Al Qaeda urges Uighur jihad in China. So what?
Al Qaeda preacher, Abu Yahya al-Libi, urges Uighurs to launch holy war against China. Is anyone listening?
Another day, another Al Qaeda video. This time it was from the prolific jihad video star Abu Yahya al-Libi, a militant preacher and seasoned guerrilla fighter who some Al Qaeda watchers think is the likely eventual replacement for Osama bin Laden.
His pitch? For China's Muslim Uighur minority to "prepare for jihad in the name of God" and expel the Beijing "thugs" from Xinjiang, the Chinese province where most Uighurs live. It's a pitch he's made to a number of nations before (Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine come to mind). In each case the response has been, well, a resounding silence.
His appeal to the Uighurs has Al Qaeda on well-trod ground. Since the wealthy Saudi Bin Laden teamed up with Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to form the "Islamic front against crusaders and Jews" (Al Qaeda's formal name) in 1998, they have pitched their propaganda and outreach efforts to places where Muslims feel marginalized or oppressed.
Al Qaeda has dispatched operatives to encourage religious wars in Indonesia, to infiltrate Muslim separatist groups in the Southern Philippines, to fight in Yemen's civil wars, and to recruit operatives from the Muslim minorities in country's like Kenya. Bin Laden and his lieutenants bang their drum continuously about the Israeli occupation of Palestine for similar reasons. Al Qaeda has reasoned, not without justification, that it's easier to raise recruits from among Muslim populations who have grievances against their own governments.
The Uighurs have plenty of grievances. There are roughly eight million of them living under Chinese rule in a region many of them would like to see independent. Anger at the influx of Han Chinese - the country's dominant ethnic group - into Xinjiang led to bloody riots in June that claimed about 200 lives (mostly Han Chinese) and saw Chinese troops dispatched to the streets of Urumqi, the provincial capital.
But just as Al Qaeda has managed to encourage some bomb attacks but failed rather spectacularly in its broader goal of converting large numbers of Muslims to its zero-sum game/ world-view in places like Indonesia, so Mr. Libi is likely to be disappointed in his efforts to recruit the Uighurs into the global jihad camp. Even the Sunni Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has turned a deaf ear to Libi's entreaties (Hamas recently crushed a group seeking to create an Al Qaeda style Islamic emirate in Gaza).
While separatist sentiment is undeniably strong amongst Uighurs, it generally takes the form of ethno-nationalism, not a desire to convert the world and unite it under a single, Sunni Muslim caliph. After all Rebiya Kadeer, a key exiled Uighur separatist leader, constantly speaks of the need to save "Uighur civilization," not Islam.
None of this is to say that some Uighurs aren't sympathetic (and China would like, along with Libi, to classify most of the Uighurs as Al Qaeda sympathizers, though for different reasons). But Al Qaeda propaganda has failed time and again to attract large numbers of Muslims to its side - even in a troubled country like Iraq, where a devout Sunni minority is worried about domination by the country's majority Shiites. While Al Qaeda fellow travelers won sympathy from Sunni fighters in the early years of the Iraq war, they eventually wore out their welcome in many communities with their strict version of Islamic law and demands that locals bow to their ways.
To be sure, Libi himself is a rising star in the jihadi world. A veteran of Afghanistan's wars and about 40 years old, at most, the native Libyan has taken an increasingly public role for the group since famously escaping from US custody at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in July of 2005 (a fellow escapee, Omar al-Faruq was later killed by British forces while fighting near the Southern Iraqi city of Basra).
Like much of Iraq's top leadership, Libi's presumed to be in hiding along Pakistan's lawless border with Afghanistan. Until he's killed or captured, expect more videos and call for jihad from the ambitious young militant. Just don't expect anyone to listen to him.