Turkmens studying in Russia seen particularly vulnerable to radical Islam

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

Students attend a lecture at the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) in Moscow last October 8. Officials in Ashgabat warn about growing radicalisation among Turkmen students studying in Russian universities. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

Students attend a lecture at the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) in Moscow last October 8. Officials in Ashgabat warn about growing radicalisation among Turkmen students studying in Russian universities. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

ASHGABAT -- A growing numbers of Turkmen students studying at Russian universities are joining radical movements because of easy access to extremist material, corruption in the Russian education system, and financial hardships and mistreatment.

The Turkmen government has secret data tracking growth in the number of cases tied to religious extremism heard by its courts, said Muhammet S., a Supreme Court official.

"A decade ago there were no such criminal cases involving our students abroad, but in the last year and a half there have already been seven trials in courts of different levels," he said.

The public did not hear of these trials because they are generally closed, he added.

The defendants were mostly young men who, while studying abroad and most often at Russian universities, either began to study banned literature or already were followers of radical movements, he said.

Students in Turkmenistan do not form such a yearning "because they don’t have access to banned websites," he said.

Reasons for radicalisation

A lack of oversight is contributing to the radicalisation of young Turkmen abroad, who are likelier to succumb to the influence of radical movements once they are away from strict parental and state oversight, say local analysts.

Students in Russia are initiated into radical movements of Islam by going online and listening to extremist sermons, say some of their colleagues.

"Downloading and listening to such lectures have become trendy among Turkmen students," said Mekan Purliyev, a Turkmen student studying in Kazan, Russia.

Other reasons draw students in Russia toward radicalisation, he said, adding that many Turkmen students are disheartened by corruption in the Russian university system, with some instructors engaging in extortion.

"In exchange for money you can get good grades ... and you can even find your way to the [university's] budget department and get a scholarship," he said.

Mistreatment by locals is demoralising, he said, adding that it was not uncommon for him to hear local Russians insult him behind his back.

"Blockhead, dried apricot, black, savages, Asians -- those are the kinds of things we hear. If you get into a fight, you're the one who gets blamed. So you need to put up with it and clench your teeth and fists," Purliyev said.

Ninety-five thousand students from Turkmenistan are studying abroad, and of those, almost one-third are at Russian universities, said Vadim Shagiakhmedov, a specialist on Central Asia, last December.

"Even if 1/100 of the young men and women who leave the country to study are infected by the bacteria of radicalism, that would be substantial for our peaceful country," said Muhammet S., the Supreme Court official.

A dangerous infatuation

Human rights activists learned about one criminal case, in which K. Khalbayev and K. Saparov, Turkmen students who had attended the Ivangorod Humanities and Technical Institute in Leningrad Province, Russia, were arrested in 2017. They were sentenced to 15 years each for various felonies.

Khalbayev and Saparov, along with 12 other Turkmen citizens currently wanted by authorities, were members of the Wahhabi, Salafi, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other communities, according to the investigation.

Among the items seized from the students were audio files in Turkmen containing lectures by extremist Rovshan Gazakov, said counter-terrorism agents from the Turkmen Interior Ministry (MVD).

Syrian government forces arrested Gazakov, a Turkmen citizen, in July 2013, according to the MVD. He studied in Cairo and allegedly fought alongside militants in the Middle East.

Hundreds of Turkmen students abroad secretly listen to Gazakov's sermons.

"On the Russian internet you can find more than 300 audio recordings of Rovshan-agha about Islam, commentaries and explanations about individual chapters of the Koran in a language Turkmen can understand," said Purliyev, using a respectful name for Gazakov.

"These websites are blocked in Turkmenistan, but in Russia it's easy to download and listen to them," he added.

Purliyev believes that young people's infatuation with sermons by people such as Gazakov and others is dangerous.

"In those sermons, some Koran suras [chapters] and ayahs [verses] are explained so intelligently and intriguingly that you feel bewitched and you believe what you've heard," he said.

'Shouldn't put us at ease'

"In all the neighbouring countries, terrorist acts have been committed by Islamists, or followers of banned religious groups have become active, yet we, praise Allah, have avoided all of that," said Muhammet S., the Supreme Court official.

"But that shouldn't put us at ease," he added.

Turkmenistan's law enforcement and intelligence agencies are concerned about the new threat that they believe is now coming from Russia.

"Whereas before the threat to stability and calm in Turkmenistan came from radicals entrenched in northern Afghanistan and Iran, or from destructive forces in Turkey, now it comes from Russia and other CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries, where tens of thousands of Turkmen are studying in universities," said Begench O., a criminal intelligence investigator in the Akhal Province section of the Ministry of National Security.

Turkmen authorities and intelligence agencies are enacting preventive measures, conducting the requisite work with both the students in Russia and with their parents, and monitoring the students' ties and contacts with individuals who have already been exposed as followers of radical movements of Islam, he said.

"Of course, when the young people return home, we check their cell phones and computers for banned literature and recordings, but what do you do if the ideas of radical Islam have settled deep in their heads?" asked Begench O.

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These students must say "Farewell, unwashed Russia, the land of slaves, the land of lords" [the first line of the famous poem by Mikhail Lermontov]