More Than 100 Chinese Muslims Have Joined the Islamic State

by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian / July 21, 2016/ ChinaFile

Chinese state-backed media has claimed that 300 Chinese Muslims are fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and authorities have blamed the violence emanating from its restive northwest on radical Islamist ideology and residents’ ties to foreign terrorist networks. U.S.-based experts and human rights groups have disputed both claims, arguing that China’s repressive political and religious policies have caused the tensions and that, at any rate, the number of Uighur Islamic State fighters is negligible. But new documents, leaked by an Islamic State defector in early 2016, suggest that Beijing is likely correct about the scale of Uighur involvement with the militant movement—if not about the underlying cause.

A July 20 report from New America, a think tank in Washington, DC, examined more than 4,000 registration records of fighters who joined the Islamic State between mid-2013 and mid-2014. These rudimentary questionnaires asked basic questions of each fighter, including origin, travel history, level of education, former employment, and previous jihad experience. Analysis of the records revealed that at least 114 Chinese Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group concentrated in the northwestern Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, entered Islamic State territory during that time period. Nate Rosenblatt, the author of the report and an independent Middle East/North Africa researcher, obtained the data from contacts made during his previous research in Syria.

The report indicates that Uighur Islamic State fighters were poor, unskilled, and uneducated—precisely none reported having attended college. On average, the Uighurs had the skill level of construction workers. Seventy-three percent of Uighur fighters in the sample joined the Islamic State after its conquest of the key Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, an event which greatly strengthened the military organization and its image as a viable state. And Uighurs in the sample had the widest age range among all the groups represented, with the youngest registered fighter aged 10 and the oldest aged 80. This likely indicates that Uighurs were more likely than other groups to have brought their families along with them. “These people are extremely poor,” said Rosenblatt in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. “They don’t have jobs. They don’t have good education. They hardly travel. Because the cost of traveling—financially and psychologically—are likely very high, it appears they are moving to the Islamic State on a more permanent basis.”

The Uighurs in the sample were entirely new to jihad. When asked if they had any previous experience with jihad, 110 of the Uighurs replied that they had not; the other four left the question blank. Seventy percent of respondents indicated they had never left China before embarking for the Islamic State. Rosenblatt said this suggests the fighters are not part of “traditional Islamic separatist movements that have existed in China for some time,” such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist organization that China and the United States have labeled a terrorist organization. Beijing often blames Xinjiang unrest on the ETIM, while maintaining that Uighurs enjoy “unprecedented religious freedom” in China. Read more…

 

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