A number of ethnic Uyghur Muslims have trained and fought with Islamic insurgents battling the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in the hope of using their experience to fight Beijing’s rule of their homeland in China’s far western Xinjiang region.
But as Assad reverses rebel gains and the Islamic State jihadist group loses its final territory in Syria, the Uyghur fighters have returned to their exile home in Turkey, disillusioned that they had been duped by their handlers about staging a revolt in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an RFA probe has revealed.
RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with four Uyghur men living in Turkey who explained how desperation with life under persecution in the XUAR had driven them into the arms of insurgent groups who wooed them to fight in Syria.
They followed similar paths taken by many Uyghurs in exile who had fled China to Southeast Asia and then to Turkey, where they were recruited by fellow Uyghur brokers to train with Uyghur militants and other insurgent groups across the border in Syria.
RFA interviewed the four in July last year but had to speak to other sources to verify the accuracy of several claims. Since then, three have gone missing and one was detained by Turkish authorities for several weeks before being freed.
One of the men, a young Uyghur living in Keysari, told RFA on condition of anonymity that Chinese “oppression” forced him to leave the country with a vow to return home to fight for independence.
He said he was jailed in late 2012 after teaching religion in the XUAR and expressing views critical of the government, and had been subjected to torture while incarcerated.
After his release, he “realized the only way to escape China’s oppression is to expel them from East Turkestan,” using a name preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their historic homeland.
“China is heavily armed and we are not—therefore, in order to expel them from our homeland, we have to go through military training,” said the former Syria fighter, many of whose relatives are now detained or in jail in the XUAR.
“Otherwise, even if we did have weapons, we wouldn’t know how to use them, because China has excluded us from any kind of military training,” he added.
“At this point, I realized that it was necessary to make the flight” to Turkey in 2014, where he “prepared to take up arms, with the hopes of saving East Turkestan.”
The XUAR has been plagued by tensions for decades, and the region endured waves of violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in the 1990s and 2000s.
Beijing blames the strife on Uyghur “terrorists” seeking an independent state. Much of the violence is triggered by Beijing’s heavy-handed treatment of and discrimination against Uyghurs, RFA reports have revealed.
Ensuing crackdowns by Chinese authorities caused many Uyghurs to flee the country. Many of those who remained were incarcerated in political “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, governed since late 2016 by the hardline regional Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo.
More than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims are detained in these camps “designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said recently. One of his senior officials said such human rights abuses were not seen since the 1930’s.
While the majority of those who were able to leave the XUAR are content to resettle in Uyghur communities in exile overseas, many experience trouble adjusting to life in a new country and are susceptible to entreaties by more radicalized members of their ethnic group who offer them a way back home as fighters trained as part of an international Muslim insurgency.
Such brokers were active in Turkey, which has an estimated 50,000 Uyghur residents—one of the world’s largest Uyghur exile populations. Turkey borders northern Syria, where militants began fighting in 2011 to remove Assad’s secular government from power and replace it with an Islamic caliphate.
But the four men RFA spoke with suggested that they had been enticed to train and fight for reasons other than religion, and were willing to travel to Syria as a means to an end.
They said they left Syria when they realized that the group they joined would not sponsor an insurgency in China.
It is not possible to independently verify the number of Uyghur fighters in Syria. While the four men described fighting in Uyghur units, none of them could give an estimate, even though Chinese officials have cited thousands while some think tanks believe they are in the hundreds.
Four Uyghurs Recount Their Experiences Fighting in Syria
Taking up arms
A middle-aged Uyghur living in Istanbul, who also asked to remain unnamed, told RFA that he and his family were “targeted” by authorities in the XUAR because his father-in-law had taken part in the 1997 Ghulja Incident—protests sparked by reports of the execution of 30 Uyghur independence activists that were violently suppressed by authorities, leaving nine dead, according to official media, though exile groups put the number at as many as 167.
