Can the Islamic State hijack September 11 from Zawahiri’s al Qaeda?

September 9, 2015

The increasingly reclusive Aymen al-Zawahiri sprung up his ugly head this week with a new lecture series entitled the “Islamic Spring”, seeking to remind the West and what few remaining admirers of al Qaeda that the group is not dead on the 14th anniversary of  September 11, 2001.  Along with revoking the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, al-Zawahiri, via the title of his series, seeks to remind people of the democratic failings of the Arab Spring and how al Qaeda represents the true vanguard for jihad and a caliphate.

The 9/11 anniversary beckons an al Qaeda broadcast, but the group clings to anything that will provide it with any real relevance. Al Qaeda’s remaining hope lies in its tenuous relationship with its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra whom likely would stand to benefit from disavowing any connections with its global jihadi overlord Zawahiri.  The Islamic State continues to grow in popularity amongst jihad’s next generation and affiliates around the globe seek out allegiance with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not Zawahiri. 

The Islamic State has also successfully taken ownership in many ways of al Qaeda’s greatest leaders.  Islamic State propaganda commonly heaps respect on al Qaeda’s first leader Osama Bin Laden.  References to Bin Laden and pictures of Bin Laden often drape Islamic State propaganda.  A demonstration of such respect can be seen in the Islamic State’s naming of the “Osama Bin Laden School” in Raqqa, Syria – the stronghold of the Shari`a governed state. 

The Islamic State has also claimed at times another of Al Qaeda’s greatest heroes–American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani indirectly honored al-Awlaki’s legend by adopting the clerics call for lone wolf attacks in the West–a staple of Awlaki’s preaching and resulting contributions to Inspire magazine.   In January, the Islamic State named their English-speaking foreign fighter contingent designed for targeting the West the “Anwar al Alwaki” Brigade paying homage to the al Qaeda online recruiter’s ability to inspire attacks in the West.

Having laid claim to al Qaeda’s top heroes Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Awlaki, there remains only one piece of al Qaeda history left for the taking: the legacy of al Qaeda’s crowning achievement: the attacks of September 11, 2001.  What better way to snub Zawahiri than to hijack ownership of the group’s most celebrated attack?  The Islamic State might do this in two ways. 

The least demanding and least effective way for the Islamic State to take ownership of the September 11 attacks would be online.  Through smoking Twin Towers laden motifs and pushed hashtags, the Islamic State could pay homage to 9/11, positioning themselves as the preferred successors of Bin Laden’s al Qaeda rather than al-Zawahiri’s current contingent.  A social media campaign might be accompanied by Islamic State hacking activity as their online supporters and hacker volunteers have recently professed to future online targeting of U.S. government sites and the financial system. 

The more effective method for the Islamic State to hijack the memory of 9/11 from al-Zawahiri would be to do what al Qaeda has repeatedly failed to do: perpetrate an anniversary attack on September 11, 2015.  Bin Laden after 9/11 and al-Zawahiri since Bin Laden’s death have failed to commemorate their glory of 2001.  Al Qaeda needs an attack, but the Islamic State likely has more capability to execute one at this stage.  Using their foreign fighter resources and international supporters, the Islamic State could easily execute a suicide bombing in a neighboring country like Turkey or Saudi Arabia or go even further by coordinating lone wolf and small cell attacks in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  Achieving notoriety on 9/11 would be a final snub to al-Zawahiri and send him further into oblivion. 

The best forecasts are probabilistic, thus I provide my off the cuff speculation here regarding whether there will be an attack on this September 11, 2015.  Note, I have no direct knowledge of a potential attack, just some thoughts if I were actually doing a forecast. The most likely scenario remains that there will be no anniversary attack this September 11.  As predictions go, there hasn’t been a successful anniversary attack in the last thirteen years so the safer bet is always that tomorrow will look like yesterday, this year like the last. 

