There are noticeable changes in the TIP ideology aiming at a gradual move away from global jihadism toward the national liberation movement of East Turkistan. These changes are visible in the deviation from al-Qaeda’s anti-Western propaganda and an increase in anti-Chinese hostility.
TIP Seeks Cooperation with Central Asian Countries
On Oct. 19, 2022, Abdusalam al-Turkistani, the deputy emir of the al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), distributed an appeal to the world via a Telegram channel titled “We are not from China, our homeland is East Turkistan.” Notably, TIP’s 7-page-long statement was published in Farsi, which is rare since its official Islam Awazi media outlet usually publishes propaganda materials on the group’s Muhsinlar website in Uyghur and Arabic languages. However, considering TIP’s jihadi operation on Afghan soil over the past quarter-century, where Dari (Farsi) is one of the two official languages, throughout their stay the Uyghur jihadists have mastered Dari.
The statement begins by emphasizing Uyghur national and religious identity by stating: “We are not from China, but we are your Muslim brothers from East Turkistan of Central Asia.” The senior TIP religious official expresses his grief over the fact that “the name of East Turkistan was erased from the world map” due to the Chinese Communist regime’s genocidal policy against Uyghur Muslims. According to him, the Chinese occupiers of East Turkistan not only forcibly changed the world map, but also criminally tried to eradicate Uyghurs’ historical memory and destroy their spiritual and religious values.
According to al-Turkistani, the people of the world, even the elders, say that “Uyghurs are a paperless orphan nation, East Turkistan is Chinese land” that was renamed Xinjiang, also connoted as a “new land” in Chinese language. The Uyghur jihadists vehemently reject such established notions and definitions, further claiming that “we are not Chinese, but we are Turkistanis; we are Muslims, and our home is East Turkistan.” In addition, they vowed never to put up with China’s repressive expansion, destroying the Uyghur population, and never to accept Beijing’s collar.
Al-Turkistani further compared the Chinese to Gog and Magog, the two subhuman corruptors of the earth mentioned in the Quran (Surah Al-Kahf 18:94-97), who, as part of the apocalyptic events prior to the end of the world, will invade and destroy large sections of the Muslim Ummah. The TIP deputy emir squeamishly recalled that the Uyghur Muslims, as peace-loving servants of Allah, have nothing in common with the wicked and despicable Chinese, embodying the worst features of Gog and Magog. “Attributing the Uyghurs to the modern descendants of Gog and Magog is a terrible insult to us,” says al-Turkistani. “The Uyghurs do not want any affiliation to the criminal Chinese Kafirs (infidels), the most despised nation in the world.” The TIP statement repeatedly claimed that “Muslims of East Turkistan are not Chinese, but part of the Islamic Ummah.”
Al-Turkistani draws attention to historical and religious matters of Uyghurs, excerpting that “too few know that East Turkistan is home to over 40 million Hanafi Muslims many of whom were oppressed, repressed, destroyed, forcibly expelled from their country by Chinese usurpers…However, the East Turkistani people are courageous fighters of Jihad, devoted and loyal to Allah, ready to fight for the liberation of East Turkistan to make it independent again.” The TIP senior propagandist says the fertile lands of East Turkistan became a barrier for China to take over Central Asia. Nowadays because of the global economic competition with the U.S., Chinese Kafuruns have developed its Belt and Road mega-project aiming to conquer vast lands from Central Asia to the Middle East. Therefore, he called on the Muslim Ummah to jointly resist China’s evil occupation policy.
“We will never agree to the Chinese usurpation of East Turkistan, the land of Muslims built by our ancestors with their own blood,” said al-Turkistani. “Today, the Uyghurs of East Turkistan are experiencing the monstrous cruelty of the Chinese Kuffar (disbeliever) in their own skin.” He went on to list the Chinese government’s atrocities against the Uyghurs, such as banning Muslims from reading the Quran, performing Islamic Ibadah (worship), and fasting during Ramadan; imprisoning and torturing those who greet brothers and sisters with “Assalomu Alaikum”; destroying the mosque and madrasah, burning the Quran, and turning mosques into dance halls and strip clubs; imprisoning more than two million Uyghurs in concentration camps, torturing and killing scientists, intellectuals, human rights activists and youth; raping women, and cutting off their reproductive organs so that they never give birth to Uyghur children; and forcing Uyghurs to study atheism, communism, and the principles of Marx and Lenin from early morning until late at night in concentration camps.
