Escalating threats of Islamist violence in Azerbaijan have prompted a massive government crackdown on militants. For over five years, analysts and political scientists in Azerbaijan have warned of the danger of a growing Salafist (“Wahhabi”) influence in the country. Since the beginning of the Second Chechen war in 1999, Azerbaijan has become a safe harbor for many Salafis escaping the Russian army. Meanwhile, the number of local Salafis was also growing very fast and—according to one estimate—reached as high as 10,000 by the end of 2006, although this number as not been confirmed (Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005). A number of Salafis have been involved in crimes and sectarian violence.
On October 25 the Defense Ministry reported that one of the officers of the Azerbaijan National Army deserted his regiment, taking four Kalashnikov assault rifles along with a machine gun from a military base. The Ministry of National Security has claimed that the officer was a follower of the Salafi stream of Islam and the stolen arms were going to be used in terror attacks. This statement was fiercely refuted by the Defense Ministry, which was scared of any religious infiltration of the army and the possibility of radical religious groups obtaining arms from the military (TURAN News Agency, October 26). Meanwhile, police detained 10 officers and students of military academies involved in Salafist cells in Azerbaijan. Alarmed at these events, law enforcement agencies began to crack down aggressively on Salafist groups all over the country. On October 27, Baku police engaged in a skirmish with a group of Salafis. As a result of the clash, one of the perpetrators was killed and two arrested. A stock of ammunition was confiscated at the house of the detainees (TURAN News Agency, October 27).
During the next few days dozens of Salafis, including the imam of a mosque, were arrested in various regions of Azerbaijan. The sudden action of law enforcement and the apparently unorganized crackdown on Salafist cells gave the impression that the government was expecting terrorist attacks against the numerous soft targets in the capital city. On October 29, law enforcement agencies reported that they had detained a group of Salafis armed with grenade launchers who were preparing an attack near the U.S. and British embassies. A National Security Ministry spokesman said that it was discovered that the radical group had four Kalashnikov assault rifles, one Kalashnikov grenade launcher, 20 grenades, ammunition and automatic weapon parts. The group was reported to have planned to attack a number of state buildings and representatives of private companies (Day.az, October 29). The resulting security issues prompted the closure of the U.S. and British embassies. Americans and Britons residing in Azerbaijan received text messages to be careful, particularly in the areas near the embassies and living compounds. Many Western companies located in Azerbaijan also limited their operations due to the security measures, including the Norwegian Statoil and the U.S. McDermott oil companies. The situation caught the attention of the U.S. media when Sean McCormack, spokesman for the Department of State, gave details on the nature of the threat. He noted that there was some specific and credible information concerning threats to the U.S. embassy and plans by militants to harm individuals in or around the embassy. Public officials in Baku stated that “activities of Wahabbis in Azerbaijan are organized and directed from abroad,” but added that these activities could not undermine political stability or threaten the secular nature of Azerbaijan’s statehood (Day.az, October 31).
Despite the flow of information on the threat of terrorist attacks, there are still many facts not yet revealed by law enforcement. Neither the police nor the Ministry of National Security has yet disclosed the name of the group, the number of perpetrators or any other information proving that the threat was real rather than fiction. Plots, assassinations and coup attempts are “thwarted” with regularity in Azerbaijan. Knowing the fondness of Azerbaijani law enforcement for cracking down on “conspiracies,” some doubts exist as to whether the threat was serious enough to stop activities of embassies and oil companies. Local press and analysts believe that there could be several factors explaining the current campaign, including the growing influence of Islam on public life and the possibility that it could become an alternative center of power in a secular state. Thus, periodically the government finds a scapegoat to attack such “Wahabbis,” Nursists (Sunni followers of the Kurdish Quranic scholar Said Nursi, 1878-1960) or Shiite radicals (Zerkalo, November 3). Another cause may be found in next year’s presidential elections. By inflating the danger of an “Islamic/Wahabbi” coup, state officials may be trying to show that radical Islamists could come to power in the oil-rich country should the incumbent government lose the elections.