Husseini’yon: A Profile of the Iranian-backed Militia Threatening Azerbaijan
The Iranian-backed Shia Islamist militia, Husseini’yon, has emerged in recent years as an insurgency in what has been a low intensity conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan.  Although the vast majority of people in both countries are Shia Muslims, bilateral relations have been uneasy throughout their modern history.  Tensions have also risen recently as Azerbaijan has significantly enhanced its military cooperation with Iran’s regional rivals: Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. Husseini’yon has accordingly become more vocal in its opposition to the foreign and domestic policies of the secular government under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev (hafryat.com, October 4, 2021).
Over the last few decades, the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) has supported and mobilized Shiite militias in multiple countries across the Middle East. Those militias, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, and Iraq’s Shiite militias, have become an essential part of Iran’s regional and global strategy. Each militia has its own story and circumstances. Husseini’yon, however, is the least known of these militias, despite the fact that it may play a key role in Iran’s disputes with Azerbaijan in the future.
Husseini’yon’s Formation and Leadership
In early 2016, Tawheed Ibrahim Begli, a little-known Azerbaijani Shia cleric, founded Husseini’yon in the Iranian city of Qom, which is a holy city for Shia Muslims, including senior clerics. Upon its formation, the militia was comprised of only 14 Shia students from Qom’s Shia theology seminaries. They all received brief basic military training and deployed to Syria as part of Iran’s war effort to support the Syrian Arab Army under the government of President Bashar al-Assad (mena-monitor.org, October 4, 2021).
Begli claimed his militia would fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria but did not deny that Husseini’yon would also pursue targets closer to Iran, such as Azerbaijan. This no doubt because Begli had long been a critic of President Aliyev’s government (alarabiya.net, October 3, 2021).
Subsequently, in late 2021, Iran complained about a trilateral military exercise conducted by the Azerbaijani army in Azerbaijan with Turkish and Pakistani troops, who were collectively dubbed “the three brothers.” Iran responded by organizing military exercises near its border with Azerbaijan and by renewing its claim that there was also an Israeli military presence in Azerbaijan that it would not tolerate (alkhanadeq.com, October 3, 2021). Husseini’yon gained prominence at this time as observers started to realize its potential as a role-player in the disputes between Iran and Azerbaijan and, more specifically, Azerbaijani Sunni jihadists and Shia militiamen. Such Azerbaijani fighters, who fought on different sides in the Syrian civil war, were returning from Syria and arrested in Azerbaijan (remonews.com, October 3, 2021).
Tawheed Ibrahim Begli’s Background
Begli comes from a family that has its roots in the Azerbaijani community in Iran, but moved to Azerbaijan. He was not known as an influential cleric, which has nonetheless been the case with many leaders of Iranian-backed militias. Regardless of his origins, Begli was still supported and endorsed by Qassim Soleimani, who is seen in pictures with Begli during an occasion where the former IRGC commander encouraged Azerbaijanis to fight against [Iran’s] enemies. Soleimani is believed to have given the group its full name, “Husseini’yon: Islamic Resistance in Azerbaijan,” to mimic Lebanese Hezbollah (iraninsider.net, October 3, 2021). Husseini’yon refers to Imam Hussein, who was the prophet Muhammad’s grandson. He remains a major symbol of martyrdom for Muslims in general and Shias in particular.
Yet, while Hezbollah’s claim of resistance was originally declared against the Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon, and Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah’s claim was against the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Azerbaijan is not under any form of occupation. It is clear, therefore, that Soleimani’s promotion of Husseini’yon was related to his opinion that foreign forces allied with Azerbaijan were an occupation force. Such occupation forces include Israeli, Turkish or any other forces that Iran might consider a threat.
In 2017, Begli attended the annual Islamic Awakening meeting that Iran organizes for allied and friendly Islamist groups and organizations. He met with Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei himself. During that meeting, Begli spoke against the policies of the Aliyev government in Azerbaijan and accused it of imprisoning Muslims, including his own group members, and alluded to other Islamists in prison in Azerbaijan. Such language implied that the Aliyev government was “less Muslim” than those prisoners, bringing Husseini’yon closer to actually declaring the Azerbaijani government as non-Muslim. In the future, this which could mean entering into a more severe conflict and potentially declaring jihad against it (centerlcrc.com, October 4, 2021).
Husseini’yon Members from Syria to Azerbaijan
Husseini’yon only had a minimal presence and impact in Syria, especially compared to Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and other Iranian-backed militias comprised of Afghan and Pakistani Shia fighters. Husseini’yon, however, quickly became active on Azerbaijani soil by 2018. Azerbaijani authorities, for example, accused Husseini’yon of being involved in a number of plots and confrontations against the Azerbaijani government inside Azerbaijan.
One such plot occurred on July 3, 2018. It targeted Elmar Veliyev, the mayor of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city. He narrowly survived the assassination attempt outside his office. The authorities accused Islamist militants of plotting the attack on Veliyev, arresting Yunis Safarov – the main suspect – in July 2018. The authorities described him as an extremist who spent time in Qom and fought in Syria. Although Azerbaijan has faced threats from members of its minority Sunni population who fought in and returned from Syria, the reference to spending time in Qom was a clear sign that in this case the authorities were dealing with the threat of Iranian-backed Shia militia like Husseini’yon (almarjie-paris.com, October 14, 2021).
Nevertheless, the arrest of Safarov was followed by a public backlash. For example, two policemen were stabbed to death and a third was wounded when angry protesters attacked the police after the arrest. This type of incident was virtually unprecedented in Azerbaijan, which is ruled by the strict Aliyev government. A crackdown on the opposition, therefore, ensued and dozens of suspects were arrested, despite the fact that many locals were skeptical of the official claim that Shia Islamist militants were behind the assassination attempt. Indeed, most believed the assassination attempt reflected ordinary people’s resentment (oc-media.org, July 12, 2018).
