The Growing Importance of Global Islamic Extremism to China


Data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that China has experienced three key phases of terror activity, with related national security measures, since the year 2000.[1] The first was the post-9/11 phase in late 2001, when Beijing introduced strict new policies and programs aimed at the Uighur population in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province. China did this by connecting the Uighur’s East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group also on the radar of the United States, to al-Qaeda.[2]

The second phase in 2009 involved a riot in Guangdong Province in which 197 people were killed, more than 1,600 were injured, and 718 people were detained.[3] Again, Beijing reacted with strict measures to closely monitor religious activity including censorship of prayers and institution of a dress code.[4,5] China implemented a plan for Xinjiang Province to gradually increase the presence of the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police.

Ethnic Uygur women grab a riot policemen as they protest in 2009. (AFP)

The third and most recent phase, beginning in 2014 and continuing until today, is domestically associated with incidents such as the March 2014 incident, when a group of Uighurs killed 33 people at a railway station in Kunming, Yunnan province.[6] Notably, the attack was followed by a declaration that jihad attacks are planned for other locations in China as well, a break from the typical focus on separatism in Xinjiang.[7] On the international level, this phase is associated with the rise of ISIS and its proclamation of the Caliphate. While China has traditionally been threatened by a predominately domestic separatist movement, it appears that the war in Syria and the global influence and attention of the Islamic State has given China’s domestic terror groups the opportunity to expand and network with other groups in China’s regional neighbors.

The Uighur Factor

Before 2009, any link between Uighur separatists and the al-Qaeda network was questionable.[8] However, following the 2009 Guangdong incident and subsequent disturbance, al-Qaeda took notice of China and threatened the nation for what may be the first time.[9] Uighur fighters had been found in Afghanistan in the years prior to 2009, and 22 had been captured by American forces, who ascertained that most of them had no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.[10] The explanation given by the Uighurs for their presence in Afghanistan, and the likely actual reason is that they were migrants leaving China, not militants hoping to fight in a war.[11] This claim is supported by the fact that many Uighurs have indeed left China to reach Central Asia.[12] The East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the closely related Turkestan Islamic Party had bases in Pakistan and some Uighurs had joined al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Prior to 2009, however, this figure was considered negligible and the majority of Uighur militants focused on developing their separatist ideology.[13] Following the 2009 incident, the security crackdown began to seriously push Uighur fighters towards more radical groups and ideologies abroad.[14]

The declaration of the Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 was soon followed by the first edition of the Islamic State propaganda magazine, Dabiq. This first issue, appropriately entitled “The Return of Khilafah” (Caliphate), includes an excerpt of a speech given by al-Baghdadi himself in which he calls upon all Muslims for their support and names multiple nations as enemies, including China.[15] Subsequent issues of Dabiq and its successor magazine, Rumiyah, were released in the Uighur language.[16]

Additionally, al-Qaeda followed the Islamic State announcement with its own condemnation of China in its magazine Resurgence.[17] This threat may be more significant to China because the Turkestan Islamic Party is now believed to have stronger links to al-Qaeda and China is becoming increasingly concerned with connections between its Uighur populations and radical groups in its Central Asian neighbors.[18] In 2016, a Uighur member of the Turkestan Islamic Party bombed the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan shortly after a call to action among Uighurs was made by al-Qaeda’s head, Ayman al-Zawahiri.[19] Then in February 2017, the Islamic State released a video designed to appeal to Uighurs. In it, a Uighur man pledges bayat, or allegiance, and condemns China. Only two days later saw the release of another video by the Turkestan Islamic Party, which by this point was believed to have strengthened its ties to al-Qaeda.[20] It is becoming clearer that globalized Islamic extremist groups are focusing on China and seeking to recruit Uighurs. The Islamic State has even gone so far as to produce an audio message in Mandarin, the official dialect of China, so non-Uighur Chinese may be exposed to their propaganda.[21]

Seyit Tümtürk (East Turkistan Reserach Center)

Uighur leaders and spokesmen fear this propaganda which, along with other tactics, may be working. As Uighurs are under immense pressure to exit China, they may be persuaded or tricked into joining a radical Islamic group. One Uighur activist, Seyit Tumturk, stated in an interview at the end of 2017, “We (Uighurs) are losing the de-radicalization battle.”[22] Uighur community representatives in Turkey also state that some of those who have left China are being enticed by Uighur members of the Islamic State into joining the militant group and travelling to Syria.[23] An expert on Sino-Mideast relations, Christina Lin, has remarked that since the war in Syria began, the region has been the “forward front for China’s War on Terror,” while also noting the corresponding increase in foreign-based attacks in China. [24]

