The Turkistan Islamic Party in Double-Exile: Geographic and Organizational Divisions in Uighur Jihadism

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Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 17

By: Jacob Zenn – The Jamestown Foundation

Introduction

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) was one of the world’s more obscure jihadist groups until it emerged as a key player in the Syrian civil war in 2013. When the then Afghanistan-and-Pakistan-based TIP first began releasing videos in 2008—the year the TIP and corresponding media group, Islom Awazi (Voice of Islam) was created—it appeared to be more of a propaganda group with a militant wing than a militant group with a propaganda wing (Terrorism Monitor, March 17, 2011). Its videos indicated it only had an underwhelming several dozen fighters across that border region.

Despite initial ambiguity about the TIP, its videos since 2008 have always made it clear the group has an ideological affinity for al-Qaeda and loyalty to the Taliban. The U.S. capture of Uighurs in Afghanistan as early as 2001 and 2002 also revealed several dozen Uighur militants were initially placed under the leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Afghanistan. The IMU was fighting under the leadership of the Taliban. [1] A review of the TIP’s origin suggests its first members were among those Uighurs who fled China during crackdowns on Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang in the 1990s. They found safe haven in one of the only countries that would accept them—Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. There they became jihadists, if they were not already when they were previously in Xinjiang. Despite the TIP’s origins in Afghanistan and stated loyalty to the Taliban, the group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has led some individual TIP members to shift their loyalty instead to the Islamic State or become involved with non-al-Qaeda militants.

The TIP has evolved and expanded significantly from its primary base in Afghanistan and Pakistan to its current role fighting in Syria. The group has also found itself in new positions both in relation to the Syrian and global jihadist milieus, and the primarily Turkey-based exiled Uighur Islamist milieu. As a result of this, the TIP has become more divided both organizationally and geographically between its branches in Syria and Afghanistan than it ever has been, with a significant contingent of TIP fighters likely to align with the Turkish-backed militants in Syria. In a worst case scenario for the TIP, these fighters are more likely to retreat to Turkey than back to Afghanistan and Pakistan if the Syrian army—with Russian support—retakes Idlib (and possibly Afrin as well). Many of the TIP’s current members, therefore, will likely remain in exile (in Turkey or Syria) from their original exile (in Afghanistan).

The TIP’s Confusing Career in China

On the surface, the TIP’s evolution from a fledgling propaganda-focused militant group in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a key player in the Syria conflict is difficult to assess due to inconsistencies between some of its earlier claims and the actual attacks it proved it carried out. For example, the TIP claimed two bus bombings in Kunming, Yunnan Province and another bombing in Shanghai just ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (Telegraph, August 4, 2008). Although Beijing acknowledged a TIP commander ordered attacks on the Olympics, it still pinned those specific attacks on a lone-actor, non-Uighur citizen who later in 2008 apparently tried to bomb a popular restaurant in Shanghai. Observers in China believed the government’s claims to be more credible than the TIP’s claims. The TIP likely was uninvolved in those attacks (Shanghaiist.com, December 29, 2008).

There was also a major stabbing in Kashgar, Xinjiang two weeks before the Beijing Olympics that killed 14 border policemen, but the TIP did not claim the attack (Telegraph, August 4, 2008). The timing of that attack would nonetheless suggest the attackers intended to disrupt the Olympics and gain attention for their cause. It remains unclear who carried out the attack in Kashgar, but the tactic of stabbing, the targeting of Chinese security forces, the timing before the Olympics and the location of the Xinjiang border suggests it was probably Uighur Islamic or nationalist militants. When China convicted two Uighurs in the attack, the media did not report any international or TIP angle to their operation (China Daily, April 10, 2009).

The TIP also claimed several other attacks in China after 2008, including a sample listed below:

  • A truck hit-and-run on pedestrians and a mass stabbing attack in Kashgar on Ramadan Eve in 2011 that killed more than 10 people
  • A low-sophistication suicide car-bombing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in October 2013 that killed several foreigners
  • A mass stabbing at the Kunming Train Station in March 2014 that killed 29 people
  • An apparent double-suicide bombing (or suitcase bombing) at Urumqi Train Station in April 2014
  • Car-bombings and explosions at an Urumqi market street in May 2014 that killed dozens (Terrorism Monitor, May 24, 2015)

However, only the 2011 hit-and-run attack in Kashgar was credibly proven to be organized by the TIP in Afghanistan. One of the attackers was featured training in a TIP video in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region (jihadology.net, October 15, 2011). The other attacks, such as the 2011 car-ramming and mass stabbing attack in Kashgar, may have involved TIP-trained-or-inspired militants or militants inspired by jihadism more generally, but their provenance was unclear. In some cases, the attackers seem to have been disgruntled about grievances such as not receiving approval to build a mosque or being able to travel abroad to countries such as Turkey (Telegraph, March 5, 2014; sinosphere.blogs.nytimes, November 7, 2013). China nevertheless attributed those attacks to what it called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – the broader term it uses for Uighur jihadist groups including the TIP itself.

