As defense officials meet in Washington, D.C., Thursday to prepare for the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group in Iraq, soldiers on the ground there could encounter another group of foreign fighters who have joined the terror group also known as ISIS: recruits from China.
While attention has focused on recruits from Western Europe, more than 100 Chinese Uighurs, a Muslim group predominately found in northwestern China, have joined ISIS, a new report released by Washington-based think tank New America found.
The report examined the registration records of fighters who joined the group from mid-2013 to mid-2014. Uighur fighters were described as “older” and “poorer” than other fighters and more likely to join ISIS along with their family members. None of the recruits from China reported having a college level education. Chinese recruits bucked the trend of average ISIS recruits who are likely to join when they are single and around 26-years-old.
Beijing’s policies toward Muslims and economic inequality are likely spurring the increased numbers of recruits from China.
“Over 95 percent of those who joined ISIS from China in 2013-2014 come from the country’s western Xinjiang province, where there are significant economic disparities between the ethnic-majority Han Chinese and the local Uyghur Muslim population, who are subjected to substantial state repression through restrictions on Islamic practices like growing beards or wearing head coverings,” the report found.
Chinese state media has reported in the past that as many as 300 Chinese Muslims have joined the group. While the report only examined parts of 2013 and 2014, it found that 118 Chinese Muslims had joined ISIS.
Beijing’s relationship with its Uighur population has been full of confrontation including riots and attacks, the Washington Post reported. The Turkic-speaking group could be looking for a sense of “belonging” the report suggested as a reason for why recruits have traveled to ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
China's President Xi Jinping visited a mosque earlier this week and praised the country's Muslim community, but also encouraged patriotism toward China, Time reported.
“Religions in our country, the endemic ones and those from abroad, have become deeply embedded in the Chinese civilization, whose history covers more than 5,000 years,” Xi said, according to a report in China Daily.
Other top provinces around the globe that drew ISIS fighters included Tripoli in Lebanon, Skopje in Macedonia, and Muharraq in Bahrain.