Islamic State militants from China’s Uygur ethnic minority have vowed to return home and “shed blood like rivers”, according to a jihadi-tracking firm, in what observers said marked the first IS threat against Chinese targets.
The threat came in a half-hour video released on Monday by a division of Islamic State in western Iraq, and featuring militants from China’s Uygur ethnic group, said the US-based SITE Intelligence Group, which analysed the footage.
China has for years blamed exiled Uygur “separatists” for a series of violent attacks in its western Xinjiang region – the Uygur homeland – and warned of the potential for militants to link up with global jihadist groups.
In the video, a Uygur fighter issued the threat against China just before executing an alleged informant.
“Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say. We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenge the oppressed,” a SITE translation read.
A traditionally Muslim group, many Uygurs complain of cultural and religious repression and discrimination by China.
The video appeared to be the Islamic State’s “first direct threat” against China, said Michael Clarke, a specialist on Xinjiang at Australian National University.
“It is the first time that Uygur-speaking militants have claimed allegiance to IS,” he added.
The video showed that China was now “very firmly a target of jihadist rhetoric” Clarke said, marking a shift from years past when it rarely figured in statements by global jihadist groups.
But Clarke said the video could also indicate a possible split among Uygur fighters, as it included a warning to those fighting with the al-Qaeda-aligned Turkestan Islamic Party in Syria.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday that he had not seen the video, but that “East Turkestan terrorist forces have been posing a severe threat to China’s security”, referring to Xinjiang militants.
He called for international cooperation “to combat such terrorist forces”.
China maintains tight security in Xinjiang but a drumbeat of deadly unrest has continued. A knife attack last month left eight dead, including three attackers, police said.
The video was released on the same day China staged the latest in a series of mass rallies by armed police in Xinjiang, meant to show resolve in crushing security threats.
In one violence-wracked corner of Xinjiang, authorities are offering rewards of up to 5 million yuan (US$730,000) to those who expose terror plots or “kill, wound, or subdue” any attackers.
The Islamic State video showed fighters, including heavily armed children, giving speeches, praying, and killing other “informants”.
It also featured images of Chinese riot police guarding mosques, patrolling Uygur markets, and arresting men in what appears to be western China. The Chinese flag is pictured engulfed in flames.
Clarke said the hints of a Uygur split could “intensify the threat to China”, as they indicated Uygur militants might be able to tap into the capabilities of both Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Western analysts have up to now expressed doubts about the strength of Uygur militants, with some saying China exaggerates the threat to justify tough security.
A US think tank said in July that Chinese religious restrictions on Muslims may have driven more than 100 to join Islamic State.
Authorities have banned or strictly controlled the observance of certain Muslim practices, such as growing beards, wearing headscarves, and fasting during Ramadan, calling them symbols of “Islamic extremism”.
“When we see the government involved in a very heavy crackdown, it hasn’t really ever solved the problem, it hasn’t made it go away,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of security studies at the Britain-based Royal United Services Institute.
“In some cases it has made it worse.”