A History of the Islamic State’s Media Warfare Against China
Fewer than 48 hours after Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s June 29th, 2014 declaration of the caliphate, the Islamic State’s (IS) Al-Furqan Media Foundation released the newly nominated caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s historic ‘A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan’ audio statement, wherein he spoke of “the extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkistan” and also excoriated China for “preventing” the faithful “from receiving their most basic rights.” The speech marked a new phase in the Islamic State’s media warfare activity against Beijing. Such anti-China narratives have since gained rhetorical traction within the wider movement’s discourse, have been purveyed by a broader range of IS elements, and have been championed by the organization’s more recently established regional branches in Asia.
The Islamic State’s criticism of China is based on the government’s domestic security clampdown in, and its perceived occupation of, Xinjiang as well as an expanding list of accused Chinese foreign policy transgressions. Additionally, the IS movement has actively taken up the ‘East Turkistan’ cause, incorporated Uyghur fighters into its milieu, and produced propaganda content specifically designed for Muslims in Xinjiang.
Official Islamic State Media
The Islamic State movement’s history dates to the 1990s and members of the organization’s previous iterations had before voiced criticism of China as well as support for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Soon after the Urumqi riots in 2009, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), part of Al-Qaeda’s international network at the time, released a 39-minute-long martyrdom video advocating for the Uyghurs, threatening Beijing, and urging violent action against China.
However, it was not until the organization’s formal split with Al-Qaeda and its official declaration of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014 that the network really began to intensify its messaging and more consistently direct its media wrath toward China. The greater internationalization of the Islamic State’s scope drew China in from the margins and placed it more firmly into the movement’s sights.
The Islamic State’s leadership set a clear tone for the organization from the time of the caliphate’s inception in the summer of 2014. On July 1st of that year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke forwardly about how “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China.” He then set forth a value-positive case for IS as a unifying force and publicly confirmed the presence of Chinese fighters in the organization’s ranks, stating, “it is a khilafah that has gathered the … Chinese, … American, French, German, and Australian.”
The next year, in May 2015, he questioned Saudi inaction on the plight of the Uyghurs, asking, “where is the relief of the rulers of Mecca and Medina for the Muslims in China?” Speaking about anti-IS forces the following December, he alleged, “if it were an Islamic coalition, atheist China would not have supported it and requested to join it” and proceeded to call upon Muslims to rise and “support your people and your brothers in Sham, Iraq, … Turkistan, Bangladesh, and in every place.”
The Islamic State’s spokesman at the time, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, lamented in September 2014 about the “hundreds of thousands of dead, wounded, and imprisoned Muslims, and the millions displaced … all over the world at the hands of the Jews, crusaders, Rafidah, Nusayriyyah, Hindus, atheists, and apostates, in … China, the Caucasus, and elsewhere,” then later scorned the Chinese “atheists” in 2016 for committing “massacres, crimes and atrocities against the Muslims in … Turkistan.”
The Islamic State movement’s media approach towards Beijing has been distinctly bellicose, and the organization has been notably explicit in its criticisms and threats. Al-Hayat Media Center’s Dabiq magazine (July 2014 - July 2016) contained several references to China, while its successor series, Rumiyah (September 2016 - September 2017), also included multiple mentions throughout. The publications featured segments of Baghdadi and Adnani speeches touching upon Chinese affairs, and both magazines spoke of reconquering East Turkistan. During this period, maps illustrating the caliphate’s territorial ambitions were circulated online which included swaths of Xinjiang.
Quite strikingly, the ‘Wali of Khurasan Shaykh Hafidh Sa’id Khan’ spoke from Afghanistan about the necessity of geographical expansion into China in an interview with Dabiq magazine:
Wilayat Khurasan has great importance to Islam and the Muslims. It had once been under the authority of the Muslims, along with the regions surrounding it. Afterwards, the secularist and Rafidi murtaddin conquered some of these regions, and the cow-worshipping Hindus and atheist Chinese conquered other nearby regions, as is the case in parts of Kashmir and Turkistan. So the Wilayah, by Allah’s permission, is a gate to re-conquering all these regions until they are ruled once more by Allah’s law, and so the territory of the blessed khilafah is expanded.
Al-Hayat’s propaganda operatives have made it a point to emphasize Chinese association with Russia, Iran, Syria, and the broader web of anti-IS alliances, and, likewise, the Islamic State, in its weekly Al-Naba newsletter, has criticized China for supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in what is described as an open war against Muslims.
