GUEST POST: Azerbaijani Foreign Fighters in Syria

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Azerbaijani Foreign Fighters in Syria

By North Caucasus Caucus

Introduction

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Figure 1. An Azerbaijani fighter stands next to a captured tanker truck from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) in Syria, Source: APA

Stories about Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria have appeared semi-regularly in the Azerbaijani media throughout 2013. Recent events have unleashed a flood of commentary, however, with at least seven Azerbaijanis killed during fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic Front on 03 – 04 January 2014, including a 14-year-old boy from Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan. Now many political and religious pundits in the country have commented on or turned their attention to Azerbaijanis going to fight in Syria. The Azerbaijani government is beginning to take more public actions.

Terrorism and religious extremism have always remained marginal issues in Azerbaijan’s domestic politics, and accurate information is difficult to come by. Many of the details about plots and alleged plots often come from court reporting or detailed statements put out by the Ministry of National Security (MNS). The Azerbaijani government often overplays terrorism cases, in part as a way to solicit cooperation from the United States and other western countries.

The civil war in Syria is far different than previous conflicts in which Azerbaijanis have participated. For the first time, Azerbaijani fighters are speaking directly to audiences within Azerbaijan and elsewhere through videos and posts in social media. They are even able to interact continuously with their friends in Azerbaijan. No longer are researchers reliant solely on court documents or televised confessions, the validity of which are sometimes questionable. With more primary source material, an interesting and more richly detailed picture is emerging.

History of Azerbaijani Jihadi Activity: Afghanistan and Chechnya

Azerbaijanis have participated in a number of conflicts around the world – most notably in Chechnya and Afghanistan (though the author has found no reports of Azerbaijanis fighting in Iraq). Azerbaijan’s population of nine million is approximately 60% Shi’a and 40% Sunni and has overall low levels of religiosity.  It comes as a surprise to most Azerbaijanis that their countrymen would participate in jihad.

The MNS arrested 70 Azerbaijani citizens between 2001-2003 for attempting to travel to Chechnya. In a list complied by the author—based on media reports and video montages of Azerbaijani martyrs put out by extremist media outlets—between 1999 and 2013, at least 33 Azerbaijanis died in the North Caucasus, mainly during the years of the heaviest fighting (1999-2005), and at least 23 Azerbaijanis were killed in Afghanistan (including at least one suicide bomber). 200-250 Azerbaijanis reportedly fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2009, Azerbaijani police arrested 13 people for illegally crossing the border back into Azerbaijan from Iran after reportedly fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Figure 2. Left: INTERPOL released a red arrest notice for Jabir Mustafayev for terrorism charges; Right: Mustafayev appeared in a video honoring all the Azerbaijani fighters killed abroad in the period of 2007-2009, Source: YouTube

Azerbaijanis were even represented in the leadership of some prominent groups in Afghanistan and the North Caucasus. Azer Misirxanov aka Ebu Omer, who was killed in a US airstrike in 2009, was a high-ranking member of Taifetul Mansura in Afghanistan, led by Serdal Erbasi (aka Ebu zer), a Turkish citizen. Misirxanov, originally from the village of Khalafli in Jebrail District, had previously fought in the North Caucasus and was even arrested in 2001 but was released after only a year in prison for unknown reasons.

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Figure 3. Azer Misirxanov (aka Emir Ebu Omer, right) appears with Serdal Erbasi in a 2009 video, Source: YouTube

First Appearance of Azerbaijani Fighters in Syria: Late 2012

The first report of an Azerbaijani fighter in Syria came in mid-August 2012 from a French journalist reporting in Aleppo. A Turkish war correspondent taken prisoner in Syria in May 2012 also reported seeing Azerbaijanis fighting with the Free Syrian Army.

