BY THOMAS JOSCELYN | July 10, 2018 | THE LONG WAR JOURNAL
On May 21, the Turkistan Islamic Party’s (TIP) arm in Syria released an hour-plus, documentary-style video encouraging Muslims in the West to emigrate for jihad. There is a deluge of jihadist-related content online these days, with much of it being redundant. But the production was noteworthy because the TIP, which is predominately comprised of ethnic Uighurs, framed its jihad as part of al Qaeda’s global struggle.
This is not altogether surprising, as there is voluminous evidence connecting the TIP to al Qaeda’s network. But the timing of the video stands out. It was released at a time when the TIP’s larger cousin, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is publicly distancing itself from al Qaeda’s notorious brand. HTS claims to have disassociated from al Qaeda, while the US government still considers the group to be an al Qaeda “affiliate.” Either way, HTS does not openly celebrate al Qaeda’s legacy — not like the TIP’s Syrian arm did in late May.
The contrast in the two organization’s messaging is striking, especially because HTS and the TIP are close battlefield allies. The TIP’s men even initially sided with HTS during battles that tore the Syrian rebellion apart earlier this year. That same infighting was repeatedly condemned by al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
The TIP’s May 21 video, titled “Hijrah to Allah,” opens with a quote from Osama bin Laden. “The ummah is out of the battle,” bin Laden explained. “It needs narratives that are relevant to its circumstances. It is no secret that the ummah is the supplier of the mujahideen, therefore we should be gentle with people by addressing them in an interesting discourse and avoid vociferous attacks, harsh criticism, or vilification of opponents.”
Bin Laden’s words were intended to guide the jihadists’ cause by portraying them as an inseparable part of the ummah, or worldwide community of Muslims. The al Qaeda founder knew that his organization’s zealotry and violence within Muslim-majority countries could alienate the masses, a situation he hoped to avoid. So he advised gentleness, as opposed to harshness, when seeking to win new recruits.
The TIP’s propagandists relied on this advice when crafting “Hijrah to Allah.” Their venom is mostly reserved for the West, not the supposedly lax Muslims the jihadists hope to woo, nor the other insurgent factions the TIP’s cadres have fought against inside Syria in recent months.
“Hijrah to Allah” also featured scenes from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The TIP’s media men placed footage of the hijacked planes next to images of people celebrating and explaining gay rights. The TIP’s message to would-be recruits was straightforward bigotry and hate: the West is decadent and immoral, but you can cleanse your soul by waging jihad in Syria.
The May 21 video, which is laced with other al Qaeda-style references, led FDD’s Long War Journal to review the available evidence concerning the TIP’s current operations in Syria, including its status in al Qaeda’s global network. The results are below.
In sum, the TIP backed HTS during infighting earlier this year and some online jihadists accused the group of effectively being in the pocket of HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani. The TIP has fought alongside Julani’s group since it was known as Al Nusrah Front. Its men continued to serve side-by-side with Julani’s organization well after it morphed from Al Nusrah Front into HTS, which has been at the center of controversy within al Qaeda circles. Some have even accused Julani of breaking his bayah (oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri. The al Qaeda master has, in response, made it clear that he has not agreed to allow any parties out of their bayah to him. A number of al Qaeda agents have become fierce critics of HTS, with a new al Qaeda-linked organization accepting HTS defectors.
Earlier this year, one jihadist commentator even accused the TIP of secretly pledging allegiance to Julani’s HTS, though this was never confirmed. In recent days there were more rumblings concerning possible “divisions” within the TIP’s ranks. Thus, the TIP’s alliance with HTS threatens to disrupt al Qaeda’s project in Syria even more.
However, there is evidence — including in the May 21 video — indicating that the TIP’s Syrian branch, or a significant part of it, remains loyal to the group’s senior leadership. As FDD’s Long War Journal discovered, a credible report earlier this year said that the TIP had dispatched new leadership from Afghanistan to Syria. This move may have been intended to combat the problems caused by the TIP’s role as HTS’s ally in the infighting. Thus far, there is no indication that the TIP’s Syrian arm has, as a whole, ended its fealty to the mother organization.
