Uighur militants in Badakhshan
Picture of Ulighur fighters taken somewhere in Badakhshan.

Chinese Uighur militants operating under Taliban umbrella in Badakhshan

In parts of the northeastern Badakhshan province, as an eyewitness says, a militant Islamist group is growing in number and power and their members are neither local residents nor they speak local languages. The Chinese Uighur militants have been operating in the province for years now under the Taliban umbrella and they expand their presence day by day in residential areas, say local residents, who are concerned about the growing presence of these foreign militants.

“There are many Uighurs living in Badakhshan. Even, multiple times they have asked [us] for cooperation but we have rejected their quest,” says Juma Khan Amu, a resident of Badakhshan, who believes that these Uighurs come a long way from China to Pakistan and then break into Afghanistan for receiving military training. They are even trying to recruit Afghans, he claims.

Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, are under immense pressure from the Chinese government. The Uighurs see the communist government of China as a force that attempts to undermine their cultural and religious identity.

As per his account, there are a very low number of Afghan security forces stationed across Badakhshan’s districts and it has contributed to the increasing number of foreign militants in the province. “The Chinese Uighurs enter into Badakhshan through Tupkhana border port lying between Keran wa Manjan and Zibak districts,” the local resident said, adding that the Uighur militants are in pursuit of establishing a connecting route through Wakhan to China but the local residents have so far prevented them to do so.

“We arrested several Uighur militants in Wakhan district and handed them over to the government,” said Abdulhamid Deljoo, another resident of Badakhshan. He claimed that the Uighur militants are equipped with the most sophisticated weapons and they are getting more power as days pass. “The Uighurs have sophisticated weapons and we do not know their weapons.”

A common matter of concern for China and Afghanistan

According to accounts of the local officials, the militant’s core base is stationed in an area named Khostak in Jurm district of Badakhshan. An MP from Badakhshan says the neglecting the threat posed by the Uighur militants would strengthen other terrorist groups and the Taliban. The MP claims that in addition to possessing financial resources, the Uighur militants are trained fighters.

The separatist Uighur Islamist militants operate under the banner of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which was established in the mid-1990s. The Xinjiang province of China, which shares a tiny border with Badakhshan, is largely populated by Uighurs, who are ethnically Turkic and practice Sufi Islam. The Islamist movement was established to set up an independent so-called “East Turkistan” within China. The United Nations Security Council enlisted the ETIM as being associated with Al-Qaida, Usama bin Laden, and the Taliban on September 11, 2002. Since its establishment, the ETIM militants have carried out deadly attacks inside China and abroad killing 100s and wounding many more.

Situated in the northeastern part of the country, Badakhshan shares a border with Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. Its shared border with China has attracted the Uighur militants, who are in pursuit of waging war against the Chinese government in China’s Xinjiang province.

Malawi Zabihullah Atiq, who represents Badakhshan in the Afghan parliament, claims that the number of Uighur militants has increased in the province in the last years. He sees the militant group as a common threat against Afghanistan’s interests and the region. Around 360 Uighur militants are currently operating in Badakhshan under the command of Qari Furqan and some of them have even brought their families to the province, the MP said. He blames the government for inaction. “I will talk to Chief of the National Directorate of Security [and explain] the threats posed by the Uighurs and hope that the government should no longer remain careless about the Uighurs’ threats,” he added.

The growing number of Uighur militants has likely encouraged China to boost its efforts in Afghanistan beyond diplomatic relations to a more intelligence engagement. On December 25, 2020, Hindustan Times reported that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) arrested 10 Chinese nationals on espionage module. On January 06, 2021, the NDS Chief, Ahmad Zia Saraj, confirmed the arrest of the Chinese nationals but refused to share details due to what he described as the “sensitivity” of the issue.

Training Taliban

The Taliban militants are said to be trained by foreign terrorists, mainly by Al-Qaida, and as well as receive assistance from these terrorists while launching operations against the Afghan security forces. In return, the group provides these foreign terrorists with the required cover in their controlled territories across Afghanistan. According to Afghan officials, as many as 21 militant groups are benefiting from the security cover of the Taliban in Afghanistan. MP Atiq gives a similar account about the Taliban’s cooperation with the Uighur militants. “The Uighur militants are participating in battles in Badakhshan. The supply routes of the Uighurs must be cut in Badakhshan until the Taliban cannot receive further training,” the MP asserted.

Earlier this solar year, Afghan defense and security forces launched a broad offensive to clear Warduj, Yamgan, and Keran wa Manjan districts from the presence of the Taliban and foreign militants. Though the Afghan security officials later reported that the Taliban were pushed back from the three districts, Yamgan district fell to the Taliban again 50 days later.

According to the security officials, more than 400 Afghan and foreign militants, including Uighurs, were killed and wounded during the clearance operation.

“The Uighur militants are operating with Taliban and al-Qaida network,” says Nik Mohammad Nazari, the spokesperson for Badakhshan governor. According to him, Badakhshan’s shared border with Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan, its mineral reservoirs, and arduousness are the factors for which the foreign militants have become interested to have a presence. “We use our full capacity to remove security threats,” he assured.

MP Atiq warns that it would become too hard for the government to defend the attacks of these fighters in the future if it does not launch a timely military operation to prevent more foreign militants from taking a foothold in Badakhshan. “The government is just watching while the number of Uighur militants is increasing on a daily basis.”

Fawad Aman, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, however, states that the Taliban have suffered heavy casualties over the past two weeks in Badakhshan, adding that foreign nationals, including Uighur militants, are also among them killed and wounded in a military operation that will continue in the province.

He also confirms that the Taliban have facilitated the operation of the “foreign terrorists” in the province, assuring that the defense ministry will use its full capacity and resources to fight against terrorism.

In February 2018, US forces conducted airstrikes in Badakhshan to abolish the “support structures” of the ETIM. The US military said it conducted a series of “punishing bombings”, targeting the Taliban militant camps that also supported a separatist Chinese Uighur terror group.

Over the last couple of years, the Chines government has acted strictly against the separatists in Xinjiang—something that has radicalized many Uighurs who flee the country and join the militant ETIM.

This story has been developed by Etilaat Roz’s Wajid Rouhani and translated by Mokhtar Yasa.