As the Islamic State's power grew dramatically over the past few years, the group's ability to attract foreign recruits to fight in Syria and Iraq has confounded observers.
The threat posed by European and North American citizens who have traveled to join the group and may now help coordinate terrorist attacks back home is widely acknowledged. But perhaps less understood is the role that Chinese citizens are playing in the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Chinese state media has suggested that as many as 300 Chinese Muslims may have joined the group. Some experts have disputed this figure, but a recent report from the New America think tank has found evidence of at least 118 fighters, suggesting that Beijing's estimate could be plausible.
The report offers a partial yet detailed view of how Chinese Islamic State fighters differ from their peers. And, more pointedly, it suggests that Beijing's policies may be driving some of China's Muslim minority Uighurs to extremism.
Internal fighter registration forms collected by the Islamic State between mid-2013 and mid-2014, which were leaked to media organizations this year, form the basis of the report. These documents were essentially the organization's attempt to catalogue the masses of fighters joining the Islamic State. Recruits were asked details about their background — where they were from, their educational history, whom they brought with them, etc. — and these details were recorded by the organization's nascent bureaucracy.
These partial and self-recorded details have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But Nate Rosenblatt, the researcher who went through the documents, uncovered some interesting details about the typical Islamic State fighter. The average birth year was 1987, and the average age of a fighter 26 or 27. About 59 percent were single, and 23 percent were married with children. There was a variety of education levels (32 percent reported having received a high-school degree or its equivalent), and most had traveled to about zero to three countries before enlisting with the Islamic State.
What's perhaps most interesting about fighters from China is that they don't fit the pattern for Islamic State fighters. The report details 118 fighters from China, of whom 114 came from Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the country's northwest that is largely populated by Uighurs, a Muslim minority with a history distinct from the dominant Han Chinese. Many had listed the name of their home as Turkestan or East Turkestan, a name used to refer to the region when it declared independence in the 1930s and 1940s that dissidents still use today.
Compared with other fighters, Chinese Islamic State recruits were more likely to be married and have a family (some forms showed the family had joined the fighter on his trip to the Islamic State). Their age varied dramatically — one fighter was 80, another was listed as just 10. More than 70 percent had never traveled abroad before, and many had little education — not a single one had attended university. The report says their professional experience was "equivalent to an unskilled laborer."
The length and cost of the trip to territory held by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq suggests that it would have been a major decision for the fighters. That many brought their families along indicates that this wasn't a short-term decision to chase adventure.
China's relationship with its Uighur minority has long been fraught. The Turkic-speaking minority has struggled against Chinese rule for decades. In recent years, larger numbers of Han Chinese moving to Xinjiang have inflamed tensions, with alleged ethnic and religious discrimination rising. There were riots in 2009 that caused nearly 200 deaths. Uighurs have been accused of involvement in alleged terrorist, knife and bomb attacks that left dozens dead in 2014.
Beijing has repeatedly complained that a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was leading a terror campaign against the Chinese state, arguing that ETIM has links to overseas terror networks such as al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris in November, Chinese state media accused the West of not recognizing that China was also under threat from extremism. “In their eyes, only terrorist attacks that happen on Western soil can be called acts of terrorism,” a China Daily editorial complained.
However, foreign journalists are often blocked from reporting about the alleged terrorist acts within China, meaning that it is difficult to corroborate or refute claims made in state media.
New America's analysis found that despite Beijing's concerns about the links between ETIM and international extremist groups, every single Chinese Islamic State fighter in the data said he had not fought in a "jihad" before. As the report notes, most appear to have arrived in Islamic State territory only after the group's capture of Mosul in June 2014, perhaps suggesting that they were waiting for a state to be established before they joined.
The report also suggested that Beijing's policies could be a factor, that the fighters may be looking for a sense of "belonging" after the Chinese government gradually framed the issue of Uighur national identity as a national security threat. The Washington Post's Simon Denyer reported in 2014 that China's war on terror was beginning to look like a war on Islam in general, with Muslims forced to eat during Ramadan fasting hours or work rather than attend Friday prayers. Last year, China banned some Islamic veils in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Many academics acknowledge that Xinjiang has become more religiously conservative in recent decades, and some Uighurs were detained by the United States at Guantanamo Bay after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. However, some also suggest that religion is being used as a means to establish a distinct Uighur identity in the fact of ever-growing Chinese domination.
The New America report concludes that while Chinese Islamist fighters may be atypical, the broader conclusion for policymakers is that like many other foreign recruits, they are at least partially driven by local concerns. "Contextual knowledge is important," Rosenblatt says. "If the motivations for foreign fighters are derived from highly specific local conditions, so must the solutions."
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