Has al-Qaeda Picked a Leader for Operations in China?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 41

Since al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership shifted their operational bases from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), many new groups claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda have emerged. On November 16, a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda spokesman named Muhammad Uighuri claimed that Osama bin Laden has appointed a leader for a previously unknown organization called al-Qaeda in China. Uighuri said the new leader of al-Qaeda for China in general and for Xinjiang province in particular was a Chinese citizen named Abdul Haq Turkistani (Tabnak News Agency, November 16). Despite unsubstantiated claims by China’s security services and Foreign Ministry, there is little proof that al-Qaeda has ever engaged in active operations within China.

Uighuri added that Abdul Haq Turkistani was appointed by Osama bin Laden in person and was already based in Xinjiang province (Pajhwak News, November 16). Al-Qaeda spokesmen say that Abdul Haq Turkistani was also appointed to lead a group called Hizb-e Islami Turkistan (Turkistan Islamic Party -TIP) (Pajhwak Afghan News, November 16).

Though some claim TIP is another name for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), no evidence has been offered to support this claim. ETIM is a separatist Islamic radical organization that seeks to form an independent Islamic state in northwest China’s Xinjiang province. After considerable diplomatic pressure from China, the U.S. State Department listed the ETIM as a terrorist organization in 2002.  The TIP first gained international attention in July 2008, when it issued a videotape taking credit for a series of attacks in China, including deadly bus explosions in Shanghai and Yunnan. The video showed a masked man identified as “Commander Seyfullah,” who threatened China with chemical and biological attacks on the then upcoming Beijing Olympics. Chinese officials, however, rejected the TIP claims of responsibility and denied the existence of such a group in China. According to the deputy head of the Shanghai municipal public security bureau; “The [Shanghai] blast was deliberate but it had nothing to do with terrorism” (People’s Daily Online, July 28; China Daily, July 21). TIP did not follow up their threats with actual attacks and little has been heard of the organization since the August Olympics proceeded without interruption.

Abu Sulieman, who introduced himself a member of the public relations office of al-Qaeda in the NWFP, confirmed the appointment of 42-year old Abdul Haq Turkistani to head al-Qaeda in China (Pajhwak News, November 16). Although Abu Sulieman claims that Abdul Haq is currently based in China, one media report suggests that Abdul Haq is still living in the frontier area of Pakistan together with hundreds of Uyghur al-Qaeda fighters (Tabnak News, November 16).

There are also claims that, under the Taliban reign in Afghanistan, some 250 Chinese radical Muslims were operating under the command of Osama Bin Laden in the Deronta area of eastern Nangarhar province and northern Kunduz province (Tabnak, November 16). The alleged leader of the Uyghur fighters under bin Laden was Hasan Mahsum, who was killed in October 2003 by Pakistani troops in the NWFP (China Daily, December 24, 2003). Though the Chinese government alleged that Mahsum had met with bin Laden in 1999 and obtained al-Qaeda financing for ETIM, Mahsum always denied such connections (see CACI Analyst, March 7, 2007).   While announcing the appointment of Abdul Haq Turkistani to the leadership of al-Qaeda in China, Muhammad Uighuri said that 300 Chinese Uyghur militants belonging to the TIP were based in training camps in Pakistan’s northwest frontier region. According to Uighuri, a number of these fighters have returned to China (Tabnak, November 17).

The structure of TIP and the low profile of its new leader, Abdul Haq Turkistani, coupled with doubts about the identification of ETIM with the TIP have made it difficult to understand the real affiliation of this new group with al-Qaeda. As part of a propaganda initiative, the TIP has launched a new Arabic language publication, Turkistan al-Islamia. In its design and imagery, Turkistan al-Islamia has wide similarities to other jihadi publications such as al-Samood monthly, Sawt al-Jihad and high profile al-Qaeda websites like al-Furqan Productions. In the latest issue of the magazine two articles describe the operations of the TIP. The language of the magazine suggests its target audience is not Uyghur, few of whom (outside the religious community) read or speak Arabic beyond a few religious phrases.

Given the questionable record of prior claims that the mainly Sufi Muslim Uyghur separatists have aligned themselves with the Salafist al-Qaeda organization, the legitimacy of the present announcement remains uncertain. The actual existence of TIP cannot yet be verified and it is important to note that the name Abdul al-Haq Turkistani did not appear on a list of major Uyghur “terrorists” released in October by China’s Ministry of Public Security (Xinhua, October 21). The statement listed Memetiming Memeti (Memtimin Memet) as the current leader of ETIM and successor to the late Hasan Mahsum.