The TIP’s overall emir is Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, a veteran jihadist who served as a member of al Qaeda’s elite shura council as early as 2005. Although he was reportedly killed in 2010, Abdul Haq reemerged in 2014 and 2015 as the TIP’s leader. Ayman al-Zawahiri has repeatedly praised Abdul Haq and his TIP, while also relying on him to keep Uighur jihadists from defecting to the Islamic State.
The TIP’s own literature consistently treats the Afghan and Syria-based operations as parts of the same endeavor. Moreover, the TIP’s flagship magazine continues to market al Qaeda and its ideologues as the leaders of the global jihad.
Therefore, to the extent that the TIP’s Syrian branch remains in the fold, al Qaeda will continue to view it as a valuable ally in the Levant.
FDD’s Long War Journal cautions that this is an evolving story, which will likely have to be updated in the near future. Observers should keep a close eye out for any defections from the TIP, or any indication that it remains loyal to its historical leadership. The jihadists’ project in Syria is disorderly, with shifting alliances and allegiances. The loyalties of various factions and groups will have to be reassessed repeatedly in the coming months, as the jihadists and Islamists are reorganizing themselves once again, especially in the wake of the rancor surrounding HTS and the insurgents’ current difficulties on the battlefield.
TIP role in the insurgents’ infighting
In February, the TIP was caught up in the fighting between HTS and Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (JTS), or the Syria Liberation Front. JTS is a joint venture that was established by Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement and Ahrar al-Sham, both of which were allied with HTS and its predecessor organization, Al Nusrah Front. In fact, the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement was a founding member of the HTS coalition, but subsequently broke away, citing serious differences with Julani’s project.
JTS accused the TIP of siding with HTS in the dispute — an allegation that drew a defensive response from the TIP on Feb. 22.
In a two-page letter, the TIP denied that it had taken any offensive actions against other insurgents. Instead, the TIP argued that its men were simply manning their positions against the Assad regime when the infighting broke out. “However, some factions did not leave us outside of this conflict and attacked one of our checkpoints with shells, mortars and heavy machine guns, which threatened the safety of a number of our families in the region,” the TIP claimed, according to a translation produced by Al-Maqalaat, a jihadist website that supports HTS. “So we were forced to respond towards the source of the fire and deal with the aggressor.” The TIP argued that it had also been a victim of the widespread “assassination campaigns and security operations” that have “targeted our Mujahid leaders and cadres in the liberated north” of Syria.
Although the TIP portrayed itself as a victim of a conflict outside of its control, claiming that allegations of its offensive moves were “completely false,” its statement portrayed HTS’s rivals as the aggressor. The TIP stated its “complete rejection” of the “transgression” against HTS, which is the “largest group” of mujahideen in Syria and “is holding the most guarding points in the liberated territory.” The TIP described HTS’s fighters as “our brothers” and said it had “fought together in one trench from the days” of Al Nusrah Front through its current incarnation.
The TIP seemingly blamed others for the failure of the various insurgent groups to merge. In 2016 and 2017, HTS and its predecessor organizations attempted to subsume the other significant rebel factions under a common banner. But this effort failed, with many accusing HTS emir Abu Muhammad al-Julani of seeking to dominate the rebellion. The TIP statement also included a stark warning, saying that it would “also stress that if the attack against our brothers in [HTS] is expanded we will not stand idle…and we will not let the achieved gains of this blessed jihad on the land of Sham be wasted after all of these sacrifices.”
The TIP’s statement led to a harsh rebuke by JTS, which posted its two–page reply the following day (Feb. 23). JTS heaped praise on the Turkistani brothers, saying they “have a great track record” in supporting the oppressed people. Nonetheless, according to JTS, a “large group affiliated with the” TIP had joined HTS in “transgressing against the Syrian people” by attacking other rebels with “tanks and heavy weapons.” For the “first time,” this forced the “rebels” to fight the “brothers whom they’ve loved and appreciated for their sacrifices and heroism,” meaning the TIP’s men. JTS argued its own members were not the aggressors, as they acted in “self-defense,” and that they were willing to abide by a “sharia ruling” on the matter.
