S-E Asia: An ‘alternative jihad’ for Xinjiang’s Uighurs?

South-east Asia is witnessing evolving security risks from Chinese Uighurs’ involvement in militant activities in the region. Although this is a relatively new phenomenon, it has transnational security implications for the region.

Since 2013, South-east Asia has emerged as a major transit route for an influx of illegal Uighur immigrants fleeing from China’s restive Xinjiang province in a bid to reach Turkey, which is home to a large Uighur diaspora community. The first phase of the movement of Uighurs into Southeast Asia took place in 2009 — in the aftermath of the inter-ethnic clashes between local Uighur and Han Chinese communities that left 197 dead and 1,700 injured.
The phenomenon of Uighur militancy in South-east Asia can be said to be an outcome of a combination of long-standing inter-ethnic tensions between local Uighur and Han communities in Xinjiang, and the tightening of border controls and security measures in Central Asia, which has forced the Uighurs to seek alternative routes.
In the past, disaffected Uighurs have also resettled outside of China, particularly in Turkey, Central Asia and Saudi Arabia, when ethnic tensions in Xinjiang were on the rise.
It would be over-simplistic to categorise all Uighurs travelling to Southeast Asia as militants. There has been no evidence to suggest that those Uighurs implicated in militant activities in South-east Asia have had militant training or fighting experience prior to their entry into the region.
The majority of Uighurs travelling to South-east Asia appear to be peaceful asylum seekers who have left Xinjiang to flee the unrest and a direct threat of persecution in the hope of getting refugee status in another country. Some Uighurs have arrived in South-east Asia in search of better economic opportunities outside Xinjiang.
Currently, approximately 1,000 Uighurs are believed to be seeking asylum in South-east Asian countries.
For instance, in March 2014, the Thai government arrested 424 Uighurs, including more than 60 children, who entered the country illegally and initially claimed to be Turkish citizens in the hope of being sent to Turkey rather than back to China.
During the same period, the Malaysian authorities also arrested about 217 Uighur asylum seekers. Yet, radical Uighurs have exploited existing human smuggling networks to travel around the region undetected. Well-established and flourishing human smuggling networks and fake documentation channels operating both in China and South-east Asia have organised, brokered and facilitated Uighurs’ trips across the region.
In September 2015, the Malaysian police arrested four Uighurs, along with four Malays, who were part of a human smuggling syndicate. The Malaysian authorities arrested and deported an earlier batch of 11 Uighurs engaged in human smuggling back to China in August 2011.
Radical ideologies have gained traction among some vulnerable segments within the Uighur community.
Some radical elements in Xinjiang have been covertly travelling to Syria and Iraq via South-east Asia masquerading as asylum seekers. They exploit the same human smuggling and fake documentation networks operating in China and South-east Asia to obtain fake passports that allow them to reach Turkey on their way to Syria.
In January 2015, the Shanghai police arrested a group of 10 Turkish nationals and two Chinese citizens for supplying fake Turkish passports to nine Uighur terror suspects from Xinjiang who were planning to leave China illegally for Syria to join jihadist groups.
As of now, South-east Asia does not seem to be the final destination for radicalised Uighurs from China. It is only when they cannot travel to Turkey due to various reasons that they decide to remain in South-east Asia instead of going back to China.

