The Rise of Uyghur Militancy in and Beyond Southeast Asia: An Assessment

15 Feb 2017

In this article, Nodirbek Soliev looks at 1) the growing disaffection of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China; 2) their susceptibility to recruitment by IS and Al Qaeda; and 3) their movement into Southeast Asia, where the more radicalized among them might link up with existing militant groups. To blunt these trends, Soliev believes the Chinese government must develop comprehensive counter-radicalization and community engagement strategies, and focus more aggressively on winning the “hearts and minds” of the Uyghur community.

Southeast Asia is witnessing evolving security risks from Chinese Uyghurs’ involvement in militant activities in the region. Although this is a relatively new phenomenon, it has transnational security implications for the region. This article assesses the threat of Uyghur militancy in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Background

First reports of Uyghur militants’ presence in Southeast Asia emerged in September 2014 when Indonesian police arrested four Uyghurs attempting to link up with Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT or Mujahidin Indonesia Timor), a militant group in Sulawesi that has pledged allegiance to the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) terrorist group. Since then, six more Uyghurs had been killed among MIT militants (Sangadji 2016). In August 2015, two Uyghurs were found to be among the masterminds and perpetrators of the Bangkok bombing (Vonow 2016) which killed 20 people and injured over 120. On 5 August 2016, Indonesian police arrested five members of a Batam-based terrorist cell known as Katibah GR, which had reportedly received funding from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) (formerly known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)), an Al Qaeda-linked Uyghur terrorist group fighting in Syria and Afghanistan. Katibah GR was involved in smuggling and harbouring two Uyghurs (The Straits Times 2016), one of them, named Ali, was arrested in December 2015. This article argues that terrorist networks linked to the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) and Al Qaeda are attempting to build connections with human smuggling networks to recruit Uyghurs coming from Xinjiang. IS and its local affiliates in Southeast Asia are keen to recruit and mobilise disenfranchised and radical-minded Uyghurs for their militant activities in the region. However, Al Qaeda’s affiliates, al-Nusra Front (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) and TIP in Syria, appear to be mainly interested in safeguarding existing recruitment channels in Southeast Asia to further their fight in the Middle East, rather than expanding their operations in Southeast Asia.

Uyghur Militancy Beyond Xinjiang

The October 2013 car crash attack at Tiananmen Square in Beijing was the first time violence involving Uyghurs occurred in the Chinese capital; 5 people were killed and 38 others injured. In March 2014, a group of ten Uyghurs, including four women, armed with knives and swords attacked passengers and passers-by at the Kunming railway station in China’s south-western Yunnan province, killing at least 29 and injuring more than 140. The assailants were reportedly fleeing China through well-established underground routes across the border into Laos without passports but were unsuccessful and carried out the attack in an act of desperation (Radio Free Asia 2014). Unlike such attacks in the past in Xinjiang, where assailants targeted mostly police and security personnel, the assailants in Kunming targeted civilians at a railway station. In a separate online video statement, the TIP praised both attacks (Zenn 2014a/b).

Syria and Afghanistan

Currently, Uyghur militants are fighting on two battlefronts – Syria and Afghanistan. A vast majority of these Uyghur militants are fighting under the banner of TIP, one of the prominent foreign terrorist groups fighting both in Syria and Afghanistan. TIP’s Syrian division, known as the TIP in the Levant (TIP-L), was established in 2012 and receives shelter, protection and support from al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate. Reciprocally, TIP-L has supplied al-Nusra Front with manpower on the ground and actively participated in militant offensives mounted by al-Nusra Front and its allies against the Syrian government forces in Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo. Based on the videos produced by the TIP-L’s media wing known as “Islam Awazi” (The Voice of Islam), several hundred, possibly a thousand Uyghur fighters and their family members have joined TIP-L. The group claimed that it has also participated in military offensives launched by Turkmen brigades and moderate insurgent groups fighting against the Syrian government.