He and his family fled China for Turkey in October 2014, but said they all traveled to Syria soon after because “there was only talk” of fighting Chinese rule but no action.
“We decided to go to Syria and get some military training to prepare ourselves … and someday, when the time comes, we’ll be ready,” he said.
“[The recruiter] told us there is no way to go anywhere else [other than Syria to train]. And instead of wasting time here [in Turkey], we should go and learn something.”
After arriving, the middle-aged man said recruiters first put them through physical training, before teaching them how to fire weapons and use tactical movements to engage the enemy.
“We learned first to use light weapons, such as the Kalashnikov, and some of the Chinese-made weapons, small handguns, and so on,” he said.
“The first month, that’s what we learned—we spent about a month on this.”
Sean Roberts, director of George Washington University’s International Development Studies Program, told RFA that Uyghurs he had interviewed in Turkey suggested that their motivation for joining fighters in Syria was to “get combat experience and then use it to start an insurgency in China.”
“The thing that’s interesting about these people is they all tend to have left China after the Urumqi riots in 2009 and the subsequent crackdown in the region over the next few years,” he said.
“That was a real turning point between Uyghurs and the Chinese state, and also culminated in the life imprisonment of [outspoken Uyghur professor] Ilham Tohti, and basically created a situation in which I think most Uyghurs felt there was no peaceful way to engage the Chinese government on their discontent with the situation.”
Roberts, an expert in Uyghur language and culture, said the situation in the XUAR had led to a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy of Uyghur militancy.”
The Uyghur men RFA spoke with said immediately after a brief training stint, they went on to engage in fighting with Assad’s troops and gained significant experience on the battlefield.
A young Uyghur man living in Istanbul, who relocated to Syria after fleeing China with the help of Uyghur handlers in Turkey, entered into combat weeks after beginning training.
“I looked and there was ammunition coming at me … it exploded about two meters (6.5 feet) away,” said the young man, describing the first time he fought.
Later, I noticed that shrapnel had entered the back of my head, my hand and my leg. They took me to the hospital and, fortunately, it hadn’t entered too deep.”
By the end of that day’s fighting, he said, his insurgent group had “conquered the place … taking weapons and tanks as booty.”
“It was the first time we ever saw tanks—we were so excited, and were climbing inside of them and on top,” he said.
“That was our first battle, but after that we participated in many others.”
He had fled Xinjiang after he was released from arrest in 2014 when police entered his home in the XUAR capital Urumqi and discovered Qurans there.
The middle-aged man from Istanbul also described a successful engagement his group had with a tank operated by Assad’s troops.
“When we saw the tank, we started to worry, but a comrade who was carrying a large machine gun started firing at it while I loaded the bullets and two other guys attacked it from a different position,” he said.
“The tank retreated … We were excited, shouting, ‘Bashar’s people are fleeing!’ That was the first battle we participated in.”
He said that the experience he and other Uyghurs gained from battles like these made them feel that they were ready to fight against Chinese troops back home in the XUAR.
“We were going to fight against the strength of China … so we needed to get strong and train in a real war,” he said.
“We saw war. We saw weapons. We saw airstrikes. We experienced it all. Six airplanes tried to bomb us, so we experienced a lot.”
The Uyghurs RFA talked to said that Uyghur units gained recognition within Syria for their bravery during battles with Assad’s troops.
The Uyghur fighters were promised by their handlers that they would be relocated to Afghanistan where they could further train and gather strength before launching an insurgent movement across the border in the XUAR with the help of militants they met in Syria.
But repeated promises never led to any concrete action, and the men said that by the end of 2016 and early 2017, they began to feel that they had been tricked into fighting a war they did not believe in.
“We stayed there for three years and there was no improvement in the situation [in the XUAR] … and we repeatedly brought this up with the people in charge, but they only told us to be patient because jihad wouldn’t be easy,” said the young man living in Istanbul.
“We had a disagreement over this—we couldn’t just keep waiting around [in Syria]. Eventually, our patience ran out … and we left.”