The next most likely scenario, I believe, is that the Islamic State and/or its international community of supporters execute one or more low scale attacks.  This would rob al Qaeda of its precious anniversary and further establish the Islamic State as the global leader of jihad.  If I were one of the Islamic State’s leaders, this is what I would do if I already intended to execute an external operation outside Syria and Iraq. 

The third and least likely scenario, I imagine, is that al Qaeda finally launches the long expected anniversary attack with devastating consequences.  Al-Zawahiri’s pre-release of the inappropriately seasoned “Islamic Spring” series, al Qaeda’s diminishing capability globally, and al-Zawahiri’s guidance to Nusra’s Abu Muhammed al-Jowlani to avoid attacking the West suggests, at least to me, that al Qaeda either can’t execute such an attack or doesn’t want to.  Thus for the Islamic State, the anniversary of 9/11 may very well be available for the taking. 

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One year later, ISIS overtakes al Qaeda: What’s next?

A year ago, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) was on the rise but few expected them to travel such a rapid trajectory to the top of the global jihadi community.  The fighting (fitnato kick off 2014 between Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, and ISIS seemed, at first, to be undermining the greatest jihadi foreign fighter mobilization in history.  But in June 2014, ISIS swept into northern Iraq simultaneously seizing Mosul and the minds of jihadi supporters worldwide by doing what al-Qaeda always discussed but never delivered–an Islamic State.  Through audacity, violence against Assad, Shia, the West, and slick social media packaging, ISIS now dominates the global jihadi scene.  Foreign fighters have flocked to ISIS ranks and when unable to travel, have sworn allegiance to ISIS (bayat) in groups across North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Building from the estimates and scenarios created last March 2014 (ISIS Rise From al Qaeda’s House of Cards), I’ve generated a new estimate of the fractures between ISIS and al-Qaeda seen here in Figure 9.  I’ve also pasted below this post the estimate of these fractures one year ago for comparison (Figure 4). 

A few notes on the ISIS versus as al-Qaeda chart in Figure 9. I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups because I’ve been to too many military briefings where these are misinterpreted as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and now ISIS and its new pledges more represent swarming, informal relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy.  Circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal larger groups.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of communication and coordination between the groups.  For emerging groups that have pledged bayat to ISIS, but ISIS has not officially recognized the pledge, I categorized them as “Lean ISIS.” For what I anticipate to be new ISIS affiliates that are emerging I’ve inserted dashed circles.  Thanks again this year to J.M Berger, Aaron Zelin and Will McCants for their feedback and insight on the graphics.  I’ve also included J.M. Berger’s latest link chart showing the same splits between ISIS and al Qaeda, which can be found in Figure 10 and downloaded at this link. 

ISIS has clearly dominated al-Qaeda over the past year. Al-Qaeda couldn’t even release a confirmation video in a timely fashion when handed a success as the Kouachi brothers announced al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was responsible for the Hebdo assassination.  Al-Qaeda is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles. A few observations of this year’s assessment (Figure 9) of the ISIS versus al Qaeda split as compared to last year’s evaluation (Figure 4). 

  • Proliferation, More circles, More groups: ISIS’s rise has created a break up of groups around the world into smaller clusters.  Some see this as a more dangerous world of terrorists, but more small groups can also lead to problems for both al-Qaeda and ISIS leading to a general jihadi burnout. A separate post will discuss this.
  • Diffusion: A year ago, the overlap between al-Qaeda affiliates was significant, but communication has broken down even further.  We’ve learned just a couple of weeks ago that al-Shabaab in Somalia hasn’t heard from al-Qaeda in a long time.  When there have been communiqués, they have come more from AQAP who appears to be the critical link with remaining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members and the remaining core of al-Qaeda globally.
  • Syria Shift: ISIS is the dominant player now in Syria, whereas last year, ISIS and Nusra were on a similar footing, and Ahrar al Sham was being courted by al-Qaeda.  This year, Ahrar al-Sham hardly exists. 
  • Reigniting the periphery: After 9/11, terrorism analysts went to great lengths to link all extremist groups from Southeast Asia to North Africa under al-Qaeda’s orbit.  Al-Qaeda’s connections to these peripheral groups faded with each passing year.  Today, ISIS receives pledges from groups of unknown guys around the world in all regions, and has ignited peripheral jihadi factions globally. 