Although the TIP still claimed some terrorist attacks in China after 2013, attacks have since become increasingly rare, with the last major attack in China occurring in March 2014. In fact, China reported the country was “free of terror attacks” for the first time in 2017 (China Daily, March 14). The TIP has become increasingly prominent in Syria since 2013 but almost a non-factor in China itself. The group announced in its feature publication Islamic Turkistan in 2013 that it was moving fighters to Syria to defend the Syrian Muslims, with the implication that Muslims should also defend the Uighurs in Xinjiang (Islamic Turkistan #13, August 17, 2013). The group’s profile in China and even Afghanistan and Pakistan has decisively waned since then, while in Syria it has risen.

Jihadist Divisions in Syria

While the TIP’s earlier operations in Afghanistan and China were often unclear, by 2014 Uighurs were regularly seen in TIP videos from jihadist groups in Syria. TIP’s Islom Awazi media wing began to release videos with a new style of branding that was of a higher quality than the group ever had in Afghanistan. The videos proved its fighters had not only arrived in Syria but were also fighting alongside the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, in northwestern Syria and taking part in key battles in Syria in Idlib and Homs. The TIP that was once obscure in Afghanistan and Pakistan quickly became one of the vital members of the jihadist coalitions in Syria that included Jabhat al-Nusra and its successor groups. The TIP’s upgraded media branding, new stylish uniforms and its new Arabic-speaking commander in Syria, Abu Rida al-Turkistani (possibly descended from Uighurs but raised in Saudi Arabia), who died in 2014, all suggested the TIP was receiving new sponsorship in Syria.

Despite the TIP’s initial battlefield successes in Syria, it has since begun to suffer from factionalization for the first time in its history. In fact, until 2018 the TIP had a “Syria branch” and an “Afghanistan branch” that were complementary, with both maintaining loyalty to the Taliban. Now, however, the divisions within the Syria jihadist milieu may be affecting the TIP. Some fighters appear to be aligning more with Huras al-Din, which is a successor to Jabhat al-Nusra and has a pro-al-Qaeda and global jihadist outlook (@MzmjerSH, July 13). Other fighters, however, appear more aligned with Turkish objectives in Syria and have supported Operation Euphrates Shield and may align more with Turkish-backed militants than Huras al-Din. The leadership of the TIP in Syria maintains its loyalty to the Taliban, but it may be having trouble determining whether the Islamic coalition aligned with Turkey or the jihadists in Huras al-Din are true to the Taliban’s “policy and methodology”(@MzmjerSH, July 13). The TIP leadership wants to stay out of the infighting between factions in Syria, but given the splits within the jihadist groups there, the TIP has apparently not been able to avoid factionalization itself.

There were likely two main reasons why the TIP was unable to withstand factionalization in Syria. First, al-Qaeda’s “shaykhs and ideologues” began to influence the group and reportedly even paid fighters to stay with Huras al-Din even though other TIP fighters rejected being “bribed.” Second, some TIP fighters served as intermediaries for Jund al-Aqsa fighters during a period when several dozen of them fled infighting in northwest Syria to join Islamic State in Raqqa in eastern Syria in 2017. These TIP fighters, therefore, became more exposed to Jund al-Aqsa’s pro-Islamic State ideology. The Islamic State’s Wilayah Al-Furat saw an opportunity to capitalize on their increased exposure and, in February 2017, dedicated an entire video to calling for more Uighurs to join the group in Syria (Jihadology, February 27, 2017). As a result, pro-Huras al-Din and Islamic State-leaning fighters in the TIP today (not including those who actually did defect to the Islamic State and thus are no longer in the TIP) would not be willing to join a coalition of militants supported by “apostate” Turkey. Nevertheless, some TIP members have sought to join the Turkey-backed militant coalition and have maintained relative moderation compared to those members of the TIP who seek to remain with Huras al-Din and the former members who defected to the Islamic State.

The TIP’s overall leader, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who reemerged in 2016 after having been reported killed in a drone strike several years earlier (and faked his death for security reasons), is apparently dissatisfied with the group’s factionalization (Jihadology, May 28, 2016; Dawn, May 1, 2010). He reportedly stated that the new divide in the TIP in Syria is “satisfying” to China (@saleelalmajd1, July 9—link broken). He is, however, not in Syria but in Afghanistan-Pakistan with the TIP’s general leadership. Therefore, his ability to reign in the Syria-based TIP factions is minimal (@saleelalmajd1, July 9).

