The Republic of Azerbaijan is inarguably one of the fastest developing countries in the post-Soviet space. Large revenues from exports of oil and gas have obscured all of the problems of this Caucasian republic. As in all other republics of the Caucasus, there are also acute, unresolved issues in Azerbaijan that it inherited from the former USSR. The deadlock over talks on the future of Karabakh, the Lezgin ethnic group divided by the Russian-Azeri border, Avar enclaves in northern Azerbaijan and the Sunni minority are among the main problems.
However, the security services’ operation against radical Muslims in the city of Ganja in the northwestern part of Azerbaijan has attracted the most attention recently. Ganja is situated in the Ganja-Kazakh lowlands in the northeastern foothills of the Lesser Caucasus mountain range and is very close to the North Caucasus. Ganja is Azerbaijan’s second largest city in terms of area and third largest in terms of population. On April 6, clashes took place between Azeri Ministry for National Security forces and a group of militants who ended up killing one member of Azerbaijan’s elite special forces. The militants were called different things in different media outlets, including “Forest Brothers,” “Salafis,” “Wahhabis” and so on (https://ummanews.com/news/kavkaz/6377-2012-04-07-10-45-42.html).
The very first news from the site of the clashes indicated the significance of the incident. Despite severe censorship, the government failed to hide the losses sustained by the Ministry for National Security forces, including the killing of Lieutenant Colonel Elshad Veli oglu Guliev (www.trend.az/news/incident/2011429.html). The Azeri version of events, which says that government forces attacked the rebels because they had received information about the arrival of Salafis and their preparations for a terrorist attack in Ganja, does not appear to hold up. The residents of the house where the militants stayed said the suspects had been there for a long time and had caused no trouble (www.radioazadlyg.org/content/article/24539448.html). Yet, the authorities decided to storm their apartment building on Tebriz Street on April 6. As a result, three people on the government side were killed and three to five were wounded, while one militant was killed and two wounded. Two people were arrested during the operation in Ganja: 25-year-old Amir Muradov, a native of Gusar district who had Sumgait as his place of permanent residence; and Faik Sultanov, a resident of the Nizami district of Baku and a student at the Academy of Physical Education (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1518530.html).
Following the firefight in Ganja authorities in Azerbaijan on April 7 began mass arrests of people suspected of involvement in or sympathy for radical Islam. The arrests were carried out in the border areas with Russia, as well as in Baku, Ganja, Sumgait and Gakh. Ammunition and illegal literature calling for jihad (holy war) were confiscated (www.radioazadlyg.org/content/article/24540144.html). It should be noted that special operations against jamaat members are carried out in the north of the country on a regular basis (https://janarmenian.ru/news/4229.html). These areas are populated mainly by Azerbaijan’s Sunni minority and natives of Dagestan. It is no coincidence that the city of Sumgait, one of the larger suburbs of Baku, is mentioned frequently, because it has been the place of residence for many people of Dagestani origin since the Soviet period, when the city was promoted as a multicultural project. Cases of conversion from Shiism to Sunnism are increasingly common among the youth. By default, the authorities tend to regard such cases as the equivalent of adopting radical Islamic teachings, which is hardly the correct way to deal with the issue (https://iwpr.net/ru/report-news, April 14, 2011).
The latest operation by Azerbaijan’s security services illuminated a problem that has been persistently suppressed by the country’s authorities: the fact that Azerbaijan’s jamaat closely cooperates with the North Caucasian jamaats – the so-called Caucasus Emirate, the organization of the North Caucasian armed resistance.
Azerbaijan’s jamaat was founded in Sumgait when Ildar Mollachiev (aka Emir Abdul-Mejid) was still was in charge of the Dagestani jamaat. Mollachiev, who became Emir in September 2007, came from the city of Zagatala in northern Azerbaijan and was an ethnic Tsakhur, a Sunni ethnic group that resides on both sides of the Azeri-Russian border that is closely related to the Lezghians. The Azerbaijani Tsakhurs live mainly in the region of Zagatala and Kakh, a multi-national zone full of small ethnicities, such as the Tsakhurs, Ingiloy and Tabasars.
To provide a base of support in Azerbaijan for his operations, Mollachiev set up an organization in Sumgait in 2008 that subsequently closely cooperated with the North Caucasian jamaats, although it has been completely independent from them. In Azerbaijan, this jamaat is called the “Forest Brothers,” but more correctly it should be called the “Sumgait Jamaat,” since it started off in Sumgait and then spread to other regions of Azerbaijan (www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1239135120).
Members of this jamaat are persecuted across the republic. Thus, in 2011, some of its members were charged with serious crimes, including a bomb attack on the Abu-Bekr mosque in Baku on August 17, 2008 (www.rosbalt.ru/exussr/2009/06/29/651007.html). Twenty-six members of the jamaat received various sentences at the conclusion of the trial, and this was not the only case of sentencing of members of an Azerbaijani jamaat.
Azerbaijan’s authorities face not only the presence on its territory of a jamaat that sympathizes with the militarized North Caucasian resistance movement, but also a more delicate issue, which is the conflict between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam. The vast majority of Azerbaijanis are Shias and, after gaining independence in 1991, the number of Shias in Azerbaijan was estimated to be 85 percent (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Azerbaijan). However, in recent years this gap reportedly has been narrowing and according to some estimates the total number of Shias in Azerbaijan has dropped to 70 percent. By language, culture and spiritual proximity, Azerbaijan is much closer to Sunni Turkey than to Shia Iran. This divide makes Azerbaijan a target for both Iran and Turkey, and the friction between the Shia and the Sunni makes the country particularly vulnerable to its neighbors. That is why the Azeri authorities are trying to limit information about the Azerbaijani jamaat in the best traditions of the Soviet period.
Thus, the authorities’ actions in Ganja should be regarded as confirmation of the existence of a jamaat (aka the “Forest Brothers”) that closely cooperates with the North Caucasian armed resistance. This organization is very dynamic and has multiple cells not only in the north of the country, but also in Baku, Sumgait and Ganja. In the future we should expect more government actions aimed at uprooting the structure that was established by Dagestani militant leader Ildar Mollachiev in 2008, particularly as Azerbaijan moves closer and closer to the Eurovision contest at the end of May. Increasingly there are signs in Islamic forums that some militant group in Azerbaijan might pose a threat to the thousands of foreigners who will descend upon Baku (https://ummanews.ru/feedback.html).