A shockingly high number of ISIS recruits have come from this unlikely country

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An activist protests while wearing the Uighurs’ flag.
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Junko Kimura/Getty Images

As large as it is, China goes to incredible lengths to maintain civil order and govern its people.

Given not only its size but its growing population, China would understandably be hard-pressed to have complete control over its citizens. When it comes to hampering the spread of ISIS’s influence within its borders, however, this fact is starting to become apparent.

Citing a report from the US think tank New America, AFP reports that over 100 people may have already joined the terrorist group.

Referring to the information coming from ISIS’s registration documents that were leaked by a defector, Beijing claims that this recruitment stems from the Uighurs – a predominantly Muslim ethnic group from the western region of Xinjiang.

Of the 3,500 foreign recruits mentioned in the leak, 114 came from Xinjiang, which potentially makes the region the fifth-largest source of ISIS personnel worldwide.

According to New America, it might not be hard to see why. After what many call “China’s 9/11” – a deadly knife attack at a train station that claimed 31 lives – Chinese officials have started to crack down on religious groups that they suspect have extremist connotations.

Chinese authorities have also discouraged the practice of some religions, even outright banning the practice of what it deems to be extremist religious views.

Critics point to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tendency to paint pictures with a broad brush. In a study by New America, author Patrik Meyer writes, “A problem with Beijing’s label of religious extremism is that … it includes common practices followed by moderate Muslims.”

“It can include activities such as praying, wearing Islamic headscarves, growing beards, learning about Islam, fasting, deciding not to drink alcohol, and even going to mosques,” the study continued.

According to the same study, in order to circumvent legal violations, the CCP avoids potential criticism by enacting laws that ban any religious activity that wasn’t already explicitly legal.

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A Uighur from China’s Xinjiang Region after being detained near the Thailand-Malaysia border in Hat Yai, Thailand.
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Thomson Reuters

In an AFP quote, New America said that this “could be a push factor driving people to leave the country and look elsewhere for a sense of ‘belonging.'”

The fact that the Uighur Muslims suffer from a wide economic gap when compared to the ethnic majority of Han Chinese may exacerbate this sentiment. The people listed in the ISIS documents, some as young as 10, were also found to be less educated compared to their alleged cohorts from different nations.

Analysts are quick to point out that there is reason to doubt China’s accusations of the rising radicalization in this region of China. A study has found that these ISIS recruits had no prior involvement with any terrorist organization before leaving the country.