At the end of his statement, the TIP senior leader appealed to the world, Islamic Ummah, Central Asian states and organizations to support the Hizb-al-Islami al-Turkistani (Turkistan Islamic Party) in its righteous struggle to liberate East Turkistan from the Chinese Communist regime. According to him, Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani does not pose a threat to any country or nation, except for the arrogant Chinese occupiers, and is ready to cooperate with all political forces who are interested in Uyghurs freedom. He concludes the statement by calling on Central Asian countries to protect the fortress East Turkistan, which is protecting the entire world, including Central Asia, from Chinese hegemony. According to him, the occupation of East Turkistan is the beginning of China’s occupation of Central Asia. Therefore, Central Asians must act now to guarantee their own freedom. On November 5, Abdusalam al-Turkistani published a shorter version of this statement in English on his Telegram channel.
Evolution of the Uyghur Jihadi Ideology
This bewildering statement by al-Turkistani requires at first a political, geographical, and historical context. The Uyghurs’ tragic fate under the iron grip of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has long been the main agenda of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a largely Uyghur jihadi movement advocating the independence of Xinjiang province, historically known as East Turkistan. Xinjiang occupies one-sixth of China’s land mass and borders eight countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The Uyghurs are a Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group having a common linguistic, religious, and cultural kinship with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. It is no coincidence that TIP leaders like to call their homeland East Turkistan, encouraging pro-independence Uyghur forces to struggle against Beijing’s rule. However, paradoxically, unlike Western countries, the immediate neighbors of the XUAR (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) and related Turkic nations of Central Asia such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan never condemned China’s political repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Moreover, they always silently supported Beijing’s persecution policy of Uyghurs by extraditing Uyghur pro-independence activists and refugees back to China without trial.
In the mid-1990s, Chinese intelligence brazenly and boldly carried out its counterterrorism operations in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, hunting down and defiantly shooting Uyghur leaders, businessmen, and human rights activists, supporting the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO). Following the 9/11 attacks, China, manipulating the global war on terror, ensured that all Uyghur pro-independence movements were banned as al-Qaeda-linked terror groups. Under the economic pressure of Beijing, the Central Asian governments have designated two Uyghur organizations, ETLO and ETIM, as terrorist organizations in 2002. Based on the evidence presented by biased Chinese and Central Asian intelligence agencies, in September 2002 the United States and the United Nations officially recognized ETIM as a terrorist organization. Russia, as the main backer of China’s persecution of Uyghurs, has secured the designation of six pro-independence Uyghur movements as terrorist organizations within its CSTO military bloc (Collective Security Treaty Organization) in the post-Soviet space.
Noteworthy, there are noticeable changes in the TIP ideology aiming at a gradual move away from global jihadism towards the national liberation movement of East Turkistan. Our analysis of TIP Uyghur jihadists’ media activities over the past year indicates that these changes are visible in the deviation from al-Qaeda’s anti-Western propaganda and an increase in anti-Chinese hostility. Instead of the hardline anti-Western ideological doctrine adhered to by the ETIM following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in early 2002, the TIP Uyghur jihadi group is now fully focused on an anti-China agenda.
TIP’s latest statement, “We are not terrorists, we are fighters for the freedom of the oppressed Uyghurs in East Turkistan,” is addressed directly to the neighboring Central Asian Turkic-speaking kindred nations, and then only to the world community. Thus, the TIP sends clear signals to the outside world that the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the struggle to free them from Beijing’s iron chains has long been its main ideological slogan, instead of an anti-Western global jihad.
For example, the Islam Awazi (Voice of Islam) Media Center, TIP’s main propaganda arm, released 194 audios, 63 videos, and 15 text materials in 2022, almost 90 percent of which were devoted to the topic of victimization of Uyghur Muslims by Chinese Kafiruns (disbeliever). In this regard, Uyghur-language Turkistan Daily News radio, TIP’s mouthpiece in Syria, frequently reminds listeners that the strategic goal of the Uyghur Mujahideen is to liberate East Turkistan from China’s occupation and to build their own state with Sharia rule. Despite unattainable dreams, TIP’s high-profile long-term anti-Chinese propaganda efforts aim to change its social status from an al-Qaeda-linked international terrorist group to an East Turkistan National Liberation Movement.
