Just before midnight of Friday September 12th, the police in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, began an all-night shootout with a group of radical Islamists. Saturday morning’s reports said twenty policemen died in the fight, indicating that the energy-rich Central Asian state might be turning into a new front in the war on terror.
Except it wasn’t true. While the Ashgabat police certainly got into an hours-long gunfight, and while somewhere between ten and twenty policemen might have died, they were fighting criminals, not terrorists. Such news carries altogether different implications—both about Turkmenistan and the way some news agencies covered the situation.
Most of the earliest wire stories reporting on the situation quoted Gundogar, a Web site run by Turkmen exiles, and the various RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat as the source of the radical Islamist charge. The AP and BBC dutifully ran the story, posting Gundogar’s allegations without examining their trustworthiness, and the story made its way into the broader news world (the BBC has since corrected its story).
Though the RFE/RL story was laden with skepticism of the Islamism charge, the AP repeated the charge as fact. While it is a Muslim country, Turkmenistan is known more for its strategic energy and personality-cult tyrants than Islamism or even violent crime. Why so many news agencies would rush to blame the violence on purported Islamic militants—based on information from a Web site run by a few dissident exiles—is puzzling and troubling. Is the need to insta-publish so great that these outlets ran unvetted stories?
But the story is stranger than that. On Sunday, August 14, Al-Jazeera noted that the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat had warned American citizens to avoid the northern districts of the city. This would be the Khitrovka district, where the gun battle occurred.
It is also where an armed gun battle took place on September 8, according to a U.S. Embassy press release from September 12. Two criminal suspects, the embassy release says, shot and killed one soldier, wounding another soldier and a policeman. The embassy also noted that the two men are suspected of being involved in a gas station robbery during late July or early August (despite being one of the most energy-rich countries in the world, in February Turkmenistan began rationing gas, which led to some violence at gas stations).
The moment the most recent gunfight happened, the embassy stepped up its warnings about travel to the Khitrovka district, noting the “continued confrontation between law enforcement and armed suspects.”
Realizing he had a public relations boondoggle on his hands, on Monday, September 15, Turkmeni president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov berated his own police for the weekend’s violence, claiming the battle was with “drug traffickers.” This explanation, again, was accepted wholesale by regionally focused news agencies like IWPR and RFE/RL (the latter even repeated a rumor from a Russian-language Web site, claiming the skirmish was a botched attempt to overthrow the government). And again, this narrative has entered the mainstream thinking on the incident—what little there is.
In all of this, an unanswered question looms: What’s with the rumors? After the incident on September 12, RFE/RL correctly reported that one must be vigilantly skeptical of any news coming out of the area. The fact that the U.S. Embassy was on alert for days before the battle indicates the violence wasn’t a surprise, and didn’t warrant the breathless coverage it received. Yet many respected and otherwise excellent and trustworthy news agencies relentlessly broadcast rumor after rumor, as if they were confirmed, vetted truths.
Missing in all of this, too, is what the news means for Turkmenistan. While the allegations of drug violence are certainly plausible, as Turkmenistan is a major corridor for opium smuggled out of Afghanistan, before September 12 the running theory was that unrest was related to gas rationing. Not until days passed did the government leak news of its battle with drug lords—forgetting to mention that, originally, the danger was over some robbers stealing gas and killing soldiers.
In other words, there is a good deal more to this story. Even if those reporting on it aren’t exactly saying so.