One estimate of the Uighurs in Syria to fight with the Turkestan Islamic Party reaches as high as 5,000 recruits; many of them are not religious fundamentalists but instead simply wished leave the conditions under which they lived in Xinjiang.[25] Despite their original purpose for joining the Turkestan Islamic Party in Syria, one consequence may be radicalization into Islamic extremism. Still, there does not seem to be a strong link between the Islamic State and the Turkestan Islamic Party, and Uighur members of both groups are discouraging potential recruits from joining the other.[26] This is likely due to Al-Qaeda’s position of non-support for the Islamic State, and the latter’s tendency to declare others as apostates.[27]

In total, the estimate made in 2016 was that just over 100 Uighurs had joined the Islamic State in Syria.[28] This is a relatively small number compared to the thousands of Uighurs believed to have joined the Turkestan Islamic Party. As the fighting in Syria and elsewhere draws down, many of these fighters may return to Xinjiang to attempt to continue the battle. China recognizes this, and in early 2017 President Xi Jinping stated the need for a “great wall of iron” in Xinjiang, while pointing to the potential threat from Islamic separatists and returning fighters.[29]

The current One Belt One Road initiative may also fuel internal pressure in Xinjiang as participatory countries, eager to cooperate with China, are restricting Uighur migration.[30] Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and others have been repatriating Uighurs to China, where they will likely have to face Chinese authorities.[31] This is removing an exit route for Uighurs who hope to leave Xinjiang, and forcing them to remain in place or depart through Central Asia where they may be enticed by radical groups. Those Uighurs who choose to remain in Xinjiang may also be targeted by radical recruiters and propaganda. Despite the drawdown of Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, where local forces are making headway in their respective conflicts, Uighurs may still remain the subject of propaganda and radicalization. After all, the Turkestan Islamic Party continues to exist and develop fundamentalist tones due to its relationship with al-Qaeda, and the Uighur population in general likely feels more pressure by the Chinese government and radical groups.

The China Factor

China announced in March 2018 that it will increase its defense budget by 8.1% to further the dream of a “world-class military.”[32] The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet believes this report is not transparent and the actual military budget may be higher.[33] Regardless of the real expenditure, there is consensus that much of it will be used in the Pacific region. In addition to the controversial Spratly Islands to which China has laid territorial claims through land reclamation projects, there will be a future need for military bases and logistics support hubs. These locations will need to be postured to support an expanding military, much of which is likely to find a home across the Indo-Pacific region.[34] China’s security infrastructure may also need to protect the growing number of Chinese citizens and professionals living and working in the Pacific region, particularly throughout East and Southeast Asia and around the South China Sea, as well as potentially in the Indian Ocean and South Asia.[35] Clearly, China is aiming to become the predominant power in the Pacific, usurping the United States.[36]

This expansion of Chinese power may come at the price of increased negative attention by Islamist groups, especially in the Philippines. Osama bin-Laden began his famous war against the United States in 1996 with a fatwa that accused the United States of misdeeds in Saudi Arabia, or The Holy Land.[37] The US had recently used bases in Saudi Arabia for the buildup to the war in Kuwait. After the war, the US remained in Saudi Arabia for some time, drawing the ire of bin-Laden. At the time of the fatwa, little attention was given to bin-Laden, who was a relatively minor and unknown personality.[38] However, bin-Laden had declared a war that would lead to fighting that has still yet to end. It is possible that as China expands its military across the Pacific region, it too will become the target of leaders and militants who feel threatened or offended by China’s military presence.

Despite a rash of terrorist attacks in the Pacific, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines from 2000 to 2010, relative calm has prevailed since 2010.[39] However, the ISIS declaration of the Caliphate in 2014 appears to have revitalized the violence to some extent, with Southeast Asian extremists copying Islamic State tactics and propaganda, and traveling to Syria to join the ongoing fight there.[40] Furthermore, multiple groups in the region have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, eventually with the formation of a more-or-less unified force.[41] While there have been multiple smaller attacks, the most extreme expression of this may be the siege of the town of Marawi in the Philippines. In the summer of 2017, local affiliates of the Islamic State effectively seized control of the town and declared it a city of the Caliphate. This occupation would not end for several months, when the Filipino military liberated the city after a prolonged battle.[42]

Marawi, Philippines (Romeo Ronoco)

As China expands into the Pacific and approaches these locations, it becomes increasingly likely that China will encounter militant groups and individuals. Furthermore, as China expands its military power it is possible that it will invite the attention of groups who may perceive it as a threat or an offense.


