The threat posed by European and North American citizens who have traveled to join the group and may now help coordinate terrorist attacks back home is widely acknowledged. But perhaps less understood is the role that Chinese citizens are playing in the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Chinese state media has suggested that as many as 300 Chinese Muslims may have joined the group. Some experts have disputed this figure, but a recent report from the New America think tank has found evidence of at least 118 fighters, suggesting that Beijing's estimate could be plausible.
The report offers a partial yet detailed view of how Chinese Islamic State fighters differ from their peers. And, more pointedly, it suggests that Beijing's policies may be driving some of China's Muslim minority Uighurs to extremism.
Internal fighter registration forms collected by the Islamic State between mid-2013 and mid-2014, which were leaked to media organizations this year, form the basis of the report. These documents were essentially the organization's attempt to catalogue the masses of fighters joining the Islamic State. Recruits were asked details about their background — where they were from, their educational history, whom they brought with them, etc. — and these details were recorded by the organization's nascent bureaucracy.
These partial and self-recorded details have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But Nate Rosenblatt, the researcher who went through the documents, uncovered some interesting details about the typical Islamic State fighter. The average birth year was 1987, and the average age of a fighter 26 or 27. About 59 percent were single, and 23 percent were married with children. There was a variety of education levels (32 percent reported having received a high-school degree or its equivalent), and most had traveled to about zero to three countries before enlisting with the Islamic State.
What's perhaps most interesting about fighters from China is that they don't fit the pattern for Islamic State fighters. The report details 118 fighters from China, of whom 114 came from Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the country's northwest that is largely populated by Uighurs, a Muslim minority with a history distinct from the dominant Han Chinese. Many had listed the name of their home as Turkestan or East Turkestan, a name used to refer to the region when it declared independence in the 1930s and 1940s that dissidents still use today.
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