The Chinese government has claimed since 2012 that Uyghur militants from Xinjiang are fighting with the rebels in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad (Global Times [Beijing], October 29, 2012). On July 1, China said that a Uyghur militant who studied in Istanbul and fought with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo had returned to Xinjiang and was arrested while planning to carry out "violent attacks” in China (Global Times, July 1).
China is not only concerned that the civil war in Syria will foster greater instability in the Middle East, but also that Uyghur “foreign fighters” in Syria may return home. Their ties to international militants in Syria will further internationalize the Xinjiang issue among international jihadists and provide the Uyghur fighters with new combat skills that they can use to carry out attacks in Xinjiang.
The Chinese reports of Uyghur militants returning to Xinjiang from Syria come amid a wave of violent incidents in Xinjiang:
- On March 7, five people were killed in a fight between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in an arcade in the commercial district of Korla (Radio Free Asia, March 7; South China Morning Post, March 8).
- On March 9, a group of unidentified men attacked a police station with a petrol bomb in Hotan (Radio Free Asia, March 12).
- On April 23, 21 people were killed in Kashgar after a community patrol uncovered a group of Uyghurs making explosives (China Daily, April 30).
- On June 26, as many as 47 people were killed in Turpan when a group of about 15 Uyghurs attacked a police station and other buildings with daggers and petrol bombs (China Daily, July 8).
- On June 28, in Hotan, as many as 15 Uyghurs were killed after the police broke up a sermon at a mosque and arrested the imam, which led to large protests in a town’s main square (Radio Free Asia, June 30).
Notably, the late June attacks in Xinjiang preceded the fourth anniversary of the July 5, 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in which more than 200 Uyghurs and Han Chinese were killed. Those riots, which led China to impose a nearly year-long communications blackout in Xinjiang, pushed Xinjiang into the international spotlight, particularly for Middle Eastern Islamists and Turks, who are ethnically and linguistically related to the Uyghurs. Within weeks of the 2009 riots, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood compared Chinese policies towards the Uyghurs to President Hosni Mubarak’s policies towards Egypt’s Muslims, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said China was “almost committing genocide” in Xinjiang and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatened to target Chinese interests in northwest Africa (Hurriyet, July 10, 2009; Ikhwanonline.com, July 11, 2009; Global Times, July 16, 2009).
In August 2009, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) issued a video describing the “Chinese regime” in the same way al-Qaeda describes the “Zionist regime” in Israel.  In October 2009, al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab media wing also produced a video of Abu Yahya al-Libi discussing Xinjiang as the Muslim World’s “Forgotten Wound.”  Only the AQI video showed support for the Uyghur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which operates with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Pakistan. The TIP claims to have carried out attacks in Afghanistan, but its goal is independence for “East Turkistan” (Xinjiang) and the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate across Central Asia.
TIP leader Abdullah Mansur has thus far claimed only the April 23 attack in Kashgar, saying in a Uyghur language video statement that “the jihad operation” was in response to “Chinese Communists” killing and imprisoning Islamic teachers and scholars, the “domination” of Uyghurs by Chinese culture and the banning of Islamic headscarves for women and beards for men. 
In the March edition of Islamic Turkistan, which the TIP has published with Mansur as its editor since 2008, the TIP claimed responsibility for a motorcycle-borne suicide attack in Yecheng, Xinjiang on October 1, 2012 that killed 21 border guards (Islamic Turkistan, March 2013; Radio Free Asia, October 12, 2012). Yecheng is 150 miles north of Xinjiang’s border with Pakistan and was also the site of an attack in February 2012, in which a group of Uyghurs killed up to 24 civilians in a commercial area frequented by Han Chinese (al-Jazeera, February 29, 2012). In 2011, the TIP also provided video evidence of its responsibility for an attack on Han pedestrians in Kashgar on July 30, 2011, which killed more than ten people and resembled the attack on National Day in Yecheng in 2012. 