The first concrete cases were in fall 2012. According to identification documents, including a passport and driver’s license that were photographed and posted online, Zaur Islamov was 37 years old and from the northern Azerbaijani city of Qusar, which borders Dagestan. The earliest known posting of Islamov’s photos was on 9 September 2012 on the forum, Shabka Ansar al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Supporters’ Network). Islamov’s name was also included on a pro-Assad Facebook page listing “terrorists” killed in various battles. At least one of the Azerbaijani fighters killed in Syria was part of Azer Misirxanov’s group in Afghanistan. In 2009, an Azerbaijani court sentenced Araz Kangarli to two and half years in prison for illegally crossing the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, weapons possession, participation in an illegal armed group for two months in 2008, and committing an illegal act overseas. He only served one year before being released and in November 2012 his mother received a phone call that her son had been killed.

In Press Medya, a Turkish pro-Syrian opposition news website, released photos of four Azerbaijani fighters killed in battle and several photos of living fighters. These pictures made it clear that more than just a handful of Azerbaijanis were in Syria. Since the end of 2012, reportedly around 100 Azerbaijanis have been killed in Syria. Based on media reports and postings by jihadi media outlets, the author has recorded 41 Azerbaijanis who have fought in Syria, 30 of whom were killed. Of course, the participation of many fighters is never recorded.

Where do they come from?

For a researcher on violent extremist groups in Azerbaijan, the hometowns of many of the fighters in Syria do not come as a surprise. They line up with the hometowns of Azerbaijanis who have fought in Chechnya or Afghanistan, as well as the locations of counter-terrorism operations within the country.

Based on media reporting and the author’s own database of biographical data, Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria primarily come from Baku, Sumqayit, and smaller towns in northern Azerbaijan such as Qusar, Xudat, Xacmaz, Zaqatala, and Qax. Press reporting has mentioned specifically the villages of Kohne Xacmaz, Muxax in Zaqatala District and the village of Quhuroba in Xacmaz District as being important hometowns of foreign fighters.  An article in the newspaper Musavat claimed that around 30 fighters came from Muxax alone. At least one fighter came from Terter (where in December 2008, three men wearing military uniforms attacked a military post in order to seize weapons for use in terrorist attacks). Sumqayit, the large industrial city just north of Baku, appears to be the most important source of Azerbaijani foreign fighters.

Connections of Hometowns of Foreign Fighters to Previous Terrorism

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Figure 4. Map of Foreign Fighters Hometowns, Source: Google Maps

Sumqayit

Sumqayit has played a role in nearly every story on terrorism in Azerbaijan. In 2007, police claimed they broke up a group based in Sumqayit known as the “Abu Jafar” group. It was reportedly led by Naielm Abdul Kerim al-Bedevi, a Saudi citizen. Azerbaijani security services reported that al-Bedevi had been living in Sumqayit since 2001 and had travelled repeatedly to the North Caucasus.

In 2008, Russian and Azerbaijani media reported that Ilgar Mollachiyev helped establish a branch of the Dagestani “Forest Brothers” in Azerbaijan, creating two jamaats – one in Sumqayit and the other in Quba/Qusar. According to two alleged members of the group, Taleh Maherramov and Samir Babayev, Mollachiyev illegally crossed into Azerbaijan from Russia on 19 July 2008 along with an Arab known as “Dr. Muhammed,” traveling to Baku and Sumqayit. In August 2008, Mekhtiyev ordered Elnur Bashirov and another member of the group to attack the Abu Bakr Mosque, the most popular Sunni mosque in Azerbaijan (which has remained closed since the attack). The attack sparked a huge response from Azerbaijani security services against the pious Sunni community as a whole.

The Sumqayit jamaat was supposed to carry out robberies in Baku in order to gather the means to obtain weapons in order to commit attacks. A reported member of Emin Shikhaliyev explained during his trial that the Sumgayit jamaat was created not in order to commit crimes in Azerbaijan, but rather to provide help to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Members of the group in September-November 2008 visited the village in Balakan District on the border with Georgia where unknown individuals received weapons and ammunition and delivered them to Sumqayit. During Azerbaijani government operations in January 2009 against the group, two weapons caches were found, including three suicide vests and five kilograms of plastic explosives. 

