In the face of jihadi threats against it, it remains to be seen how China responds; or will it continue to fund and support nations like Pakistan that are the terror factories of many jihadist designs? writes Aparna Rawal for South Asia Monitor
Calls for jihad against China have resurfaced in the dark reaches of the Islamist world. As the Taliban strives to gain brownie points in the good books of the Chinese, the Islamic Khorasan (IS-K) and various jihadi affiliates have called for jihad against China. These calls came to light following Beijing’s harsh treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
This became even more apparent when IS-K claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Afghanistan, such as the one on a Shia mosque in Kunduz province on October 8 and on the Bibi Fatima Mosque in Kandahar on October 15. In the wake of the attacks, IS-K called for jihad against China and declared war on the Taliban.
Apart from the growing rivalry between IS-K and Taliban over their dominance in the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, IS-K views the Taliban as a traitor to Islam. IS-K believes the Taliban to be a Chinese appeaser rather than a fighter of Islam. This aggression against the Taliban also emanates from the Taliban`s supposed willingness to deport Uyghurs from Afghanistan to China at the latter’s request. IS-K supports Uyghur fighters and provides safe havens to them. It’s expected that the Taliban`s courting of China will be received with disapproval by jihadi affiliates in the region.
The most important factor linked to the IS-K orchestrated attacks is that the IS modus operandi has shifted. It has employed a hands-on stance against China compared to its previous not-so-provocative approach.
Following the Kunduz attack, IS-K confirmed the mobilization of Uyghurs. This was the first time when the alliance between IS-K and Uyghurs was affirmed by IS-K on all media platforms. Previously, the Uyghurs were used as anonymous entities in both physical and propaganda warfare by the IS-K. The current proclamation by IS-K marks a foreseeable and imminent threat towards China.
The Kunduz attack by itself pronounced IS-K’s intention at creating a wedge between China and the Taliban. The Kunduz attack came at a critical juncture when China called for the Taliban to sever its ties with Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is an Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in Western China). TIP has served as a close ally of the Taliban and performed most activities under its guidance and approval. After the capture of Kabul, TIP lauded the Taliban`s victory.
While TIP may share strong allegiance towards the Taliban, its resentment towards China cannot be dispelled. After exiting the war theatre, the Taliban has been struggling with setting a working administrative, economic and political structure, while still focussing on how it wants to balance its narratives and beliefs socially. In order to be recognized as the legitimate Afghan State, the approval and nods of surrounding nations is imperative for the Taliban.
The Taliban now faces the challenge of appeasing countries like China. The displacements of Chinese Muslim citizens, their killings and the concentration camps for Uyghur for so-called “rehabilitation against jihadism” conducted by China spells top priority on the list of most jihadists (who view themselves as saviours of Islam). So, any alliance with China is regarded by the jihadists as “bloodying” of one`s own hands with the blood of their people.
The possible re-emergence of TIP is a security headache for China, especially when IS-K and Al Qaeda have declared jihad against China. In the light of such development, in the IS propaganda magazine “Voice of Hind”, IS-K has vowed to avenge the murder, torture and sexual exploitation of Muslims by the Chinese. By doing so, they want to put the light of Islam in China.
For years the Islamic State has tried to use Afghanistan as a springboard to launch its own jihad in the region. The current circumstances provide a perfect opportunity to monopolize and expand this in the Indian subcontinent and in areas surrounding Afghanistan. By becoming the de-facto voice of Uyghurs, the IS-K hopes to be the voice of jihad in Central Asia.
Having a concurring view with the world regarding the treatment meted out to the Chinese Muslims by Beijing, the IS-K has managed to strengthen its image as a saviour in some jihadist circles with the apparent loss of face for China.
In July 2014, Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi named China first amongst the 20 listed countries to wage jihad on and as a location to establish the caliphate. The focus was on the “extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkestan” (Xingjiang province in China). This followed with propaganda videos, audios and print materials in support of the Uyghurs by the ISIS Central (parent body of IS).
In 2014, following Baghdadi’s call for jihad on China, Al Qaeda declared war on China. In its magazine “Resurgence”, it critically outlined China`s Uyghur policies.
With the jihadist world gearing up to take on China, the pressure to recruit the locals and fighters from Central Asia became a priority. Since then, IS-Central and IS-K have both simultaneously tried to recruit fighters from Central Asia. Over the years, several Chinese jihadists have joined the ranks of IS in Syria, while some were invited to coalesce with IS. While the IS Central was initially focused on negotiating with East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Huis, who itched for mobilization of Hui insurgency in China, also aligned with IS-K. IS used this opportunity to establish an ad hoc group, the Gansu Hui group.
