After the events of September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, Azerbaijan became one of the active members of the anti-terrorism coalition. Besides providing a small contingent of troops for peace operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Azerbaijani government actively cooperates with the United States and other members of the coalition to fight against al-Qaeda. For a short period of time following the September 11 attacks, Azerbaijani special services arrested 23 international terrorists and extradited them to Middle Eastern countries (Arif Yunusov, Islam in Azerbaijan, 2004). Late President Heydar Aliyev claimed that state security agents had arrested “big figures” from the al-Qaeda network. Supposedly, Aliyev was speaking about two members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who were apprehended in Azerbaijan in 2002 with the assistance of the CIA. They were handed over to Egypt. Later in 2004, both local and foreign newspapers reported that al-Qaeda might implement large-scale attacks against some countries, including Azerbaijan, that have handed al-Qaeda members to the Egyptian government.
In most of the cases, the majority of arrested terrorists and radicals were foreign citizens, usually from Arab countries, in addition to Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the last couple of years, however, ethnic Azerbaijanis have become involved in the activities of radical terrorist organizations. In March 2005, for example, an Azerbaijani court imprisoned a group of six people. The gang, headed by Amiraslan Iskenderov, who allegedly fought in Afghanistan from 1999-2003, was planning terrorist attacks against public and governmental buildings, strategic facilities and residences of foreign citizens. The terrorist group also planned to implement mass-scale chemical attacks in some regions of Azerbaijan. The group prepared a statement on behalf of al-Qaeda in the Caucasus, threatening the Azerbaijani government to carry out bombings in Baku. According to the Ministry of National Security, the terrorists’ main aim was to force the Azerbaijani government to change its secular and democratic regime, as well as to quit the anti-terrorism coalition (Day.az, March 17, 2005). In June 2005, another group consisting of foreign and local citizens was indicted. The group received special instructions from the Abu Hafs, the coordinator of al-Qaeda in the Caucasus, and was planning to commit terrorist acts, bombings and arson to cause political instability (Today.az, July 6, 2005).
Later in March 2006, Eldar Mahmudov, the Azerbaijani minister of national security, warned the public on activities of religious-extremist groups in the country. Mahmudov claimed that before September 11, Azerbaijan was only a transit country for terrorists. After becoming a member of the anti-terrorism coalition, however, terrorists began to target Azerbaijan as well (Echo Newspaper, March 18).
Independent analysis would doubt the existence or even the interest of al-Qaeda in Azerbaijan. After September 11, it became fashionable among some autocratic regimes in Central Asia to “neutralize” al-Qaeda cells in their respective countries and to show their importance to the anti-terrorism coalition. Azerbaijan was no exception. Officials, special services and the media actively circulate a variety of myths, stressing the importance of Azerbaijan as well as the potential danger from al-Qaeda. Some of these myths are below.
Myth I: Al-Qaeda is planning attacks on Azerbaijan for its participation in the international anti-terrorism coalition.
One of the most circulated myths that can be found in the local Azerbaijani media implies al-Qaeda’s plans to launch attacks in Azerbaijan as a punishment for participating in the anti-terrorism coalition and to force the Azerbaijani government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan was one of the first countries that answered the call of U.S. President George W. Bush to wage a war against terrorism, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda would target Azerbaijan. As previous actions of al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations have shown, the leaders of these groups are rational actors who do not generally attack merely for the sake of terrorism. Al-Qaeda prefers to attack cities where a terrorism strike would lead to both high casualties as well as a huge resonance. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is not of great global importance. Attacking Baku would offer little benefit to al-Qaeda.
Secondly, Azerbaijan does not offer many attractive targets. The only possible targets might be the U.S., British or the Israeli embassies, or the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. After September 11, there were several reports claiming al-Qaeda was planning to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baku. Those reports, however, were not independently confirmed.
Myth II: Al-Qaeda might attack the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and disrupt oil supplies to the West.
In 2004, the Azerbaijani government stated that the country’s special services had obtained information that members of al-Qaeda were planning acts of sabotage designed to derail the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline—a $3 billion project intended to transport oil from the Caspian Sea region to the world markets. The news caught the eye of many security experts and government officials. In the wake of the Limburg bombing—the French-flagged oil tanker—and al-Qaeda’s adoption of the new tactic to disrupt oil supplies from the Middle East to the West, government officials called for tighter security measures for the pipeline. Thorough analysis, however, can explain that al-Qaeda is not very interested in the destruction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline
First of all, the pipeline transports approximately one million barrels per day, supplying only 1.2 percent of all world oil consumption. A disruption of the pipeline can hardly hit global oil supplies. Second, the pipeline and its infrastructure can be easily reconstructed within weeks or even days. Third, an attack on oil installations in the Middle East region, especially in the Gulf countries, which give al-Qaeda more attention than the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which has more regional and less global significance. It is worth mentioning, however, that disruption of the pipeline would lead to anxiety or even panic in the world market and affect prices. The attack on the pipeline would show that al-Qaeda is targeting, and capable of attacking, oil facilities outside the Middle East. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack on a pipeline could become a mini-catastrophe for the country. Azerbaijan could lose its attractiveness to investors due to elevated financial risks.
