Three people were killed and 13 wounded in the bombing of Baku’s Abu Bakr mosque during evening prayer on August 17. Witnesses claimed that a young man threw a grenade into the mosque where up to 200 people were praying. The assailant was able to run away despite attempts to capture him. The Ministers of National Security and Internal Affairs immediately visited the scene of attack, while the investigation was taken under special control of the Azerbaijani president (Turan News Agency, August 18). Gamat Suleymanov, the imam of the mosque (who was wounded in the bombing and is believed to be the main target of the attack), stated that the incident was directed toward disturbing stability in the country. However, he did not point to a specific group that could be behind the bombing (Trend News Agency, August 21).
Abu Bakr is the largest Sunni Salafi mosque in Azerbaijan, where at least 70% of the population follows Shi’a Islam. Built in 1997 in Baku by the Azerbaijani branch of the Kuwaiti Revival of Islamic Heritage society, Abu Bakr became one of the most successful mosques in oil–rich Azerbaijan. While on average Shi’a or other Sunni mosques are able to attract approximately 300 people for Friday prayers, the number of people visiting the Abu Bakr mosque typically reaches up to 5,000 people (See Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005). Imam Gamat Suleymanov is a graduate of the World Islamic University of Madina. In recent years the mosque has been identified as a favorable place for the recruitment of fighters destined for the conflicts in Chechnya or Afghanistan, leading to calls for the closure of the mosque and the arrest of its imam.
There is no single public opinion on the forces behind the bombing. Mass media, experts and public officials offered various versions. Two forces emerge from this speculation that could be responsible for the Abu Bakr attack – external (Russia) and internal (radicals from the Salafi community):
• External forces: The fact that the bombing happened at the height of the Georgia-Russian war in Abkhazia and South Ossetia revived old fears that Russia could destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic. In this context, the bombing could be some kind of “warning” to Azerbaijan not to intervene in the conflict in Georgia and behave “properly.” The opposition Musavat party even issued a statement which did not exclude involvement of Russia in these events (Turan News Agency, August 18). However, a sober analysis would show that Russia could hardly be behind such an attack. Despite the rich history of Russian involvement in the domestic situation in Azerbaijan, the northern neighbor is not much interested in destabilizing the situation in the country. Currently, the Azerbaijani establishment does not act hostile to Russia, and it is therefore not expedient for Russia to act unfriendly to its neighbor. In addition, if the attack were intended to inflame sectarian violence, it failed to take into account the secular nature of Azerbaijani society and the relative absence of religious rivalries.
• Internal forces: One of the popular explanations for the bombing is the internal struggle inside Baku’s Salafi community between Abu Bakr-associated leaders and a group of radical Salafists. According to Shaykh Allahshukur Pashazade, the chairman of Azerbaijan’s Caucasian Muslims Office, “The happenings in Abu Bakr mosque are the result of the discord between two groups. These groups can’t stand each other, but this should not emerge as a religious problem… The whole world knows that Azerbaijan is a tolerant country. If there had been a problem in the religious field in Azerbaijan, such acts would have been committed against the representatives of other religions – Jews, Christians” (Azeri-Press Agency, August 18). Authorities have reported the arrest of a police major alleged to be a “Wahhabi” (Salafist) in connection with the attack. A Kalashnikov assault rifle and a large quantity of ammunition were seized in his office (Azad Azarbaycan TV [Baku], August 20).
As early as 2005-2006 members of Baku’s Salafi community identified a group of Salafis who disagreed with the leadership of Imam Suleymanov, who professes to be apolitical and urges his followers to cooperate with the state. The discord mainly concerned the issue of relations with the government and other religious communities. Those who disagreed with the policy of the Abu Bakr community and its leadership were expelled from the mosque. Those people are called locally Khawarij (“the expelled”) after the seventh century Kharijite sect, which reserved the right to rebel against any Muslim leader who deviated from the path of the Prophet Muhammad and the earliest caliphs. Though the Khawarij have largely passed from history, the term remains popular in Islamic circles as a derogatory term for Muslims who reject religious authority and threaten to divide the community. The Azeri dissidents seek an Islamic state and say that God is their only authority, rejecting the kafir (infidel) government in Baku. The radical Salafis are considered likely to become involved in militant activities. A few weeks before the bombing, an Azerbaijani court sentenced a group of Salafi radicals called “the Abu Jafar Group” for plotting to attack Western diplomatic and oil-industry facilities (Trend News Agency, November 7, 2007). According to trial materials, the organization, consisting of 17 people and headed by Saudi citizen Abu Jafar (Nail Abdul Karim al-Bedevi), was closely linked to al-Qaeda and al-Jihad. Investigators believe that Abu Jafar had trained in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge and participated along with other group members in military activities in Chechnya and Dagestan (Turan News Agency, July 28).
It is most likely that the bombing was indeed implemented by a group of Salafi radicals in disagreement with the policies of the Abu Bakr mosque. In any case, the bombing became the first terror attack committed in a sacred place in Azerbaijan. Although it is unlikely to lead to the type of sectarian violence experienced in Iraq or Pakistan, it is nevertheless a serious warning to Azerbaijani authorities not to ignore local radicalism by treating it as an external rather than internal problem.