Staunton, November 7 – An estimated 1500 people from Azerbaijan went to Syria to fight in the ranks of the Islamic State. Now, given the deteriorating security situation there, many of them are returning home where they pose an increasingly serious problem for Baku – and possibly for Azerbaijan’s neighbors as well.
Much of the flow of fighters from Azerbaijan came from the predominantly Sunni districts in the northern part of the country – Azerbaijan as a whole is traditionally two-thirds Shiia – and a large share of them are Avars and Lezgins rather than Azerbaijanis, according to Anton Bredikhin (kavkazoved.info/news/2015/11/06/ig-otstupaet-v-azerbajdzhan.html).
Some of the biggest ISIS recruiters in Azerbaijan have been imams and akhunds, promting Allakhshukyur Pashazade, the sheikh ul-Islam who heads of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus in Baku, to create a special commission to check mosques throughout the country.
Many of the ISIS recruits were attracted to that cause by offers of a large amount of money, “but money is not the only cause,” the Russian analyst says, citing the conclusion of Arabist Zardusht Alizade that “Azerbaijan youth is losing faith in something good and considers that the situation can be improved only by violence.”
One reason for that, Bredikhin says, is that many young Azerbaijanis have been encouraged by ISIS to think that if they serve in its ranks, they will be able to end the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory. In this sense, these fighters are much like those in Germany after its defeat in World War I who rallied to the Nazis because of “frustration and dissatisfaction” with the authorities.
Kyamil Salimov, a Baku security expert, says that “for Azerbaijan, the issue of the recruitment of our citizens into ISIS is important” and that schools and higher educational institutions need guidance on how to identify recruiters and those who may be at risk of recruitment. He added that Baku is working with Russian officials on this.
The reason Azerbaijanis are going in such numbers reflects both geography – it is easy to cross into Turkey and from there into Syria – and certain domestic Azerbaijani realities, including the sense among many young people that there needs to be massive change in their country, Bredikhin says.
One Azerbaijani jihadist recently posted a declaration online accusing the Azerbaijani government of driving the Salafis into the hands of ISIS. “We are much criticized in Azerbaijan,” he said. But there is a reason why we came here. The cause is to be found in Azerbaijan itself. We are pressured and not accepted as people. The Media speaks against us calling us Wahhabis. The police shave our bears. Therefore, we decided to go to Syria.”
The Azerbaijani authorities have conducted “a harsh policy” to block the appearance of any terrorist groups in the republic, Bredikhin says. But Aleksandr Perenzhiyev, a Moscow military analyst says, that “Baku is not making any steps to prevent its citizens from going into the ranks of terrorist organizations” abroad. And now they are coming home.
ISIS has “big plans” for Azerbaijan, Bredikhin continues. Not only does it want to destabilize Azerbaijan itself but it hopes to put pressure on Shiite Iran from the north, something Tehran is very worried about, and reach the North Caucasus and particularly Daghestan from the south, something Moscow is.
In recent weeks, ISIS has launched hacker attacks on Azerbaijani institutions and warned that there will be more, saying that “this is only the beginning” of their activities in Azerbaijan. They have seized computer records and threaten to make them public if Baku does not make concessions to ISIS.
It is seems clear, Bredikhin says, that there already exist ISIS cells in Azerbaijan and that they are involved in preparing radicals for fighting there as well as in Turkey, Jordan, and adjoining countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. And he outlines three probable directions of ISIS activity in Azerbaijan in the future:
First, destabilization of the situation in the southern Caucasus and in Daghestan; second, the restarting of military operations against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia; and third, the spread of radicalism as the unintended result of the long jail sentences Azerbaijani courts have handed down against the militants.
The latter is especially worrisome because the radicals serving 20 years to life have the opportunity to spread their ideas to others incarcerated for shorter periods having been found guilty of other crimes. The latter are far more numerous and thus may cause far more problems in the future, the Russian analyst suggests.
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