The Taliban has also tried to deal with the TIP’s factionalization. Two Uighur commanders who fought alongside the Taliban for years were deployed from Afghanistan to Syria in February 2018. Neither of them were well-known beforehand, at least compared to other more public TIP leaders seen in its videos, such as Abdul Haq al-Turkistani. One of the commanders, Abu Umar al-Turkistani, was appointed by the Taliban to be the general leader of the TIP in Syria, while the other commander, Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani, was appointed to be TIP’s military commander in Syria. Abu Umar al-Turkistani had reportedly trained “thousands” of Uighurs in Afghanistan over the course of the last 10 years and was an “expert in heavy and light weaponry in war zones.” Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani was reportedly an expert in “tactical maneuvers and operations.” According to the Taliban, any faction in Syria and TIP members must abide by the decisions of these two leaders concerning alliances. It is, however, unclear where these two leaders stand with regard to Huras al-Din and the Islamist militant coalition aligned with Turkey in Idlib, Syria.

Non-jihadist Influences on the TIP

If the TIP is the jihadist wing of what China would refer to as ETIM, then the Istanbul-based and Uighur-led East Turkistan Education and Solidarity Association (ETESA) is the Islamist wing of ETIM. Although it is unclear when ETESA was founded, it first attracted China’s attention at the start of the Syrian war in 2012, when China accused it of helping ETIM members travel to Syria (Global Times, October 19, 2012). One theory about its origins is that it was comprised of members of the Turkey-based East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), which in 2003 under War on Terror pressures in Turkey decided to “achieve independence by peaceful means” and remain in Turkey. At the same time, the group acknowledged that “inevitably” a separate “military wing” would form (rfa.org, January 29, 2003). That military wing became the TIP whether or not the ETLO, or what became ETESA, had a hand in its formation.

It is also likely the TIP and ETESA overlap not only overtly in some of their similar anti-China messaging. The ETSA also filters some Uighurs to Turkey from China, or Afghanistan, and into Syria. ETESA, however, is staunchly pro-Turkey and thus also pro-President Erdogan and pro-Operation Euphrates Shield. In March 2018, for example, ETESA led a “Loyalty March” of several hundred Uighurs to Hatay Province, which borders Syria, to express support for Turkey’s military operations in Afrin. ETESA members cooked Uighur plov for Turkish soldiers and met with the AK Party head in Hatay. It was at this event that a video was posted on Twitter of a Uighur dressed in a Turkish military uniform declaring war against President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China, warning Chinese civilians to leave “East Turkistan” (Al-Masdar, March 18).

Only two months before that event, in January 2018, ETESA led another group of 500 Uighurs in a march to a military base near Zeytinburnu, the main Uighur neighborhood in Istanbul. There, the group submitted their applications to join the Turkish military operations in Afrin to the head of the military base. At the event, the head of ETESA, Hayatullah Oghuzgan, said “the enemies of Turkey are the enemies of people from East Turkistan” and that the Uighurs “stand with the Turkish military in Afrin to clean up terrorists” who want to “divide Turkey” (tv2.istiqlal.net, January 22).

ETESA’s alignment with Turkey could, therefore, prove to be decisive for TIP fighters’ own calculations about their alliances in Syria. According to jihadist sources, there are an estimated 10,000 or more Uighurs in Syria, including TIP fighters and their family members. There are some doctrinal reasons for some of those TIP fighters to side with the Turkey-aligned militants in Syria if they find Huras al-Din to be too extreme. However, if the jihadists and militants of all factions are defeated in Idlib like they were in Aleppo, then the TIP fighters and their families will likely need to depend on ETESA and the Turkish government to find refuge in Turkey. As a result, certain as some TIP fighters may be that God will grant them victory in Syria, they may also be considering a Plan B—retreating to Turkey. This means the TIP fighters may be more likely to side with the Turkey-aligned and ETESA-supported militants in Idlib than Huras al-Din or other al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist groups that Turkey no longer backs. This, in the short-term, may boost the militant coalition in Idlib, but also increase China’s support to the Syrian army’s efforts against that coalition and add some extra friction to China-Turkey relations at a time when the U.S-Turkey relationship is also experiencing friction.

TIP fighters now face a test between their loyalty to al-Qaeda and its allied groups in Syria; practical concerns about the welfare of themselves and their families (especially if considering a battlefield loss in Idlib); and meeting the expectations of their overall leader, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, and the Taliban in Afghanistan (that is, if they can still readily communicate among counter-terrorism pressures in Syria and Afghanistan). The TIP as an organization and its fighters as individuals will, therefore, have to balance loyalty, ideology and practical concerns as they chart their next steps. The case of the TIP may also serve as a bellwether for how other jihadist groups, including Central Asian groups, will maneuver between the various scenarios in the next stage of the Syrian war.

Notes

[1] See, for example, “Citizens of China” at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/guantanamo/country/china.

 

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