JTS also criticized the TIP for adopting HTS’s “narrative” concerning the infighting, as the TIP surely knew (according to JTS) that HTS had rejected sharia arbitration. This attempt at mediation was supported by “all” of the “clerics” in the Syrian theater, including those who are “respected” by the TIP. JTS called on the TIP to “remain neutral” and to avoid HTS’s oppressive actions, which would only tarnish the “reputation” of the “people of Turkestan.” JTS also claimed that the “great majority of muhajireen,” or foreign fighters, had stayed “neutral,” as they only wanted to fight against the Assad regime.
In its Feb. 23 statement, JTS advised the TIP’s “leadership in both Syria and abroad” — a recognition that the TIP is an international organization — to stay away from the “factional interests” of others, meaning HTS. JTS said it wanted to maintain its “fellowship” with the TIP as long as possible, but this wouldn’t be the case if the TIP’s members become “enemies of the Syrian people,” a move that would sadden JTS.
Two days later, on Feb. 25, JTS issued another statement on the matter, praising what it called a “popular uprising” against Julani and HTS. Julani had erred by targeting civilian areas with “heavy weapons” and, according to JTS, this had led to a “popular revolution” against HTS. JTS also claimed that Julani’s propagandists had spread slanders that were intended to force the “muhajireen” (foreign fighters) to forego their neutrality and side with HTS against its rivals.
However, in its Feb. 25 statement, JTS had changed its tune with respect to the TIP. JTS thanked the TIP’s “religious leaders” for directing their members to stay out of the infighting. JTS also called on native born factions and fighters to maintain “good relations” with their “brother muhajireen,” evaluating them on a “individual” basis.
But the matter was not settled. Just days later, on Mar. 1, JTS tweeted that the TIP had once again joined HTS in “its aggression against the Syrian people” by bringing “heavy weapons” into “villages and towns.” This had allegedly forced JTS to evacuate some of its men out of “concern” for possible civilian casualties.
Other jihadi criticisms of the TIP
Online jihadi commentators elaborated on JTS’s criticism of the TIP, alleging that the group’s leadership in Syria had fallen under Julani’s sway. FDD’s Long War Journal assesses that the two sources mentioned below in this section are hit-or-miss when it comes to the details. One of the two, Salih Al-Hamawi, was forced out of Al Nusrah Front three years ago, meaning he may simply be sniping at his former comrades. Still, there may be some truth to their claims, especially given the TIP’s controversial relationship with HTS.
On Mar. 1, the proprietor of a widely-followed Twitter account focused on Syria, Muzamjir al-Sham (@saleelalmajd1, who has more than 100,000 followers), accused the TIP of “rebelling against the Taliban’s instructions” to abstain from the infighting, even after the TIP’s own emir had allegedly told him (@saleelalmajd1) that the TIP wouldn’t target other factions because of its loyalty to the Taliban.
According to @saleelalmajd1, who describes himself as the “voice of the jihadi current” in Syria, the TIP’s actions confirmed that it had secretly sworn its allegiance to Julani, after Julani had paid a “huge sum of money” to buy the Syria-based TIP leadership’s loyalty. To make matters worse, he charged, TIP and HTS tanks had bypassed two Shiite towns, “strongholds” for the Assad regime, on their way to confront the “people and revolutionaries.”
On Mar. 14, Saleh Al-Hamawi, a former Al Nusrah Front sharia official who is a prominent commentator on Twitter (@asseraaalsham), accused the TIP of deploying its forces “in the western countryside of Aleppo” in order to save Julani’s HTS from collapsing. Al-Hamawi added that the TIP had disregarded a fatwa by Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini despite the fact that the TIP has treated Muhaysini as an authority on sharia.
Al-Hamawi posted a screen shot from Muhaysini’s Telegram channel the day before, when the Saudi cleric denounced the infighting and especially the use of heavy weapons. Muhaysini has long been one of the TIP’s ideological guides, so if al-Hamawi’s criticism is true, then the TIP had in fact acted in a manner inconsistent with its past. In a subsequent Q&A posted online, al-Hamawi alleged that the TIP suffered from “divisions” after the ideology of HTS’s predecessor, Al Nusrah Front, had spread through the group’s ranks. Furthermore, he accused the group’s “military commander,” a jihadi known as Abu Muhammad, of serving as a “puppet” for Julani.