Taliban and HTS as a Role Model for Uyghur Jihad
Most notable is the fact that since the U.S. State Department de-blacklisted ETIM and removed it from the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL) in accordance with the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the TIP Uyghur jihadi group has given some momentum to distancing itself from al-Qaeda, although its ties to the Afghan Taliban and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) remain solid. Perhaps the pragmatic winning strategy of the Afghan Taliban and HTS played a role model in reconsidering the activities of the TIP from a global jihad to a national liberation movement. It should be recalled that both the Taliban and the HTS initially had close and strong ties to al-Qaeda, but subsequently distanced themselves without loud divorces. Both at least publicly claim that they have no ties to al-Qaeda. Both, instead of external anti-Western jihad, achieved significant success in internal nationalist resistance, limited to the boundaries of Afghanistan and Syria.
The political rhetoric of the TIP Uyghur jihadists is clearly pan-Islamic. Although the TIP acts in the “name of holy jihad” against China’s communist regime, it nevertheless operates on a regional scale under the auspices of its strategic parent organizations, the Taliban and the HTS. TIP’s external activities were limited to the Af-Pak region of Afghanistan and Syria’s province of Idlib, and they did not target the Western world. The change in TIP’s ideological rhetoric indicates that the Uyghur jihadists seek to replicate the successful nationalist resistance jihad, like the Afghan Taliban and the HTS, precisely within their own ethno-linguistic local community in East Turkistan. But unlike its umbrella organizations, TIP does not control any territory and cannot count on internal support from Uyghur Muslims in the XUAR.
Since Beijing skillfully capitalized on the 9/11 tragedy and achieved recognition of ETIM as a terrorist group by many members of the U.S.-led “war on terror” in 2002, China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs has only intensified with each passing year. Justifying its brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs as a fight against the “three evils – ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism,” the Chinese government has achieved the Sinicization of Islam by indoctrinating the Uyghurs with communist ideology in an attempt to uproot the Uyghur Muslim ethnic separatism in Xinjiang over the past quarter-century. Therefore, it is unlikely that the TIP will be able to move its “holy jihad” for the freedom of the Uyghurs into the territory of the XUAR and enlist the support of its fellow tribesmen inside the country.
Despite its gloomy prospects in Xinjiang, the TIP, through its jihadi ideological struggle and anti-Chinese propaganda, looks to improve its position as the leading militant vanguard for East Turkistan’s oppressed Muslims and to receive support from the outside world, primarily the Muslim Ummah. For instance, on September 19, the TIP released another 7-minute-long video in English through its official Islam Awazi Media Center titled “Let’s Stand as One” that focused on the plight of Uyghur Muslims in “occupied East Turkistan” and China’s crackdown in the region. The video shows scenes of cruel and humiliating detention of “shackled and blindfolded” Muslim prisoners in Chinese prisons, demonstrating the tragedy of Uyghur supporters of East Turkistan Independence under Beijing’s authoritarian regime.
Another frame shows scenes of a young Han Chinese marrying a Uyghur girl against the backdrop of a destroyed mosque surrounded by shaven Muslims, emphasizing state-incentivized Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang province and widespread religious, economic, and cultural discrimination. From the Islam Avazi Media Center propaganda materials, it can be concluded that Beijing considers all Uyghurs to be potential terrorists or separatists, while for TIP all Han Chinese are irreconcilable enemies of the Muslim Ummah. TIP in its ideological doctrine presents itself as the only Sunni Jihadi Group bearing the Uyghur National Liberation Banner capable of freeing Eastern Turkistan from the Chinese yoke.
Another distinguishing feature of the TIP’s ideological concept is its desire to synthesize the aggressive pan-Islamic ideology with the Uyghur National Liberation agenda aimed to overthrow the Chinese government in Xinjiang and establish an Islamic Emirate there. Therefore, in this video, TIP ideologues called on Muslims across the globe to “Stand as One” in support of Xinjiang’s targeted Muslims with lyrics advocating “One Nation Forever” and “One Ummah”. However, while remaining faithful to the global Salafi-Jihadi ideology and integrating into al-Qaeda’s insurgency strategy, TIP will find it difficult to achieve international recognition as a leading Uyghur National Liberation Movement.
The main obstacle standing in the way of turning the TIP into a Uyghur National Liberation Movement, unsurprisingly, is the dark past of its emir Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who maintained trusting ties with the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Al-Qaeda appointed Abdul Haq as a member of its Shura Majlis (executive leadership council) in 2005, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which listed him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in April 2009 for his “involvement with fundraising, recruiting, propaganda efforts, and the planning and execution of terror attacks.” The United Nations also designated him as a terrorist leader. Nevertheless, his main merit is that, as TIP’s charismatic and recognized emir, Abdul Haq harshly denounced the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as an “illegitimate” caliph, keeping the Uyghur jihadists from defecting to the side of the Islamic State in 2016.
