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The Islamic State Khurasan Threat to Turkmenistan and Its Interests in Afghanistan
After Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) militants fired rockets at the southern Uzbek city of Termez on April 18, an IS firebrand put out an audio statement declaring the attack was the opening salvo in the “great jihad to Central Asia.” The act galvanized IS supporters online, sparking clamor for further attacks against Afghanistan’s northern neighbors. ISKP answered these calls on May 7 with a second rocket volley, this time directed at Tajikistan.
ISKP’s intensified media and communications outreach campaign to Central Asian communities, the group’s increased bellicosity and hostile rhetoric directed at regional governments, and Islamic State activity along the borderlands has heightened security concerns. Additionally, the Islamic State Khurasan Province has stepped up its recruitment and its fundraising efforts in Central Asia.
Most of ISKP’s northward vitriol is directed at the leaders and governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but hostile narratives about other Central Asian states are perceptible as well. Turkmenistan has both had its interests targeted in Afghanistan and has become a subject of some degree of Islamic State focus.
Turkmenistan is viewed by ISKP as a tyrannical state and part of a Central Asian regional block that is supported by the US, China, and Russia as the three great powers jockey for influence while sharing the common goal of waging war on Islam and oppressing Muslims.
Many maps of Khurasan, a historical geographical concept that ISKP wishes to reconquer in full, include parts of Turkmenistan. ISKP also presents itself as a vehicle to smash arbitrarily drawn national borders in Central Asia, following the precedent set by IS in Iraq and Syria.
ISKP similarly intends to establish Transoxiania/Mawarannahr — an ancient region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that likewise includes parts of Turkmenistan — once it topples what they see as the tyrannical regimes of Central Asia. In case their intentions were not clear enough, one of the leading ISKP-linked Central Asian propaganda outlets is even named “Movarounnahr”.
In late June, Tawhid News, an ISKP-aligned Uzbek propaganda outlet, published a statement promising that Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Hindustan will all be united by force into the caliphate.
More recently, on August 20, a Tajik language channel with links to ISKP lamented how “they took the Muslims and divided them into different ethnic groups like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and more.”
Besides the grandiose ambitions of ISKP, Turkmenistan has been explicitly threatened by IS and its interests inside Afghanistan have been targeted. On August 26, the same day as the Kabul Airport suicide attack that caused hundreds of casualties, two Pakistani ISKP militants were arrested for trying to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) outside of the Turkmenistan embassy.
Islamic State supporters have also criticized Turkmenistan’s infrastructure plans in Afghanistan and the country’s relations with the Taliban, the primary enemy of ISKP. Last November, pro-IS propaganda outlet Anfaal Media said the Taliban “protects interests of enemies of Allah in Afghanistan”, specifically naming TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline).
ISKP aims to disrupt anything that would strengthen the Taliban’s position, and, thus, attacks on Turkmenistan, the TAPI project, or other diplomatic or commercial interests in Afghanistan could occur.
It is also possible that ISKP fires rockets at Turkmenistan as it did to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, conducts incursions into the country, or directs/inspires attacks on its soil. Further, Turkmenistan nationals who bring their resentments of their home government into ISKP’s ranks may exert internal pressure and advocate for such attacks.
Bruce Pannier, a journalist who has covered Central Asia for more than 25 years, says “there was a time when the Turkmen government did not spend much money on the military, but that changed after 2014” when Ashgabat “started spending a lot more and almost all of it went to strengthening forces along the Afghan border.” These fears are not unfounded as, in June of 2017, four militants (possibly ISKP) crossed into Turkmenistan from Afghanistan's Herat Province. Pannier adds that “in 2014 there were two attacks on Turkmen soldiers along the Afghan border, one in February, the other in May that left at least six Turkmen soldiers dead (3 in each incident).” However, the Turkmen government never acknowledged the incident.
Of the Central Asian states, it is likely that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face the greatest threat from ISKP, however, IS and its supporters have on occasion made clear their hatred for Turkmenistan’s government. Ultimately, the degree of the threat depends on ISKP’s strategic targeting priorities, its capabilities, the Taliban’s ability to disrupt such plots, and several other factors.