The introduction of Uighurs to extremist groups in Southeast Asia may mean that these two fronts will be connected and mutually supportive. In the Muslim-majority nation of Indonesia, for example, public sentiment towards Uighurs causes them to be somewhat welcomed even despite their extremist inclinations. In 2015, an Indonesian court convicted several Uighurs of terror-related activities in Indonesia but refused to return them to China, citing concerns for their well-being.[43]

These are not the only Uighurs to be related to terrorism in Indonesia. Several Uighurs have been discovered funding terror cells in Indonesia and involved in actual fighting.[44,45] Another group of Uighurs was arrested in the Philippines for using false passports, and after an investigation it was discovered that they may have been in contact with the Abu Sayyaf group, an affiliate of the Islamic State.[46]

In the past, extremist Uighurs were relatively isolated and reflected a separatist mentality, but the ISIS declaration of the Caliphate and the resulting global spread of Islamic extremism have created the opportunity for Uighurs to connect with other groups in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. While the main body of the Islamic State in Syria has not received significant Uighur support, they have focused attention on the Uighurs and sponsored a war where some could be trained, while also revitalizing Islamic extremism in the Pacific region. The Turkestan Islamic Party remains the key group for Uighur militants; however, their experience in Syria and their growing ties with al-Qaeda may be changing their narrative and connecting them to other groups.

As the U.S. and China focus on the Pacific, both nations may be facing essentially the same terror threat. While the US is not new to such challenges, China is inexperienced in dealing with foreign terror threats, and may be caught off-guard. The connections between domestic Uighur threats and external threats in Southeast Asia may further complicate China’s position. Ultimately, while China is solely responsible for responding to its own domestic threats, and while the world works to end the spread of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the U.S. and China may each benefit from cooperating in the containment of the Islamic extremist threat in the Pacific. China is already thinking of counter-terrorism as a means of protecting its interests in Africa and the Middle East, and it may not take long for Beijing to apply this strategy closer to home. [47]

Such cooperation—between the U.S. and China—would give rise to a new level of complexity in the ongoing tension in the South China Sea. The Pacific region would witness great power rivalry between the U.S. and China, especially regarding long-standing maritime disputes, and it would also witness, simultaneously, great power cooperation on the prevention of, and response to, terror threats.

Joseph Hope is an independent researcher and has an MSc in Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Security from the University of Essex. He has spent more than a year and a half in China and is a current Mandarin language student.

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Header Image: Chinses Uighurs (The American Thinker)


[1] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2016). Global Terrorism Database [China]. Retrieved from

[2] Drennan, Justine. (2015). “Is China Making its Own Terrorism Problem Worse?” Foreign Policy. Web. Retrieved from

[3] Bhattacharji, Preeti. (2012). “Uighurs and China’s Xinjiang Relation.” Council of Foreign Affairs. Web. Retrieved from

[4] Wong, Edward. (2009). “Riots in Western China Amide Ethnic Tensions.” The New York Times. Web. Retrieved from

[5] Gao, Helen. (2015). “Young and Muslim in China’s Tense Far West.” Foreign Policy. Web. Retrieved from

[6] Nield, Barry. (2014). “Kunming rail station attack: China horrified as mass stabbings leave dozens dead.” The Guardian. Web. Retrieved from

[7] Gohel, Sajjan. (2014). “The ‘Seventh Stage’ of Terrorism in China.” CTC Sentinel. 7(11). p. 16-20.

[8] Zambelis, Chris. (2010). “Uighur Dissent and Militancy in China’s Xinjiang Province.” CTC Sentinel. 3(1). p 16-19.

[9] Tharoor, Ishan. (2009). “Al Qaeda Leader: China, Enemy to Muslim World.” Time. Web. Retrieved from,8599,1929388,00.html

[10] Lewis, Neil. (2004). “Freedom for Chinese Detainees Hinges on Finding a New Homeland.” The New York Times. Retrieved from

[11] ibid.

[12] Aziz, Abdul. (2016). “Uyghur Minorities in Central Asia: An Ethnic Group Between Hammer and Anvil.” Times of Central Asia. Web. Retrieved from

[13] Zambelis, Chris. (2010). “Uighur Dissent and Militancy in China’s Xinjiang Province.” CTC Sentinel. 3(1). p 16-19.