Will al-Qaeda even make it the end of 2015?

Those who assessed that bin Laden’s death would be of no consequence for al-Qaeda have been proven wrong.  Bin Laden, along with a select few of his top lieutenants and protégés who’ve been eliminated by drones, provided the last bits of glue that held a declining al-Qaeda network together. As discussed in the 2012 post “What if there is no al-Qaeda?”, al-Qaeda for many years has provided little incentive in money or personnel for its affiliates and little inspiration for its global fan base.  Things have gotten so bad that rumors suggest Ayman al-Zawahiri may dissolve al-Qaeda entirely, that’s right, al-Qaeda might QUIT! I’ll address these rumors in a separate post next week.  Until then, here is what I see as the good and bad for al-Qaeda and ISIS this year. 

The Good News for al-Qaeda

  • Jabhat al-Nusra is rebounding in Syria: Pressure on ISIS from the international coalition combined with the failings of Western backed militias to seize the initiative in Syria have allowed the still well-funded and cohesive al-Qaeda arm Jabhat al-Nusra to resurge in Syria taking Idlib in the last couple of weeks.  To survive, al Qaeda needs its place in the Syrian jihad – Nusra remains its greatest hope. 
  • Yemen’s Turmoil Creates Operational Space for AQAP: Just when an emerging younger ISIS affiliate may have started to challenge AQAP in Yemen, the Houthi coup and ensuing Saudi response has ignited a sectarian war where AQAP has already regained ground once lost to the Yemeni government.  AQAP, since bin Laden’s death, has become al-Qaeda Central and with time, space and maybe the death or resignation of Zawahiri in Pakistan, they may be able charge forward and challenge ISIS. 

The Bad News for al-Qaeda

  • Jihadis don’t care about al-Qaeda:  More than any other factor, global jihadi members and supporters don’t talk much about al-Qaeda.  ISIS has coopted al-Qaeda’s most notable characters showcasing bin Laden, Zarqawi and even Anwar al-Awlaki in their propaganda and rhetoric. Even the youngest ISIS supporters are openly challenging Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda needs their own success to rally the troops. They haven’t really had that in years and should even a big attack occur it’s doubtful it would eclipse ISIS’s success. 
  • Jabhat al-Nusra might want to quit al-Qaeda: Nusra’s connections with al-Qaeda and loyalty to Zawahiri have hurt the group more than helped it.  Al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group embedded in Nusra has brought U.S. airstrikes.  Al-Qaeda’s global focus distracts from Nusra’s local focus and doesn’t offer a viable alternative to the ISIS state which provides the only form of governance in parts of Sunni Iraq and Syria.  Why would Nusra stick with al-Qaeda at this point?
  • Al-Qaeda’s resources are limited: Compared to ISIS, al-Qaeda relies heavily on donations, which allowed it to survive while being hunted over the past decade.  Today, donor reliance is a liability for al-Qaeda.  ISIS coffers are full from oil money, licit and illicit schemes, and their successes have allowed them to push into al-Qaeda’s donor stream.  Al-Qaeda provides little incentive for donors to cough up their cash, and has no population to prey on for resources. 
  • Al-Qaeda has lost membership across all affiliates: Zawahiri’s creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent signals his vulnerability to the Taliban’s shifting allegiance to ISIS.  He feels threatened and all al-Qaeda affiliates globally are either shifting their allegiance or are finding splinters that support ISIS form in their ranks. 