Northern Azerbaijan

Many residents of northern Azerbaijan are Sunnis and some are North Caucasian. Some of these groups feel victimized by a sense of ethnic chauvinism on the part of Azerbaijanis and feel the Azerbaijani government uses charges of terrorism and “Wahhabi activity” as a pretext to repress them. However, certain incidents in recent years have lent some credence to government rhetoric about terrorist activity in Northern Azerbaijan.

In 2001, groups connected to insurgents in the North Caucasus reportedly killed ten police officers in Balakan and Zaqatala in 2001. In 2005, caches of weapons were found in areas surrounding the town of Qusar. Several militant leaders have come from northern Azerbaijan, with connections to the North Caucasus.

Ilgar Mollachieyv was from Zaqatala, as was Vuqar Padarov, an Azerbaijani who fought in the North Caucasus before returning to Azerbaijan in 2011. According to available information, in 2010, two Azerbaijani citizens who had traveled to Dagestan to join the insurgency, Padarov (aka Emir Bursa) and Elmir Nuraliyev (aka Maga) decided they wanted to bring the fight back to Azerbaijan. Padarov sought out the leaders of the Isprail Velidzhanov and Ibragimkhalil Daudov who were at the time members of the Derbent jaamat in southern Dagestan. Following the meeting with Padarov, both Velidzhandov and Daudov named him “emir of the Azerbaijani front” and filmed the meeting to be used for recruitment purposes. It is unknown if Daudov or Velidzhanov got approval from the top levels of leadership before conferring this title on Padarov.

Once Padarov and Nuraliyev crossed back into Azerbaijan in July 2011 they began collecting weapons and recruiting relatives to participate in attacks in Azerbaijan. In April 2012, Padarov was killed during a raid on a safe house in Gence in western Azerbaijan, one of a number of raids across the country. Nuraliyev is currently in prison. Padarov and Nuraliyev are examples of Azerbaijanis who have participated in foreign conflicts and returned with a desire to carry out attacks in their own country.

How are they getting there?

One of the attractive aspects of fighting in Syria for those in the region is the ease of getting there compared to Afghanistan or Chechnya. For Azerbaijanis, it is especially easy. Azerbaijani citizens do not need visas to enter Turkey. Additionally, a plane ticket to Istanbul from Baku is only around $200 for a one-way ticket on Azerbaijan Airlines. Although the majority of fighters travel from Baku, two fighters from Masalli reportedly flew from Gence.

One Azerbaijani expert stated that most Azerbaijani fighters and their families are taking the bus through Georgia rather than flying because it is far cheaper. Azerbaijanis do not need visas to travel to Georgia either. A bus ticket from Baku to cities near the Syrian border in Turkey can be purchased for as little as 76 AZN ($96). The main point is there is a multitude of ways for Azerbaijanis to travel to Syria cheaply and easily.

Who are they and what is their experience?

A member of the Azerbaijani parliament’s research service made the claim that Azerbaijanis are paid $5,000 a month to fight in Syria, but the monetary factor does not seem to be a motivator.

Azerbaijani foreign fighters include both young men inspired—like thousands of others from around the world—to join the fight in Syria. Many are deeply religious young men, and they come from both modest and wealthier backgrounds.

Several stories of fighters killed in January 2014 show the diverse backgrounds of fighters. Azerbaijani media reported that an 18-year-old named Nijat Hacizade was killed, having left his first year of studies at Eastern Mediterranean University in the Republic of North Cyprus. A fighter killed in ISIS-FSA infighting was a former semiprofessional boxer from Sumqayit named Rahman Shikhaliyev. Perhaps the saddest example was a 14-year-old boy name Najaf Karimov. His father had owned three stores in the Serer District of Nakhchivan but closed them all down once he accepted Salafism, saying they were against Islam. He began homeschooling his son and three daughters. He eventually moved to Syria in summer 2013 with his family. 

