Troubled Uighurs lured to Syria by extremist recruiters

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Uighur fighters from the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria and their children attend prayers at a camp in Syria. [Widely circulated photo via Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria] 

Uighur fighters from the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria and their children attend prayers at a camp in Syria. [Widely circulated photo via Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria] 

In their north-western China homeland, the Uighurs -- a Muslim ethnic minority based in Xinjiang province -- have faced severe political and religious oppression from the national authorities.

This has made them easy prey for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), who have exploited their situation to recruit them to fight in the battlefields of Syria, analysts told Diyaruna.

The Uighurs have been subjected to political, religious and ethnic persecution by authorities in Xinjiang, political researcher Abdul Nabi Bakkar told Diyaruna.

They seek to establish an independent state, East Turkistan, in the mountainous and desert region of Xinjiang, which is bisected by the ancient Silk Road, and have tried to attain autonomous rule at least three times, he said.

Rights groups say more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims are being held in a vast network of camps in Xinjiang aimed at homogenizing the population to reflect China's majority Han culture, AFP reported this month.

Witnesses say that China has sought to force Uighurs to drop core practices of Islam such as fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from alcohol and pork.

China, after initially denying the camps, describes them as vocational schools aimed at dampening the allure of Islamist extremism and violence.

According to satellite imagery analysed by AFP and Earthrise Alliance, the Chinese government has, since 2014, exhumed and flattened at least 45 Uighur cemeteries -- including 30 in the past two years.

Amid escalating global criticism of China's treatment of Uighurs, the US earlier this month said it would curb visas for officials over the alleged abuses, and has blacklisted 28 Chinese firms it accuses of rights violations.

Targeted for recruitment

In recent years, as persecution of the minority group intensified, the situation took a different turn, Bakkar said, with extremist elements among the Uighurs forming the Turkistan Islamic Party.

Bakkar said persecution pushed some Uighurs to adopt jihadist-Salafism, which converges with the radical ideology of extremist groups, and a small contingent of them joined the ranks of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Since then, extremist groups have exploited the Uighurs’ cause to lure youth to join their ranks, boost their numbers and give the impression they are spread across the globe, he said.

Extremists see this as a "validation of their distorted ideology, which has nothing to do with authentic Islam", Bakkar said.

Hundreds of Uighur youth traveled to Syria and Iraq in early 2013, where they joined al-Qaeda and later ISIS, Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna.

"Their presence in the region preceded the establishment of ISIS, which indicates that the extremist group conducted organised recruitment campaigns, taking advantage of the conditions Uighurs were living under," he said.

ISIS recruiters deluded them into believing that the group represented true Islam, and would save them from the conditions they were enduring, he added.

Exploited by extremists

According to some estimates, there are up to 5,000 Uighurs fighting as part of various factions in Syria. But analysts note that most are fighting under their own banner, to promote their own separatist cause.

This has little to do with the Syrian cause, they said, noting that the Uighurs are caught in a kind of no-man's land between the oppression they face in their homeland and the destructive ideology that has led them to join extremist groups.

In March 2017, the Iraqi branch of ISIS released a threatening video in which Uighur fighters under the group's banner call for attacks on China.

In May 2018, the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria released a lengthy video encouraging Muslims in the West to emigrate for jihad, framing this as part of al-Qaeda’s global struggle.

Other videos, including one released in June, show the Turkistan Islamic Party taking part in combat in Syria alongside Jund al-Aqsa and Tahrir al-Sham.

In Syria, the Turkistan Islamic Party is active in areas of Idlib controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, which has granted semi-autonomy to units comprising Uighur fighters.

Al-Abdullah said it seems clear that Tahrir al-Sham is taking advantage of their presence to consolidate its control on the ground.

The precise number of Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria fighters is not known, al-Abdullah said, but estimates indicate there are hundreds of Uighur fighters deployed in rural Idlib and Latakia provinces.

Terror group expert Yahya Mohammed Ali told Diyaruna that Uighurs who joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq appear to have lost their moral compass.

Although some analysis indicates that they come to these areas to gain combat experience in order to return to their country, he said, as they become embroiled in Syria's war, their return now seems to be near-impossible.

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