By Gordon M. Hahn
Shiite-dominated Azerbaijan is increasingly under threat from the Sunni global jihadi revolutionary alliance. To Azerbaijan’s south Syria has become the central front of the global jihadist revolutionary movement in Syria, attracting violent Islamist extremists from across the globe. To its north lies Dagestan – the spearhead of the Sunni ‘Caucasus Emirate’ (CE) global jihadist organization that has sent directly and indirectly hundreds, perhaps thousands of mujahedin to Syria.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the northern and southern threats to Azerbaijan increasingly have linked up, raising the threat level significantly. In spring 2012, just months after CE and other North Caucasus mujahedin began heading to Syria in force, Azerbaijani intelligence uncovered a major jihadi plot to carry out a series of attacks in Azerbaijan’s capitol of Baku during the entertainment awards competition ‘Eurovision-2012’ as well as later attacks to be carried out across the city and the country. The first breakthrough in uncovering the plot came with a shootout between police and a group of mujahedin in Gyanja in April 2012. The security forces were able to uncover the larger plot as a result of information gathered from the arrests of mujahedin in Gyanja. On May 30th Azerbaijani authorities announced a series of special counterterrorist operations rooting out an alleged CE-tied “transnational armed criminal group,” according to Azeri security. Security operations were carried out across Azerbaijan in Baku, Gyanja, Zaqatala, Shekin, Gusar, Absheron, Khachmaz, and Shabron regions.
An attack on the concert hall hosting the Eurovision contest was the centerpiece of the plot involving a series of attacks to be carried out both before and during the Eurovision contest. The plot was reminiscent of the 2008 Mumbai attacks involving a coordinated series of operations, including bombing and ambushing gathering places in the Baku Hilton and JW Marriott Absheron hotels, the Crystal Hall (where Eurovision was held), and State Flag Square, all located in downtown Baku. One subgroup of the CE’s Azerbaijan Jamaat was also assigned the assassination of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev. After the Baku attacks, the plan was to withdraw to the countryside and carry on an insurgency to include operations in a number of regions of Azerbaijan, including bombing places of pilgrimage and mosques, killing law enforcement personnel, and ambushing administrative buildings with the goal of seizing weapons and ammunition (http://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/20120530153437.shtml; http://www.interfax.by/news/world/111788; www.zerkalo.az/2012-05-31/short-news/29691-terakt-evrovidenie; and http://www.contact.az/docs/2012/Politics/04184455ru.htm).
According to Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry (NSM) and later CE reports, the CE’s plans for extending jihad to Azerbaijan were hatched in February 2011 at a shura of the CE’s largest network, that of the Dagestani mujahedin or Dagestan Vilaiyat (DV). The DV has been the spear head of the CE since spring 2010. Later in that year a DV shura was attended by one ‘amir Abdullah’ of the Azerbaijan Jamaat (AJ). For the first time the CE, had institutionalized a jihadi unit based outside Russia. The February 2011 shura of DV amirs was convened by the DV’s then top amir, ‘Salikh’ Ibragimkhalil Daudov. The shura was convened, according to the NSM, not far from the village of Kadar, which is located in southern Dagestan, with the participation of three Azerbaijanis: Vugar Padarov, Elmir Nuraliev, and Samir Sanyiev. Daudov appointed Padarov as amir of the group with the nom de guerre of ‘Bursa Zaqatalinskii’ (from Zaqatal, Azerbaijan). The DV provided “a large quantity of funding” for the operations of the Azerbaijani Jamaat, which included both Azerbaijani and DV Dagestani mujahedin. A videotape later emerged showing the DV’s present amir, Abu Mukhammad (born Rustam Asildarov) in attendance at the shura, which dispatched Padarov and the AJ to Azerbaijan. Amir Padarov (Zaqatalinskii) was killed during a shootout during one of the May 30thoperations. In late November 2013 an Azerbaijan court sentenced 29 of the Azeris and Dagestanis captured in the Eurovison plot to various prison terms from nine years to life (http://ca.news.yahoo.com/azerbaijani-court-convicts-29-people-charges-planning-series-194413561.html).
In the runup to sentencing the Eurovision plotters, there were another series of jihadi events in Azerbaijan. On October 16th two Azerbaijani police were killed and another two were wounded in an attempt to apprehend a group of suspected mujahedin in Gusar in northeastern Azerbaijan not far from the border with Dagestan. The police were tipped off that a wanted mujahedin had returned to the area and responding to reports of unusual activity by locals arrived and were fired upon. In the same month, both Russian experts and local residents warn of increased Saudi Wahhabi activity in the region for some time and annual growth of the number of Salafi-oriented Muslims, with an estimate of some 20,000 in the country a few years ago (www.ng.ru/cis/2013-10-18/1_azerbaijan.html and www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2013/10/25/101363.shtml).
