Much has been said about the activities of Salafis (Sunni Muslims who aspire to follow the example set by the first five generations of Muslims) and their organizations in Azerbaijan. However, many news reports and articles tend to portray them as terrorists or members of global terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or al-Jihad. In reality, only a small share of Salafis tend to resort to violence and militancy. Although Salafist teaching often contradicts the Shiite interpretation of Islam that is followed by up to 80% of Azerbaijan’s population, the majority of Salafis in Azerbaijan do not support violence and do not get involved in criminal activities. In Azerbaijan the Salafis can be divided conditionally into two groups: radicals and non-militants who happen to comprise the Salafi community.
The activities of non-militant Salafis are usually centered around the Salafi mosques or charismatic leaders and are limited to preaching and discussions. Militant Salafis, however, organize themselves into radical groups and often get support from abroad. In contrast to the classical terror groups, militant Salafis do not have the pyramidal structure in their organizations. They are weak, loosely connected and gravitate around the leader. The majority of Salafi mosques, where radicals can be recruited are under the tight surveillance of law enforcement agencies. The creation of strong Salafi radical organization is thus prevented at the embryo stage. Meanwhile, an absence of funds, training and equipment limits the activities of Salafi organizations. The militant Salafi groups have a greater chance of survival if they have significant assistance from abroad. Below is a profile of Salafi organizations, radical Salafis and non-militant members of the Azerbaijan Salafi community.
Violent Salafi organizations and militant radicals
The Jeyshullah (Soldiers of Allah) organization was a radical Salafi group founded in 1995 by Mubariz Aliyev, a renegade Internal Affairs Ministry officer. The aim of the group was to spread Salafism in Azerbaijan by getting rid of those who stood in their way, seizing of power in the country by force and creating an Islamic state. The members of group were involved in a number of terrorist acts in Azerbaijan between 1997 and 1999, including a series of murders and attacks on a Hare Krishna temple and the Baku office of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Jeyshullah issued fliers calling on Azerbaijanis to fight foreign religious missionaries and non-Islamic religious groups. The members of Jeyshullah received special military and ideological training in Chechnya (Turan News Agency, April 19, 2006). The training covered the ideological basis of the radical Salafism movement and military methods for acts of terrorism. The group planned to bomb the U.S. embassy in Baku but was pre-empted by Azerbaijani law enforcement officials. Various Jeyshullah members were arrested in 1999 and tried in 2000. Jeyshullah leader Mubariz Aliev was sentenced to life imprisonment. Twelve others received prison terms ranging from four to thirteen years. (ANS TV, August 28, 31, September 8, 26)
The Salafi Forest Brothers is a radical organization operating in Southern Dagestan and Northern Azerbaijan. Other cells of this organization operate in Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Northern Ossetia and other regions of Russia. The group was established by Kwase Jaffon (nickname), an Arab veteran of the Chechen war. Kwase Jaffon is alleged to have visited the northern regions of Azerbaijan where he established local cells. Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies have reported the discovery of hidden caches of arms and food in forests of northern Azerbaijan (Day.az, February 21, 2006).
Kanan Shabanov was the leader of militant Salafi jihadist group. In the summer of 2001, Shabanov recruited dozen of Azerbaijanis from the Abu Bakr mosque for participation in “jihad against Russian occupants.” The group was trained in Georgia and later participated in military actions against Russian troops in Chechnya. Shabanov and four other accomplices were sentenced to jail for four to five years after their arrest in 2002. Seven other members of the group were conditionally sentenced for various terms and freed (Turan News Agency, January 10, 2002).
Araz Balabekov is one of the wanted militant Salafis at large. Araz, together with his brother Babek Balabekov and several other villagers of Gusar region were converted to Salafism in 1994-1995 by the Kuwaiti “Revival of Islamic Heritage” society. In the fall of 2001, Araz was arrested by Russian law enforcement and imprisoned for one and a half years. After serving his sentence he returned to Azerbaijan and joined the Salafi Forest Brothers. In the summer of 2005, Araz was involved in the murder of police in Baku. Balabekov is allegedly hiding in Dagestan. His brother Babek has deserted from the Azerbaijani army and joined one of the military groups in Chechnya (Turan News Agency, March 27).
