ASHGABAT -- Turkmen authorities are concerned about the students studying abroad and making all efforts to prevent them from radical views and extremist recruiters outside the country.
Imams at mosques and consultants from the Presidential Administration's Council on Religious Affairs, together with the Turkmen police, migration service, and security services, in August held a series of meetings with students, who study at colleges abroad and came back home for summer vacation.
According to a writer from Ashgabat, Amanmurat Bugaev, these kind of wide-scale meetings with those arriving home for vacation are happening for the first time. Ashgabat High School No4 hosted one of these meetings in mid-August, he said.
"The imams urged students not to believe in the teachings of preachers that represent terrorist groups, ISIL ['Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'] in particular, and not to give in to the messages from professional recruiters in the ranks of jihadists," Bugaev said on air of Azatlyk Radio.
Authorities called upon the students to behave diligently, and not to harm Turkmenistan's image through deeds or words that they have poorly thought out, he said.
Tens of thousands of Turkmen students study abroad
For many years, the Turkmen authorities did not permit young people to travel abroad to study in other countries. The situation changed in recent years, when the the President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, concerned about the low quality of education in Turkmenistan's graduate schools, permitted young Turkmen people to study abroad.
The government and major foreign companies operating in Turkmenistan, started to fund training for specialties in demand in the field of oil and gas production and processing (Turkmenistan occupies 4th place in the world for its gas reserves).
More than 36,000 students from Turkmenistan study in more than 60 countries across the world, a source in the Ministry of Education told Caravanserai. But this figure encompasses only those who are studying under the auspices of government organisations, the source added.
According to Sulgunjemal Annageldieva, who works at the Ministry of Education's department of higher educational institutions, more than 100,000 boys and girls study abroad on their own expense. And this formidable group of young people, she said, has remained outside of state supervision.
"They are more subject to influence from criminal groups in the countries they are visiting, and even worse, to recruiters from radical groups," Annageldieva said.
Authorities monitor students in foreign countries
Bugaev said there are some rumors in Ashgabat that few natives of Turkmenistan are among the jihadists, but authorities "are not officially reporting anything about the participation of this country's citizens in combat operations and terrorist attacks as part of ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra militants".
According to law enforcement agencies, intelligence officers regularly meet and talk with Turkmen students in each country, introducing themselves as employees from Turkmenistan's consulates and embassies. But this is clearly not enough.
"That is why we were instructed to take advantage of students arriving home and caution them against the danger that stems from those who speak in favor of building an "Islamic caliphate", said a police field agent named Rahman, who wished to keep his last name anonymous.
Authorities pay special attention to those who come home from Turkey's high schools where, according to Turkmen intelligence services, is a high probability of Turkmen students being recruited into the ranks of the Islamists, said Rahman, who organised a meeting with students in one of Ashgabat schools.
"It is tough for young people to resist temptation, and recruiters can promise mountains of gold to ensnare unsuspecting Turkmen citizens into their business," he said.
Students, officials say meetings will bring positive results
Aganiyaz, a student at a college in Ukraine, who came for the summer to Ashgabat and requested not to disclose his last name, told Caravanserai that by "speaking about the essence of Islamic radicals, [authorities] help many people to really see the light with religious issues, and not to take what the radicals write on their websites at face value".
"We kept silent for a long time about the threat from ISIL and other groups geared towards terrorism," he said. "During these years of silence, many young Turkmen citizens were seeking answers to vitally important modern-day issues."
Rakhman emphasizes an integrated approach to the problem, expressed in joint work between members of the clergy and intelligence services.
"Imams expose the essence of the jihadists and their goals, while law enforcement officers remind people about their civic duty and legal liability. This approach will definitely bring positive results, and stop young people from taking impetuous steps," he said.