Myth III: Al-Qaeda recruits Azerbaijanis for terrorist attacks.
In March 2006, Minister of National Security Mahmudov shocked the public with the information that an al-Qaeda Caucasus terrorist cell was planning to recruit Azerbaijani women for suicide missions. The minister maintained that although the country has extensive experience with fighting extremism, the information “was the worst discovery for us over the past years” (Echo Newspaper, March 18).
The real situation in Azerbaijan, however, is different. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, a majority of the population consider themselves secular. It should be mentioned that while most Azerbaijanis consider Islam part of their national identity, any mixing of religion with the political sphere is discouraged by a vast majority. Critical to understanding this issue is the fact that the Azerbaijani view of Islam is one of a common national characteristic, inseparable from its Azerbaijani ethnic identity, which no single group can monopolize. Compared to other Muslim countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, al-Qaeda will have a hard time influencing and recruiting local Azerbaijanis for suicide terrorist missions. Furthermore, up to 75-80 percent of the population is Shiite, to which the ideology of al-Qaeda is hostile. Finally, a majority of the mosques, where al-Qaeda usually recruits its followers, are under tight surveillance by the Azerbaijani government.
It cannot be denied, however, that members of other radical organizations are active in Azerbaijan. During the last couple of years, members of terrorist organizations such as the Caucasian Islamic Army, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jeyshullah, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jamaat al-Muvahidun have been neutralized.
On April 18, a group of Azerbaijani citizens calling itself Jamaat al-Muvahidun were sentenced to terms in prison. According to the Ministry of National Security, the group planned to bomb the U.S., Israeli and Russian embassies. In addition, they were planning the assassination of members of governmental and law-enforcement bodies for cooperation in the anti-terrorism coalition. The group was also planning to blow up buildings of State Oil Company, National Bank and other strategic facilities. It was revealed that the young people were ready to get military training in the camps of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey in order to fight “infidel countries” (Turan News Agency, April 18). On April 19, the Azerbaijani court sentenced an international group consisting of 16 people to terms in prison. The group, mostly comprised of citizens of Azerbaijan—although there were citizens of Russia, Turkey and Yemen among them—were supposedly members of al-Qaeda, trained in the Pankisi gorge in Georgia (Terrorism Focus, April 25). The gang members were accused of terrorism, illegally obtaining arms and murdering a police officer in Baku in July 2005. Group members, meanwhile, were recruiting young Azerbaijanis to fight in Chechnya against Russian troops. For the last year, over 100 people were sentenced to various jail terms for the participation in the war in Chechnya—or for preparing to do so (Turan News Agency, April 19).
Recent trends show that local radical organizations pose more of a danger to Azerbaijan than does al-Qaeda. Yet, the Azerbaijani government is trying to connect the surge of local radicalism with the influence of al-Qaeda. There are several reasons for that. First, the country’s regime is trying to show the United States its loyalty concerning the war on terrorism. Thus, the sentencing of al-Qaeda “members” was done in order to demonstrate the activity of Azerbaijan’s special services. Secondly, by exaggerating the danger from al-Qaeda, the Azerbaijani government is trying to portray itself as the one and only pro-democratic force in a region dominated by anti-Western religious extremists. For many years, the current regime in Azerbaijan successfully sold this propaganda, often depicting outbreaks of social unrest as the work of Islamic extremists.
The most important aspect, however, is that the government of Azerbaijan, as well as in many countries in the Middle East, falsely interpret the issue of religious extremism. They believe that terrorist attacks occurring in their countries as well as the establishment of cells of radical Islamic organizations are attributable to some “nerve” center headed by bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. It is easier for the Azerbaijani government to connect jihadi phenomena in the country with al-Qaeda rather than to look at the real factors leading to the emergence of such organizations. The core of these radical extremist organizations is usually a low income group of religious young men, who are mostly unemployed and dissatisfied with the autocratic regime of their country. They tend to see a theocratic state as the only alternative for a highly corrupt and debauched government. One might conclude that the government’s preoccupation with al-Qaeda targeting Azerbaijan is a deliberate attempt to divert popular attention from daily problems by creating a substitute enemy.
Historical experience shows that cracking down radical cells in the country will hardly bring long-term benefits. Instead, it could further alienate religious minority groups and lead them into the trap of jihadi organizations. For the Azerbaijani government, it is time to address important issues such as corruption, poverty and democratic development. Otherwise the country will be bogged down in eternal conflict with the growing influence of radical organizations.