The parents of fighters killed in Syria tell similar stories. Their sons will leave suddenly, often without telling them. They will later call from Turkey saying they have found a job there. Anar Mahmudov, a fighter who returned to his home village of Kohne Xacmaz after fighting in Syria for six months, said he was inspired by a fatwa by Saudi Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan. He became religious a year prior, and he then decided to go to Syria because he couldn’t tolerate the killing of Muslims in Syria. He said that his religious friends in Xacmaz helped him to buy tickets to Syria.

Becoming very religious often causes rifts within families. In a video before his death, a fighter named Rauf Xalilov addressed his family, who obviously disapproved of his actions, “I had a good life, but Allah knows that I quickly understand that this world is nothing…If you are not religious, there is a hole in your heart, and this hole can be filled only with love to Allah…All we want is Sharia. All we want is to spread Allah’s will. If I become a martyr on this way, my family should not be sad for me, they should be happy, because that is God’s gift to me and they should know that they will make me very happy if they find Allah. When my niece grows up, she must watch this video. I love her very much. I ask my brother to disenroll her from school. There are a lot of wrong things going on in schools. I want her to live an honorable life, she should look to the Prophet’s wives – the way they had lived their lives. She should look at Sumeyye, the first martyr. I love her very much…My mother was against the path that I chose from the beginning. I know that my mom did not have a good life. She was not happy with her husband, or her sons, but she is at a certain age now. She needs to understand that this world is not forever…She shouldn’t listen to Turkish religious people. If I die, she shouldn’t be sad, she should know I am happy.”

An Lent.az investigation conducted on Azerbaijani foreign fighters in late summer 2013 before the split between JMA and Omar al-Shishani in December 2013 over JMA’s refusal to pledge an oath of loyalty to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claiming they had a prior oath to Caucasus Emirate leader, Doku Umarov. In their investigation, they found many Azerbaijanis were training at a camp run by Salahuddin al-Shishani. When they arrived, Salahuddin would reportedly take their passports and other documents while the fighters trained for two months. While they were in training, they were given food, but received no payment. After training, Azerbaijani fighters were reportedly committed to stay for six months. After six months, they could go back to Azerbaijan and visit their families.

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Figure 5. Abu Yahya al-Azeri (right) appears with Syrian cleric Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Source: Twitter

Figure 6. Right: Abu Yahya al-Azeri (right) appears with ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani, Source: Twitter

Several returned fighters have spoken to the media, and from public information it does not appear they have gotten into legal trouble for their activities in Syria. Anar Mahmaudov said that when he returned that police interviewed him, but that was it.  Political expert Arastun Orujlu interviewed a returned fighter who said that he would not return to Syria. The returnee said what he saw in Syria was completely different from what he had been told before he left. He said those people were committing robbery, murder and rape and he did not want to be part of it anymore. More recently the Azerbaijani government said they would begin prosecuting those who fight abroad.

Who are they fighting for?

From available information, beginning in fall 2012 Azerbaijanis joined the Muhajirin Brigade, led at the time by Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) as well as Jabhat al-Nusra. In March 2013, Muhajirin Brigade joined with several other groups, forming Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa Ansar (JMA). In the video of the ceremony, several Azerbaijanis stand just behind al-Shishani. The father of one of the fighters, who was killed, pointed out his son, Rashad Mammedov, in a segment on Azerbaijani ANS television. Standing a few feet to his left is Abu Yahya al-Azeri, a relatively high-ranking figure whose real name appears to be Nijat and who comes from Sumqayit.

