Xinjiang: An Emerging Narco-Islamist Corridor?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 8

While China’s allegations of links between the Uighur insurgency and the al-Qaeda linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are mostly based on fragmentary data, there is evidence that beginning in the 1990s and continuing today, a potent cocktail of drugs, weapons and Islamic extremism is making its way into Xinjiang from Afghanistan, Central Asia and Pakistan.

According to reliable reports, Afghan heroin accounts for as much as 20 percent of the substance which enters Xinjiang. [1] And although China has gone to great lengths to ensure strong security ties with its Muslim neighbors, porous borders and increasing trade, rail and road links with Central Asia in addition to the extension of the Karakoram highway and the restoration of the Silk Road, may further facilitate the movement of narcotics, weapons and militancy into Xinjiang.

Xinjiang has never been a fully “pacified land”; sporadic violence has been a constant feature in the area, both before and after 1949. However, the violence acquired a decidedly more “Islamic” component during the 1980s and 1990s, due in part to the influence of the Afghan jihad but also the Islamic reawakening which swept across Central Asia. There are essentially two zones of recurring instability in Xinjiang, the Kashgar region, which has the highest population of Uighurs in the province, and Yining, in the Ili valley, bordering Kazakhstan.

Kashgar: Last Islamic Stronghold

The birthplace of the short-lived Islamic state of Turkestan founded by a religious scholar named Sabit Damolla in 1933, Kashgar is the cultural and religious center of Xinjiang as well as the stronghold of the religious component in the Uighur insurgency. In April 1990, the city of Baren (a suburb of Kashgar), was the scene of a religious uprising which resulted in hundreds of arrests and scores of fatalities. Following the incident, a high ranking Chinese official disclosed that the authorities had uncovered at least seven separatist groups suspected of having foreign links. [2]

Uighur links with Afghanistan and especially Pakistan were established in the mid-1980s; at the same time the Karakoram functioned as the main route through which Chinese arms were shipped to Afghan mujahideen. Limited quantities of these weapons were being smuggled back into Xinjiang as early as 1989. Many of the Uighurs who had joined the Afghan jihad in the early 1980s had in fact been from the Kashgar region. This trend continued into the 1990s: interested Uighurs from the region would cross the border into Pakistan to study in the madrasas and subsequently fight in Afghanistan or Kashmir. There are confirmed reports of Uighurs being either arrested or killed in Kashmir including Ismail Kadir, one of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement’s (ETIM) alleged leaders. However, Afghanistan was the overwhelming destination of choice for those Uighurs who wanted to partake in jihad.

In October 1999, two Uighur fighters, members of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, were captured by the Northern Alliance. The two Kashgar natives had crossed the border to study in Pakistan before joining the Afghan jihad. They also confirmed that they had trained and fought alongside other Xinjiang Uighurs in Afghanistan. Kashgar-born Hassan Mashum, alleged leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement had also sought shelter in Pakistan in 1996 before being killed in South Waziristan while fighting alongside al-Qaeda militants. [3]

Because of its geographical location and historical role as a trade and cultural nexus, Kashgar was not only a target for Islamists wishing to spread Salafism among the Uighurs, but also for drug traffickers coming in through the Karakoram highway. In the late 1990s, at the height of opium production in Afghanistan, heroin and opium started to make its way to Xinjiang as demand was strong following years of heroin supply from Yunnan province which borders the golden triangle.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, an influx of Pakistani traders made their way into China, coming over the Mintaka or Khunjerab pass en route to the Kashgar bazaar. Some of the traders were in fact drug smugglers, while others, possibly as a result of links with Pakistani Islamist organizations like Tableeghi Jamaat and the Jamaat-e-Islami, sought to import militant Islam through the distribution of Islamist literature. China recognized the threat early on and took decisive action; in October 1995 Chinese authorities in Xinjiang arrested over 400 Pakistanis on charges of illegal activities.

In an unprecedented step, heavy with political significance, a Pakistani by the name of “Xiaokaiti Aili” (sinification of name), whom the authorities claimed had first entered Xinjiang in 1995, was executed in June 1999 on drug trafficking charges. [4] In a statement released in the official China daily report later that month, the man executed was also alleged to be the ringleader of a group of religious militants (over 100 according to Chinese authorities) infiltrating China through the Karakoram highway. He was one of several Pakistanis arrested under similar charges in 1998-1999.