In Afghanistan, however, TIP has become considerably weak since the group was expelled from the tribal areas of Pakistan to Afghanistan in 2015 (Reuters 2015). TIP had approximately 300-500 militants when it was based in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) (Zenn 2014a). The group is now struggling to survive and find a permanent shelter.

In spite of its growing military strength in Syria, TIP does not appear to have the capabilities to carry out operations beyond the Middle East independently. It is al-Nusra Front’s resources, capabilities, and networks that have strengthened TIP’s transnational reach. According to Kyrgyz authorities, the suicide car bombing attack on the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on 30 August 2016 was a joint operation between TIP and Kateeba Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), and organised on the order and with the financial support of the emissaries of al-Nusra Front. Based on a comparison of the Bishkek attack and the Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok on 17 August 2015, it can be speculated that both attacks might have been the work of a transnational network linked to al-Nusra Front and TIP. Both attacks remain unclaimed, and they directly or indirectly targeted Chinese interests. The masterminds and perpetrators were mainly ethnic Uyghurs and Turkic people who arrived from Turkey on fake passports not long before the attacks and managed to return to Turkey undetected after successfully carrying out the strikes.

As of now, al-Nusra Front and TIP seem eager to recruit radical Uyghurs to replenish its fighting contingent in the Middle East, instead of getting involved in operations in Southeast Asia. Based on videos and statements produced by TIP, so far there has been no evidence to suggest that the group has operational presence in Southeast Asia. Additionally, TIP has not demonstrated its intention to expand into Southeast Asia. In recent times, the group’s online propaganda has mainly focused on appealing to Uyghur Muslims to travel to Syria and to attack China’s global interests.

As of now, al-Nusra Front and TIP seem eager to recruit radical Uyghurs to replenish its fighting contingent in the Middle East, instead of getting involved in operations in Southeast Asia. Based on videos and statements produced by TIP, so far there has been no evidence to suggest that the group has operational presence in Southeast Asia. Additionally, TIP has not demonstrated its intention to expand into Southeast Asia. In recent times, the group’s online propaganda has mainly focused on appealing to Uyghur Muslims to travel to Syria and to attack China’s global interests.

Southeast Asia: An “alternative jihad” for Xinjiang’s Uyghurs?

Since 2013, Southeast Asia has emerged as a major transit route for an influx of illegal Uyghur immigrants fleeing from China’s restive Xinjiang province, in a bid to reach Turkey, which is home to a large Uyghur diaspora community. The first phase of the movement of Uyghurs into Southeast Asia took place in 2009 – in the aftermath of the inter-ethnic clashes between local Uyghur and Han communities that left 197 dead and 1,700 injured (The New York Times 2012). The phenomenon of Uyghur militancy in Southeast Asia can be said to be an outcome of a combination of long-standing inter-ethnic tensions between local Uyghur and Han communities in Xinjiang, and the tightening of border controls and security measures in Central Asia, which has forced the Uyghurs to seek alternative routes. In the past, disaffected Uyghurs have also resettled outside of China, particularly in Turkey, Central Asia and Saudi Arabia, when ethnic tensions in Xinjiang were on the rise.

Uyghurs in Southeast Asia

It would be over-simplistic to categorise all Uyghurs coming to Southeast Asia as militants. There has been no evidence to suggest that those Uyghurs implicated in militant activities in Southeast Asia have had militant training or fighting experience prior to their entry into the region.

The majority of Uyghurs coming to Southeast Asia appear to be peaceful asylum seekers, many in search of better economic opportunities (The Straits Times 2016a). Currently, approximately 1,000 Uyghurs are believed to be seeking asylum in Southeast Asian countries (Banlaoi 2016). In March 2014, the Thai government arrested 424 Uyghurs, including more than 60 children, who entered the country illegally and initially claimed to be Turkish citizens in the hopes of being sent to Turkey rather than back to China. They were found in different parts of the country – in Songkhla Province on the border with Malaysia, and Sa Kaeo Province on the border with Cambodia (Kuo and Springer 2014). In March and October 2014, Malaysian authorities arrested about 217 Uyghur asylum-seekers (Daily Sabah 2014/The Straits Times 2014).