RADICALISED UIGHURS IN INDONESIA

Indonesia is the ‘‘alternative jihadi ground’’ for these radical Uighurs as it appears to be more accessible than other countries. Uighur recruitment and involvement in terrorist activities in South-east Asia is taking place along the lines of local groups’ links to either Al Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).
In September 2014, Indonesian police in Poso arrested four Uighur jihadists who tried to join Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (MIT), the pro-IS Indonesian militant group. They had entered Indonesia using forged Turkish passports and paid US$1,000 (S$1,417) to a human smuggler in Thailand for each passport and travelled to Indonesia via Malaysia.
According to the Indonesian authorities, the four Uighurs were planning to meet MIT leader Santoso (who was killed in July last year), and also to receive militant training that could be used in their fight against China.
This incident was followed by the killing of six other Uighurs who joined MIT. These Uighurs reportedly entered Thailand via Cambodia. After obtaining fake passports in Thailand, they moved to Kuala Lumpur where they flew on to Makassar, South Sulawesi, on their way to Poso. However, it remains unclear how these Uighurs had linked up with the MIT.
In August last year, the Indonesian police arrested five members of Katibah GR (KGR), a pro-IS terrorist cell based in Batam, for plotting to launch a rocket attack on Marina Bay. The cell reportedly received funding from the Turkish Islamic Party (TIP) and had smuggled and harboured two alleged Uighur militants identified as Ali and Doni.
The KGR, led by Gigih Rahmat Dewa, has had close links to a notorious Indonesian IS fighter, Bahrun Naim, who is based in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Ali, whose real name is Nur Muhammet Abdullah, left Xinjiang for South-east Asia intending to fly to Syria. He obtained a fake passport in one of the countries in the region and flew to Turkey. However, after being detected at a Turkish airport, Ali was deported. He decided to travel to Indonesia through Malaysia where Ali was smuggled by sea into Batam in late 2015. He was met by Gigih Rahmat, who was assigned by Bahrun Naim to shelter Ali.
Ali and his Uighur friend Doni were sheltered by KGR in Batam before Ali was picked up by an Indonesian militant named Nur Rohman who later blew himself up in a suicide bombing attack on a police station in Solo, Central Java, in June last year.
Ali was arrested by the Indonesian police, along with a local militant named Arif Hidayatullah, in Bekasi near Jakarta in December 2015. Arif Hidayatullah’s cell had close links to Bahrun Naim and planned to use Ali as a suicide bomber in an attack against Shia communities in Indonesia. In November last year, Ali was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Doni has since been deported.
Ali’s case attests to the fact that South-east Asia has become “an alternative jihad” for Uighurs who originally intended to go to the Middle East through the region but failed to do so for various reasons. IS and its local affiliates in South-east Asia appear to be interested in recruiting and mobilising these Uighurs for their militant activities in the region.

BREAKING THE ‘VIOLENCE-SUPPRESSION-VIOLENCE’ CYCLE IN XINJIANG

Increasing violence involving ethnic Uighurs has led the Chinese government to respond forcefully. China often describes these incidents as “terrorist attacks” and labels assailants as “terrorists”. These labels overlook the impact of the state’s ethnic policies in fuelling such episodes of inter-ethnic violence between the ethnic Uighur minority and the Han Chinese.
On May 26, 2015, the Chinese state media reported that law enforcement agencies dismantled 181 “terror groups” in Xinjiang after the launch of the “strike hard” campaign in the region in March 2014 against what China projects as “the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism”.
The campaign that continued throughout the following year was a combination of enhanced cultural restrictions and security efforts. The conviction of 712 people in 2014 and another 1,419 in 2015 on terrorism and separatism charges was part of such measures. The government launched additional armed patrols and checkpoints, set up community-based methods of terrorism-prevention such as neighbourhood watches and “inspection of households” across Xinjiang, and offered rewards for information leading to the arrests of terrorists.
According to the Xinjiang authorities, 96 per cent of terror plots in Xinjiang were prevented at the planning stage. Although Beijing’s efforts to ensure security in the region have helped to reduce the number of incidents and scale of violence, such measures have also contributed to the rise of radical and extremist groups and given them an opportunity to radicalise vulnerable segments within Uighur society.
The government’s conflicting approach to Xinjiang is reflected in the ongoing effort to economically develop the region and its policy of ethnic assimilation, which has conflicted with the Uighurs’ desire to preserve their culture, religion and language.
To break the “violence-suppression-violence” cycle and to achieve long-lasting stability in Xinjiang, there is a need to develop comprehensive counter-radicalisation and community engagement strategies, relying less on hard power and more on winning the “hearts and minds” of its Uighur minority community in Xinjiang.
An important implication of the worsening ethnic tension in Xinjiang is the movement of Uighurs into South-east Asia and the corresponding rise in militancy. The immediate threat of Uighur militancy in Southeast Asia lies in the possibility that well-organised and battle-hardened Uighur militant groups like the TIP may form alliances with militant groups in the region. As of now, however, the threat remains limited as its leadership does not appear to want to bring its operations to South-east Asia.
IS-linked groups in South-east Asia, however, require close attention, not only because they take directions from IS operatives in Syria but also because of their willingness to bring in radicalised Uighurs and involve them in terror activities, including using them as suicide bombers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. This is adapted from a longer piece in the Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis journal published by the centre.
Source: http://www.todayonline.com/world/s-e-asia-alternative-jihad-xinjiangs-uighurs

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