Is The Islamic State Threat Making Turkmenistan Vulnerable To Russian Military Influence?

September 3, 2015
Turkmen soldiers in a military parade in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, on October 27, 2013. | Xinhua/Lu Jingli

Reports of the murder of a dozen border guards by jihadist terrorists at the Turkmen-Afghan border this summer and the seizure of $1.5 million from jihadists in the north of the country have shone light on the much-increased threat Turkmenistan faces from international terrorism.  Critics, including one dissident ex-MP, have expressed fears this could lead to increased Russian influence in the notoriously repressive country, or could even lead to “neutral Turkmenistan” losing its independence.

The reports of the deaths of 12 Turkmen soldiers emerged separately in July on two independent media outlets, one in Russia, the other in the Austria.  Given the lack of official transparency or media freedom in the country, the reports could not be verified. Turkmenistan is listed by Reporters Without Borders as one of the world’s worst for press freedom, next to Eritrea and North Korea.

Journalist Alexander Grigoriev reported in Newspaper Argumenti-Ru, citing unnamed “Russian military sources,” that four officers as well as eight conscripts stationed in the South East Turkmen provincial city of Tagtabazaar, 100km from the Turkmen-Afghan border, had been murdered this summer.

They were not killed from afar: Grigoriev quotes his sources as saying “According to the Turkmen colleagues, the group was hit with mortar fire from Afghanistan, and then finished off with automatic weapons. This is evidenced by the nature of the wounds of the dead. Most likely, they were confronted with a reconnaissance and sabotage group of the Islamic State, which passed the Afghan-Turkmen border.” The source is also quoted as claiming that 16 Turkmen soldiers had been similarly murdered in February.   Unnamed Russian “military experts,” says Grigoriev, claim terrorists are cutting through the Turkmen border “like a knife cuts through butter.” Grigoriev has written extensively on military matters, so his access to special sources is not surprising.  Svoboda Pressa, another Russian newspaper, cited Roman Silantyev, a deputy chairman of an expert council on religious affairs at Russia’s Ministry of Justice, as saying that he would be saddened but “not be surprised if there is a massive breakthrough of the [Turkmen] border” by jihadists.

Well-known Vienna-based opposition news outlet Chronicles of Turkmenistan, run by the Farid Tuhbatullin’s Turkmen Initiative For Human Rights, ran a separate report documenting that 12 corpses of soldiers had arrived in Ashgabat in “zinc coffins.” Chronicles gave the same details as Grigoriev about the number of officers/conscripts and their unit having been based in Tagtabazar.  However the report did not include any details about perpetrators, mode of death, or previous deaths.

If confirmed, the deaths suggest a significant increase in cross-border jihadist threat Turkmenistan faces, and mark the largest set of Turkmen causalities to date. While, there have been reports of previous lethal attacks, casualties have always been in the single figures. In February 2014, Afgan local officials reportedly claimed Taliban had killed 3 Turkmen border guards, launching their attack from the Northern Afgan Badghis province. In May that year, an unconfirmed report of 3 further killings also surfaced on a Kyrgz website that translates and collects media articles. This year’s fatalities are also squarely at odds with the apparent display of military confidence suggested in claims by the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty last year that Turkmenistan soldiers were actually entering and occupying of small areas of Afghan border territories.

Critics argue that Turkmenistan’s army is ill-prepared to handle serious threats, being crippled by institutional corruption and a lack of resources.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan report that in the immediate aftermath of the attack bribes for military recruits to evade serving on the border with Afganistan had risen sharply and now come to $1,500.  Prior to the murders, Chronicles reported  young men paid bribes of merely $170 to $230 to evade military service when the army was calling up more conscripts to serve in the far-Southern Turkmen-Afghan border city of Serhetabad, formerly well-known under the name of Kuskha as the Southernmost location in the Soviet Union.

One academic working paper published by the reputed Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, cited by Russian media finds that the Turkmen “military is also struggling with corruption, hazing, and drug problems among its conscripts. These problems are both a cause and consequences of the government shifting primary responsibility for national security to domestic security services, which are focused on combating internal dissent rather than protecting the country against external threats”.

The low morale and corruption will be particularly problematic given that Turkmenistan’s army hardly has the necessary hardware to compensate for that. Russian online magazine Slon, which wrote extensively on the issue, noted that Turkmenistan’s army is ranked as the one with the least firepower in Central Asia, scoring even below the much poorer Tajikistan.

The consequences of this for Turkmenistan could be extremely severe. Chronicles has claimed conditions were so deficient that foreign military contractors “of Slavic appearance” had already had to be brought in to secure the border.

One former Turkmen parliament member, Halmyrat Soyunow, told Radio Liberty in an exceptional interview earlier this year that he doubted many Turkmen were willing to die fighting for the current government of President Berdimuhammedov, given official corruption and human rights violations. He questioned whether the threat of the radical Islamist Taliban to Turkmenistan might increase Russian military influence in the country; Potentially even leading, he feared, to the loss of the country’s independence.

