Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 4

On January 3, Azerbaijan’s military court for grave crimes passed sentences in the trial of twelve young Azerbaijani citizens, whom it had found guilty on terrorism-related charges in late December. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years for attempting to form an unlawful armed group and undergoing preliminary training with a view to joining Chechen forces on Russia’s territory. Ringleader Kenan Sabanov had last year spent some time among Chechen refugees in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, whence he returned to Azerbaijan for recruiting purposes.

Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry (NSM) arrested the group last August and conducted the investigation that led to the convictions. Although the would-be fighters engaged in little more than bravado talk and some physical training without weapons, the Azerbaijani authorities took no chances and went ahead with the trial. Seven of the defendants pled guilty and are eligible to have their sentences suspended on probation.

The same court issued a further order, instructing the NSM to watch the controversial Abu Bakr mosque in Baku and the activities of its clergy and worshippers. That mosque does not answer to the official Muslim clerical establishment, and is viewed by some local observers as a potential source of Islamist agitation.

A follow-up trial is getting underway in Baku against a group of five Azerbaijanis accused of having actually fought in Chechnya last year. They too are linked to the recruiter Sabanov and his accomplice, Alirza Babaev, who is on the run. The NSM arrested the five in two separate incidents last month while they were crossing the border from Russia’s Dagestan republic into Azerbaijan.

On January 2, the NSM arrested the six members of a Baku cell of the underground pan-Islamic organization Hezb-ut Tahrir [Islamic Party of Liberation]. This is the first known instance of a Hezb-ut Tahrir group being cracked in Baku. The six include five Azerbaijani citizens and one citizen of Ukraine with a Turkic-sounding name. The leader, Abdurasul Abdurahimov, who created the cell last August, managed to elude arrest in Baku. He is a citizen of Uzbekistan and is wanted there on terrorism-related charges that go back to 1993.

According to Azerbaijan’s NSM, the arrested Hezb-ut Tahrir members are “illiterate, superstitious young men,” whom Abdurahimov recruited for political indoctrination and subversion of the secular state. The group recently circulated leaflets denouncing the U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan and calling for the creation of an Islamic state in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The NSM says that it found the group in possession of instructions for manufacturing explosives, along with indications that they were preparing attacks on the U.S. embassy and other international missions in Baku. If so, this would mark a deviation from Hezb-ut Tahrir’s tactics in Central Asia. There, the organization carefully shuns violence at the present stage, though allowing for the use of violent methods at some future stage.

On January 3, Azerbaijan handed over to Egypt four citizens of that country, who were being sought there on an international arrest mandate through the Interpol. The four had escaped abroad after having been sentenced on terrorism-related charges by an Egyptian military court.

On the whole, Azerbaijan does not face internal problems with terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism. The country’s choice of secular development rests on a solid consensus that encompasses the ruling establishment, the political opposition, the official clergy and the populace at large. In recent years, Iranian propaganda and other types of Islamic fundamentalism have failed to gain a following in Azerbaijan. The authorities’ measures are preventive, and in essence a response to the heightened international vigilance toward actual or potential sources of terrorism (ANS, Turan, January 2-4; Al-Zaman, January 3; Ekho, December 29, 2001).