Uyghur militants in Afghanistan: a possible threat for China

Chinese police forces in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Credits: Sasha India, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 13 Issue 12
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

The presence of Uyghur suicide bombers in the ranks of the Islamic State-Khorasan increases Beijing’s fears about the threat to China’s national security emanating from Afghanistan.

Since the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban rise to power (The new geopolitical game of Afghanistan), the Islamic State has organised a series of terrorist and violent attacks against civilians, security personnel, and the Taliban. As we highlighted recently in our interactive monitoring map on terrorist and violent attacks in Afghanistan during 2021 (Mapping and monitoring terrorist activities in Afghanistan in 2021), the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) conducted several attacks against the Taliban and the Shiite Muslim community, mainly but not only in Kabul and Jalalabad areas.

For instance, on October 8th, 2021, IS-K claimed responsibility for the attack on a Shiite mosque in Kunduz. According to the terrorist organisation, the attack targeted the Shiites considered as ‘infidels’ and the Taliban interim Government accused of having deported Uyghurs from Afghanistan to China to satisfy Beijing in exchange for Chinese investments and economic support. Remarkably, the group identified the terrorist as Muhammad al-Uyghuri, underlining its ethnic origin and connection with the Uyghur cause.

Undeniably, as the Afghan Ambassador in Italy Khaled Ahmad Zekriya noted, nowadays the Afghans are living under a strict Taliban regime characterised by freedom rights deprivation, humanitarian crisis, and terrorist attacks (Afghanistan today: between humanitarian crisis and the Taliban rule. Interview with H.E. Khaled Ahmad Zekriya, Ambassador of Afghanistan in Italy).

Even though some regional experts and representatives of the previous Afghan Government consider the IS-K as part of the Taliban movement used to convince the international community that stability and security in Afghanistan might be achieved only by supporting the current Taliban leadership, it is evident that the Islamic State is the present major threat for the Afghan people, the Taliban and those regional and international actors interested in operating in the Afghan territory. In this framework, the Uyghur fighters might become an important actor in the IS-K strategy to undermine the Taliban leadership and credibility among the international opinion. Furthermore, Uyghur militants among IS-K ranks might threaten Beijing’s approach and interests in Afghanistan.

 

Geopolitical scenario

Since the rise to power, the Taliban has strived to transform themselves from a radical extremist organisation into a legitimate state structure. The Taliban needs international recognition to unlock the financial funds necessary to overcome the current economic crisis that Afghanistan is experiencing. Furthermore, the Taliban started a series of dialogues with regional actors to discuss cooperation in energy projects such as the TAPI pipeline, transport corridors and investment plans (Tehran meeting on Afghanistan underlines Iranian regional strategy; How Afghanistan is influencing the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan cooperation). Stability and security are the necessary conditions to attract foreign direct investments (FDIs) and obtain international support.

IS-K terrorist attacks against ethnic minorities and Shia Muslim umma (community) might destabilise Afghanistan, foment sectarian conflict, and undermine the Taliban interim Government. The violent attacks against the Hazara Shia community in Afghanistan are part of the IS-K agenda. As recent terrorist attacks have underlined, the Islamic State attempts to transform the Uyghur cause into an opportunity to recruit foreign fighters and conduct violent attacks on Afghan soil.

China monitors the current situation closely because Beijing is concerned about militants from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR) located in Afghanistan’s northeastern provinces. Considering that China is planning to take a leading role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the presence of Uyghur foreign fighters among the ranks of the Taliban might potentially skew relations between the Taliban and Beijing. This situation might push the Taliban movement to decide between maintaining a partnership with the Uyghurs or preferring Chinese money and economic support. In this regard, Beijing has strengthened security cooperation with Tajikistan reaching an agreement with Dushanbe on establishing a Chinese military base on the Tajik soil (Chinese military base in Tajikistan: regional implications).

The IS-K terrorist group emerged in 2015 when the Islamic State announced its expansion into the so-called Khorasan province, which covers parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. The initial composition of the group mainly consisted of former hardliners among the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and other militant groups. Since its beginning, IS-K has viewed the Taliban as a strategic rival and ideological adversary.

From 2015 to 2020, the international coalition forces, the Afghan military forces, and the Taliban contained the IS-K. Since 2020, under the leadership of new leader Sanaullah Ghafari aka Shahab al-Muhajir, the group has unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence as part of a ‘revival’ campaign against the Afghan Government and the Taliban. According to UN reports released this year before the fall of the Afghan Government, more than 1,500 militants were in the ranks of IS-K. In the first quarter of 2021, the Islamic State-Khorasan conducted more than 77 attacks in Afghanistan. After the Taliban seized power, IS-K organised attacks on civilian targets.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Kunduz and confirmed the mobilisation of an ethnic Uyghur without providing any details of its origins. The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic community made up mainly of Sunni Muslims living in the XUAR. Most of the Uyghurs are Sunni of the Hanafi madhhab (this term refers to a school of thought within the Islamic jurisprudence), which creates the potential for developing historical, religious and cultural ties between the Uyghurs and the Taliban.

Regarding the terrorist attack in Kunduz, while the terrorist’s alias (al-Uyghuri) implies an ethnic Uyghur, this does not necessarily mean that he was originally from Xinjiang. Uyghur militants, who claim to have come from China, usually use the pseudonym al-Turkestani to emphasise their separatist stance and desire to create an independent Islamic State in Xinjiang, which they often refer to as East Turkestan.

The involvement of the Uyghurs in the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan highlights the Islamic State’s strategy to target both Afghanistan and China and its desire to enlarge its network of recruiting at the expense of the Taliban.

In the past, the link between the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (ETIM) and the Taliban was intense, and these two organisations were considered strategic allies. Although ETIM is an independent movement, all its activities in Afghanistan are controlled by the Taliban.

The takeover of Kabul by the Taliban was a landmark moment for the ETIM and many other jihadist groups worldwide. A few days after the fall of the Afghan Government, ETIM issued a statement praising the Taliban victory and ‘rebuilding the Islamic Emirate’.

Uyghur militants have not previously featured in IS-Khorasan propaganda because most of them seek to join the ideologically closer ETIM. With the support and patronage of the Taliban for almost 25 years, ETIM has managed to maintain its integrity and establish unconditional hegemony over the recruitment and control of the Uyghur jihadist network in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Some regional experts and the Taliban have described the Uyghur as a possible menace for Chinese operation in Afghanistan, considering that Uyghur militants operate among the ranks of the Islamic State. On the one hand, even though the Uyghur militants have conducted some terrorist attacks in Afghanistan to support IS-K, the terrorist group until now has not considered Beijing as a direct threat or target since China has not yet participated in military operations against the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the Middle East. On the other hand, the increase in the number of Uyghur militants in the ranks of the Islamic State may indicate a possible rise in anti-Chinese and pro-Uyghur propaganda. Admittedly, since Beijing is interested in engaging with the Taliban and improving its economic presence in Afghanistan, IS-K might orchestrate jihadist propaganda against Beijing and target the Uyghurs and those regional militants. 

Although neither the Taliban’s claims of expelling Uyghur militants from Afghanistan nor claims of their relocation within the country have been substantiated, IS-K attempts to justify the attack in Kunduz as retaliation gives the impression that the Taliban are systematically refusing to cooperate with former allies as ETIM. Any potential reaction from Uyghur militants to expulsion or displacement would make the Islamic State an ideal recruiting opportunity for disaffected extremists.


We will deeply discuss security problems and terrorist threats in Afghanistan and, in general, in entire Eurasia during our Webinar “Sicurezza e minaccia terroristica nello scacchiere geopolitico euroasiatico” organised on December 16th, 2021. For further information and risk analysis on Afghanistan and Eurasia, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at info@specialeurasia.com.