Turkmenistan’s hidden Islamists, part 2: the truth behind the 2008 gun fight?
Editor’s note: neweurasia’s Annasoltan’s search for insight into the underground Islamist community has turned up a surprising lead: a man who claims to have the inside story of 2008′s mysterious shoot-out in Ashgabat. And what he has to say about what happened, and what that means for the Turkmen government, is striking.
More than two years have passed since mysterious armed clashes erupted in the Hitrowka district of Ashgabat. There are vying versions of what happened, which I’ve recounted in a separate post, but most seem to revolve around a man named Hudayberdi Amadurdyyew, also known as Ajdar.
Was he an Islamist? RFE/RL’s source at the time did not link him to any Islamist group, nor clarify his political motivation other than saying that Ajdar was a government opponent who had earlier been convicted for participating in an anti-government demonstration in Ashgabat in July 1995.
Was he a drug-trafficker? That’s what the Turkmen government claimed at the time, namely, that he and a companion named Ahmed had been caught up in an anti-drug law enforcement operation that turned bloody.
There are also speculations that Ajdar was some kind of agent provocateur from the Mary clan, one of the more well-represented small dynasties that constitute our government.
These are three most referenced theories, but none of them answer the critical question: why would Ajdar have confronted the government in such a way and at that moment? Well, I’ve found someone who claims to be able to cast some real light onto the situation, and I’ve interviewed him for neweurasia.
The person in question goes by the name Abdulaziz. He’s a member of Turkmenistan’s Muslim Society. He claims that Ajdar’s true identity was a radical Islamist, although he says that Ajdar’s Islamism didn’t play the decisive role in the battle; rather, it was the torture of his wife by the police that drove him mad. Indeed, that seems to confirm many of the findings of a report by the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center.
Abdulaziz’s grasp of the situation of Islam and Islamism in our country, which in my impression is rather nuanced, is also very enlightening. Consequently, I’ve divided this interview into two parts, the first dealing with the 2008 shooting, the second dealing with Islamism’s prospects in Turkmenistan. What he has to say at all levels will cast light not only upon Turkmenistan’s hidden Islamists, but our government’s hidden face.
neweurasia: First of all, what is the source of your information?
Abdulaziz: The Islamist society in Turkmenistan, and within it, Ajdar’s close friends. They have even shown me Ajdar’s passport.
neweurasia: If Ajdar was a radical Islamist as you claim, what about other news sources that say that Ajdar had taken part in an anti-government demonstration in 1995 siding with other opposition forces? Which one should we believe? And I think that Ajdar’s true identity is the knot that hinders the issue from being clarified.
Abdulaziz: Yes, it is true that Ajdar participated in the street protests. However, later — I believe it was in 2000 – he turned to Islam. Previously, he was close to Avdy Kuliev [a Turkmen opposition leader who died in 2007]. I heard that Kuliev helped to win his release from prison when he was sentenced to five years in 1995 for participating in the protests. However, I don’t think Ajdar maintained ties with Kuliev after that.
neweurasia: The government has claimed that Ajdar was a drug dealer and that its forces were fighting drug trafficking. How do you explain their claim?
Abdulaziz: Simply, because they lack a legal framework to crush Islam, so they arrest Islamists and accuse them of drug dealing. This way they are [also] trying to discredit them and get them rid of any support from among the general population. But everyone knows that the real drug mafia is sitting in the palace. Words spread among five million people quickly.
neweurasia: But, if they were Islamist radicals, why should the government try to hide their existence? After all, it could have won the sympathies of Western powers and receive foreign assistance in fighting them.
neweurasia: According to your knowledge, what triggered the shoot-out?
Abdulaziz: The shooting occurred because his house was placed under siege and because of the harassment and humiliating treatment toward his wife [by the police]. People who were close to him say if that hadn’t happened, perhaps the shooting would not have occurred. After realizing that the security forces would not leave his wife alone, [and] after making preparations at the drinking water bottling plant for the confrontation, Ajdar telephoned his wife to say goodbye to her and called on the guards who had surrounded his house, telling them to face him.
neweurasia: How many armed forces were there? And why was heavy weaponry used against them?
Abdulaziz: The shooting took place over two days. Only Ahmed [Hojagulyev] was with him. The two were able to defend themselves for two days because the Turkmen military has no war experience; there are also no courageous fighters among them. They would hardly throw themselves to death for the sake of protecting Gurbanguly. [Nevertheless], both Ajdar and Ahmed [eventually] died there.
neweurasia: What was the religious orientation of Ajdar?