[14] Potter, Phillip. (2013). “Terrorism in China: Growing Threats and Global Implications.” Strategic Studies Quarterly. 7(4). p. 70-92.

[15] Dabiq. (July, 2014). "Return of the Kilifa." Dabiq. Retrieved from The Clarion Project at

[16] Al-Khair, Waleed Abu. (2017). “After Dabiq Defeat, ISIL Launched ‘Rumiyah.’" Caravanserai. Web. Retrieved from

[17] Lin, Christina. (2014). “Al Qaeda and ISIS have declared war on China—will Beijing now arm the Kurds?” The Times of Israel. Web. Retrieved from

[18] Kam, Stefanie. (2016). “China.” Counter Terrorism Trends and Analysis. 8(1). p. 82-86.

[19] Botobekov, Uran. (2016). “Al-Qaeda, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and the Bishkek Chinese Embassy Bombing.” The Diplomat. Web. Retrieved from

[20] Botobekov, Uan. (2017). “Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Take Aim at China.” The Diplomat. Web. Retrieved from

[21] Soliev, Nodirbek. (2017). “How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to China?” The Diplomat. Web. Retrieved from

[22] South China Morning Post. (2017a). “The battle to stop Uygurs fleeing China from joining Islamic State.” South China Morning Post. Web. Retrieved from

[23] Ibid.

[24] South China Morning Post. (2017b). “Anger at China drives Uygurs to fight alongside al-Qaeda in Syrian war in preparation for revenge.” South China Morning Post. Web. Retrieved from

[25] Karmon, Ely. (2017). “Central Asian Jihadists in the Front Line.” Perspectives on Terrorism. 11(4). p. 78-86.

[26] Soliev, Nodirbek. (2017). “How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to China?” The Diplomat. Web. Retrieved from

[27] BBC. (2014). “Al-Qaeda Disavows ISIS Militants in Syria.” BBC. Web. Retrieved from

[28] The Straits Times. (2016). “Beijing's tough religious restrictions driving Muslims in China to join ISIS: Study.” The Straits Times. Web. Retrieved from

[29] Reuters. (2017). “China's Xi calls for 'great wall of iron' to safeguard restive Xinjiang.” Reuters. Web. Retrieved from

[30] Wong, Peter. (2017). “How China’s belt and road is transforming Asean.” South China Morning Post. Web. Retrieved from

[31] Kuo, Kendrick; Springer, Kyle. (2014). “Illegal Uighur Immigration in Southeast Asia.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Web. Retrieved from

[32] Denyer, Simon. (2018). “China boosts defense budget in quest for ‘world class’ military but tells neighbors not to worry.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

[33] Reuters. (2018). “U.S. Pacific Fleet commander says China's military budget lacks transparency.” Reuters. Web. Retrieved from

[34] Leung, Adrian; Tweed, David. (2018). “China Is Making a Bold Military Power Play.” Bloomberg. Web. Retrieved from

[35] Shinn, David. (2017). “China’s Power Projection in the Western Indian Ocean.” China Brief. 17(6). Retrieved from

[36] Perlez, Jane. (2018). “Xi Jinping Extends Power, and China Braces for a New Cold War.” The New York Times. Web. Retrieved from

[37] Tierny, Dominic. (2016). “The Twenty Years’ War.” The Atlantic. Web. Retrieved from

[38] Ibid.

[39] Chinyong, Joseph. (2016). “ISIS in the Pacific: Assessing terrorism in Southeast Asia and the threat to the homeland.” Brookings Institute. Web. Retrieved from

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Betteridge-Moes, Maxine. (2017). “What Happened in Marawi.” Al Jazeera. Web. Retrieved from

[43] Meyer, Patrick. (2016). “Framing of Uighurs as Terrorist Threat for Indonesia.” The Jakarta Post. Web. Retrieved from

[44] Rayda, Nivel. (2016). “Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia.” The Australian. Web. Retrieved from

[45] Al Jazeera. (2016). “Indonesian forces kill two Chinese Uighur fighters”. Al Jazeera. Web. Retrieved from

[46] Chalk, Peter. (2017). “Commentary: Uighur Militants Could Turn to Southeast Asia as Destination of Choice.” Channel News Asia. Web. Retrieved from

[47] Ghiselli, Andrea. (2016). “Growing Overlap Between Counter-Terrorism and Overseas Interest Protection Acts As New Driver of Chinese Strategy.” China Brief. 16(9). Retrieved from