Still other jihadi Twitter feeds criticized the TIP’s relationship with HTS. For example, one social media site posted “Leaks Revealing the Truth” about the TIP’s allegedly nefarious behavior on behalf of HTS.
A warning from Afghanistan and Pakistan
In the middle of this maelstrom, an ideologue who is highly respected by Uighur and Uzbek jihadists weighed in.
On Feb. 25, pro-al Qaeda social media sites circulated an audio message from Abu Zar al-Burmi (also known as Abu Dharr), a former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) ideologue with ties to other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Central and South Asia, including the Pakistani Taliban. Abu Zar has long operated within the milieu of jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along with the IMU’s senior leadership and many of its members, he initially defected to the Islamic State after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group declared itself to be a caliphate. But in 2016, Abu Zar revoked his decision to join the Islamic State, denouncing Baghdadi’s loyalists for their “evil deeds.” His messages have been shared on al Qaeda channels ever since. In his Feb. 25 message, Abu Zar addressed the infighting between HTS and its rivals in Syria. He warned the “muhajireen” (immigrants or foreign fighters), “especially those from Turkistan and Uzbekistan who migrated from Central Asia to Syria” to stay out of the ongoing dispute, lest they be subjected to eternal damnation.
Relying on the Quran and other Islamic texts, Abu Zar warned the jihadists in Syria that it was impermissible for them to kill one another. “Whoever kills a believer intentionally – his recompense is Hell, wherein he will abide eternally, and Allah has become angry with him and has cursed him and has prepared for him a great punishment,” al-Burmi said, reading from a holy passage. After producing other citations along these lines, al-Burmi addressed the “immigrant” jihadists in Syria directly. “Our war is against the Russians, Chinese and Americans,” he reminded listeners, and not other Muslims.
Abu Zar said the fighting between HTS and JTS is like “fighting against ourselves,” as all involved are Muslims. There is no serious sharia dispute over the illegality of spilling Muslim blood, Abu Zar warned. He reminded his listeners that they are immigrants who went “to support the people of Sham,” but some “have taken a great calamity on themselves by joining this battle.”
The “scholars do not approve of this battle,” Abu Zar stressed. And although he “did not witness this” infighting for “himself,” Abu Zar relied on the testimony of three trustworthy witnesses. Specifically, Abu Zar “read the statements of Sheikh Musleh al-Ulyani, Abdullah al-Muhaysini and Abdurrazzaq al-Mahdi” all of whom he “got information from” and said “this war was a fitnah,” meaning internal strife, or a religiously illegitimate battle between believers. Citing these three scholars, Abu Zar emphasized that the immigrant fighters should “stay away from this war” and rally against the Sunni Muslims’ common enemies in Ghouta. (At the time, al Qaeda’s senior leadership and other al Qaeda-affiliated actors were calling for the jihadists to put aside their differences and join together in battling the Assad regime in eastern Ghouta, outside of Damascus. This rallying cry proved to be ineffective.)
Some jihadis clearly understood the gravitas of Abu Zar’s warning. Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), an Uzbek group that fights in Syria, quickly shared the message on its Telegram channel. Several Syrian jihadist parties, including JTS, denounced the US government’s decision to designate the KIB as a terrorist organization in March.
But the KIB wasn’t Abu Zar’s only intended audience. The ideologue clearly had the TIP’s men in mind as well, as their participation in the HTS-JTS conflict could have escalated the crisis even further.
New TIP leadership in Syria served the Taliban in Afghanistan
Readers will recall that the TIP disclaimed any offensive role in the fighting with its fellow insurgents, yet defended HTS, in a statement issued on Feb. 22. A conspicuous announcement appeared online just two days later.