The Islamic State’s media apparatus also released a series of targeted productions aimed specifically at Xinjiang’s Muslims while also providing them with translations of its publications. An October 2014 video with Chinese subtitles celebrated “a Chinese brother before he did a martyrdom operation (suicide bomb attack) in the town of Suleiman.” In July 2015, a video released through Al-Hayat Media Center featured an 80-year-old cleric from Xinjiang urging viewers to join IS and kill “Chinese infidels” also showing young Uyghurs in a classroom with one child proclaiming, “O Chinese infidels ... we will come to you and raise this flag in Turkistan.” In November 2015, the Islamic State confirmed the execution of Chinese hostage Fan Jinghui and featured a full-page spread of him in Dabiq magazine, and the following month, Al-Hayat Media Center released a Mandarin-language nasheed calling upon Muslims to “wake up” and “take up weapons to fight” China.
Then to ring in New Year 2016, an individual or group identifying with IS hacked a website belonging to Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious academic institutions, and posted a photo and audio message calling for holy war. A February 2017 Al-Furat Media video featuring Uyghur foreign fighters included a segment in which a militant threatened China before executing an accused informant: “Oh, you Chinese who do not understand … We are the soldiers of the caliphate, and we will come to you … with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed.” A short while later, Amaq News Agency claimed responsibility for killing two Chinese nationals in southwestern Pakistan.
As a rising economic dynamo on the world stage, China is increasingly viewed as a colonial and imperial power by jihadis, sometimes drawing comparisons to the British East India Company. In 2019, the Islamic State published an article in Al-Naba that discussed China’s expanding global influence and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The organization accused Beijing of using “the method of investment” to “strengthen its ties with tyrannical governments.” IS called upon Muslims to prepare for a long war against China and urged attacks on Chinese nationals, interests, and diplomatic targets. The directive implored readers “to wage war against the idolators of China everywhere” urging “killing and capture … seizure and sabotage.” IS surmised that militarily, “it will not be long before [the Chinese] intervene [in the Muslim world] directly through war with soldiers, aircraft, missiles, and warships.”
The Islamic State-supporting Al-Battar Media Foundation threateningly questioned the BRI’s feasibility, asking, “can China complete the silk road project which because of it they killed Muslims?” The statement iterates that “the Islamic State declared war on China in direct backing and support for Uyghur Muslims,” and asserts that the “war includes all the interests of the communist state.”
China has also been criticized for mass-scale resource exploitation and causing environmental degradation in Muslim lands. An Al-Naba article published earlier this year speculated that “Chinese companies are ambitious to find for themselves a foothold” in Mozambique’s “huge reserves of different natural resources,” and it was reported in August of 2020 that IS-linked insurgents were targeting Chinese-owned sawmills in the country.
Pro-Islamic State Media
IS’ anti-China narratives gradually spread eastwards — from the traditional core of command-and-control power in Iraq and Syria to the organization’s other regional branches in Asia, including the Islamic State’s Hind Province (ISHP), Pakistan Province (ISPP), and Khurasan Province (ISKP) — as it built out its global network of militant hubs. During this process, the Islamic State’s list of stated grievances against China expanded and became more nuanced.
Naturally, the groups operating in closer proximity to China have a more intimate understanding of and experience with Chinese activity and influence in the region. The Voice of Hind (VOH) magazine, a pro-ISHP publication, demonstrates this kind of regional familiarity, as does the official and supporter-generated propaganda content from the ISKP media ecosystem.
Issue 6 of VOH, published in July of 2020, includes a sizable passage on Chinese policy in Xinjiang, assuring Uyghurs that IS has not forgotten their plight and vowing to avenge them. Earlier this year, the magazine again reminded readers of their “obligation of fighting the disbelievers” noting how “it does not matter if the people of the disbelief are represented by Europe, America, Russia, China, or India.” Subsequent magazine issues have described China as an imperialist power and referred to the “Chinese atheists” as “the Gods” of the Pakistani government.
The Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan and the virus’ ultimate progression to become a global pandemic was a powerful impetus for the proliferation of anti-China jihadi sentiment and rhetoric. During the early months of 2020, the Islamic State organization and its supporters portrayed the contagion as divine retribution against China for the government’s harsh treatment of Xinjiang’s Muslim population, referring to the coronavirus as a “soldier of Allah.”