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Figure 7. Left: Video of Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa Ansar formation ceremony, March 2013, Source: FiSyira; Right: Father of Rashad Mammedov, pointing out his son from first video, Source: ANS Press

In May 2013 Abu Yahya put out a video of himself with the Azerbaijani jamaat of JMA, approximately 30 fighters, calling Azerbaijanis to join him. He says, “We are very happy here. With the help of God we won the battle today…We are here in the name of God and fighting for him. May God help all our mujahideen brothers and sisters…Some of our brothers who returned to Azerbaijan say bad things about us, especially the brothers who live in Baku and Sumqayit. They say that this war is between the US and Russia. This is all nonsense. Brothers, don’t say bad things about us. Some of them even say that our martyr brothers died like dogs. Please, if you don’t want to join us, that is fine. Just mind your own business…Don’t say there is no jihad here in Syria. Our sisters are being raped, men and children killed. Come join us, you don’t need permission, it is in the name of God…Scholars say we are doing the right thing. The scholars say that jihad is a must in Syria. They also say that religion calls for jihad in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria…But jihad is an obligation, just like namaz [prayer] and fasting. If you can’t come, just pray for us.” He also tells people that they need financial assistance and to post comments below the YouTube video and they will be helped.

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Figure 8. Left to Right: Ebu Muhammed, Ebu Hamza, Abu Yahya and Hattab al-Azeri, Sourcе: Musavat

After the Death of Abu Yahya al-Azeri

It came as a shock to many when Abu Yahya al-Azeri was killed in early September 2013 by a piece of shrapnel during shelling by Assad’s forces. Just the month before, he had left JMA along with the expelled Emir Seyfullah al-Shishani (another ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge, Ruslan Machalikashvili). After Emir Seyfullah was kicked out of JMA, he formed the Muhajideen of the Caucasus and the Levant, which was renamed Jaysh Khilafetu Islamiya, before he merged his unit with Jabhat al-Nusra on 31 December 2013. One of Emir Seyfullah’s top deputies appears to be an Azerbaijani, using the name Ebu Muhammed.

An article in Lent.az reported that the head of the Azerbaijani unit in JMA is a man named Abu Usama from village of Muxax in Zaqatala District. However, little information is known about Abu Usama, and he has not appeared in any videos.

After Abu Yahya’s death, the faces that appeared in the May 2013 Azerbaijani jamaat video began to pop-up elsewhere. An Hattab al-Azeri who had appeared in photos also with Ebu Yahya and Ebu Muhammed appeared in a video with Abu Hanifa—leader of the marginal Jamaat of Abu Hanifa. Abu Hanifa is an Egyptian-educated Dagestani who was previously involved with Abu Banat, the Dagestani fighter who had beheaded a Catholic priest in a now infamous video.

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Figure 9. Abu Hanifa (center) begs for money in a video. Hattab al-Azeri (second from right) makes a similar call in Azerbaijani, Source: YouTube

Currently it appears that Azerbaijani fighters are split between Jabhat al-Nusra, JMA, and ISIS, as evidenced by the large number of Azerbaijanis killed during the Islamic Front attack on ISIS. A member of Jabhat al-Nusra tweeted a photo of Abu Zer al-Azeri, killed in January 2014. Since the death of Abu Yahya, no Azerbaijani foreign fighter leader has released an Azerbaijani language video.

Who is funding them?

There have been claims, but little evidence that foreign organizations are facilitating the participation of Azerbaijani fighters in Syria. The Azerbaijani expert Ilham Ismayil said in an interview on Radio Azadliq that there are certain international organizations with deep roots in Azerbaijan are promoting Salafism in Azerbaijan and sending fighters to Syria, but concedes that he does not know the name of these organizations.

It is unlikely that foreign organizations are providing money directly to Azerbaijanis to help them travel to Syria. The Azerbaijani government took steps in 1996 to prohibit foreigners from spreading “religious propaganda.” Even before 11 September 2001 the Azerbaijani government was already closing the offices of charitable organizations from the Gulf. Rufat Sattarov writes in Radical Islam in the Former Soviet Union, “In August 2000, the Baku branch of the Hayat al Amal al-Khayirria [the UAE-based Organization of Charitable Activities] was closed for ‘stirring up religious conflicts in the Azerbaijani society…In March 2002 the Azerbaijani branch of the Jamiyyat Sunduq l’anat al-Marda [the Kuwaiti Patients’ Helping Fund Society] was closed on the charge of ‘having links with terrorist organizations (pp.195).’” Considering the scrutiny Azerbaijani security services turn on both foreign organizations in Azerbaijan as well as Salafis, it seems unlikely that they would allow for such organizations to operate.

