Several incidents in the last few months suggest that Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, faces a significant terrorist threat. On July 21, two policemen were wounded during a daytime ambush. When the two approached a car near the central market and asked for documents, the five passengers inside the car fired at the policemen and fled. One of the policemen later died from his wounds.
Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies have since detained three of the five suspects and discovered a large amount of weapons in the car, including Kalashnikov rifles, bullets, knives, night-vision equipment, military uniforms, and explosives. Police report that the group’s membership includes two Lezgins and three Arabs and that these “Wahhabis [are] planning terror acts in Baku.”
The market incident comes only days after the Ministry of National Security stormed a private villa in the Novkhani village of Baku and arrested another group that has been accused of planning terrorist acts in the country. The group, consisting of seven individuals, also was found in possession of a huge cache of illegal weapons, explosives, and military uniforms. Minister of National Security Eldar Mahmudov told the media that the capture occurred after an intense shootout with the suspects, during which a Ministry employee was wounded.
Clearly Azerbaijan, located in the geopolitically sensitive Caucasus region, is facing more and more terrorist threats. Some of these threats originate from the al-Qaeda-related groups that want to punish Azerbaijan for its participation in the U.S.-led war against terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other terrorists come from Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Chechnya. Finally, there are residents inside Azerbaijan who adhere to extremist religious ideas and want to promote a radical Islamic regime in the country by damaging the current political system.
Azerbaijan is also facing increasing risks of becoming a transit zone for terrorists and transnational criminal groups. Transparent borders, corrupt law-enforcement officials, and convenient geographic routes make Azerbaijan a popular transit point for the growing movements of international terrorists. This makes Baku even more vulnerable to terrorist threats, as they seem only a step away from becoming reality. Socio-economic and political tensions inside the country also contribute to this heightened risk.
The two recent incidents are not isolated activities. In October 2004, the National Security Ministry identified and arrested another terrorist cell that included citizens of Afghanistan, Great Britain, Jordan, and Russia. The group had launched its operations in Baku at the end of September 2004 and wanted to organize terrorist acts in the capital in order to undermine Azerbaijan’s political stability and increase social tensions. Nurzey Aziz Abdurrahman, an Afghan citizen, headed the group and allegedly invited Ali Fadil Eldrissi, who holds a British passport, to Baku to prepare explosives. After the arrests, $80,000, seven ready-made explosives, electrical and radio materials for making bombs, Makarov pistols, bullets, remote detonators, and 18 fake passports were found in the apartment rented by the terrorists. The group was charged under the Azerbaijani criminal code and its members were sentenced to 3-15 years in prison.
Earlier this year the Ministry of National Security arrested a six-person terrorist cell, headed by Baku resident Amiraslan Iskenderov, who had received special training in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2003 in al-Qaeda-connected training camps. He was taught how to make and use bombs and organize mass killings of people in public areas, such as government buildings or places where many foreign citizens work. He also learned how to identify and target strategic facilities. Iskenderov was eventually sent back to Azerbaijan to organize terror acts and to distribute anti-government propaganda among youth and ethnic minorities. He also was assigned to recruit young girls with extremist religious views to become suicide bombers. In February the members of this group were sentenced to 3-7 years in prison.
So far, the government of Azerbaijan seems to be doing a good job at preventing these threats from materializing. But many observers believe that the terrorists will eventually mount a successful attack in the streets of Baku. When asked whether the threat of terrorism is growing in Azerbaijan, Mahmudov replied, “There is always a terror threat. This is a global problem. Citizens of all countries face it, be it in England or Israel. But our special forces are fighting it and are always ready to prevent it.”