Doğu Türkistan Bülteni, a Turkish-language website that regularly reports on the TIP’s activities and disseminates the group’s propaganda, reported on Feb. 24 that new TIP leaders had arrived in Syria. Each of the jihadists – identified as Abu Omar al-Turkistani* and Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani – have “more than 10 years” of experience fighting in Afghanistan as part of the Taliban’s insurgency. Abu Omar al-Turkistani was named the “general emir” for the TIP and its “community” of followers, according to a translation of Doğu Türkistan Bülteni’s account obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal. Abu Omar held a number of “positions” for the TIP while fighting in Afghanistan. Most importantly, Abu Omar was the “military trainer” at the “largest military camp under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” meaning the Taliban. In that role, he “has contributed to many great operations,” including “by training thousands of Uighur mujahideen from Eastern Turkistan and Taliban mujahideen.” Furthermore, Doğu Türkistan Bülteni touted Abu Omar’s knowledge of “military operations” and “management experience,” describing him “as an expert on heavy and light weaponry in war zones.”
The second TIP figure dispatched from Afghanistan, Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani, was sent to serve as the organization’s “military commander” in Syria. Abu Muhammad also came from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) and is known for his decade-plus “operational experience,” because his “sharp-witted mind” for “tactical maneuvers” had “resulted” in “many successfully directed joint operations carried out by many Taliban and Uighur Turks in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Abu Muhammad was appointed as the “commander-in-chief” of the TIP’s arm in Syria.
Although the leadership change wasn’t announced in an official TIP communique, Doğu Türkistan Bülteni’s report is the next best thing – as the website is a reliable source on the group’s operations. The TIP also did not refute the account or have the website take it down. It is still being promoted on the website’s home page more than two months after the fact. Moreover, we should not be surprised that a leadership shuffle wasn’t announced on a statement bearing the TIP’s watermark. The TIP, like many other jihadi organizations, does not produce organizational charts for the public to see. The hierarchy of jihadi groups is often opaque.
Assuming the Doğu Türkistan Bülteni account is accurate, then the TIP’s leadership change in Syria is significant for multiple reasons.
First, it demonstrates the connectivity between the TIP’s operations in Afghanistan and Syria, as the two TIP veterans went from serving the Taliban (that is, the self-declared “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”) to leading the charge in the Levant. Some analysts argue that the Taliban’s jihad is largely disconnected from al Qaeda’s global jihad, but these two men went from training Taliban fighters to an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.
Second, assuming it was successful, the move shows that the organization’s senior managers in South Asia maintain command and control over the TIP’s Syrian branch. Conversely, if these two new leaders are not able to impose their will on the rank and file, then the TIP’s leadership has suffered a blow. It is possible that some members have rejected the changeover, but this is not at all clear.
Third, there is no indication as of yet that the TIP’s new leaders have sworn allegiance to HTS chief Abu Muhammad al-Julani, even though their two groups continue to fight side-by-side in the same trench.
A fourth observation is a bit more speculative. It may be the case that the TIP’s senior managers in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan were concerned about their Syrian arm’s relationship with HTS, especially after Julani’s rebranding of Al Nusrah Front and subsequent formation of HTS became problematic. It is easy to see how the TIP’s role in the infighting – which pitted HTS against its former allies – could have been a cause for concern. It might be the case that the TIP wanted to ensure that its Syrian enterprise remained autonomous, and not under Julani’s and HTS’s direct control. Again, this fourth point requires some speculation, as the TIP’s internal deliberations are obscured from public view. Given the evidence regarding the infighting cited above, however, it is important to keep an eye out for any additional reporting in the near future.
Doğu Türkistan Bülteni’s report does not outright state that the TIP encountered problems with the unnamed leaders who were replaced, but it does suggest that was the case.
The account makes it clear that Abu Omar al-Turkistani and Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani have complete authority over the TIP’s Syrian arm. The men they replaced no longer speak for the group as a whole. “These two commanders are in command of TIP forces in Syria” and “are fully authorized to engage in any and all agreements.” All previous arrangements were to be renegotiated with the TIP’s new leading men. “Any connections, agreements, and contracts with Uighur Turks must be [entered into] with these commanders,” Doğu Türkistan Bülteni reported. According to the translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal, the website warned that any previously negotiated “contracts” must be renegotiated with the two new commanders. Those leaders who “were relieved of their duties” no longer have any “power” or control over the “military force in Syria.”
If some of the TIP’s leading men in Syria had sworn allegiance to Julani’s HTS, as alleged by one of the commentators mentioned above, then this move may have been intended to prevent their followers from joining them. However, the TIP may have had other reasons for the change as well.