Likely much of the funding for Azerbaijani fighters to travel to Syria and support their families at home is coming from money collected within their communities or through the sale of their property before leaving. In January 2014, Modern.az did report on a now closed Azerbaijani language Facebook page being used to collect money for the families of Azerbaijani. The 28 January 2014 post read, “Dear Muslims, the families of the mujahideen need financial assistance. They need to pay their rents, buy groceries and some home goods, even some clothes. Please if you want to help, get in touch with us, [providing a phone number]. God will help the ones who help others insAllah”

Azerbaijanis Fighting for Assad

There have been persistent rumors that Azerbaijanis are fighting on Assad’s side, but so far no concrete evidence has emerged. There was a report in 2013 that three residents of the southern Lankaran District killed fighting for Assad in Syria, later buried in Iran. More recently there were reports of Azerbaijanis fighting with the Abulfazl Abbas Brigade and Seyyidus Suhada Group. However, no martyrdom photos of Azerbaijani Shi’a fighters have appeared online nor have any actual names. While it is possible, it is probably only a handful of Azerbaijanis, potentially drawn from Azerbaijanis who are studying in Iran or Iraq. Azerinfo.org claimed that Azerbaijani traveling to Syria fighting for Assad were traveling from Baku to Qum, Iran to Sulaymaniyah, Iraq on their way to Syria.

The Iranian media has used the stories of Shi’a fighters killed. In mid-January 2014, the Azerbaijani language service of the Iranian satellite television channel, SaharTV, reported on an ethnic Azeri Iranian from Tabriz killed in Syria. The correspondent interviewed his family about the importance of his sacrifice and the protection of Shi’a sites in Syria.

Possible Radicalization Centers in Azerbaijan

Much of the discussion of Azerbaijanis going to Syria has focused on online activities. Many Azerbaijanis speak Russian and most understand Turkish, so there is no shortage of pro-jihad material online. In January 2014, the president of the Azerbaijan Internet Forum advised parents to get filtering software for their home computers to protect their children from extremist content. However, there appear to be some possible physical centers as well.

Qurbanli Valishov, a veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, of the Hasanli village of Masalli District (a primarily Shi’a district in southern Azerbaijan), told an interviewer that his son became a Salafi in early 2012 and afterwards became extremely aggressive towards his family, calling them kafirs. The father was so worried about his sons that he called the Ministry of Internal Affairs and told them to arrest his own sons and investigate the Sunni mosque in Mushvigabad (located on the Samakhi-Baku highway, just west of Baku). He stated in the interview, “I told them to investigate my son and the Mushvigabad mosque. I told them if one day they commit a crime, bomb something in Azerbaijan and you will come and drag me from one police station to another. Here is a chance, investigate and arrest these guys.” Afterwards the police reportedly interrogated his sons, but soon released them.

Soon afterwards his sons sold everything and went to Syria, bringing their wives and children. Valishov said his sons left with a group from the Mushviqabad Mosque in September 2013, traveling first to Azerbaijan’s second largest city, Gence, and flying to Turkey from there. The Mushviqabad Mosque, which was recently renamed the Omer Hattab Mosque has been the site of some sectarian violence. In December 2013, Salafis reportedly severely beat a man who he claimed was praying in a Shi’a style.

On 28 January 2014, Haji Surxay Memmedli, akhund of the Shi’a Cuma Mosque in Baku’s Old City, and the individual responsible for all the mosques in the Old City, claimed that the majority of those fighting in Syria attended the Ashurbey Mosque (also known as the Lezgi Mosque), the oldest Sunni mosque in Baku (built in 1169). This claim is suspicious considering that the mosque is located in the heart of Baku and is likely under heavy surveillance.

