When the hype surrounding the Trump-Xi summit turns into a Mar-a-Lago fact on the ground next month, both presidents are bound to agree fully on at least one issue: “radical Islamic terror” – as per Trump terminology.
Donald Trump has relied on a controversial Muslim “no-ban” ban that – in theory – would restrict the inflow of potential radical Islamists to US territory; his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, meeting Xinjiang lawmakers on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, has launched a “Great Wall of Iron” to protect China’s Far West.
The matter primarily concerns the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), active in Xinjiang, which Cheng Guoping, State Commissioner for counterterrorism and security matters, describes as “the most prominent challenge to China’s social stability, economic development and national security.”
ETIM is an Islamic extremist separatist organization, which according to Cheng is seeking “Xinjiang independence.”
It has been designated as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, the UAE, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, among others. It is open to question whether the movement is really a cohesive separatist outfit, but certainly Chinese intelligence views it as such.
The matter also concerns, predictably, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.
Daesh has recently released a video in Uyghur, the Turkic language written in Arabic characters and spoken by Xinjiang’s Muslims, showing jihadis practicing somewhere in Iraq before slitting the throat of an alleged informer.
But the crux of the video is a 30-second segment containing Daesh’s first direct threat to Beijing. Moments before the execution, a fighter – in the translation by the US-based SITE Intelligence Group – exclaims:
“Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say! We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed.”
Chinese intelligence keeps extensive tabs on Uyghurs who have metastasized into jihadis across “Syraq” after making the journey illegally via Southeast Asia and Turkey. Beijing is as much alarmed at their eventual return home as Moscow is about Chechens and other Southern Caucasus jihadis.
And then there’s a third quite startling element. The Daesh video signals the formal excommunication of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which is essentially al-Qaeda in Xinjiang.
The TIP’s leadership and core fighters are based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, protected by the Tehreek-e Taliban (Pakistani Taliban) and have launched a number of attacks across the border over the past several years. Their announced aim is to install a Caliphate across Central Asia, but paying obedience to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, not Daesh’s self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi.
A key question is whether ETIM and TIP are one and the same. Uyghur jihadis are notoriously secretive and shifty. I met some of them in the “Lion of the Panjshir” Commander Masoud’s prisons in northern Afghanistan only three weeks before 9/11 – and they would not even admit ETIM existed. They also denied any links with al-Qaeda, following the example of then-ETIM leader Hasan Mehsum. They insisted their principal aim was independence from China.
Beijing essentially regards TIP as ETIM rebranded; high officials like Cheng Guoping continue to refer to all Uyghur jihadis as ETIM. A fluid movement, congregating multiple outlooks derived from separatism, it’s safer to say that “ETIM” referred to the few hundred Uyghur fighters active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan until TIP was formally announced in 2006.
There are other complicated overtones. ETIM was previously connected to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), co-founded by notorious jihadi Juma Namangani, an ex-Soviet paratrooper, who died in Afghanistan in 2001. IMU for its part was connected with the Afghan Taliban. Then, in the mid-2000s, there was a split; and the connection/protection of ETIM switched to the Pakistani Taliban.
The Daesh video chooses to refer to TIP, not ETIM. Although not as sophisticated as Daesh, TIP also harbors its own Sawt al-Islam (Voice of Islam) multilingual media operation, complete with an Islamic Turkestan magazine.
Beyond the terminology morass, Chinese intelligence ultimately may have to build a Great Wall of Iron aiming at two separate fronts: against Daesh and Uyghur jihadis fighting alongside Daesh in Syria and Iraq, who may be returning to Xinjiang or Pakistan, and against al-Qaeda ramifications/interpolations calling themselves TIP. Michael Clarke, an expert on Xinjiang at the National Security College of Australian National University, says that the hints of a Uyghur split could “intensify the threat to China” as it indicates Uyghur terrorists may be able to tap into the capabilities of both Daesh and al-Qaeda.
Daesh has set its sights on seducing packs of reservoir dogs not only from northern Africa but also from Indonesia, Pakistan and northwestern China. There are at least 23 million mainly Sunni Muslims in China – when we add the mostly Xinjiang-based Uyghurs and the Huis, an ethnic minority living in Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia provinces; that’s twice the population of Tunisia, a fertile Daesh recruiting ground. Since 2014 al-Baghdadi has designated China as a jihad target. Daesh beheaded a Chinese hostage in November 2015. Daesh has released videos in mandarin to seduce the Hui.
Between a separatist rock and a jihadi hard place
The Daesh video, produced by the group’s al-Furat Province unit in western Iraq, in which Uyghur jihadis promise to come home and “shed blood like rivers,” was released the same day (February 27) that China held the latest in a series of mass rallies of military police in Xinjiang meant to indicate government resolve in crushing security threats.
An edited version of the Daesh video with a voiceover.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But there can be little doubt of either Daesh’s determination to spread jihad to far-away places as it rapidly loses ground in Syria and Iraq or of China’s equally strong determination to prevent Uyghur grievances from morphing into full-blown jihadism in its largest western province sitting astride the New Silk Road.
One Belt, One Road (OBOR), the official designation of the New Silk Road project, is President Xi’s most important foreign and economic policy undertaking. Xinjiang, a province at the very center of Asia and the size of Germany, France, Italy, and the UK combined, is a critical geographical link bordering on Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It sits on vast energy and mineral reserves, is China’s largest producer of natural gas, and will be the privileged node connecting China to central and west Asia in a maze of high-speed rail, pipelines and fibre optics. The capital, Urumqi, is being turned into an information-technology hub. Trouble in Xinjiang spells major trouble for OBOR. It’s a fair bet that Beijing won’t stand for that.
Since August of 2016, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as it’s officially called, is run by Chen Quanguo, Communist Party Secretary of the Region, Member of the 18th CPC Central Committee, and promising candidate for the 19th Politburo of the CPC to be elected in October this year.
Prior to taking up the Xinjiang position, Chen for five years served as Communist Party Secretary of the Tibet CPC Autonomous Regional Committee. He knows ethnically diverse border regions trouble, has been entrusted by Beijing to deal with it and stood next to Xi Jinping when the Great Wall of Iron policy was announced.
While running Tibet, Chen revived methods of social control pioneered by ancient Chinese dynasties, the baojia system of groups of neighbors watching neighbors, now called the “grid system of social management,” with myriads of small police boxes in Lhasa and smaller towns and networks of citizens set up block by block to watch over each other, enforce proper behavior and identify suspicious strangers and potential troublemakers.
These methods are now being replicated from the capital of Urumqi to Korla to Aksu to Kashgar and Hetian. And if social controls and grid surveillance should prove insufficient, Chen will always have recourse to the People’s Armed Police Force, large units of which were on such prominent display in late February parades.
The stakes are high. There’s a fine line between social controls administered judiciously and with a measure of acceptance and success and controls administered harshly, experienced as repression and giving rise to violent reaction. It remains to be seen whether Chen’s and Xi’s Great Wall of Iron will fend off separatism and jihadism or whether the application of too much iron will strike a serious blow against the most ambitious infrastructure undertaking of the century.
This piece first appeared in Asia Times.