The founder of the Gansu Hui, Abu Abdul Ali Turkistani, travelled to Pakistan to form a new group, which was tasked with recruiting Chinese Muslims. The Gansu Hui group, though not recognized as a component of IS, was eventually acknowledged to be under IS-K by the parent IS Central. Despite being called the Gansu Hui group, it doesn’t spot a majority of Gansu members and compliments a large number of Uyghurs. Since its inception, it has brokered many negotiations and talks with the Chinese Muslims, ETIM, Islamic Jihadi Union (IJU) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and also Al Qaeda.
An intricate yet complex web of a jihadist network was spun within and around China. By 2014, the Afghan authorities had identified IS as a threat. However, no efforts were made by China to participate actively with the anti-ISIS Afghan authorities or the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. This catered to more jihadi affiliates associating without joining or being consolidated within IS such as IMU, Jamaat Ansarullah (Tajikistan), IJU, Islamic Movement of Turkmenistan (IMT), ETIM, Harkat Islami Tajikistan and Islamic Jihad Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IJRPT).
IS-K’s expanding influence
During this phase, many outfits such as IJRPT strengthened their ties with IS, while al Qaeda was clearly sidelined. By 2016, IS-K had a major influence in the decision making of IJRPT and had doubled its funding to the outfit compared to IMU, which was also funding IJRPT. It was safe to assume that IJRPT worked like an auxiliary branch for IS-K.
In the following years, IMU also forged an alliance with IS. Prior to the official announcement made by its leader, Osman Ghazim, in 2015, IMU had started supporting IS-K while it continued to receive funding from Al Qaeda. It avoided most Taliban propaganda and even refused to openly raise the issue of the disappearance of Mullah Omar, co-founder of Taliban, in 2011.
It is apparent that the declining credibility of the Taliban in the Islamist world can also be linked to the lack of confidence most groups feel about the Taliban`s Quetta Shura. The leader of the Quetta Shura was far from present and the orders received by the outfits came from the Peshawar Shura and Miran Miah Shura. This reduced the influence of the Quetta Shura, whose working presented to be unreliable, eventually losing the jihadi faith in the workings of the Taliban. As a result, most jihadi networks aligned themselves with the IS-K.
Importantly, the Taliban's call for a ban on outfits like IMU also angered many jihadist outfits, especially IS-K, which shares a strong alliance with IMU.
However, as of 2017, IMU splintered off. The Osman Ghazi group was absorbed by IS-K while the mainstream IMU partially merged with IS-K. There were others who have remained pro-Al Qaeda and served its interests. Despite the developments, it is reported that IS-K managed to increase its cadre strength as of August 15 following the US exit from Afghanistan.
Many fighters from the Taliban, owing to the reasons mentioned above and the soldiers from Afghan forces who remained unemployed and left to be hunted by the Taliban, are seeking employment with IS-K. This can coalesce into a grave threat to the region.
A militarily trained soldier or an intelligence officer with the experience of waging war in the inhospitable Afghan terrain will provide strong resistance against any security force combating terrorism in the AfPak region and beyond in South Asia.
Many Islamic nations, who are assumed to covertly fund and train fighters for jihad, are also using their stature to keep the power play going against China, regardless of its repercussions on Afghan soil.
Over the years, China has blamed Turkey for having done nothing to prevent the resupply of fighters to ISIS and for aiding the Chinese Uyghurs to transit into Syria and Iraq to train with the Al Qaeda, ISIS and other jihadi affiliates. Beijing believes Turkey has its links with ETIM, the East Turkestan Education and Solidarity Association and the terror attacks on the Chinese.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has displayed an ambivalent attitude. While known to have taken a staunch stand against the mistreatment of Muslims and the rise of Islamophobia, he has remained silent on the atrocities inflicted on the Uyghurs by China.
The current change of stance seems to have baffled many. It appears Erdogan's voice of reason - like many in the Islamic world - remains selective when it affects the geopolitical and economic interests of Turkey, especially in the face of Chinese anger. This incident has raised many questions regarding Erdogan’s avowed loyalty to the global cause of Islam.
In the face of jihadi threats against it, it remains to be seen how China responds; or will it continue to fund and support nations like Pakistan that are the terror factories of many jihadist designs?
(The author is a research analyst, specializing in AfPak region and counter-terrorism. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)