Doğu Türkistan Bülteni’s account of the leadership change ended with a call to support an aid campaign launched by the TIP in early February for its followers in Syria. The banner for the campaign (seen above) points to Telegram and WhatsApp as the best means for contributing to the TIP’s cause. A quote from the aforementioned Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini was also used to advertise the effort, meaning that the TIP still considered him to be an ally at the time. Muhaysini, a US-designated terrorist who has his own links to al Qaeda, left HTS in Sept. 2017 and has been critical of the HTS-JTS infighting.
It is with this backstory in mind that we return to the TIP’s May 21 video. Nearly two months after the TIP’s members first fought alongside HTS against other rebels, the TIP was still advertising its efforts as part of al Qaeda’s struggle. This is very different from how HTS, which has also called on Muslims to emigrate to Syria, markets itself. While HTS references jihad in its productions and statements, its propaganda has become much more “nationalist” in the sense that the group has dropped telltale references to al Qaeda.
For example, Al Nusrah Front (HTS’s forerunner) released a video titled “The Heirs to Glory” in 2015. That video was filled with references to al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackings. HTS no longer produces similar videos. Yet, the TIP’s “Hijrah to Allah” is very similar to “The Heirs to Glory.”
In addition to bin Laden’s quote and footage from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the TIP video includes a number of markers placing the production within the genre of al Qaeda-style propaganda.
The production includes clips of individuals often referenced in videos and other propaganda produced by al Qaeda and its regional branches. These individuals include: Sayyid Qutb (a mid-20th Century Islamist ideologue whose teachings are often incorporated into al Qaeda’s propaganda), Abdullah Azzam (the godfather of modern jihadism and an early ally of bin Laden), Anwar al-Awlaki (a deceased al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader who plotted and advocated terror attacks in the West), Abu Qatada al-Filistini (a Jordanian cleric in al Qaeda’s orbit of ideologues), Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi (another cleric often cited on al Qaeda-linked social media pages) and Sheikh Sulayman al-Alwan (a Saudi cleric responsible for indoctrinating some key figures within al Qaeda).
The TIP’s use of a clip of Anwar al-Awlaki is especially significant, as the AQAP ideologue was the most influential English-speaking jihadist in al Qaeda’s network at the time of his death in 2011. And his lectures remain powerful enticements to jihad to this day. In the clip selected by the TIP’s propagandists, al-Awlaki recounted a story from early Islamic history that is meant to serve as a warning for those who do not fully embrace the jihadist life.
“There were some of the young men of Quraysh [tribe] who were interested in Islam and actually did become Muslim. And these were sons of some of the noble families of Quraysh,” al-Awlaki said. “So these were wealthy young kids in Mecca and they became Muslim…These were all sons of the wealthy men of Quraysh. They became Muslim, but they couldn’t withstand the demand of Islam, the sacrifice that Islam asks from you. So they stayed behind and they didn’t make hijrah. These were spoiled kids, they weren’t willing to go through the hassle of hijrah and all of that.” According to al-Awlaki, their “attitude was: ‘We’ll be Muslim if it is convenient, but if it is going to cost too much then forget about it.’” Subsequently, they were killed in battle and achieved nothing.
From this tale, al-Awlaki drew a conclusion for his audience. “Don’t play around with Islam. Don’t fool around with it. This is a serious religion and you need to be serious,” al-Awlaki said. This “religion doesn’t accept half-hearted efforts.” He warned that you can’t be a “part-time” Muslim, or be “a Muslim when it is convenient and doing otherwise when it’s not.”
“Allah has promised you [paradise], but you have to pay a price,” al-Awlaki said.
The TIP’s video also includes clips of Western recruits explaining the merits of emigrating for jihad, and the supposed demerits of Western society.
TIP’s magazine consistently portrays group as part of Taliban-al Qaeda axis
The TIP publishes an online magazine, titled Turkistan al-Islamiyah, more than once a year. Thus far, the group has produced 23 editions of the magazine, the last of which was released online in early June. FDD’s Long War Journal has reviewed these magazines, especially the last four issues, which cover the period leading up to and after the infighting in Syria. The publication is littered with references to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
As in past issues, the 23rd issue of the magazine contained multiple denunciations of the Chinese government. But the publication makes it clear that the TIP sees its operations as part of a global jihad, and the Chinese government is far from being its sole target. This point was emphasized in a three-page “fatwa” authored by an ideologue known as Sheikh Abu Abd-al-Rahman al-Shami.
