring the situation of the Uyghur population.
Finally, concerning the propaganda of G’uroba Media, the official media channel of Mujaheddin Ghuroba Division, most of the material published in the past eight months is mainly composed of photos and videos showing its fighters at Ribat points, conducting military operations, praying, training, and explaining the importance of media and propaganda in conducting Jihad.
The most interesting video, the first one was released in December 2022, lasting about 4 minutes in the Uyghur language with subtitles in Uzbek, entitled: “Playing the Takbir, the sound of truth”, in which it shows its fighters training and praying to strengthen themselves and be ready to conduct Jihad against oppressor enemies (referring to China and Russia).
Looking at the propaganda of the three jihadist groups, it is clear that their fighters are highly trained, many veterans and, above all, highly ideologically and religiously motivated, and especially, analyzing the propaganda of the last year, they are strongly willing to make sacrifices for the Uyghur (and Central Asian in the case of the Ghuroba Community) cause.
Even if they are operating independently or under the regulation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, it is obvious that by operating and training in the Syrian jihadist galaxy (in the case of the TIP in the Sham) they are weaving ties with other jihadist groups, which could be of logistical support and help if they were to decide to change theatre of operations and return to Xinjiang. Even if the objectives do indeed appear utopian, the wide dissemination of their media products is still an analytical fact of importance and relevance. The Syrian operation is allowing the groups to train and gain experience in different operational contexts and to learn about military tactics and strategy. In addition, the community of civilians from the Uyghur diaspora is growing considerably. In the various videos, the desire to be able to liberate East Turkestan and return to their “homeland” is often renewed. The anti-Chinese jihadist groups are attempting, also through a change in methodology and ideology, to show themselves to the international community as groups fighting for the freedom of their people, trying to attract sympathy and support, and showing themselves willing to collaborate with any actor who wants to counter China, exploiting the complex global geopolitical game.
Appeared on 24/05/2023 on Akhbar al-Aan TV Media دعاية الإيغور المعادية للصين: "نحن نحارب نظام الصين الظالم" (akhbaralaan.net)
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism, Islamist Armed Group and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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Daniele Garofalo Monitoring is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.