The Good News for ISIS

  • Everyone wants to be ISIS: The pace of pledges coming into ISIS is unprecedented and unexpected.  When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State and named himself as the new caliph, one might have expected more backlash for his arrogance.  Instead, jihadis have seen ISIS’s success and generally gone with his pronouncements and fallen in line.  ISIS ranks have swollen in Iraq and Syria over the past year with the pace of foreign fighter recruitment likely peaking in the late summer and fall of 2014 before the push of the international coalition. ISIS, until the loss of Tikrit, is winning, and jihadis love them for it. 
  • Affiliates (Emirates) are popping up all over: Just as pressure mounts on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and they begin to lose ground, other new affiliates continue to pop up in safe havens of promise.  Libya and Yemen provide two new genuine opportunities for ISIS to anchor and homes for foreign fighters to nest in as they are pushed from the Levant.  ISIS affiliated attacks in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen show the potential of this new global jihadi network.
  • Resources still in tact: Despite a sustained aerial campaign, ISIS remains able to sustain itself logistically. 

The Bad News for ISIS

  • Everyone wants to be ISIS:  A letter from Zawahiri to bin Laden, found amidst the Abbottabad documents, described al- Qaeda’s concerns about the growing number of inspired members claiming to be al-Qaeda that had no actual connection to the group.  ISIS’s rapid growth faces a similar challenge.  How might the misplaced violence of inspired supporters hurt the group’s global appeal?  Baghdadi has affirmed the pledge of some affiliates but also ignored the pledge of other upstart groups signaling he may not even know of these emerging groups, or he doesn’t trust that they are committed and in-line with ISIS goals.  ISIS’s rapid rise and growth while being under pressure from an international coalition suggests that there will be emerging command and control problems as young boys execute their violence with limited or no guidance. 
  • Taking losses in Iraq and Syria: As opposed to al-Qaeda, which has existed as a stateless, cellular network, ISIS’s unity of command and cohesiveness depends on the centralization provided in their pursuit of a state. They are now taking losses and fractures appear to be emerging as defections increase and ISIS has allegedly killed off doubters in their own ranks.  Pressure on ISIS continues to mount, on-the-ground, in-the-air and online, Baghdadi and his inner circle face a substantial challenge in 2015. 
  • Declining foreign fighter flow: Thousands of fighters have been killed in recent months and these losses will be difficult to regenerate as it becomes more difficult for fighters to get to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. 

The next year for both al-Qaeda and ISIS will likely be as dynamic as this past year.  Both groups remain under pressure. Arab countries have joined in the fight against ISIS in ways they never did against al-Qaeda and the growing sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis across the Middle East will likely grow and impact ISIS and al-Qaeda in unexpected ways. This growing sectarian battle has also, ironically, removed some pressure on the U.S.  ISIS and al-Qaeda have so much to pursue locally from North Africa to South Asia, the U.S. has really become a peripheral issue to both groups.  Both groups will likely take almost any opportunity to attack the West, but in reality, the opportunities and challenges in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and other places likely don’t allow either group to expend sufficient time to conduct an external operations attack on par with 9/11.  As for future scenarios for both groups, I’ll follow up in separate posts over the next couple of weeks. 

Here is J.M. Berger’s link chart showing al Qaeda versus ISIS splits and for a better understanding of ISIS, check out his new book with Jessica Stern here: “ISIS: The State of Terror.” 



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Propaganda Wars: Militant Islam versus the Islamic State in Syria

In the past two and a half years, the uneven progress of armed rebellion against the Syrian regime has produced rebel infighting. Militant Sunni Muslim groups evolved new strategies to gain and control resources to keep the fighting going, and in doing so, also developed alternative visions and authority structures as individual fighters both in Syria and from outside sought to join whichever group was best able to absorb them. The global jihadi movement, which has come to be known primarily by its foremost proponent, al-Qaeda, established its presence in Syria by the end of 2011, going by the name Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front, JN), and focusing on the overthrow of the Assad regime, much as the previous generation of jihadis had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. As Faisal Devji has pointed out, the broad vision of al-Qaeda and its particular stream of global jihad did not establish a functioning state but rather expressed abstract goals, even when it was involved in local affairs.


