Fighters from Turkestan region constitute a fairly-sized chunk of all the foreign fighters fighting in Syria. After the Caucasus fighters (Chechens primarily), they are thought to be the second best foreign fighters used as shock troops and for that reason they are very respected in various “jihadi communities”. Aforementioned Turkestan is a region in Central Asia that encompasses Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and parts of Russia, Mongolia, China and Afghanistan. Focus of this article will be on the east Turkestan area that has the highest extremist presence and the best way to start is with the origins of it.
Modern “Islamic resistance” in Turkestan is most notable in Xinjiang, autonomous region of China in the northwest of the country. Xinjiang area is known as “East Turkestan”, ethnic Uyghurs (Turkic ethnic group) constitute around 46% of the population in Xinjiang.
In November of 1933 First East Turkestan Republic (Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan) was proclaimed after local Uyghurs rebelled. Hoja-Niyaz was announced as the first and only president by Sabit Damulla Abdulbaki, one of the leaders of the initial rebellion and Prime Minister of the Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan.
ETR followed Sharia law in the making of its republic but it wasn’t the official law. Turkestan Declaration of Independence consisted of nine points: ending the Chinese dictatorial rule in the East Turkestan, establishment of a free and independent East Turkestan republic based on equality of all nationalities, promotion of certain branches of economy in order to increase living standards in the area, religious freedom for other religions besides Islam, development of education, culture and health in East Turkestan, establishment of friendly relations with neighboring countries and other democratic countries, recruitment of all able-bodied males of all nationalities in national army, nationalization of the bank, post service, telephone, telegraph & forestry and the last point was eradicating corruption, individualism, bureaucracy idea and nationalism among government officials.
Even though declaration of independent seemed democratic and progressive for 1930s, the events just before declaration of independence displayed a different, more darker picture of reality. In March of 1933 Sharia law was enforced and Swedish missionaries were expelled. Followers of Uyghur leader Amir Abdullah Bughra beheaded and executed a number of converted Christians and jailed many more. Besides Christians, a number of Hindus were also killed by the same Uyghur forces.
First East Turkestan Republic (Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan) ceased to exist in 1934 after Chinese army backed by Russians easily overcame the The National Army of the Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan. Something interesting happened when battles were ongoing between Chinese and East Turkestan Army, Hoja Niyaz President of the First East Turkestan Republic fled to USSR and sought refuge there. He then accepted a proposal to help Chinese and Soviets dissolve TIRET in exchange for control over southern Xinjiang. Sabit Damulla Abdulbaki, Prime Minister of TIRET and several other ministers were captured by Hoja-Niyaz in Aksu and handed over to Sheng Shicai, Governor of Xinjiang. Sabit and other captives were then hanged.
In 1935, not long after TIRET‘s dissolution there was another Uyghur uprising named Charkhlik revolt, however, it was very quickly suppressed.
Sabit Damulla Abdulbaki, Prime Minister of TIRET. Source: Wikipedia.
It is important to note that since dissolution of TIRET most of Xinjiang was under Soviet influence through Sheng Shicai, Governor of Xinjiang. This influence was shown in 1937 when Soviet troops aided Shicai’s troops in crushing a large Uyghur uprising in southern Xinjiang, uprising was backed by National Revolutionary Army of Republic of China. This failed uprising allowed Shicai to assert full control over Xinjiang province, meaning that Soviet’s influence was now present across the whole Xinjiang. In 1942 Sheng Shicai disassociated himself with USSR after latter’s major defeats against Nazi Germany during World War II, Shicai expelled Soviet advisers and executed huge number of Han Communists including Mao Zemin, Mao Zedong’s younger brother.
This change of heart was a horrible move for Shicai because USSR started winning the war again and his attempts at regaining Stalin’s trust failed thus leading to the establishment of Second East Turkestan Republic. Shicai was removed as Governor of Xinjiang in August of 1944 by Kuomintang, party he allied himself with. He was invited by Kuomintang to be Minister of Agriculture and Forestry in government of Republic of China.
In 1944 Ili Rebellion started in north Xinjiang and was backed by Soviets due to Shicai’s betrayal. Uyghur rebels were able to establish Second East Turkestan Republic, Soviet’s satellite state in north Xinjiang. The Uyghur rebels once again committed massacres but this time not on religious basis but rather on a national/ideological, Han Chinese civilians were targeted, especially those associated with Kuomintang. Soviets installed Ehmetjan Qasim, loyal to them as the President of the Second East Turkestan Republic.