In November, Azeri security detained two Azerbaijani members of a group planning to bomb the Shiite ‘Meshedi Dadash’ mosque in central Baku. The group’s amir ‘Farman Chyatin’ (born Nariman Mirzoev) and ‘Sheikh Mirzakhmed al-Gusari’ (Sheikh Mirzakhmed from Gusar, born Mirzakhmed Rustamov) had acquired weapons and explosives for the plot and had issued calls to jihad and for the killing of the Shiite mosque’s senior mulla, Shakhin Gasanov in social media. According to one such posting amir Chyatin was “waiting for the victory in Syria over the Shiites and threatens that Syria’s events will be repeated in Azerbaijan.” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/233984/). This plot was uncovered just days before the Azerbaijan court sentenced 29 Eurovision plotters (http://ca.news.yahoo.com/azerbaijani-court-convicts-29-people-charges-planning-series-194413561.html).
Matters worsened in 2014, as arrests were made of small numbers of Islamists returning from Syria and Iraq throughout the year. In summer a major security operation led to the arrest of the largest group of Islamists uncovered since the Eurovision plot. The arrestees included 26 former ISIS, Taliban, and other jihadi groups’ fighters. In January 2015 there was another major sweep that ended in the detention of ten Azerbaijani citizens who had fought in the Levant and under ISIS and after returning home were involved in creating armed groups and securing weapons and explosives (www.ng.ru/cis/2015-01-13/1_igil.html).
Azerbaijan’s northern regions are vulnerable to CE DV penetration and recruitment through the Dagestani-Azerbaijan border. Thus, the October shootout occurred in Gasar in northeast Azerbaijan not far from the Dagestan border. A hotbed of Salafi activity in Azerbaijan is the northwestern district of Zaqatala (Zagatala or Zakatala, depending on the language and transliteration) bordering Dagestan. AJ amir and chief Eurovision would-be perpetrator Padarov ‘Zaqatalinskii’ was a native of Zaqatal. Azeri human rights activist and chairman of the Azerbaijan Committee Against Torture Elchin Bekhbudov claims radicals in Zagatala are financed from Syria and “can become a threat at any moment” (www.ng.ru/cis/2013-10-18/1_azerbaijan.html).
With mujahedin travelling to Syria going through Baku to get to Turkey, Azerbaijan is even more likely to become similarly vulnerable to jihadi infiltration. The CE fighters and other mujahedin from the North Caucasus, other parts of Russia, and even Central Asia traveling to fight in Syria are going through Baku to Istanbul before crossing the border into Syria (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/230371/). CE fighters are playing a growing role within the most powerful Syrian jihadi rebel group, the Al Qa`ida-affiiated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It’s military amir is now Abu Umar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), an ethnic Chechen Kist from Georgia with ties to the CE. Another North Caucasian, one ‘Abu Jihad,’ succeeded him as amir of the ISIS’s Northern Front and is amir in Idlib. Idlib Province shares a 50 mile border with Turkey along which recruits, supplies and refugees move. There are two groups of foreign fighters in Syria also led by Chechens from the North Caucasus.
These factors and the fact that the Azeris are predominantly Shiite like Bashyr Assad’s Alawites raises the likelihood that Azerbaijan’s interest to the CE, AQ, the ISIS and other mujahedin will grow. Indeed, the CE’s main website reports that an Azerbaijani mujahed was recently killed fighting in Syria and that there are more than 300 of his compatriots also fighting in AfPak (www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2013/10/25/101363.shtml).
Azerbaijan’s growing susceptibility to jihadi activity corresponds to similar developments across southern Eurasia. For Russia, the CE is growing its ties to the global jihadi revolutionary alliance. Amirs controlling over half of the CE’s mujahedin, including the powerful DV network in Dagestan, declared the bayat or loyalty oath to ISIS and ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. CE amir Dagistani and the remaining non-ISIS CE amirs and mujahedin maintain ties Jabhat al-Nusrah and other groups in Syria.
For Central Asia and China, the Taliban is establishing itself more firmly in northern Afghanistan along the Tajikistan border and its Gorno-Badakhshan District, which borders China. Recent Internet postings by the Tajikistani AfPak-based jihadi group ‘Ansarullah’ and recent attacks in Beijing and elsewhere in China by the AfPak-based Islamic Movement of Turkistan (IMT) show that jihadi groups could be returning to their home countries with the Taliban and northern Afghanistan serving as their logistical rear and springboard, respectively.
Thus, Russia and Eurasia are now faced with two vital fronts to their south. One points like a dagger from Afghanistan at eastern Eurasia and Central Asia in particular. The other points northeast like a dagger at southwestern Eurasia and Russia and stretches from Syria to Dagestan. This second dagger is much ‘sharper’ with thousands mujahedin moving along it in both directions: from Russia to Syria and Syria back to Russia. Unfortunately for Baku, Azerbaijan sits right in the middle of this dagger.