An Islamic State propaganda video circulated this week shows ethnic Uighur fighters training in Iraq and vowing to carry out horrific attacks in their Chinese homeland — the latest sign that the terrorist group hopes to expand operations into East Asia as it loses territory in the Middle East and North Africa.
The video, which features one fighter promising to make Chinese “blood flow in rivers,” has prompted unease in Beijing, where officials for years have characterized Uighur separatists in the nation’s western and mostly Muslim Xinjiang region as Islamic terrorists.
Analysts say the video, which also shows an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping that turns into flames over a Chinese flag, marks the first time that Islamic State propaganda has so vividly and directly targeted China. The development adds a twist to months-old predictions that the group also known as ISIS is bent on spreading into Southeast Asia — particularly to Indonesia and the Philippines — as it slowly gets beaten back half a world away in Syria and Iraq.
There were fresh reports of gains Thursday against Islamic State strongholds in both of those nations.
Syria’s military said it had fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra, famed for its priceless Roman ruins, as Islamic State defenses crumbled against artillery fire and intense Russian airstrikes. It was the second blow to the Islamic State in Syria in a week. Turkish-backed fighters seized the Syrian town of al-Bab from the group on Feb. 23.
In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group is fighting for survival in western Mosul, where Iraqi forces backed by the U.S. recently took the city’s airport but are still struggling to secure major neighborhoods dense with houses and thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.
The United Nations warned Thursday that the situation has caused more than 28,000 people to flee their homes in recent weeks — far higher numbers of displaced people than in the four-month-long offensive for eastern Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was seized by the Islamic State in June 2014.
Analysts and intelligence officials say the Islamic State faces an eventual ground defeat in Mosul and bleak prospects for holding its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, in the longer run.
Terrorism analysts and Western intelligence officials fear that hardened Islamic State fighters, driving from the Middle East “caliphate,” will return home to carry out more traditional acts of terrorism. While many fighters have come from North Africa, Europe and even the U.S., an analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point argues that “Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, will likely [also] provide key staging posts for the group, critical to its long-term fortunes.”
“Islamic State operatives inside Syria and Iraq have leveraged existing local networks in Southeast Asian countries to remotely enable terrorist plots in their home countries,” said a summary of the report published last week. “There is concern that foreign fighters, and not simply Southeast Asian returnees, will export terrorism to the region as the Islamic State suffers setbacks in Syria and Iraq.”
A separate analysis, published in October, asserted that the Islamic State had already deepened cooperation among several extremist groups in Southeast Asia, with an eye toward exploiting a decades-old insurgency in the Philippines as their “jihad of choice” once the group’s Middle East footprint is destroyed.
“The Philippines is important because as far as the ISIS leadership is concerned, it is the extension of the caliphate in the region,” said the analysis by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, an Indonesia-based think tank.
The China factor
Indonesian authorities revealed in January that they were working with their counterparts in China to stem a flow of ethnic Uighur militants seeking to join Islamist jihadis in Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim country.
At the time, there was mounting concern in Indonesia about possible attacks by Islamic State sympathizers following the arrest of 13 men across the island of Java, including a Muslim Uighur with a suicide-bomb vest. The existence among Indonesian militant networks of Uighurs from western China’s Xinjiang region only added to Beijing’s concerns that exiles will return to their homeland as experienced and trained jihadis.
The video, released Monday by a division of the terrorist group in western Iraq, featured several Uighur fighters vowing to return home to carry out attacks in China, according to the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks and analyses Islamic State propaganda.
One of the Uighurs in the video issued a specific threat against China just before executing an alleged informant in the video.
“Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say! We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed,” the fighter says, according to Agence France-Presse, citing SITE’s translation of the video.
Michael Clarke, an analyst on Xinjiang province at the National Security College of Australian National University, told Agence France-Presse that the video appears to be the Islamic State’s “first direct threat” against China, as well as the “first time that Uighur-speaking militants have claimed allegiance to [the Islamic State].”
According to Uighur speakers who analyzed the content for Reuters but declined to be identified, the video also featured the following message: “We will certainly plant our flag over America, China, Russia and all the infidels of the world.”
Chinese authorities have responded cautiously. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday that he had not seen the video but that “terrorist forces” from Xinjiang posed “a severe threat to China’s security” and called for international cooperation against them.
The Islamic State released the video just as Chinese authorities were staging the latest in a series of mass rallies by armed police in Xinjiang to show Beijing’s resolve in crushing security threats. In one violence-wracked corner of the province, authorities are offering rewards of up to $730,000 to anyone who exposes terrorist plots or takes action to “kill, wound or subdue” attackers.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.