Al-Shami had simple advice for Uighurs wondering where they should wage jihad, whether at home in Western China or elsewhere abroad. Uighur recruits should select the “closest location” they can reach, unless they face “obstacles” to joining the fight. In that case, they should go to a “farther place” for jihad, as long as there are no insurmountable hurdles. Indeed, Uighur jihadists have followed this advice, as the overwhelming majority of the TIP’s operations take place outside of China, primarily in Afghanistan (an easier location to reach) and Syria. The TIP’s literature treats these two battlefields as interchangeable, coequal parts of the same overall jihadist conflict. And al-Shami’s “fatwa” stresses that the TIP’s cause is anything but nationalist.
One author featured in the magazine eulogizes a fallen TIP member, identified as “Abu Aisha,” who was allegedly imprisoned in China during his youth, but later migrated to Syria, where he was among the TIP’s first cadre of fighters. Abu Aisha fought in multiple battles, including in Jisr al-Shughour (a TIP stronghold) and Aleppo, where he was eventually killed. The eulogist describes the TIP’s enemies in Battle of Handarat in Aleppo as global infidels, with forces drawn from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah (the “Party of Satan from Lebanon”) and various Shiite (“rejectionist”) militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan all backing Bashar al Assad’s regime.
Another article contains a purported letter from a young TIP recruit in Syria to his mother during Ramadan. The boy pines to be with his mother, who is in “East Turkestan.” The one-page letter includes two photos of the TIP’s child recruits, including one taken in a classroom. An additional piece is by a man identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Almani (“the German”) titled, “Turkistan is Part of Our Ummah,” which offers the jihadists’ take on China’s oppression of Muslims.
The 23nd issue of Turkistan al-Islamiyah includes a lecture by Hani al-Sibai — an Egyptian who is loyal to Zawahiri and lives in the UK. Sibai’s talks are a regular part of the magazine’s copy, as his teachings are also in the 20th (two pieces), 21st, and 22nd editions.
One page toward the end of the 22nd issue is devoted to the words of Ibrahim al-Rubaish, an al Qaeda veteran who became a top AQAP theologian and leader after his transfer from Guantanamo. Rubaish was killed in an American airstrike in 2015.
The work of another deceased al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was included in the 21st edition. That same issue contains a page concerning Ayman al-Zawahiri’s June 2017 message: “One Ummah, One War on Multiple Fronts.” Zawahiri emphasized the importance and legitimacy of foreign fighters in the Afghan and Syrian wars, praising the TIP’s first leader (Hasan Mahsum, a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al Turkistani) for his decision to swear allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Zawahiri argued that some are trying to portray the Syrian war as a “nationalist” conflict today and that this is mistaken, given the jihadists’ history. The magazine includes six screen shots from the video, all of which were previously published by FDD’s Long War Journal.
The 20th issue of Turkistan al-Islamiyah is chock full of references to al Qaeda leaders and other figures al Qaeda has incorporated into its program. Three pages are devoted to the ninth episode of Ayman al Zawahiri’s Islamic Spring series, in which the al Qaeda master praised the TIP and its leaders at length. Zawahiri lauded Abu Muhammad al Turkistani (Hasan Mahsum), the TIP leader killed in 2003, and again emphasized that the Uighur jihadists have been loyal to the Taliban, which he employed as a counterweight to the Islamic State. Zawahiri also trumpeted the TIP’s role in the the Syrian war. [See also FDD’s Long War Journal report, Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of ‘Islamic Spring’ series.]