Abdulaziz:Ajdar had his own group of 10-15 people. Shortly before the shootout happened, all the other members of his group had been arrested, leaving only him and Ahmed. It is possible that Ajdar had links to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He and his companions had been in Afghanistan several times. They were sending fighters to the Afghan War. After that had been disclosed, the others were arrested; only Ajdar and Ahmed managed to escape. Previously, they were taking religious lessons from Atageldi aga, but later they left him with the purpose of finding their own way. I heard that Atageldi aga had not approved to start armed fighting in Turkmenistan.
neweurasia: Did Ajdar and his men have any contacts with Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan?
Abdulaziz: No. I heard that Hiz ut-Tahrir members approached him, but as he didn’t sympathize with them, he sent them away. As for the IMU, as far as I know, they have not yet appeared in Turkmenistan.
neweurasia: Did Ajdar and his companions have any plans to oust the government?
Abdulaziz: If he had gathered enough strength, I believe that he would not have allowed this government to stay in power. But [otherwise] I think he had no plan to oust the government in the short-term.
However, there is a Muslim group which, if it wanted to, would achieve that. They have enough people and force, but they don’t have any such plans. They are concentrating on teaching Islam. But this is the group that the government most fears. The head of this group, Myrat aga, was imprisoned for five years, and after having served his term he was given an additional six years in 2010.
neweurasia: Some people have wondered why Ajdar didn’t seek help from the general population. After all, he might have been able to tap into the high level of discontent in the country and start mass protests.
Abdulaziz: Ajdar did turn to some people to ask for help. But first, he asked the wrong people; and second, there was an urgency in dealing with the situation. Under such conditions, it was impossible for him to turn it into a protest wave when no such movement had existed before.
neweurasia: Is it true that Ajdar and his men had looted the state gas station in Goekdepe, as it had been reported?
Abdulaziz: Yes, but the government has tried to keep it secret, because these were the days when Gurbanguly had raised the gasoline prices, and if the people had heard about Ajdar’s action, he would have won their sympathies. Instead, the authorities seized a few kilos of heroin from the government’s own warehouse to use in the official accusation against them.
neweurasia: What about the explosion at the Yimpash shopping center in Ashgabat that was mentioned in the reports?
Abdulaziz: I didn’t hear about any explosion at Yimpash. I think there was no explosion. But the looting of the gas station did happen.
neweurasia: What purpose did the looting of the gas station serve?
Abdulaziz: The money could have been diverted to Afghanistan, where Ajdar had made contacts. Or, the money could have been used for other activities in Turkmenistan, such as to buy off some officials. However, I don’t think that Ajdar had such long-term plans. Besides, it would be un-Islamic to use money that way.
neweurasia: If Ajdar was a true Muslim, then how could he justify these actions, including taking lives?
Abdulaziz: Actually, we should have given that question to Ajdar while he was alive. I simply can’t answer it. I didn’t know him personally when he was involved in all this.
neweurasia: There are unconfirmed reports about assassination attempts made upon the Turkmen president. Does our country’s Islamist community have any hand in that?
Abdulaziz : I heard about preparations, not actual attempts, but these were not based on reliable sources anyway; they were based on rumors circulating among the people. I think it can be explained a kind of wish fantasy on the part of the people, rather than what they actually knew. Besides, the Islamists would not make an assassination attempt upon the president because their aim is not to change one person but to change the whole system. If Berdimuhamedov was gone, the system would still remain. A new Berdymuhamedov would rise, holding the former’s death as a justification for sending more to jail. I think the Islamists understand this. However, I do not exclude the possibility that there could be also some elements with a short-sighted view among them.
neweurasia: What plans did Ajdar have?
Abdulaziz: Ajdar’s wish was that the repressive government would fall and an Islamic government would come to power, the same aspiration of any other Muslim who loves his religion. But he was different from other Islamists in that he was close to the Afghan Mujahiddin. Perhaps he was trying to bring change through that way, but the Turkmen people are no ready to support a liberation coming from Afghanistan. Therefore, if Ajdar and his people had, like the other Islamists, focused instead on teaching Islam to the population, they would have made huge progress. But these are my thoughts. Only Allah knows what would have happened.
neweurasia: So, are there people who are ready to follow Ajdar’s example?
Abdulaziz: There are many who would resort to Ajdar’s tactics in reaction to the severe repression of the government, not only the Islamists. I don’t know whether there are people like Ajdar who have links to the outside world and experience like his, but everything is possible. We have been able to analyse Ajdar after his death. Who knows, there may be some secret movements somewhere. But if they were a large force, I would have heard about them.