Pro-IS Quraysh Media was actively producing online posters of this kind with one image featuring an individual wearing a hazmat suit and respirator that read, “China: coronavirus … A promise is a debt we must not forget.” Islamic State supporters on Telegram celebrated the damage inflicted on China and posted messages such as: “May God punish China with death, as they had brought death to Muslims,” “as China beats Uyghur Muslims, coronavirus is now beating China,” and “the virus is God’s army that destroys the kafir (infidels).”
In Indonesia, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) detected a surge in Islamist anti-Chinese sentiment on social media with the onset of the coronavirus’ spread. This is a country where Islamic State supporters have frequently threatened China, and the IS-linked perpetrator who stabbed former chief security minister Wiranto in 2019 had allegedly discussed attacking Chinese workers in reprisal for the government’s repression of Uyghurs.
Islamic State Khurasan Province Targets Taliban-China Relations
The emergence of ISKP in 2015 raised a series of security concerns in Beijing, and both Dabiq and Rumiyah detailed Chinese anxieties about the specter of Islamic State operational expansion in Afghanistan following US withdrawal. The Islamic State Khurasan Province is primarily active in Afghanistan, though not exclusively, and has developed a robust regional media apparatus supported by local pro-ISKP propagandists.
The Islamic State Khurasan Province and pro-ISKP elements have, in part, focused their aim on the Taliban’s relations with China, the United States, and Russia to delegitimize the organization and frame it as an ally to, and proxy for, the great power enemies of Islam — a shortlist on which China is increasing included. Researcher Riccardo Valle pointed out how IS supporters even launched a hashtag campaign on social media accusing the Taliban of being “Blackwater in white.”
A recent production by Khalid Media, a local ISKP media outlet, included multiple clips of Taliban officials socializing and shaking hands with Chinese diplomats while also showing images of Uyghurs being detained and abused by security forces in Xinjiang, and a video released by the pro-Islamic State Asawirti Media on August 20th displayed an image of a Taliban delegate greeting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Their intent in doing this, of course, is to highlight the alleged hypocrisy and moral corruption of the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Valle noted how in an August 14th statement released through Al-Millat Media, ISKP’s official propaganda organ, Khalid Omar Khaksar took a similar line in chiding the Taliban for their cordial public-facing relations with Beijing, describing China as guilty of arresting Muslim women for wearing hijab. He faults the Taliban as responsible for their sisters and daughters descending into apostasy and, thus, argues that the group will make no effort to help the oppressed Muslim women of China.
Speaking on the Taliban’s conduct and diplomatic ties with declared enemy states of IS, an August 19th editorial in Al-Naba remarked:
Whenever we consider the circumstances and programs of the drum beaters and promoters of the model of the 'new Taliban,' we become more certain of the soundness of the path that the Islamic State has adopted to support Tawheed and establish the Shari'a, for supporting Islam does not pass through the hotels of Qatar nor the embassies of Russia, China, and Iran!
Similarly, a statement released through Khurasan Wilayah News criticized Taliban representatives for their luxurious accommodations in Beijing, Moscow, and Doha in addition to a host of other related offenses.
This month’s Voice of Hind stated that the “murtad Taliban … just like their masters the murtad ISI, lick the boots of the crusaders and now Russia and China as well,” again contrasting them with “the soldiers of the khilafah” who “do not bow down to anyone except Allah.”
Assessing the Islamic State’s Anti-China Hostility
The Islamic State movement has markedly increased its anti-China rhetoric since 2014. In addition, such narratives are being purveyed by a more diffuse and varied range of IS elements.
And for the sake of accuracy, it is necessary to contextualize this assessment by acknowledging that China is not, currently, a top-tier priority for most Islamic State actors. Despite its multitude of accused transgressions, China’s foreign policy in the Muslim world has been much less militaristic than the US or Russia, for instance, and thus it has received comparatively less media and operational attention from IS.
But the direction of momentum is quite clear. The Islamic State’s mediatic escalation is pronounced, China continues to rise on a scale that is structurally unignorable for the globe-spanning IS network, and anti-China ideological currents and sentiments are permeating deeper throughout the broader movement.
Visual Citations: Image 1 and 4 were sourced from Jihadology.net