Gauging Xinjiang's ISIS Threat

Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, is vulnerable to ISIS, according to Zhang Chunxian, the populist party chief of the far-flung province, who stated publicly for the first time that Uighurs, a Turkic, mostly Sunni minority group there, have been joining the self-declared Islamic State group.

"Some Xinjiang residents have crossed the border illegally to join IS," he said. Zhang also announced that a Xinjiang terrorist cell made up of militants who had returned from the ISIS front has been disbanded. The official offered no evidence for his claims.

“To break the case, to reduce human loss and casualties and ensure security, sometimes you have to keep some things confidential for a time,” he said. Just a week later, flyers were found distributed among Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong, encouraging them to pledge allegiance to ISIS and stage attacks in Xinjiang.

There are more than 10 million Uighurs in China. Most live in Xinjiang, where they are the dominant ethnic group. For centuries Xinjiang (which means “New Frontier” in Mandarin) underwent shifting periods of autonomy until being officially absorbed into the Chinese polity under the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. In 1955 Maoist China established control over the far-flung region. Soon after, Han Chinese, the country's dominant ethnic group, began migrating to the new Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in droves.

Encouraged by the government, the Han migrants were lured by new agricultural and industrial towns built in the north by the Xinjiang Production and Development Corp, a quasi-military entity. The Uighurs reside mostly in the south.

Xinjiang, nearly the size of Iran, has proven an increasingly difficult place for Beijing to govern, which projects the province as a hotspot for the “Three Evils”: “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.”

Conversely, the Uighurs accuse the government of actively degrading their cultural identity and restricting their economic opportunities. Some call for independence.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Beijing began aggressively positing Xinjiang as an emerging terrorist haven to the international community. Ten days before the tragedy, the Xinjiang party chief had stressed that the province was “not a place of terror.” Beijing began claiming that some Uighurs had ties with international terror networks, including al-Qaida and the Taliban, and that it was embroiled in its own “war on terror.”

The government implemented a number of invasive “strike hard” counter-terrorism campaigns in Xinjiang, flooding the province with security forces, checkpoints, metal detectors and CCTV cameras. Meanwhile, Han-Uighur relations continued to deteriorate. The water boiled over the pot in 2009 when several days of mass rioting in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi left at least 200 people dead.

Beijing responded swiftly, arresting thousands and shutting off the internet in the province for nearly a year. It has since increased its security efforts in Xinjiang, beefing up even more as well as investing heavily in its extraction-heavy economy and promoting trade relations between Xinjiang and bordering Central Asian states. Beijing’s officially stated goals in Xinjiang are stabilization and development.

While cadres claim government measures are affecting progress, critics point to a litany of human rights violations in the province, including tough curbs on religious expression and the hundreds of Uighurs killed and imprisoned in alleged counterterrorism raids.

To be sure, China's domestic terrorist threat isn’t imaginary. 2014 saw an uptick in deadly attacks on civilians in China. In March a ghastly knife attack by a coed group of Uighurs at a train station in Kunming left 29 people dead. The following month an attack on an Urumqi train station killed three and the month after that a bombing attack at a crowded Urumqi market left 30 dead. And with the US pullout from Afghanistan, which shares an alpine border with Xinjiang, China's gateway to the Muslim world isn't getting any safer. Furthermore, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, in a recorded message released last summer included China in a long list of countries where Muslims were suffering, adding that believers in these countries could “await the rescue of the soldiers of [ISIS] and anticipate their brigades.”

Beijing is right to be worried about militant extremism. But crying wolf over a Uighur-ISIS link may be an exaggeration.

“The scope of ISIS in Xinjiang is still not clear,” said Liang Zheng, a professor at Xinjiang University in Urumqi who studies Islamic extremism among Uighurs. “It is highly likely that some Uighurs who have made it to Syria and ISIS have come back,” he says. “But for now, the threat is mostly ideological.”

Still, due to strict government control over information, it is extremely difficult to find out what Uighurs are believing or not believing. Since late 2012 and the rise of militant Islamic groups in the Syrian civil war, CCP officials have claimed Uighur participation in Islamist groups and expressed concern about radicalized fighters returning to China. Citing anonymous sources, the state-run Global Times in December estimated that more than 300 Chinese nationals are fighting with ISIS.

Certainly China has citizens running off to join ISIS and other extremist groups, as do dozens of countries. The exact number however remains unverifiable. Some reports suggest Uighurs and other less experienced foreign recruits are used as cannon fodder.

Such a narrative—that Xinjiang faces a dire threat from foreign jihadist groups—dovetails well with Beijing’s understanding of the roots of unrest in Xinjiang. Rather than considering discontent over Beijing’s heavy-handed policies as a cause of unrest, the government frequently blames Uighur-related violence on external forces, such as al-Qaida and the World Uighur Congress, a Uighur exile group based in Munich. Often fingers are pointed at the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a shadowy Uighur terrorist group whose operability remains questionable. Beijing should worry about the few hundred or so Uighurs running off to join the self-declared Islamic State. It should show equal concern about the fact that thousands more are fleeing Xinjiang and Beijing’s constrictive policies in search of a better life.

But Beijing does not appear to be changing course. 2014 saw a 40 percent increase in state-security trials there compared with the previous year. In August China executed eight Uighurs charged with terrorism and separatism crimes. In October over two dozen Uighurs were handed death sentences for their alleged involvement in an attack on a police station in July. In September Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti got a life sentence for encouraging “separatism” through his writings and teaching, the most severe punishment for political speech in China in a decade. Meanwhile deadly police shootings on alleged extremists, often in Xinjiang’s rural areas, happen almost weekly.

The Communist Party is currently reviewing a controversial draft counterterrorism law introduced late last year, hoping to give its counterterrorism strategy a legal upgrade. Accused terrorists are normally tried under Chinese criminal law but the government wants to place its counter-terrorism under a proper legal framework.

Though it still isn’t clear what exactly the draft law would add to preexisting laws, it would likely grant authorities further preventive powers, which could provide greater access to digital surveillance technologies. The law might require foreign and domestic technology firms to install “back doors” on their products and provide the government with sensitive material such as encryption keys. American officials and business lobbies are preemptively criticizing the law as “unfair regulatory pressure targeting foreign companies,” according to Reuters. It is thought that the law’s passing has been delayed due to criticism from human rights groups and foreign governments and it is unclear in what form it will eventually pass.

What is clear is that the situation in Xinjiang is not getting any better. Uighurs still face regular persecution, bleak prospects for employment and gross restrictions on cultural expression. Violence from both security forces and disgruntled Uighurs continues unabated. ISIS does not yet seem to have a major foothold in Xinjiang.

That said, there has perhaps never been a better time for groups like ISIS to find angry, marginalized young Uighurs willing to fight the Chinese government. Beijing’s efforts to stabilize Xinjiang have been at best ineffective and at worst inhumane. In the end, the government, not ISIS, may be the biggest fomenter of unrest there.