The TIP implied it was involved in the Syrian conflict in its magazine: “If China has the right to support Assad in Syria, we have the right to support our Muslim Syrians” (Islamic Turkistan, March 2013). There is, however, only visual evidence of one “Chinese fighter” in Syria. This individual, who appears to be ethnically Uyghur, is shown leading a prayer while rebels repair a missile in a March YouTube video posted by the user “Al-Nusrah Front.” 
Chinese estimates of as many as 30 to 100 Uyghurs who received military training in Pakistan and went to Turkey to join the Syrian rebels are likely overstated (The Hindu, July 1; Global Times, July 1). However, there are more than 20,000 Uyghurs in Turkey and Turkey-based Uyghur organizations (including the East Turkistan Educational and Solidarity Association, which China claims is sending Uyghurs into Syria) are providing humanitarian support to the Syrian people (Maarip.org, February 13). It is likely that some Uyghurs have transited Turkey to fight in Syria.
Regardless of the total number of Uyghurs in Syria, a direct Syrian or TIP connection to the unrest in Xinjiang in 2013 is unlikely. Many violent incidents in Xinjiang appear to arise spontaneously and stem from disputes over local issues, such as the razing of traditional Uyghur villages for new development projects and the dilution of the Uyghur character of Xinjiang due to Han in-migration from eastern China. Nonetheless, the role of jihadist videos in inspiring attackers and the similarity in attacks, which often feature vehicles ramming into Han civilians, protests preceding attacks on police stations and suicide operations using bicycles or carts, suggest that some militant groups in Xinjiang are in coordination with each other and the TIP. Notably, a series of TIP videos released in July, 2013 called “Military Quick Guides” are intended to train viewers in the use of arms, such as Tokarev pistols and AK-47s, but thus far attacks in Xinjiang have not employed guns, possibly because of the inability of militants to acquire them. 
In addition to the Uyghurs, there are also a number of other Central Asians and Caucasus natives fighting in Syria:
- Uzbeks are commonly seen by traffickers helping rebels enter Syria from Turkey, and one Uzbek led an Islamist brigade in Aleppo in 2012 (AFP, December 9, 2012; Guardian, July 30, 2012).
- Kyrgyzstan reported in April that around 15 youths from southern Kyrgyzstan, including ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, traveled to Turkey to fight in Syria (Interfax, April 19; Voice of Russia, April 20).
- There are an unknown number of Tajik fighters in Syria, though they may number greater than any other Central Asian contingent. Three Tajiks were killed in Syria in May (RFE/RL, May 24).
- Kazakhstan reported that eight of its citizens were arrested in June while seeking to secure funds to travel to Syria to fight with the rebels (Interfax, June 5).
- Finally, there are as many as 250 Russian citizens in Syria, including Muslim Tatars and Chechens, the latter of which have led the “immigrant brigades” in northern Syria that recruited into their ranks a Han Chinese convert to Islam, Yusuf al-Sini, who was featured in a rebel YouTube video in March 2013 (Segondya.ru, March 7; Ansar al-Mujahideen, March 17). 
The preceding analysis leads to three main conclusions. First, the existence of Uyghurs and Central Asian fighters in Syria shows that the “foreign fighter” issue in Syria is not only a European issue – as often reported – but rather one that affects Central Asia and other regions as well. Second, TIP videos and Uyghur fighters in Syria will likely lead to further internationalization of the Uyghur issue among international jihadists and will introduce jihadist ideology to disaffected Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Finally, Chinese reports about Syrian fighters returning to Xinjiang may be intended to convince the West that its support of the rebels in Syria in tandem with the Gulf States will lead to even worse unintended consequences than did the West’s military intervention in Libya.
Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and a non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist militant threats to Central Asia in February 2013.
2. For video, see: https://worldanalysis.net/modules/news/article.php?storyid=1094; Transcript available at: https://triceratops.brynmawr.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10066/5066/AYL20091007.pdf?sequence=3.
3. Sawt al-Islam, June 27, 2013, https://shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=205068.
4. Sawt al-Islam, October 15, 2011, https://www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=131544.
6. Sawt al-Islam, https://as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?p=569470.