In September 2013, at least 30 were arrested in Mohan, a small border town in Yunnan (China), near the border with Laos (Radio Free Asia 2013). In December 2010, Laos also returned seven asylum-seekers to China (Radio Free Asia 2010). In 2009, Cambodia, acceding to China’s request, forcibly repatriated 20 Uyghurs seeking asylum from persecution related to the unrest in Xinjiang.

Smugglers and Radicals

Uyghurs have exploited existing human smuggling networks to travel around the region undetected. Well-established and flourishing human smuggling networks and fake documentation channels operating both in China and Southeast Asia have organised, brokered and facilitated Uyghurs’ trips across the region. For instance, in September 2015, Malaysian police captured four Uyghurs along with four Malays, who were part of a human smuggling syndicate (BenarNews 2015). Malaysian authorities arrested and deported an earlier batch of 11 Uyghurs engaged in human smuggling back to China in August 2011 (Radio Free Asia 2011).

Radical ideologies have gained traction among some vulnerable segments within the Uyghur community. Some radical elements in Xinjiang have been covertly travelling to Syria and Iraq via Southeast Asia masquerading as asylum-seekers. They exploit the same human smuggling and fake documentation networks operating in China and Southeast Asia to obtain false passports that allow them to reach Turkey on their way to Syria. In January 2015, Chinese police in Shanghai arrested a group of ten Turkish nationals and two Chinese citizens for supplying fake Turkish passports to nine Uyghur terrorist suspects from Xinjiang who were planning to leave China illegally for Syria to join jihadist groups (BBC 2015a).

As of now, Southeast Asia does not seem to be a final destination for radicalised Uyghurs coming from China. Only when Uyghurs fail to travel to Turkey due to various reasons would they decide to remain in Southeast Asia instead of going back to China. Indonesia is the ‘alternative jihadi ground’ for these radical Uyghurs as it appears to be more accessible than other countries. Uyghur recruitment and involvement in terrorist activities in Southeast Asia is taking place along the lines of local groups’ links to either Al Qaeda or IS.

Uyghurs with Pro-IS and IS-linked Terrorist Cells in Indonesia

In September 2014, Indonesian police in Poso arrested four Uyghur jihadists who tried to join Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (MIT), the pro-IS Indonesian militant group. The arrestees had entered Indonesia using forged Turkish passports and paid USD 1,000 to a human smuggler in Thailand for each passport and travelled to Indonesia via Malaysia (The Straits Times 2015). According to Indonesian authorities, the four Uyghurs were planning to meet MIT leader Santoso (killed in July 2016), and also to receive militant training that could be used in their fight against China (Abuza 2015). This incident was followed by the killing of six other Uyghurs who joined MIT. These Uyghurs reportedly entered Thailand via Cambodia. After obtaining fake passports in Thailand, they moved to Kuala Lumpur whence they flew on to Makassar, South Sulawesi on their way to Poso (The Jakarta Post 2016). However, it remains unclear how these Uyghurs had linked up with the MIT.

In August 2016, Indonesian police arrested five members of Katibah GR, a pro-IS terrorist cell based in Batam, for plotting to launch a rocket attack on Marina Bay, Singapore. The cell reportedly received funding from the TIP and had smuggled and harboured two alleged Uyghur militants identified as Ali and Doni (The Straits Times 2016b). Katibah GR, led by Gigih Rahmat Dewa has had close links to a notorious Indonesian IS fighter Bahrun Naim who is based in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Ali, whose real name is Nur Muhammet Abdullah, was arrested by Indonesian police along with a local militant named Arif Hidayatullah, alias Abu Musab, in Bekasi near Jakarta in December 2015. Ali and Doni were sheltered by KGR in Batam before Ali was picked up by his friend named Nur Rohman who later blew himself up in a suicide bombing attack on a police station in Solo, Central Java in June 2016. Doni has since been deported (The Straits Times 2016b).