Generational Change in al-Qaeda and TIP
The killing of longtime al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abdul Haq’s war mentor, has adjusted the TIP’s separatist insurgency strategy toward Xinjiang, emphasizing the national resistance movement rather than global jihad. Under pressure from the Taliban, the TIP emir failed to openly mourn the killing of al-Zawahiri, reflecting a generational change in both al-Qaeda and the TIP. Since then, Abdusalam al-Turkistani, the TIP’s deputy emir, untainted by collaboration with the notorious global terrorists, has become a prominent ideological voice for the Uyghur jihadists. His recent audio and video messages on ways to achieve Uyghur independence in East Turkistan on his Telegram channel have revealed that he is a deep connoisseur of Quranic knowledge and has powerful oratorical skills with great religious influence.
It is well known that in audio messages from the TIP Emir Abdul Haq on China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang he usually sought moral support from the top leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other high-profile al-Qaeda ideologues. For instance, in his March 2019 audio message, al-Turkistani urged al-Qaeda’s Shura Council to use its jihadi media platforms to speak out about the ongoing abuses of Uyghurs. While al-Qaeda’s general command responded to the TIP emir with remarkable solidarity, well-known pro-al-Qaeda clerics such as the Jordanian Sami al-Uraydi and the Syria-based Abdallah al-Muhaysini also extended their support. In June 2022, HTS Shura Council member Abu al-Fatah al-Farghali strongly condemned the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the arrest and extradition of Uyghur Muslims to China on his Telegram channel. He called on Muslims to make a dua’a so that “Allah will cleanse the Land of the Two Holy Mosques from this gang that has deviated from the true path of Islam.”
Unlike Abdul Haq, his deputy Abdusalam al-Turkistani appeals not to al-Qaeda’s global terror network but to the world community, the entire Islamic Ummah, Central Asia’s religious leaders, and even neighboring countries of the post-Soviet space with a call to support the aspirations of the Uyghur Muslims for independence. His latest appeal about “TIP’s readiness to cooperate with any country and individual opposing to China” finds a positive impulse among anti-China-minded Muslim followers of Central Asia.
Abdusalam al-Turkistani’s declaration that “we are not terrorists and do not pose a threat to any country, or nation” had more of a calming effect on observers than the choral statements of Abdul Haq and al-Qaeda leaders. Thus, TIP’s stated desire for peaceful coexistence in the Central Asian region and its determination to “fight for the return of the occupied East Turkistan land and support the oppressed Uyghur Muslims” testifies to the evolution of Uyghur jihadism and its transformation into a form of anti-Chinese resistance movement based on the ideology of ethno-nationalism.
The TIP deputy emir quickly responded to the wave of unprecedented civil disobedience in mainland China demanding Xi Jinping’s resignation and the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, which began on November 26 after the deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region. In his latest Telegram audio statement on November 26, Abdusalam al-Turkistani called on Uyghurs worldwide to join the armed struggle against the Chinese occupiers, since only joint military (jihadi) and political actions can liberate East Turkistan. He thanked over 50 countries led by the U.S. for supporting Uyghurs in Xinjiang from China’s bloody repression. He raised the slogan, “The Chinese who occupied East Turkistan with weapons can only be driven out with the help of weapons.” In fact, Abdusalam al-Turkistani proposed to create a single Uyghur National Resistant Movement with the broad participation of all Uyghur political, military (jihadi), scientific, cultural, and human rights elements in the world for armed resistance to China’s occupation.
Analysis of Abdusalam al-Turkistani’s propaganda activities over the past year revealed that he has a reputation as a charismatic strategist of the Uyghur resistance force, able to unite various small Uyghur jihadi cells around the TIP, such as Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkistani (KGT) and Yurtugh Tactical, a private military contractor operating in Syria’s province of Idlib. It is worth pointing out that KGT was formed by Uyghur fighters in the Harem area of northern Idlib province in 2017 and ideologically identifies itself with al-Qaeda. Judging by its propaganda, KGT takes a tougher Salafi stance on the purity of Islam and holy jihad than its parent organization of TIP. Perhaps this is because it includes a sizeable number of ethnic Arab fighters among its ranks. Uyghur jihadi media on Telegram has described Yurtugh Tactical as a successful TIP-linked private military contractor that will change the course of the anti-Chinese resistance war in the future. Yurtugh Tactical’s videos on the Telegram channel often showed the Uyghur fighters with modern sniper rifles, helmets with night-vision goggles, and expensive military equipment practicing military maneuvers including marksmanship, area clearing, and fighting in urban areas.