In 1949, after the establishment of Communist People’s Republic of China, Ehmetjan and several other important ETR individuals boarded a plane to incorporate ETR into newly established People’s Republic of China. They never made it to China as the plane crashed near Lake Baikal killing everyone on board. Saifuddin Azizi with remaining ETR leaders traveled to Beijing by a train and signed an agreement to incorporate ETR in People’s Republic of China, Azizi also accepted the offered chairman position of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
From the 1950s till the late 1980s situation remained somewhat calm with smaller uprisings from time to time. In that time period Xinjiang was being “colonized” by Han Chinese which increased tensions with local Uyghur communities. In 1988 Zeydin Yusup created East Turkestan Islamic Party, later known as Turkestan Islamic Party. Goal of the party was to establish a country of East Turkestan in Xinjiang province.
Two years after its formation ETIP held its first protest in Akto County and Baren township, protest was led by Zeydin Yusup. Shortly after the protest started clashes erupted between security forces and armed Uyghur militants allegedly supported by “Mujahideen” from Afghanistan. Armed rebellion was suppressed when China sent thousands of reinforcement. Founder and leader of ETIP Zeydin Yusup was killed in clashes on 6th of April 1990 in Baren.
ETIP was “reformed” in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum (Abu Muhammad al-Turkestani) and Yabudukader Emit (Abudukadir Yapuquan). After this “reformation” ETIP transformed into an organization it is known today, radical “Turkistan Islamic Party” with links to Al-Qaeda. Since Hasan Mahsum lived mostly in Afghanistan and had ties to Osama bin Laden TIP‘s new headquarters from 1998 were in Kabul, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Besides moving its headquarters to Afghanistan a number of training camps were established where Uyghur members of TIP where trained by Talibans and Al-Qaeda. Other allies of TIP at that time were Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which pledged allegiance to Islamic State in mid-2015.
Hasan Mahsum, main reformer of East Turkestan Islamic Party.
US-led ISAF coalition intervention in Afghanistan weakened TIP as the coalition bombed bases belonging to Al-Qaeda in mountainous border area near Pakistan. After The September 11 attacks TIP was designated as a terrorist organization.
Hasan Mahsum was killed on 3rd of October 2003 in a counterinsurgency raid conducted by Pakistani Army in South Waziristan close to Afghanistan.
Memetiming Memeti (Abdul Haq (al-Turkistani)) succeeded Mahsum as an emir of TIP, in 2005 he also got a position in central committee of Al-Qaeda’s Shura council. During his time in Shura council Abdul Haq helped appoint TIP member Emeti Yakuf (Abdul Shakoor al-Turkistani) as a military commander of Al-Qaeda forces in Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. In early 2008 TIP made a huge publicity stunt by releasing a video threatening 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Abdul Haq was targeted by an unmanned US drone on 15th of February 2010 in North Waziristan near Zor Babar Aidak village. On 1st of March 2010 an unnamed Pakistani intelligence official stated that four militants were killed in a targeted vehicle.
Emeti Yakuf (Abdul Shakoor al-Turkistani) took leadership of TIP from then assumed to be deceased Abdul Haq. In 2011 during Yakuf’s leadership TIP claimed responsibility for several attacks that occurred in July of 2011 in Xinjiang, China. A group of Uyghur men stormed a police station in Hotan after Xinjiang authorities campaigned against the full-face Islamic veil. In clashes with police 14 of attackers were killed and four captured, besides the attackers two police officers and two hostages were killed.
Twelve days after Hotan raid, northwest of it in the city of Kashgar series of TIP attacks took place. Kashgar was terrorized for two days by TIP fighters which used a truck, VBIEDs, explosives, guns and knifes in an attempt to kill as many civilians as possible. These attacks killed 14 and injured 39 civilians, nine attackers were neutralized by security forces which suffered three injuries. Emeti Yakuf was killed in a CIA drone strike on 24th of August 2012 in North Waziristan.
Abdullah Mansour succeeded Yakuf as TIP‘s emir, before being appointed as emir Mansour was an editor of TIP‘s “Islamic Turkestan” magazine. In an audio clip published on 24th of November 2013 Mansour claimed responsibility for “Tiananmen Square attack” in which two civilians were killed and 38 injured after Uyghur attacker crashed into a crowd with a vehicle which then burst into flames. In the same audio clip Mansour warned Chinese Government of future attacks by TIP even threatening to target the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
In 2014 a TIP-linked attack occurred in Kunming, Yunnan province. Group of Uyghurs started stabbing people in Kunming Railway Station killing 31 and injuring 143 civilians. Abdullah Mansour praised Kunming attack but hasn’t officially taken responsibility for it. Abdul Haq previously thought to have been killed in a drone strike returned to the “jihadi scene” in June of 2014. He was seriously wounded in a strike and has recovered in the meantime ready to take leadership of TIP once again.