Israel and Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has been one of the few Muslim majority countries to enjoy strong relations with Israel. Israeli military cooperation and arms sales to Azerbaijan, for example, played a key role in enhancing Azerbaijani military capabilities ahead of and during the 2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh (sipri.org, April 30, 2021; jpost.com, March 31, 2021). Iran has frequently criticized the growing ties between Azerbaijan and Israel and considers their relationship to be a threat to its own security.
Iranian criticism of Azerbaijani-Israeli ties has corresponded with attacks against Israel’s embassy in Baku. For example, Azerbaijani security foiled a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in 2013 — the main suspect was an Iranian citizen (youm7.com, November 13, 2013). Four years earlier, in 2009, six people were also arrested in Baku for conspiring to attack the Israeli embassy. Two of them were Lebanese and the plot was reportedly linked to Hezbollah and the IRGC. More recently, threats to the Israeli embassy have explicitly been linked to Husseni’yon (maannews.net, September 11, 2009). Husseini’yon launched protests against the Israeli embassy and Begli himself was arrested during a protest outside it. Following his arrest, he was sentenced to seven days in custody in October 2021 (iraninsider.net, October 3, 2021). The militia had even been suspected of planning to attack the embassy as early as 2018 (alarabiya.net, October 3, 2021).
Following a pattern set by other Iranian-backed Shia militias in the Middle East, Husseini’yon, therefore, has been pursuing a political agenda alongside its military and armed activities. Indeed, even in the predominantly secular Azerbaijani society, Husseini’yon relies on inciting anti-Israel resentment. Adding to this, the group also exploits religious frustration. In 2017, for instance, Begli attended a gathering in the Iranian city of Zanjan to commemorate victims of a 2015 crackdown by Azerbaijani police on Shia worshipers on the Arbayeen, a prominent day and festival on the Shia religious calender (vaaju.com, October 3, 2021).
Begli has established his group as part of the broader Iranian-backed militia movements. In 2020, he appeared in officially sponsored propaganda along with other Shia militia figures from other parts of the world who eulogized Soleimani. When the new Iranian president, Ibrahim Raisi, assumed office in 2021, Iranian official media quoted his well wishes for the new president and government (nournews.ir, June 20, 2021).
The relatively small size of Hussei’yon currently does not mean it is irrelevant. In fact, rarely has such a small militia become so widely recognized by the Islamic Republic. In terms of military capabilities, Begli’s followers have acquired field experience from fighting in Syria. Members of Husseini’yon also received military training from Hezbollah on guerrilla warfare and other non-conventional militant tactics. Further, as the Syrian conflict began waning and the forces of President Assad became less desperate for Iranian-backed militias’ support, a number of Husseini’yon’s Syrian war veterans started to return home to Iran, where they continued training (brodcastnews.com, February 4).
The Azerbaijani government has accordingly been concerned about Husseini’yon fighters who returned from Syria, many of whom were arrested upon their return from the Middle East, including Almir Zahidov. Zahidov was sentenced to prison in Azerbaijan in 2021. Another Husseini’yon member, Faik Waliyov, was arrested in Russia and handed over to his native Azerbaijan, where he was convicted for joining a “criminal organization” and receiving military training outside the country. These arrests do not necessarily mean that Husseini’yon is crippled. In contrast, its leadership is still intact and most of its members are believed to be free (alkalimaonline.com, February 1).
In its current situation, Husseini’yon is still a small militia, but so were several of the now large Iranian-backed militias during the first years of their existence. The structure and number of personnel of Husseini’yon is not publicly known, but it is believed to have around 20 members. Nevertheless, Husseini’yon has managed to already have an impact inside Azerbaijan with the potential of becoming even more active if the disputes between Iran and Azerbaijan escalates further.
The animosity and ongoing low intensity conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan is unlikely to cool down in the near future, although it is also not expected to escalate into a war, which would provide fertile ground for proxy militia groups to operate. Azerbaijan already hosts separatist elements who want to split the provinces that are populated by an ethnic Azerbaijani majority in northwestern Iran and make them part of Azerbaijan. On the Iranian side, meanwhile, the demands for annexing Azerbaijan were renewed when tensions rose recently. While most of those demands came from outspoken politicians, Husseini’yon represents a more sophisticated opportunity because it is an IRGC-sponsored project to diversify Iran’s tools and options in the conflict with Azerbaijan.
Lastly, Azerbaijan’s economy has grown significantly since the fall of the Soviet Union, especially with regards to its oil and gas exports. However, that growth has created disparities, and poverty and unemployment are pressing issues in Azerbaijan today. The protest after the assassination attempt on the mayor of Ganja revealed that the resentment of the poor could explode into popular protest. Husseini’yon, with its Shia Islamist ideology and links to Iran, might not be so appealing to the Azerbaijani secular and nationalist middle class. However, certain sectors of the population in Azerbaijan, including individuals from the disadvantaged and poorer classes, would provide a potential pool of recruitment for the group if it continues to develop its leadership sophistication and communications methods.
 The Azerbaijanis are a Turkic people. Their land is currently divided into two parts including the Republic of Azerbaijan, which was a Soviet republic, and the northwestern provinces of Iran. Nationalists on both sides have occasionally raised claims of sovereignty in each other’s territory. Unlike most of Iran’s non-Persian communities, Iranian Azerbaijanis are well represented in the Iranian state, including the top echelons of government and armed forces.
 Since Iran lost the last of the Russo-Persian wars in the 19th century, the Azerbaijani land north of the Aras River came under Russian and subsequently Soviet control. Those areas currently include the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia.