On October 27 Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies announced they had foiled a terrorist plot targeting the U.S. and British embassies, as well as the Baku offices of several major oil companies.
The plot was discovered following a theft in a Defense Ministry military unit. Lieutenant Kamran Asadov allegedly stole four guns, 20 hand grenades, and a large amount of ammunition and hid this small arsenal in Ismayilli region. Then he returned to Baku where, together with members of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, plotted terrorist attacks. The Ministry of National Security surrounded the house where the terrorist group was hiding on the outskirts of the capital city and managed to neutralize the terrorist cell, killing one person and arresting two (Press release, Ministry of National Security, October 27).
As a result of the news, both the U.S. and British embassies, as well as the Landmark business center, which houses the Norwegian oil company Statoil and U.S. embassy support staff, were shut down for several days.
Although the terror attempt was successfully prevented, the situation in Baku remains tense. The opposition Musavat newspaper described it as an “undeclared state of emergency.” Roads are full of traffic police and security forces check points. Intense searches are ongoing for other suspected members of the terrorist group as well as for criminal groups that have committed a number of high-level robberies in the past two weeks.
Government officials and the general public are continuing to discuss these latest events, but the officials often give contradictory statements. On October 26 the Ministry of Defense refuted information that the AWOL lieutenant was a Wahhabi himself, while the chairman of the State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations, Hidayat Orujev, openly declared him a Wahhabi (APA News Agency, October 29). Similarly contradictory statements came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the Deputy Minister Khalaf Khalafov told journalists that if there were a threat to the embassies, they would immediately inform his ministry (Day.az, October 29).
The threat of radical religious extremism in Azerbaijan is a common theme in the press. Azerbaijan, which prides itself on being a role model for the other majority-Islam states in terms of secularism, religious tolerance, and modernism, lately has experienced a rise in radical Islam. Anecdotal evidence suggests a growing number of Muslims in the country, especially among young people. Many pundits believe that this is a natural phenomenon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where atheism was promoted, and the restoration of traditional cultural and religious values. At the same time, the efforts of a massive propaganda campaign by foreign missionaries from the Gulf countries and Iran should not be underestimated.
Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a prominent Islam scholar and imam of the Juma mosque in Baku, told Day.az on October 29, that Wahhabism has been a problem at least since the beginning of this year. Ibrahimoglu believes that it is impossible to fight Wahhabism in the country by forceful administrative measures, such as arresting members of the sect and shaving their beards, which recently occurred in the Zagatali and Balakan regions of Azerbaijan, but rather the government should invest in massive educational and awareness campaigns.
Future terror threats in Baku will be investigated more carefully in the future, with the help of special agents from the FBI and MI-6, but what remains the biggest, yet poorly understood, concern is the emergence of radical Islam within the army. Immediately after the incident with Lieutenant Asadov, APA news agency reported that 10 officers and cadets from the military academies in Baku had been arrested on charges related to Wahhabism. When asked about the spread of Wahhabism, Orujev replied, “There is no worry about the massive spread of Wahhabism in the army, but just one fact already shows the trend” (APA News Agency, October 29).
Indeed, if radical religious extremism spreads from society into the army, it will have very negative consequences for the country’s future. The government denies that this is a significant threat but admits that a few small groups in the country, which are manipulated by foreign religious groups, are interested in destroying Azerbaijan’s political, economic, and religious stability. Independent political scientist Rasim Musabeyov also agrees with this statement, saying, “Some circles abroad want to use this tool to be able to pressure Azerbaijan” (Novosti-Azerbaijan, October 31).