With the rise of Syrian Civil War TIP joined on Jabhat al-Nusra’s side in early 2015 by sending Katibat Turkistani (Turkistan Brigade) led by Abu Rida al-Turkestani to Syria. Number of Uyghurs fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham) and Islamic State is estimated to be around 3000, China estimates it at 5000. Turkey has been accused of supplying Uyghurs in China with counterfeit Turkish passports and aiding them in their goal to reach Syria.
Once in Syria Uyghur TIP fighters were quick to join the fight against Syrian Arab Army. One of TIP‘s first and most notables battles in which it participated is battle for Jisr al-Shughur part of the rebel Northwestern Syria offensive nicknamed the “Battle of Victory”. During the capture of Jisr al-Shughur Christian Churches were desecrated by Jabhat al-Nusra and TIP and Christians were reportedly displaced from their homes in area around Jisr al-Shughur. Since then Jisr al-Shughur and area around it were colonized by Uyghur fighters and their families.
Just like many foreign rebels groups TIP‘s main areas of operations are northeastern Latakia and western Idlib governorates. TIP also played big part in Siege of Abu al-Duhur Airbase where they together with Jabhat al-Nusra executed 56 captured Syrian soldiers. TIP in Syria released a shocking footage in 2015 showing them indoctrinating and training little children to become the next generation of jihadi fighters, pictures can be found here below Long War Journal’s article.
First leader of TIP in Syria was a Syrian commander known as Abu Rida al-Turkestani and was killed in action during the aforementioned Northwestern Syria offensive. Well known, experienced Al-Qaeda linked commander Abu Omar al-Turkistani replaced Abu Rida as the leader of TIP in Syria. In the late 2016 Abu Omar al-Turkistani played a crucial role in talks between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other rebel groups regarding a rebel merger into one faction. He was one of the candidates for leadership of Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham.
However. Abu Omar and two other Al-Qaeda commanders, Abu Khattab al-Qahtani and Abu Mutasim al-Dairi were killed by a US drone strike in early January of 2017 almost a month before Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham was formed. As of April 2017 leadership of TIP in Syria remains vacant, however, it is possible that a new leader was chosen but the announcement wasn’t publicized.
Abudukadir Yapuquan who helped Hasan Mahsum reform Turkistan Islamic Party in 1997 was arrested on 31st of August 2016 in Turkey. Chinese government has been pressuring Turkey for a long time to arrest Yapuquan.
Abu Rida al-Turkestani, first leader of Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria.
Now that the biggest and most important Turkestan group operating in Syria is out of the way it is time to focus on the remaining Turkestani groups.
Sayf al-Deen Uzbek Jamaat (Uzbek Sword of the Faith Group) is a predominately Uzbek group led by a commander known as Abu Hussein. Besides Uzbek fighters SDUJ has a sizeable fraction of fighters from other Turkestan countries. SDUJ was a subgroup in Jabhat al-Nusra and since Nusra went through two rebrandings SDUJ‘s status remains unknown but they are most likely a part of the newest Nusra rebranding, Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham.
Group’s main area of operations is Aleppo governorate and their most notable appearance is in 2014 during battles around Sheikh Najjar, Aleppo against SAA. SDUJ received trained Turkestani recruits from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, however, it is unclear if cooperation between the two still exists since IMU pledged allegiance to Islamic State in mid-2015 and SDUJ remains in Al-Qaeda’s camp.
Photo of Abu Hussein, leader of Sayf al-Deen Uzbek Jamaat. Source: From Chechnya To Syria
Imam Bukhari Battalion, also known as Jamaat al-Bukhari and Imam Bukhari Jamaat is an Uzbek group that pledged allegiance to the Taliban and is very close to Jabhat al-Nusra, now Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham. Group is led by Sheikh Salahuddin and operates in governorates of Aleppo and Idlib with its main headquarters in Huraytan, north of Aleppo. During the battle of Aleppo JAB released two video of them fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra against SAA in Al-Layrmoun, Handarat and Al-Zahra districts.
In May of 2014 it was claimed that Uzbek Jamaat al-Bukhari, Ahlu Sunnah wal Jamaah, Uzbek Jamaat Abu Salyaha, Uyghur Jamaat Turkistan and Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Caucasus Emirate in Syria) all united in one group called Al-Muhajireen (foreign fighters). Source for this claim is From Chechnya To Syria.
Small fraction of JAB members defected to IS after the rise of latter group in Syria and Iraq.
Group of Imam Bukhari Battalion fighters in a training camp. Source: Syria Comment
Jamaat Sabiri is a group consisting of Dagestani and Uzbek fighters that joined Islamic State in March of 2014 two months after IS and rebels started to clash. Jamaat Sabiri was based in Aleppo and participated in Sieges of Menagh Air Base and Aleppo Central Prison. First leader of the group was Emir Abdurahman that died during rebel attack on Al-Duwayrinah district, Aleppo in March of 2013. Jamaat Sabiri got its name after Sabiri second leader of the group, the original name of Jamaat Sabiri is unknown.
