Uighur Jihadism Fades Into Obscurity
A decade ago, at the onset of the Syrian civil war, Uighur militants joined the forefront of the jihadist movement. Originally based in Afghanistan, they comprised a sub-group of the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan (IMU) and allied with the Taliban and were loyal to al-Qaeda. However, since 2011 Uighur militants in the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) have fought in major battles in and around Idlib. The group also became notorious for being relatively hardline among the groups aligned with al-Qaeda in Idlib, including through the TIP’s vandalizing shrines it perceived as “polytheistic” (Stj-sy.org, April 6, 2021).
The TIP fighters’ relocation from Afghanistan to Syria in 2011 was facilitated by Turkey’s accommodative policy not only toward Uighurs, but also toward anti-government Syrian rebels generally. However, the stalemate in Idlib and other parts of western Syria in the past few years has resulted in the TIP reducing the scale and frequency of its operations. Rather than conducting attacks consistently, the TIP is returning to being primarily a “propaganda group with a militant wing” (Terrorism Monitor, March 17, 2011). The latest TIP propaganda from Syria included:
- A video monologue from a militant calling on fighters to reject the “rebels” of the Islamic State, who are rivals to and disobedient toward al-Qaeda and, therefore, also the TIP (com/@Anti_IbnMuljim, April 25).
- A video of fighters wearing military fatigues meeting in a tent in an unknown location in Idlib (com/@venkatesh_Ragu, February 23).
- A photostream of fighters in Lattakia province engaging in ribat (fortifying territory) (com/@war_noir, February 10).
At the same time, the TIP has continued to produce nasheeds (Islamic hymns) about waging jihad and pleasing God, usually with interspersed images of previous TIP battles in Syria and the famous, but now “occupied,” Id-Kah mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, China, which the TIP refers to as “East Turkistan” (Streamble.com, January 30).”
China, meanwhile, continues to impose international pressure on countries to crack down on the TIP, which it asserts is active in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and other regions. However, China may be more satisfied than in previous years with Turkey’s increasingly less tolerant policy toward the TIP and certainly less vocal government position regarding China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang (Xinhua, February 10). Since 2020, for example, there have been reports of Uighurs in exile in Turkey, and especially those who participate in anti-China protests, coming under pressure from Turkish authorities and even being repatriated to China (dw.com, February 28, 2021). Turkey has also placed bans on businesses that allegedly supplied groups allied with al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) in Syria, including those run by Uighurs (atalayar.com, February 18).
In the TIP’s original base, Afghanistan, the Taliban has warmed up to China, which has coincided with the Taliban placing restrictions on the militant activities of the remaining Uighurs in Afghanistan (rferl.org, October 5, 2021). While this Taliban policy, like Turkey’s, places severe limitations on Uighur militancy in order to appease China, it may present opportunities for IS. During IS’s heyday in Syria, it had attempted to recruit TIP Uighurs to defect to IS through a coordinated propaganda campaign targeting Uighurs and accusing al-Qaeda of being insufficiently committed to jihad (aljazeera.com, March 1, 2017). More recently, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has featured a Uighur suicide bomber while criticizing the Taliban’s obeisance of China’s foreign policy demands (scmp.com, October 10, 2021).
Because TIP members are otherwise restrained by al-Qaeda-allied factions in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan, some may seek out IS to continue their jihad. On the other hand, veteran TIP members may simply choose to live a relatively quiet life in rebel-occupied Idlib and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and not cause any trouble. This would likely contribute to the TIP’s fading into obscurity, but allow veteran TIP members to live out their lives in greater safety than on the battlefield or in Chinese custody.
Is Islamic State Entrenching in Southern Thailand?
The Thai government achieved its short-term objectives of seeing a relatively peaceful Ramadan period in the country’s south in June (nikkei.com, May 30). Before Ramadan, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and the Thai government had pledged not to attack each other during Ramadan as they continued peace talks in Kuala Lumpur regarding some form of autonomy for southern Thailand’s ethnic Muslim Malays (Terrorism Monitor, April 22). An attack, however, occured during Ramadan involving a roadside bomb that killed one civilian carried out by the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), which has sought to undermine and spoil BRN’s talks with the Thai government (benarnews.org, May 26). Since one of the Thai government’s demands is not to “internationalize” the conflict in southern Thailand, PULO’s historic links to Middle Eastern countries and the previous training of its senior fighters abroad in Libya puts it at odds with the Thai government, which has excluded it from any negotiations (thepeninsulaqatar.com, April 9, 2016).
Besides the PULO attack during Ramadan, which was considered minor, there was also a major attack immediately after Ramadan on a police station, customs post, and convenience store located along the border between Thailand and Malaysia (benarnews.org, May 26). No organization claimed responsibility for the operation, which led to the burning of a police station and three police officers being injured by gunfire and grenades thrown at their station. These attacks coincided with more traditional PULO and BRN-style attacks on electric poles near the border, although the lack of any claim in that attack, which would be expected if PULO or BRN were responsible, remains notable. Some hitherto unknown group may very well have taken up arms.
Not mentioned by either the Thai or Malaysian authorities as suspects in the major attacks along the border was Islamic State (IS), or specifically IS in East Asia Province (ISEAP), which has previously incorporated the Philippines and Indonesia, but has been much less active, if at all, in Thailand itself. Nevertheless, ISEAP has revealed an interest in Thailand in recent months. For example, on April 15, just before Ramadan, a pro-IS media outlet claimed that ISEAP detonated a roadside bomb to kill “a Buddhist” and seriously injured two “kuffar [infidel]” military personnel in Patani, southern Thailand (Twitter/@G88Daniele, April 15). Three months earlier, in January, pro-IS media also released a photo series of militants in southern Thailand who had seemingly pledged loyalty to IS and were engaging in military training, including firing rockets, detonating improvised explosives, and performing calisthenics (Twitter/@war_noir, January 10).
Although the IS presence in Indonesia and the Philippines is not as strong as it was several years ago, both of those countries are still stronger IS battlegrounds than southern Thailand. Nevertheless, until a more stable and lasting peace is achieved between the Thai government and BRN, if not other factions like PULO, there will be opportunities for IS to infiltrate southern Thailand through disgruntled and radical breakaway factions. Thus far, however, southern Thailand has proven to be beyond the reach of any substantive IS infiltration and, to the credit of the rebel factions, they have generally not reached out to IS, al-Qaeda, or jihadist actors for support.
The lack of any significant jihadist infiltration of the southern Thai conflict also makes it easier for Malaysia to act as a mediator with the militant factions, while allowing the Thai government to have grounds to negotiate with the factions, which have generally accepted the government’s demand to desist from any attempts to “internationalize” the conflict.