In October 2014, Gen. Saad Muhammad, a retired Pakistani general with strong anti-Taliban credentials, told the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty that the efforts to enhance border security with fences were misdirected, and “meaningless.” He said Turkmenistan should “should abandon the policy that does not allow citizens to express their opinions. The country should open. When people are not given the opportunity to freely choose their government and the dictatorship stifles the freedom of expression, the people take up arms.”

Was $1.5 million seized in a tiny backwater town in Northern Turkmenistan really jihadist bribery cash ?

There are indications that the threat of jihadists to Turkmenistan goes far beyond the border zone. A report from this summer suggests jihadists were stashing over $1 million to bribe officials and acquire illegal weapons in order to carry out serious attacks in the heart of the country.

The unconfirmed news report from June this year, published on the large Russian Central Asia analysis website, claims Turkmen authorities arrested over 150 jihadists in a recent crackdown, with 100 people being arrested in the tiny town of Gaz-Achake at the Amu Darya river near the Uzbek border in northeastern Turkmenistan. There had been reports in May on Ruslan Mytiev’s Alternative Turkmenistan News that makeshift sandbag fortifications had been erected by the Turkmen army along the river, which flows into Afghanistan.

In itself this may not be that surprising, but the report says “$1.5 million dollars, destined for bribery, the purchase of uniforms, weapons, transport and others” were seized from one of those arrested alongside a “large consignment of improvised explosive devices.” It is hard to fully trace how this remarkable claim came to make its way into the world of news; the name of the articles’ author, Hodzhamurat Berdymuratov, does not appear to be found elsewhere on the Internet.

Nonetheless, if true, this would be an extremely significant and powerful amount of money, both in the context of Turkmenistan, and in terms of terrorism finance investment by foreign-based jihadists in a country that was generally considered tangential for them. Overall estimates suggest the the Taliban spend between $200-400 million a year, with many factions being “something closer to organized crime syndicates than an Islamist militant group,” according to the New York Times.

Moreover, according to Berdymuratov’s article, the terrorists had ambitious targets that are unlikely to be cheap or easy to attack: military facilities in the the central Turkmen city of Tejen, as well as an effort to organize what could be a mass prison break from a facility close to the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. According to reports on Alternative Turkmenistan News (HabarTM), Tejen is believed to be the base point from which the Turkmen military sent heavy gear re-enforcements to the Afghan border in April this year, apparently on a presidential order. This potentially explains the suggested eagerness of jihadists to target this city.

There are no other reports about the Gaz-Achake arrests and seizure, but one other report suggests mass arrests in one of the attack target towns, Tejen and raises questions about whether the attack could be a crackdown on the opposition.

British-based Caspian Sea region corporate intelligence firm Menas Associaties also claimed in an March 2015 article entitled “Turkmenistan – Secret Anti-terrorism Operation Revealed” that reports suggested 80 jihadists had been arrested in Tejen for ties to jihadist groups. It noted that Turkmenistan is “notoriously reluctant to divulge any information about the extent of terrorist and extremist risks,” but also said that Tejen has a long association with opposition activists who question the Turkmen presidency’s unparalleled neo-Stalinist cult of personality. One of Turkmenistan’s most memorable dissident clerics, Hodzha-ahmet Orazklychev was exiled to a village close to the town in 2000 for the “crime” of saying that the Quran made no mention of Christmas or New Year festivities, and also for apparently expressing concern over that fact that official media referred to then president Niyazov as a “prophet.”

The cash seizure claim isn’t the first warning that jihadists could be exploiting a culture of bribery in Turkmenistan to further their criminal activities.  Last year, a Syria-based Jihadist, Rovshan Gazaka, allegedly claimed in an online video that he had been first trained at a camp near Turkmen capital Ashgabat, an unlikely feat in a heart of a country so rigidly controlled and repressed as Turkmenistan. In the aftermath of the video, Russian news agency Regnum published comments from an unnamed retired Turkmen security officer saying that the fight against such jihadists was being hampered by the fact that some officials in the Ministry of National Security had turned their posts into “into a profitable private business overseen by no one.”

Meanwhile, the Turkmen government has answered the criticisms with obstinate hostility rather than transparency or clarity about the threats and problems it faces. The Turkmen Ministry of Foreign reportedly called coverage of the Gazaka’s jihad video inaccurate, unethical and damaging to Russian-Turkmen relations. Back then, pro-government news site (no relation to well-known opposition site wrote conditions on the border were stable, commented on the “two peace-loving, friendly peoples of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan” and mentioned that Turkmenistan’s army is “combat-ready.” It blamed ‘arrogant’ individuals living outside of Turkmenistan for ‘rumours and speculations’.