Thus, Abdusalam al-Turkistani was presented by TIP as a warrior-scholar, most revered of images in the jihadi milieu, capable of channeling the motley energies of Uyghur jihadists into a unified anti-China resistance. In his public appearances, the TIP deputy emir aims to appear as a seasoned statesman of jihad, diplomatically avoiding ties to al-Qaeda, HTS and ISIS. If he manages to adequately coordinate activities among the various existing militant Uyghur groups and smooth out their ideological contradictions, as well as unite them under a common anti-China resistance movement, then he has a chance to become the next TIP emir following Abdul Haq. Moreover, after the killing of al-Zawahiri and the warming of relations between the Afghan Taliban interim government and China, it will be morally difficult for Abdul Haq to rely on the younger generation of al-Qaeda and HTS leaders.
ISIS Challenges Uyghur Separatism in Xinjiang
However, TIP’s efforts to become the flagship of the anti-China resistance movement may be thwarted by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a regional offshoot of ISIS in Central Asia. Obviously, as the Taliban continue to weaken in terms of hardline jihadi ideology and the group seeks to hide its historical ties with al-Qaeda the ISKP grows stronger, harshly criticizing the closer economic and political cooperation between “China’s Kafiruns and their new puppet of the Taliban”. Indeed, ISKP has a well-defined strategy to capitalize on the new reality in Afghanistan, portraying itself as the only hardline jihadi force capable of liberating Eastern Turkistan from the Chinese yoke.
The more the Taliban deviate from the hardline jihadi concept in order to gain international recognition, the more Uyghur fighters will defect from the TIP to ISKP. A report of the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team confirms that ISKP seeks to strengthen its capabilities by recruiting new members from al-Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadi groups dissatisfied with Taliban’s efforts to restrain their jihadi activities in Afghanistan. The UN reported “the defection of 50 Uyghur fighters from al-Qaeda-allied Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) to ISKP.”
ISKP harshly criticized the Taliban for deporting Uyghurs from Afghanistan purportedly at the behest of China in 2021, encouraging defections from TIP. According to the Department of Defense 2021 report to Congress, “ISKP’s rhetoric in support of the Uyghurs and against China may be part of an effort to position itself as the perceived protector of the Uyghur people in Afghanistan and thus help recruit their militant fighters into its own ranks.” Thus, accusations of Chinese occupation in East Turkistan and the repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have become one of the hot mainstreams of ISKP’s media. For instance, the group criticized China’s global economic expansion and maltreatment of Uyghurs in its English-language Voice of Khorasan magazine in September.
Thus, the recent rapid surge of pro-Uyghur and anti-Chinese jihadi propaganda of ISKP may fragment TIP’s efforts to transform into the most bellicose anti-China resistance force in Central Asia. Terrorist attacks and high-profile bombings by ISKP Uyghur fighters in the post-Soviet space will also erase the smoldering sympathy of Central Asian peaceful Muslims for the oppressed Uyghur fellow believers in Xinjiang. Sensing an opportune moment, ISKP may hit precisely on the TIP’s sore point to break down its recent peaceful slogan: “We are not terrorists, we are the defenders of East Turkistan and are ready to cooperate with any countries or nations in Central Asia.” Despite operational restraints and Taliban pressure, TIP will counter IS-Khorasan’s propaganda challenges by leveraging its Uyghur-centric identity to strengthen the ongoing anti-China resistance. One can be confident that TIP’s Syrian and Afghan wings will certainly remain united, most vocal, and ardent in their opposition to China and work to elevate their cause from within transnational organizations and through its alliances with them.
In conclusion, whether or not TIP succeeds in reformatting its public image from a global terror group to a national resistance movement, Beijing is likely to use the Uyghur separatist threat as an excuse to further escalate its security crackdown in Xinjiang. TIP’s latest peaceful propaganda about its readiness to build bridges with regional powers may just provide a justification for the Chinese authorities to further pressure their Central Asian neighbors to continue the persecution of Uyghur activists and refugees within the SCO.