Ali left Xinjiang for Southeast Asia with the purpose of flying over to Syria. He obtained a fake passport in one of the countries in the region and flew to Turkey. However, after being detected in a Turkish airport, Ali was deported back. He decided to travel to Indonesia through Malaysia whence Ali was smuggled by sea into Batam, where he was met by Gigih Rahmat in October 2015. It was Bahrun Naim who had assigned Gigih Rahmat to shelter Ali in Batam (The Straits Times 2016c).

Arif Hidayatullah’s cell had close links to Bahrun Naim and planned to use Ali as a suicide bomber in an attack against Shia communities in Indonesia.

On 3 November 2016, Ali was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Ali’s case attests to the fact that Southeast Asia has become “an alternative jihad” for Uyghurs who originally intended to go to the Middle East through the region but fail to do so for various reasons. IS and its local affiliates in Southeast Asia appear to be interested in recruiting and mobilising these Uyghurs for their militant activities in the region.

Breaking the “Violence-Suppression-Violence” Cycle in Xinjiang

Increasing violence involving ethnic Uyghurs has led the Chinese government to respond forcefully. China often describes these incidents as “terrorist attacks” and labels assailants as “terrorists”. These labels overlook the impact of the state’s ethnic policies in fuelling such episodes of inter-ethnic violence between the ethnic Uyghur minority and the Han Chinese. On 26 May 2015, the Chinese state media reported that law enforcement agencies dismantled 181 “terror groups” in Xinjiang after the launch of the “strike hard” campaign in the region in March 2014 against what China projects as “the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism” (The Global Times 2016). The campaign that continued throughout the following year was a combination of enhanced cultural restrictions and security efforts (US State Department 2016). The conviction of 712 people in 2014 and another 1,419 in 2015 on terrorism and separatism charges was part of such measures (Reuters 2016). The government launched additional armed patrols and checkpoints; set up community-based methods of terrorism-prevention such as neighbourhood watch and “inspection of households” across Xinjiang; and offered rewards for information leading to the arrests of terrorists (BBC 2015b). According to Xinjiang authorities, 96 percent of terrorist plots in Xinjiang were prevented at the planning stage (The Global Times 2015).

Although Beijing’s efforts to ensure security in the region have helped to reduce the number of incidents and the scale of violence, such measures have also contributed to the rise of radical and extremist groups and given them an opportunity to radicalise vulnerable segments within the Uyghur society (Soliev 2013).

The government’s conflicting approach to Xinjiang is reflected in the ongoing effort to economically develop the region and its policy of ethnic assimilation, which has conflicted with the Uyghurs’ desire to preserve their culture, religion and language (Clarke 2016). To break the “violence-suppression-violence” cycle and to achieve long-lasting stability in Xinjiang, there is a need to develop comprehensive counter-radicalisation and community engagement strategies, relying less on hard power and more on winning the “hearts and minds” of its Uyghur minority community in Xinjiang (Lim 2015). An important implication of the worsening ethnic tension in Xinjiang is the movement of Uyghurs into Southeast Asia and the corresponding rise in militancy (Zenn 2014c).

Conclusion

The immediate threat of Uyghur militancy in Southeast Asia lies in the possibility that well-organised and battle-hardened Uyghur militant groups like the TIP may form alliances with militant groups in the region. As of now, however, the threat remains limited as its leadership does not appear to have the intention to bring its operations into Southeast Asia.

IS-linked groups in Southeast Asia, however, require close attention not only because they take directions from IS operatives in Syria but also because of their willingness to bring in radicalised Uyghurs and involve them in terror activities, including using them as suicide bombers.

References

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About the Author

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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