During the past month, Azerbaijan’s social media has been inundated with reports about a growing number of Azerbaijani nationals who have gone to Syria to fight for the cause of Syrian rebels. Some of these fighters have already returned home. In late January 2014, the Azerbaijani news portal vesti.az, reported that Rasim Badalov, a former fighter in Syria, had been arrested by Azerbaijani security forces in Sumgait, Azerbaijan’s third largest city. Badalov had returned to his home city of Sumgait six months ago after fighting with Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces (Vesti.az, January 17, 2014).
Based upon a press release issued by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs on January 15, Badalov and a group of men—Ilkin Bashirov, Elekber Zeynalov, Samir Mammedkerimov, Hamlet Talibov and Alinur Atayev—were arrested in the “Champion” tea house located in the fifth suburb of Sumgait (mia.gov.az, January 16). According to several comments made on Facebook, the tea house is reportedly owned by Rafael Aghayev, a four-time World champion in karate. Aghayev is from Sumgait. “[L]ater on [he] was influenced by Wahhabism and joined the sect.” Discussions on Azerbaijani Facebook indicated that the tea house appeared to have been a meeting point for radical groups who shared its owner’s religious views.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that during the inspection of Ramil Badalov’s apartment, located in the eighth micro region in Sumgait, the investigators discovered an AK-74 rifle, one holder for the weapon, two grenades, 22 cartridges and some extremist religious propaganda materials. Badalov had reportedly traveled to Syria through Hatay province in Turkey without informing his family (mia.gov.az, January 16).
The number of such incidents in Sumgait has been on the increase in recent months. According to APA news, late last year an armed incident took place in Sumgait (APA, December 11, 2013). The Sumgait police department revealed that a conflict erupted in a tea house as a result of religious arguments between groups of Salafis and Kharijites. Salafis and Kharijites are polar opposites: neither accepts the other as legitimate. Salafis are conservative Sunni Muslims who reject all religious authority that does not stem from the first three generations of Caliphs; Kharijites (or secessionists) are so radical they seceded from mainstream Islam during the earliest period.
The fact that the recent arrests occurred in Sumgait is interesting because most of the reports about Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria have so far been primarily from the northern part of the country where the Lezgian minority resides (see map on http://jihadology.net/2014/01/28/guest-post-azerbaijani-foreign-fighters-in-syria/). Located 35 kilometers north of Baku, Sumgait is a fertile area for recruitment of foreign fighters because of the number of young men seeking employment there; unemployed Azerbaijani youth can easily fall into the hands of a religious group there. Sumgait’s economic development has lagged behind other parts of the country, particularly Baku, in recent years despite its past reputation as a center of science, innovation and research in Azerbaijan—numerous chemical plants are located here. As Azerbaijan’s capital experienced a boom in economic development and business, Sumgait’s working class has left the city for Baku. Those left behind have struggled to survive, opening up opportunities for religious extremism.
According to local sources, it is commonly known among the general public in Sumgait that young men sometimes join religious sects for financial reasons—members of such organizations are reportedly paid approximately $384 per month. Allegedly, the longer a beard a member maintains, the more prestige he gains among his religious sect’s other associates (Co-author interviews in Sumgait, summer 2013).
Increasingly, details are emerging about the extent of Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria. Zaur Shiriyev, a prominent expert in Azerbaijan, believes that while the exact number of Azerbaijanis who have gone to Syria is unknown, it is a safe bet that approximately 100–400 Azerbaijanis have traveled there to fight the Assad regime (http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=336708). Yet, the exact number is difficult to calculate as estimates vary. Compared to the absolute number of recruits from West European countries, the amount of Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria is still relatively small. For example over 700 French citizens have gone to Syria to fight on behalf of the rebels—although France’s population is seven times larger than that of Azerbaijan (Washington Post, December 24, 2013).
Recently, a video was posted online by an Azerbaijani fighting in Syria on the side of Jaish al Muhajireen al Ansar (also known as the Army of Emigrants and Helpers), speaking in the Arabic language mixed with Azerbaijani. The video refers to an urgent need for literate Azerbaijanis to join the struggle in a Syria, which appears to be a cryptic appeal for those with special skills in areas like media and video distribution to come and assist the militants. In addition, this appeal might also indicate that the Syrian rebels are anxious to expand their propaganda and recruitment in Azerbaijan (http://www.video.az/en/video/70692/rasprostraneno-video-azerbaydjantsev-voyuyuschih-v-sirii-bakuWs).
Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria are reportedly aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS)—a faction led by Abu Umar Shishani, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi valley. Shishani apparently had served in the Georgian armed forces in 2006–2007 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25151104); however, another report argues that Shishani had more extensive service experience as a former member of Georgian special forces and fought against Russia during the August 2008 war (see EDM, September 13, 2013). It is likely that some Azerbaijanis who fought among the Jaish al Muhajireen al Ansar now have joined the ISIS following the death of their leader Abu Yahya on September 13, 2013 (http://az.apa.az/news/313755). No numbers exist for the exact number of people fighting under Shishani, but some experts estimate that there could be as many as 2,000 fighters from countries that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); of these, 700 come from the Caucasus (http://vesti.az/news/189110).
Meanwhile, the recent surge in news about Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria has created uneasiness in Azerbaijan and prompted religious officials there to urge citizens to stay home. On January 28, Allahshakur Pashadzade, the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus and chairman of the Religious Council of the Caucasus, announced that going to Syria in the name of Islam is wrong; most of all, doing it for money or profit is not accepted as a saintly action. He also expressed his belief that certain government actions will prevent Azerbaijanis from traveling to fight in Syria: an apparent hint that the government may pass tighter restrictions on this type of activity (http://az.apa.az/news/329481). On February 3, Interfax reported that a member of the Azerbaijani parliament, Zakhat Orudzh, intensified the pressure further by calling for the government to make it a punishable crime for Azerbaijani citizens to fight in Syria (Interfax.az, February 3).
In light of the recent arrests in Sumgait, the arrival of Azerbaijani fighters in Syria remains a new and worrisome development for a secular country with no history of sending individual citizens beyond its borders to fight in foreign wars. Given the lingering effects of the violent conflict in Syria and its close proximity to Azerbaijan, it is natural that radical elements within this South Caucasus country would prey upon unemployed and disenchanted youth and recruit them to fight. Furthermore, Russian support for Armenia and the 20-year occupation of Karabakh fuels Azerbaijani criticism of Moscow’s unwavering supporting for the Assad regime. However, particularly with the government crackdown on recruitment areas like the Sumgait tea house, as well as continued news filtering back about the poor pay and mounting casualty rates among fighters in Syria, the willingness of some Azerbaijanis to fight abroad may decrease soon.