The 20th issue of the TIP’s magazine includes several other noteworthy items. Abu Qatada, an influential pro-al Qaeda cleric, advised residents of East Turkestan that jihad was necessary for all Muslims, and they should wage it in multiple places, specifically mentioning the Levant, Libya and Yemen. (Abu Qatada’s ruling is similar to the “fatwa” by Abu Abd-al-Rahman al-Shami mentioned above, as both emphasize the global nature of the jihad.) Another page includes quotes attributed to Yusuf al-Ayeri, a deceased al Qaeda leader who fought in the Arabian Peninsula, and Abdullah Azzam. The passage from Al-Ayeri is devoted to the cause of East Turkestan, while Azzam’s quote focuses on the necessity of waging jihad. Still another piece recounts the aforementioned Abu Zar (Abu Dhar) al Burmi’s teachings.
Abu Qatada features prominently in the 19th edition of Turkistan al-Islamiyah, with two pieces drawing from his teachings. In the first, Abu Qatada offers advice to the “brothers in the Levant,” while the second contains a lengthier treatise on jihad.
An article in the 19th edition draws on the extensive writings of Abu Musab al-Suri (an al Qaeda-linked ideologue) to discuss the jihad in Syria. The article is accompanied by a picture of Abu Musab walking with Osama bin Laden.
Other al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked characters in the 19th issue include: Abu Firas al-Suri (an al Qaeda veteran who served as the spokesman for Al Nusrah Front until his demise), Atiyah Abd-al-Rahman (Osama bin Laden’s right hand man and an al Qaeda global manager until his death in 2011), Abdullah al-Muhaysini (the al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric who is considered a religious authority by the TIP), and Tariq Abdel Haleem (a pro-al Qaeda Egyptian ideologue living in Canada who is featured in two pieces).
Tariq Abdel Haleem offers his own history of the Uighurs’ jihad, noting that the TIP has been “loyal” to Mullah Omar’s Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and “remained loyal to al Qaeda” while fighting in Syria. Haleem praises the TIP for not being “seduced by the caliphate,” meaning the Islamic State, and for continuing to fight alongside Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and the Jaysh al-Fath coalition. The Jaysh al-Fath coalition, formed by Al Nusrah and Ahrar, swept through the Idlib province in 2015.
To date, the TIP has fought as part of the Taliban-al Qaeda axis in Afghanistan and then Syria. In February, the US bombed Taliban camps in northern Afghanistan that were also used by the TIP, which advertises its joint operations with the Taliban. The group’s role in the Syrian infighting alongside HTS has complicated the picture with the respect to the Levant.
In April, the TIP’s Syrian branch extended its condolences to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (the Taliban) after it was reported that the US or its allies had bombed a mosque where boys were being taught to memorize the Koran. The story was widely cited on al Qaeda-linked channels, and the TIP’s Syrian arm echoed the condemnations of others. In late June, the TIP joined other jihadist groups in Syria, including HTS and the “Guardians of Religion” organization, in calling for joint operations against the Assad regime in southern Syria. The TIP did not explicitly mention HTS or any other group, simply saying that it was willing to fight alongside its “brothers.”
Since FDD’s Long War Journal first began work on this analysis, one of the jihadi commentators mentioned above, Muzamjir al-Sham, claimed to offer updates on the TIP in Syria via his Twitter feed. On July 5, he said the TIP’s internal coup d’état was one reason that HTS’s hand had been weakened, implying that the TIP’s new Syria-based leadership was moving away from Julani. This was supposedly a reason why the “Guardians of Religion” organization, a new al Qaeda-affiliated group, was getting stronger in Syria. Then, on July 9, he claimed that new divisions may be emerging in the TIP’s ranks in the coming days. Again, this source may or may not have inside information on the TIP, so some caution is warranted.
However this situation turns out, it should impact assessments of al Qaeda’s strength or weakness inside Syria. HTS’s insubordination and the lack of a unified jihadist entity has opened open multiple possibilities. The disputes between HTS and al Qaeda’s senior leadership, as well as other al Qaeda actors in Syria, affect multiple entities. Any analysis of the current state of al Qaeda in Syria will have to take into account the TIP’s loyalties, as well as those of various other ethnic jihadist fighting groups, some of which have remained independent from HTS. The coming days and weeks may reveal more about the TIP’s stance in the ongoing jihadist disputes in Syria.
*Online accounts reported in early 2017 that another jihadist known as Abu Omar al-Turkistani had been killed in Syria. The TIP leader mentioned by Doğu Türkistan Bülteni is not the same figure.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.