CERIA Brief No. 15, February 2016
By Noah Tucker and Rano Turaeva
International estimates produced by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) list the overall number of participants from Turkmenistan in all factions of the Syrian conflict at up to 360. Little or no concrete information is available about how many Turkmenistani serve in the ranks of ISIS, and these numbers have been questioned by many observers and the Turkmen government, which frequently denies the participation of any of its citizens in the Syrian conflict. The few instances in which press sources cite Turkmenistani participation in Syria and claim recruiting takes place inside Turkmenistan are almost universally Russian and affiliated with the state media. Unlike their compatriots from other Central Asian states, militants from Turkmenistan do not appear to be self-organized around ethnic or linguistic lines. No messages have been observed that target the population of Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most isolated and consolidated authoritarian regimes.
Russian media and identified or likely state-funded information operations, however, have consistently advanced a narrative that active recruiting operations are taking place inside Turkmenistan – part of what is claimed to be an “unchecked Salafist religious revival” inside the country – and at times these sources have claimed that Turkmenistani comprised the largest proportion of Central Asian militants fighting in Iraq and Syria. As in neighboring states in the region, Russian language media and related information operations frequently make claims that cannot be collaborated by other sources and that emphasize an imminent threat presented by ISIS that can only be preempted by Russian protection, often perpetuating the narrative that ISIS is a puppet controlled by the United States.
Unlike all other states in the region – most of which, as discussed in previous reports, have largely attempted to balance Russian exaggeration of the ISIS threat to the region with the leverage against potential domestic opposition justified by those “imminent threat” narratives – the government of Turkmenistan and its state-supported media have flatly denied that ISIS could appeal to its citizens and protested against Russian reports to the contrary.
The Russian and Turkmen counter-messaging campaigns that present contradictory information about Turkmenistani citizens fighting in ISIS illustrate a stark case in which sophisticated state-funded or state-backed messaging operations can dominate discussion of a topic and significantly color, if not control, public perceptions online. These messaging efforts show the way states in the 21st century – even those as isolated as Turkmenistan – have come to see the Internet and social media as a tool for achieving their own goals, rather than a threat to those goals that earlier scholarship had hoped social media would evolve to become.