With the border being scrutinized more carefully, arrests became more frequent; in December 2000, Chinese authorities reportedly arrested over 200 heavily armed militants along the Pakistani border on their way to Xinjiang to train and arm militants. In the post-9/11 climate, Chinese authorities are ever more sensitive to illegal religious activities, especially those which promote “foreign” ideologies. For instance, in 2003 a Pakistani was arrested in the Kashgar region for selling “illegal” copies of the Qur’an as well as Islamist literature.

However, with the tightening of control on the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, the porous Central Asia borders now pose the biggest threat. As an example, even if penetration from the Kyrgyz border with China is seen as highly impractical, some traffickers have come through the Irkeshtam pass (opened in mid-2002) towards Kashgar. [5]

Yining: Bastion of Uighur Nationalism

Yining is the heart of the Ili valley which faces towards Kazakhstan and is populated with ethnic minorities. As the birthplace of the short-lived independent republic of Eastern Turkestan proclaimed in 1944, it has maintained a tradition of ethnically-based opposition (referred to as Pan-Turkism in China) to the Chinese presence.

In 1997, a peaceful demonstration turned into a full-scale two-day riot resulting in several casualties among both the police and the protesters. The Yining riots subsequently became a symbol for Uighur nationalism and a warning that the Chinese took extremely seriously with a crackdown on alleged instigators or participants which lasted several years with hundreds of executions and thousands of detentions, as well as dozens of related extraditions from neighboring countries. It was also alleged that “foreign” elements had played a role in the riots, including the aforementioned Pakistani man executed in 1999.

The Yining uprising remains a powerful symbol for most Uighurs, and a rallying point due in part to the harsh collective repression which followed and because the events had a non-Islamic “nationalist” fervor. The Yining riots were in fact the precursors to a series of bomb attacks that struck (among other cities) Beijing in the spring of 1997 and which lasted until 1999.

During the course of the repression that followed, a series of weapons-smuggling rings and caches were uncovered. Cross-border trafficking had begun in the late 1990s, with weapons shipments but also drugs, which were smuggled through the border with Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has six road connections with China. The main crossing points from Kazakhstan where drugs and weapons have in the past been smuggled through are the Korgas pass, Ili Valley border towns like Yining and the Alataw Shanku pass. Most of China’s trade with Kazakhstan is conducted through the Alataw Shanku Pass, which doubles as a conduit for both drugs and weapons. [6]

As an example, from 1998 to 2001, Urumqui customs confiscated 69 tons of precursor chemical (used in heroin manufacturing), 830,000 tablets of psychedelic drugs, and a large quantity of guns, bullets, and explosives. [7] In addition, Chinese authorities have alleged that in January 2001, supposed ETIM member Akbelbek Timur, bought explosives in Kazakhstan and smuggled them into Xinjiang for potential terrorist attacks.

The Islamist Corridor

Uighur Islamism constitutes yet another link in the transnational Islamist network whose ultimate ideological goal is the regrouping of all Muslims under a single state, the Caliphate. It is clearly distinguishable from Uighur ethno-nationalist groups who make up the overwhelming majority of the Uighur nationalist movement which seeks independence from Beijing.

This Islamist network, which spans Central Asia, operates within an “Islamist corridor” that overlaps drug trafficking routes and facilitates the movement of militants, weapons and explosives. Drug trafficking and the resulting HIV/AIDS epidemic among Uighurs is potentially much more destructive to China’s cohesiveness than religious and ethnic instability and may end up sparking the type of nightmare scenario in Xinjiang which the Chinese wish to avoid at all costs.

Hayder Mili is an independent researcher specializing in Islamism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. He currently lives in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.


1. Drug Intelligence Brief, February 2004,

2. David Chen and agencies, “Troops restore order in Xinjiang” South China Morning Post, April 11, 1990.

3. Jiang Zhuqing, “Key wanted Chinese terrorist killed”, China Daily, December 25, 2003.

4. China Daily, June 18, 1999.

5. Xinhua News Agency, November 2004,

6. People’s Daily, March 31, 2001,

7. Xinjiang Ribao, April 3, 2002.