One of the very ingredients for success then, was the appeal to piety and its other-worldliness that resists getting bogged down in day-to-day material struggles. The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its offensive against JN and other rebel groups throughout 2013 followed by its establishment of a Caliphate in June 2014 has proved to be thus a boon and a bust for global jihad: now jihadis have somewhere to go if they want to be part of the Islamic State (IS), but on the other hand, creating a state with living subjects who may or may not share in the IS vision may undermine the purity of the original ideology.

Interestingly, advocates of IS claim that it has a better organizational structure and control of resources than JN ever had. JN originally claimed the exact same thing with respect to the moderate rebel institution they accused of corruption, the Free Syrian Army. Jihadi groups in competition with each other must convince potential fighters and donors that they are both militarily successful and materially responsible, and capable of fully providing for the jihadi soldier’s existence through a range of difficult circumstances. The IS regime, unlike JN, tends to assume that foreign fighters will end up staying on to live in its territory and create families. This fact can be seen in a number of aspects of their propaganda, including the typical “rite of passage” for foreign nationals to publicly burn their passports.

Opponents of the Islamic State, however, point out that their fighters appear to be more interested in enjoying basic earthly pleasures and material objects rather than in praying, fasting, and carrying out the obligations of religious jihad. One account on YouTube said to be affiliated with the militant Islamic organization Ahrar al-Sham, accuses IS fighters of slacking off in the jihadi struggle, and abusing their free time (al-faragh). In the video, backed up by a jihadi anthem (nashid) a montage of photos attributed to pro-IS Twitter accounts shows a cake designed with the black flag of the Islamic State, smiling young men playing pool in a café, and a jihadi flashing a jar of the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella. There are many images of IS jihadis sitting around eating and drinking, and generally smiling and enjoying themselves instead of fighting, praying, or doing other “acceptable” jihadi activities.           

At first, IS social media warriors seemed to embrace this image, knowing that social media is by nature sensationalist. So fighters coming to join the previous incarnation of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham often bragged of living out a “five star” jihad, employing the Twitter hashtag “#5StarJihad.” Images that emerged from this meme included pictures of villas, swimming pools, and various chocolates and foods considered “luxury” items. Already by early spring of 2014, these images were waning in popularity, and it can be assumed that IS leadership wanted to stop the outflow of opportunistic jihadis, some of whom joined JN after growing disillusioned with IS and its constant battles against other jihadi and moderate rebel groups. The end of this trend did not stop pro-IS individuals on social media from gaining headlines in recent months for various non-jihadi activities, ranging from posing with cats to expressing dismay along with the rest of the world over the untimely death of American comedian and actor Robin Williams.  

One of the biggest ways that a jihadi can slander a rival group or individual is to accuse them of “chasing the dunya [world],” meaning to seek this world and its material pleasures instead of those of the afterlife. Indeed, the doctrinal roots of Wahhabism and contemporary salafi-jihadism go back to Ahmed Abu Hanbal, who was notorious for his piety, which as Nimrod Hurvitz notes, implies strong will in the face of persecution and a refusal to give into moral temptations of excessive materialism. Social media was set ablaze for a few days following the first speech of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, who appeared to be sporting the “James Bond” Omega watch costing thousands of dollars. In this case, instead of promoting the image of a cash-loaded Caliph, the social media minions of the IS argued that it was actually an “al-Fajr” Swiss-made watch designed to tell the times for prayer, and offering a compass to orient oneself towards Mecca, and costing around $430.      