The young Uyghur in Keysari told RFA he felt upset that he had fought in somebody else’s war, when he “wasn’t looking to make new enemies.”
“My only intention was to free my motherland from the cruelty of the Chinese government, so that Uyghurs can live freely and in peace,” he said.
The middle-aged man in Istanbul said the recruiter who convinced him to go to Syria in 2015 had told him “a completely different story” about what he would be doing there.
“He told me that all the preparation is ready and now it was time to work for the cause of our homeland, but when we arrived, we heard no talk of our homeland,” he said.
“If we ever mentioned anything about our cause, the leadership would chastise us because they said the others would lose interest in the war … So, when it became clear to us [that they wouldn’t help us], some of us got together and decided that we should leave.”
The young man in Istanbul said that he didn’t regret having gone to train in Syria, because although he took part in a war he did not support, he will be ready to fight for his own cause in the future.
“I believe that I have chosen the correct road,” he said.
“When there is a war with China, and I believe that someday this will definitely happen, this experience will serve me well.”
Another of the four Uyghurs—an older man in Keysari—told RFA he fled Xinjiang to Turkey in 2014 after facing repeated forms of harassment by the authorities in the XUAR, including being subjected to repeated beatings and torture while jailed for a year in 1999 for teaching neighborhood children the Quran.
In Turkey, he was lured to Syria with the promise of free medical treatment for an anxiety-related heart condition he had developed following repeated raids on his home by authorities in the XUAR during the middle of the night.
“I had no money and I knew no one in Turkey, but then someone told me that there were Uyghurs not far from where we were, in Syria, and that they might be able to help me get medical treatment,” he said.
“Later, I found out it was a place for fighters. I always thought that if I were ever given the opportunity to join a group of fighters, it would be a group that resisted China—one where I could work and eventually return to my homeland to be with my family.”
The man said he left his unit because they never assisted him in obtaining medical treatment, and because he and other Uyghurs there “realized we shouldn’t risk our lives fighting for someone else’s cause.”
“How could I fight against people who had done nothing wrong to me, or to Uyghurs in general … I realized I was wrong to have gone [to Syria] and it would have been wrong for me to join them, so I quit.”
Two sides to the story
It is unclear how many Uyghurs have fought in Syria since the country’s civil war began in 2011, and China’s special envoy for the Syrian issue told Reuters news agency in July last year that the number could be up to 5,000 or more.
The Syrian ambassador to China, Imad Moustapha, told Reuters in 2017 that up to 5,000 Uyghurs were fighting in various militant groups in his country.
But Uyghur exile groups say these estimates are exaggerated, and that Moustapha’s claim was part of a bid to secure weaponry and economic aid from China.
Washington-based think tank New America said in a July 2016 report that of 118 Islamic State fighters from China, 114 were from the XUAR, basing its numbers on leaked foreign fighter registration forms collected by ISIS on the Syria-Turkey border between mid-2013 and mid-2014.
Little is also known about the network of recruiters which has worked to lure Uyghurs from Turkey to fight in Syria, although Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project director Omer Kanat told RFA that several years ago local Uyghur organizations identified a number of people connected to the network to Turkish authorities, who he said did little to stop them.
“Turkish authorities detained these individuals, but after a few days they were released and continued what they were doing,” he said, citing reports from the Uyghur groups.
Since RFA interviewed the four men last year, reports have emerged that authorities in Turkey have detained several Uyghurs in recent months, and an official with the Turkish Interior Ministry said on condition of anonymity that the arrests were prompted by alleged ties to people in Syria or travel to the country, and were directed by China.
Despite the uncertainty over the number of Uyghur fighters in Syria, Beijing says that their presence there shows that members of the ethnic minority are susceptible to extremism, and uses the threat to justify its network of re-education camps, which XUAR chairman Shohrat Zakir said in October 2018 are an effective tool to protect China from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Reported and translated by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.