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China, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and a Tale of Two Olympics
In late summer 2008, the Uyghur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) gained international media attention for threatening to attack the Beijing Olympics. The group, little known at the time, released a six-minute video featuring promises of “fire targeting China” and scenes of the Olympic logo in flames.
Abdullah Mansour, who would go on to lead the group for a period, appeared in the production with an automatic rifle and said: “We, members of the Turkestan Islamic Party, have declared war against China. We oppose China’s occupation of our homeland of East Turkestan, which is a part of the Islamic world.” He also warned Muslims to stay clear of the events for their own safety: “Please do not be around Chinese people while in the same building, in the same shop, in the same bus or same train. Please do not fly with Chinese people in the same airplane.”
The threats were taken seriously at the time as, during the previous month, TIP commander Seyfullah had claimed responsibility for several attacks inside China and likewise threatened violent action against Olympic festivities.
The Turkistan Islamic Party and the 2022 Winter Olympics
China and the TIP have each grown and changed in fundamental ways since the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing — the regional security environment is also very different.
China has risen to become the second most powerful country in the world and has vastly increased its influence internationally and throughout Asia. Moreover, the TIP has evolved into a battle-hardened and highly capable fighting force with operational footprints in both Afghanistan and Syria.
Xinjiang, the cradle of the Turkistan Islamic Party and the source of much militant-related anxiety for Beijing, is also a different place now than it was in 2008. China has harshly put down unrest and stabilized the region through a series of heavy-handed policy measures. This, combined with enhanced border security, makes it comparatively more difficult for jihadis to run operations into the country from Xinjiang if they decided to do so.
The TIP in Afghanistan, though it is now a much more formidable insurgent force, faces significant structural restraints that did not exist in the late 2000s when it was free to aggressively issue explicit and high-profile public threats towards China.
At that time, the group was fighting in tandem with the Afghan Taliban which was predominantly focused on perpetuating an insurgency and was much less concerned about the complex intricacies of foreign relations. Now, the Taliban is back in power and is making the transition from guerilla force to governing body. Accordingly, they face severe economic troubles and a looming humanitarian crisis. In hopes to help alleviate these problems, the new government is actively lobbying for foreign aid, outside investment, and access to frozen funds and international institutions. TIP attacks on China would likely hinder these efforts, and thus the Taliban has reassured Beijing that Afghan soil will not be used by hostile actors to strike neighboring states.
The TIP has longstanding and deep ties to the Taliban, having fought and bled alongside them for years, including in their more recent role supporting the Taliban’s final push to take power.
But, despite this alliance, the Taliban seems to have issued directives to TIP leadership to stop releasing propaganda showing their fighters present in Afghanistan — or perhaps the TIP made this decision on their own or through an agreement with the Taliban to avoid creating problems for their host. This is indicated by the fact that the TIP has refrained from releasing videos from Afghanistan since Kabul fell. This became further evident in late October when a TIP-linked Instagram account posted images of what are assumed to be its militants posing with weapons in front of a captured Navistar Defense vehicle in Afghanistan. The pictures subsequently drew online attention, and the account ended up removing the photos — presumably at the behest of the Taliban, ranking TIP authorities, or both.
The Taliban has also reportedly taken risk avoidance measures to relocate Uyghur militants away from the Afghan-China border.
All considered, there is still some possibility of the Turkistan Islamic Party, or rogue elements associated with the group, deciding to attack Chinese interests in the area. However, this would draw immense pressure onto the Taliban from Beijing and create greater difficulties for Uyghurs seeking haven in Afghanistan. The TIP’s stated cause is to liberate ‘East Turkistan’ (Xinjiang) from what it views as Chinese occupation, but the aforementioned practical concerns undoubtedly factor into leadership decision-making.