Rival jihadi groups must boast of their material bounty and aspect of good living along the path of Allah, in order to attract fighters into their ranks. Moreover, the Islamic State now has the added pressure of trying to attract whole families to live in the shadow of their “Caliphate.” In order to do so, not only do they have to send out the message that fighters are well armed, but also generally well equipped, well fed, and their wife and children (or future children) will also be cared for and protected. A Canadian recruit for the IS spoke in a video published by al-Hayat Media Center, one of their dominant media organs, saying to future jihadis, “Your families would live here in safety, just like how it is back home.”*     

Nevertheless, in addition to constantly accusing each other of being trained, funded, or otherwise supported by either the CIA or the Mossad, the Salafi groups in Syria, in particular, tend to accuse each other of trying to make a profit off of the devastating civil war—see, for example, this. The oilfields were particularly contentious, in northeastern Syria, as most of the smaller groups did not actually have the technological know-how to extract and transport the oil in a safe or highly lucrative fashion. The Victory Front was the first group to advertise its consolidation of the Syrian oil fields in Raqqa province in 2013. In particular, the leader of JN, Abi Muhammad al-Jawlani, believed that a self-sustaining organization with strong control of resources was the key to victory over the Assad regime. So it was surprising to many rebel organizations to see how quickly and violently the Islamic State worked to drive out JN and take over the oil fields and refineries. Before the recent US-led bombing of many of these centers in late September it was estimated that IS was netting around $3 million a day from illicit oil sales. Such profits enabled IS to pay fighters more than other groups. One Syrian defector from IS recently told a reporter that he was able to make $600 a month, which is something he had never dreamed of before the Syrian civil war.

Before the US-led coalition bombing of Syria, it seemed that JN was trying to distinguish itself from IS and appeal to outside donors. This can be seen in the fact that they allowed Qatar to publicly negotiate the release of American journalist captured in 2012, Peter Theo Curtis, one week after IS gained new notoriety by beheading James Foley. However, the bombing campaign inside Syria which targeted JN as well as IS triggered reactions from the JN leader accusing Arab states supporting the bombings of assisting Jews, Persians, and Romans, and warning other rebel groups not to cooperate with the campaign in any way. On the other hand, the campaign targeted IS-held oil refineries and fields, potentially limiting the self-sufficiency of IS for the near-term may weaken the appeal of the Islamic State by depriving it of one of its claims, namely, the monopoly on prosperity.


Dr. Joel D. Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and tends to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to contemporary Syria, propaganda, radical politics, jihadi ideology and music, and youth movements in the 20th century. Hebatalla Taha and Linda Dayan also contributed to this article.


*Such accusations emerge in anti-JN propaganda by IS targeting the spiritual leader of JN, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. One comment charges specifically, “Abu Mariya al-Galaxy [sic] only wants to increase his power in Der ez-Zour, because there are oil fields and gas plants in Der ez-Zour. Abu Mariya chases a dunya.” One respondent, and JN defender, pointed out the irony that the misspelled name al-Galaxy instead of al-Qahtani was probably because of an auto-correct program from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

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China and the Islamic State

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria might seem far removed from China.  But the spread of its sort of Islamic militancy knows few boundaries.  On Monday, Indonesian authorities arrested seven men who had sought to meet Indonesia’s most-wanted Islamic terrorist.  Four of them, travelling on forged Turkish passports, turned out to be Chinese Uighurs.  Jakarta is now investigating whether the men are linked to the Islamic State.  That follows comments made this summer by the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that a number of Chinese fill his ranks, and images that surfaced two weeks ago of a Chinese national who was captured while fighting for the Islamic State.

To be sure, Beijing has long been concerned about Islamic militants, particularly those in its far western province of Xinjiang.  Over the last two decades, there have been periodic episodes of violence by the province’s Muslim Uighur ethnic group against local Han Chinese (often followed by equally violent reprisals by the latter against the former).  Historically, however, those episodes have been mainly driven by specific grievances rather than jihadist fervor.  Most cases of unrest occurred after some perceived injustice, such as the detention of an imam or other local leader.  But in recent years, Uighur attacks have become more frequent and ranged far beyond the borders of Xinjiang.  Three major attacks occurred so far this year.  In March, knife-wielding assailants attacked a train station in Kunming, in central China, leaving 31 dead and 140 wounded.  Then in May and August, two more attacks occurred in Xinjiang.  Those attacks left another 127 dead and scores of wounded.