Amiraslan Iskenderov was the head of a Salafist gang. He received special training in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2003 at al-Qaeda-connected training camps and was taught how to make and use bombs and organize mass killings of people in public areas. Iskenderov returned to Azerbaijan to organize terror acts and to distribute anti-government propaganda among youth and ethnic minorities. He was also assigned to recruit young girls with extremist religious views to become suicide bombers. Iskenderov’s group prepared a statement on behalf of al-Qaeda in the Caucasus, threatening the Azerbaijani government with bombings in Baku. According to the Ministry of National Security, the terrorists’ main aim was to force the Azerbaijani government to change its secular and democratic regime and quit the anti-terrorist coalition. In March 2005, an Azerbaijani court imprisoned all the gang members (Today.az, March 19, 2005).
Kamran Asadov is a former officer of the Azerbaijan National Army. After joining a militant Salafi group he deserted from his military base, taking four automatic rifles, one machine gun, twenty grenades and many rounds of ammunition. In late October 2007, his group committed an armed assault on a Lukoil gas station and heavily wounded an employee. According to the Ministry of National Security of Azerbaijan, the group planned to attack the U.S. and British embassies (Trend News Agency, November 10). In early November Asadov and all the members of his group were arrested.
Abu Jafar is a mysterious Arab who established a radical Salafi group. Not much is known about him. According to the Ministry of National Security, Abu Jafar has connections with al-Qaeda and al-Jihad terror organizations. Abu Jafar and seven other members of his group were arrested in the security crackdown in early November (Trend News Agency, November 6).
Qammat Suleymanov – The sheikh of the Abu Bakr Salafi mosque can be considered a leader of non-militant Salafis. Suleymanov was born in Baku in the 1970s. After serving in the Azerbaijani army, he left for Sudan in 1991, where he studied at the University of Khartoum for two years. From 1993 to 1998, Suleymanov studied at the Islamic University of al-Madinah, a leading center for the study and export of Salafism (80% of students at the university are international students). After returning to Azerbaijan Suleymanov became sheikh of Baku’s Abu Bakr mosque, built in 1997 by the Azerbaijani branch of the Kuwaiti society “Revival of Islamic Heritage.” The mosque was cited as a favorable place for recruitment during several trials of Salafi radicals, followed by calls to shut down the mosque and arrest Suleymanov. The former head of the State Committee for the Work with Religious Structures, Rafiq Aliyev, reportedly called the Abu Bakr mosque a “breeding ground of Wahhabism”, claiming that 54 Abu Bakr worshippers had gone to hot spots like Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan (Day.az, July 21). Despite the accusations there was no clear evidence linking Suleymanov to radicals and terrorists. The government is unlikely to shut down the mosque in the near future. For security purposes it is better to keep the Abu Bakr mosque and its congregation in plain view. Closing down the mosque would result in the creation of private or “underground” facilities that would be much more difficult to monitor.
Mirza Alibek Alibekov is the Imam of a Salafi mosque in Devechi region of Azerbaijan. Thirty-eight year old Alibekov was arrested in the end of October of 2007 during the proscription of Salafis. Alibekov was charged with keeping a large quantity of religious literature and resistance to police (Day.az, October 29).
It is very unlikely that non-militant Salafis would organize strong political organizations for several reasons. First of all, Salafis worldwide, and in Azerbaijan particularly, believe that Muslims should not engage in Western activities like conventional politics. Secondly, the Azerbaijan government would hardly allow Salafis to get organized at any level. Nevertheless, radical militant Salafis would continue to present a threat to the secular statehood of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the majority of the public and Azerbaijan’s law enforcement agencies do not see much difference between radical and peaceful Salafis. In many cases peaceful adherents of Salafism are oppressed, arrested or forced to shave beards. Such actions and continued oppression could drastically change the situation, leading to peaceful Salafis feeling the need to organize or join radical groups in order to resist police brutality and persecution. That, in turn, could lead to a new wave of opposition between Salafis and government, the outcome of which is hard to predict.