Photo of Jamaat Sabiri’s fighters. Source: Source: From Chechnya To Syria
Sayfullah Shishani’s Jamaat is a group comprised of foreign fighters including a batch of Uzbek fighters, Jamaat’s latest announced leader is Abu Ubaydah al-Madani from Uzbekistan. Jamaat got its name after Sayfullah al-Shishani, Chechen commander that fought with Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly since December of 2012 and led Ansar al-Khilafah (Supporters of the Caliphate). Sayfullah was also a commander in Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar led by Abu Omar al-Shishani, he defected after Abu Omar pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Sayfullah was killed by a mortar strike in February of 2014 during battles for Aleppo Central Prison fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, mortar strike and the moment of Sayfullah death can be found here, keep in mind that video is NSFW. Sayfullah Shishani’s Jamaat operates as a part of Jabhat al-Nusra, now Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham, Jamaat also reportedly receives protection from Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham but still maintains a certain level of independence.
Jamaat’s headquarters are supposedly in Kafr Hamra, northwest of Aleppo and it has participated in battles around Handarat in March of 2015. During Handarat battles group purchased four donkeys to transport ammo, supplies and wounded/dead fighters.
Moment from the Sayfullah Shishani’s Jamaat video showing their new leader Abu Ubaydah al-Madani (in the middle). Source: From Chechnya To Syria
No info is available regarding Uzbek Jamaat Abu Salyaha, group most likely ceased to exist by joining a bigger faction presumably Jabhat al-Nusra.
Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad is a predominately Uzbek group that surfaced in August of 2014 and pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in September of 2015, group is led by Uzbek national known by his nom de guerre “Abu Saloh”. KTJ operates in Aleppo and Idlib governorates with reports that they even have one training camp in Latakia. KTJ participated in “Battle of Victory” where rebels steamrolled most of the remaining SAA-held territory in Idlib, in 2016 it supported Jaysh al-Fatah’s offensive in southern Aleppo.
Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad fighters somewhere in Aleppo.
Kazakh Jamaat is a part of the Islamic State featured in 2014 IS propaganda video aimed at attracting new recruits primarily from Kazakhstan and from Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Islamic State has a couple of more groups that Turkestani fighters are a part of such as Jamaat Daoud, Abu Hanif Jamaat, Shishani Jamaat (used to be led by now dead Abu Omar al-Shishani, group has a big number of soldiers from Turkestan region), Jamaat Adama, Jamaat Akhmada, Abu Kamil Jamaat, Jamaat Khattaba and Katibat Al-Ghurabaa.
Moment from Kazakh Jamaat’s propaganda video. Abu Muaz is speaking (in the center). Source: From Chechnya To Syria
The last group is not exactly from Turkestan region but more to the north of it from Ural Mountains, however, I feel like they deserve to be mentioned among these aforementioned groups. Katibat Junud al-Makhdi is an independent group made up of Tatar and Bashkir fighters formed in July of 2016. KJM was formed after Jamaat Bulgar and Jaysh al-Shomal al-Islami merged together.
Jamaat Bulgar originates from Afghanistan where they fought together with Taliban for the past ten years. Jaysh al-Shomal al-Islami only fought in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Amir Sayfuddin al-Tatari of Jaysh al-Shomal al-Islami was selected by group’s Shura council as the leader of the newly formed KJM. KJM‘s main area of operations is Latakia governorate, they fight there alongside Turkistan Islamic Party and other Turkish speaking groups. Info shared by From Chechnya To Syria.
Moment from the video when Katibat Junud al-Makhdi was announced. Source: From Chechnya To Syria
Now that all groups have been listed it is time to focus on the most famous fighter from Turkestan region and that is Gulmurod Khalimov. Gulmurod Khalimov holds “Minister of War” position in the Islamic State, he succeeded deceased Abu Omar al-Shishani as the “minister”. Before joining IS Khalimov was a commander of the police special forces in Tajikistan. During his time in the police force Khalimov participated in several counterinsurgency courses by US Army in the US and Tajikistan. On 29th of September 2015 he was designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the US Department of State.
Gulmurod Khalimov in a video released by IS in May of 2015.
All of the groups above share the same goals, establishment of Sharia law on territory of Syria and cleansing of Shia Muslims living in Syria.
Sources used in making this article: Wikipedia, China Daily, China Matters, Long War Journal, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, From Chechnya To Syria, Topix, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium: TRAC, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
Intellectual credited property used may vary from an edition to edition.
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