For years, Chinese authorities have tried to prevent such unrest with a three-pronged approach: boost the economic development of Xinjiang; encourage Han Chinese to migrate there; and tighten security across the province.  They largely succeeded on all three counts, but failed to end the unrest.  The biggest beneficiaries of Xinjiang’s economic growth turned out to be the Han Chinese migrants, not the native Uighurs.  That left the Uighurs feeling not only relatively poorer, but also brushed aside by the influx of Han Chinese.  Meanwhile, tighter security meant that Chinese police and security forces had been set on a hair trigger to react to any suspicion of Uighur unrest.  That led to routine security sweeps which have alienated even more Uighurs.

But whatever the internal situation, Beijing has always been quick to accuse exile Uighur groups for fomenting or supporting acts of terror within Xinjiang, particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  While that may be true in some cases, most exile Uighur organizations were in no position to foment or support much of anything in Xinjiang.  Indeed, the activities of the ETIM have likely been exaggerated by not only Chinese authorities, but also the ETIM to aggrandize itself.  The well-funded Islamic State would be a far bigger danger should it ever reach China’s door.

But even before the Islamic State’s rise, China had begun to seek ways to keep militant Islam as far away as possible.  That was one of the key reasons behind why it, Russia, and four Central Asian countries created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001.  Today, China sees its support for the SCO as a bulwark against the advance of militant Islam towards its borders and the Islamic State should it try to establish itself in Central Asia.  Last Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended this year’s SCO conference in Tajikistan.  There, he urged SCO’s other leaders to do their utmost to prevent Islamic extremism.  He also elevated China’s ties with Tajikistan to that of a “strategic partner” and promoted China’s “New Silk Road” concept.  Earlier this summer, the SCO held its largest military exercise since the early 2000s.  About 7,000 troops participated in the exercise, with China providing the majority of them.

The advent of the Islamic State in areas where China has commercial interests had already endangered Chinese citizens.  Beijing evacuated over a thousand Chinese workers from Iraq in June, when Islamic State forces marched on Baghdad.  That evacuation followed others from Libya and Syria after conflicts consumed those countries.  While China has been so far unwilling to directly confront Islamic militants, China did agree to deploy a 700-man infantry battalion to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in September.  The battalion will be used to protect oilfields that are operated by China National Petroleum Corporation and threatened by civil strife.

All this may sound like the common concern over the Islamic State might have given China an incentive to work with the West, if only to protect itself and its economic interests in the Middle East.  But that is not quite the case.  Just because they agree on who is a threat does not mean they can agree on what to do about it.  The two sides still hold different visions of how the world should work.  That much was clear in China’s official response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson agreed that “The international community should jointly combat terrorism.”  But, she added, China would want to ensure the respect of the “relevant countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in the international fight against terrorism.”  So, unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—a leader reviled in the West—approves of American-led air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, China would not support such actions there.  (Russia holds the same position.)

For now, China can afford to walk that fine line.  It can expect that the United States and its allies will do their best to defeat the Islamic State or, at least, prevent its expansion.  But other dangers still lurk.  Already, China is concerned about the ramifications of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Could Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal regions produce new Islamic militants who might incite even greater unrest in Xinjiang?  Hence, China continues to bolster its relationships with its Central Asian neighbors, in part, to create a buffer zone between it and whatever dangers lay beyond.  China’s “New Silk Road” fits nicely into that strategy.  Its economic benefits should help to cement the commitment of the elites from Central Asia’s countries as well as enable them to contain Islamic militancy in their countries.  But China should take care that its “New Silk Road” does not benefit those elites too much.  Not doing so could breed resentment against China among the rest of their populations.  Were that to happen, Beijing’s “New Silk Road” might also become a new path for Islamic militants to China.


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