Most of the foreign fighters that flooded into in Syria during the past few years came from the West, but some jihadists also arrived from the Far East, including as many as 300 of Western China’s Uighurs, the Sunni Muslim indigenous ethnic minority. Now that the Islamic State’s caliphate is collapsing, it seems inevitable that some will return to China, bringing with them more of the jihadist ideology and influence that has leaders in Beijing worried.
The Uighurs come from China’s western province of Xinjiang that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. China cannot afford further instability in Xinjiang. With its abundant natural resources, and rampant arms smuggling, Beijing has begun shoring up its border patrol there.
Since Uighur fighters joined jihadists in Iraq and Syria, militant propaganda directed at China’s leadership, which already has figured prominently in jihadi propaganda strategy for the past decade, has increased. In March, a video featured Uighur militants threatening China, with an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping imposed on a burning Chinese flag. Some videos appear to have been produced in China, with Uighur foreign fighters expressing their intention to return to China to wage jihad. ISIS and al-Qaida leaders have commented on the situation through various media platforms, criticizing China for policies discriminating against Muslims. One ISIS magazine published a feature article with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi alleging that Muslim rights in China have been “forcibly seized” and advocating revenge.
What could happen next? The Uighur veterans of the Syrian civil war could be envisioned as welcome reinforcements in the low-level insurgency in Western China. China’s harsh crackdown in Xinjiang could create a new surge in Uighur radicalization and a new cadre of recruits willing to engage in jihadist operations abroad. And outside of China, Beijing’s growing involvement in Syria could lead to greater support for going after other external jihadist groups that include Uighurs, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party. While a more aggressive Chinese counter-terrorism strategy would be a departure, it would align with China’s ambitions beyond global economic policy.
The Chinese government has signaled its concern. In August, China sacked a senior government official in Xinjiang for neglecting his duties in “fighting extremism.” That follows other steps, including in late 2015, when Beijing authorized the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police to request counterterrorism operations outside of China.
China’s greatest cause for consternation may be the sense that Xinjiang’s once-separatist insurgency is changing and could soon be dominated by those advocating for jihad, transforming the low-level conflict into a bloodier, religiously-motivated one. We’ve seen this before. During the 1990s and into the early-2000s, the conflict in Chechnya followed a similar trajectory, as violent Islamists gained control of the disparate insurgent groups and invited jihadists from abroad to join in attacking Russian security forces.
Not all Uighur foreign fighters returning to China will be motivated to attack. Some may seek to return to China disillusioned with their experiences in Syria and Iraq, and attempt to reintegrate back into normal, everyday life. However, returning terrorist foreign fighters are unlikely to deradicalize on their own, especially if they are continuously provoked or oppressed by Chinese government authorities. With no known reintegration programs or official policies offered by the Chinese government for former terrorists or separatists, this pathway seems unlikely. Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna has noted that “Beijing has invested in building infrastructure, but not in creating reconciliation.”
Instead, the Chinese government has, in many ways, further hardened Uighur identity and increased Islamic radicalization with oppressive polices: banning certain religious names for Uighur babies, placing restrictions on the length of men’s beards, limiting religious observance of Ramadan, and offering preferential treatment to Han Chinese—the single largest ethnic group in China that accounts for more than 90 percent of the total population—in employment and education.
For Uighurs, an ethnic minority that feels it is coming under siege, it is only getting worse. Early this year, Chinese officials in Xinjiang required all drivers to install a satellite navigation system in their vehicles, which will help authorities track and monitor their movements more efficiently. Since June, Chinese authorities have required Uighurs living in the capital of Xinjiang to install an app on their phones that deletes any information deemed subversive. The government has also rounded up and arrested scores of individuals with alleged links to radical Islamist groups, with little information provided to the families regarding the whereabouts of the detained.
While typically close-lipped on domestic instability, China has voiced concerns that at least a portion of its 10 million-strong Muslim minority is vulnerable to radicalization. But China’s implementation of stricter measures has exacerbated rather than ameliorated the situation, including roadblocks and security checks throughout the region at restaurants, shops, and hotels. Some local government officials have referred to egregious displays of “thunderous power” by the state authorities, which has included thousands of paramilitary troops marching through the streets in a show of intimidation.
Heavy-handed policies enacted by the Chinese Communist Party have done the government a grave disservice and likely worked at cross-purposes to national objectives, including regime stability. Authorities maintain tight control over the restive Uighur population in Xinjiang, and will likely continue to do so through repressive measures, at least in the short-term. But if the conflict in Xinjiang attracts attention from transnational jihadists, as has occurred in such places as Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Balkans and now Syria, Beijing could soon find itself in the crosshairs of a religiously motivated, battle-hardened crop of returning foreign terrorist fighters.
Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism-The Hague. Paul Rexton Kan is professor of national security studies and former Henry L. Stimson chair of military studies at the US Army War College.