Azerbaijani Government Reaction

There is a sense among some that the Azerbaijani government is not taking active steps to stop Azerbaijanis from going to Syria. Qurbanali Valishov said that he is shocked how the law enforcement bodies are seemingly turning a blind eye to the situation. In an interview, he said,  “Why they are not taking any measures? They hope that these people will go to Syria and die and never come back. What if they kick out the people like my sons and others from Syria? When will happen then? They will come back and start slitting throats in Azerbaijan. They will start from their own families. It is a tragedy.”

The large amount of media coverage after ISIS-FSA infighting that killed a number of fighters forced the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry to publicly say they are closely monitoring the situation in Syria. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said that they are trying to determine which Azerbaijanis are fighting in Syria, how they left the country and joined certain groups. He also stated that it is difficult to identify Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria, but they are doing their best.

The head of the Karabakh Liberation Organization, an NGO with the purpose of pushing the Azerbaijani government to launch a new war to retake lands occupied by the Armenian forces said the MNS should prevent people from going to Syria. He also criticized the government for not creating opportunities for young men to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. He also stated that these young men are victims of Saudi Arabia and other countries who using them for their own purposes.

A representative of the Azerbaijani embassy in Turkey announced that three months ago that the Azerbaijani government had officially complained to the Turkish government over Azerbaijani citizens traveling to Syria. Reportedly Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Baku several months ago he had given assurances to the Azerbaijani government that they were putting measures into place to stop Azerbaijani citizens from traveling to Syria.

Reactions within Azerbaijani Religious Communities

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Figur 10. A martyrdom notice for an Azerbaijani fighter posted by a Turkish Facebook page, Source: Facebook

The phenomenon of Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria has had a noticeable impact on the religious communities in Azerbaijan. The vast majority of the Azerbaijani Salafi community is opposed to jihadi activity, which has caused tensions within the community. Moderate Sunni leaders are using the opportunity to quietly criticize the Azerbaijani government’s broad brush approach when it comes to Sunni religious extremism, which involves scrutinizing everyone, including non-violent groups.

Sunni Community

Within the Salafi community in Sumqayit, a returned fighter has already caused a rift that turned into violence. On 11 December 2013 at 20:30, a violent incident occurred at a teahouse located in the back of the Soltan Halal Market in Sumqayit’s 10th Micro-District. Salafis were discussing sending fighters to Syria, when a fighter who had returned from Syria arrived uninvited. The fighter reportedly insulted the meeting attendees saying, “if you are too scared to go to Syria yourself, you should send your sisters or wives to cook for the mujahideen and wash their clothes.” This insult led to a fight in which two men were stabbed, including the former fighter. After the fight, one of the men called their friends from the hospital, who attacked the teahouse with guns and grenades, wounding two. The confrontation points to a deeper, more complex situation than previously understood.

Since early 2013, Qamet Suleymanov, the most prominent Sunni imam in Azerbaijan, has been publicly speaking out against going to Syria to fight. Most recently, Suleymanov stated that those who die in Syria can possibly not be considered martyrs because they did not follow all the rules associated with martyrdom (such as asking their parents for permission).

In a strange turn of events, the week of the ISIS-FSA fighting, Qamet Suleymanov claimed that his former right hand, Alixan Musayev, and another former imam from the Abu Bakr Mosque, Mubariz Qarayev were helping to send fighters to Syria and supporting takfirism (the excommunication of other Muslims). Musayev responded that Suleymanov had no right to accuse him of being a takfiri. He claims that Suleymanov has no evidence to substantiate his claims. He also called on young people not to go to Syria, to stay in the country and fight to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh.

This could be an attempt by Suleymanov to get the Abu Bakr Mosque reopened, which has been closed since 2009. He claims, since the closure of the Abu Bakr mosque and the Arabic Mosque in Sumqayit, imams who promote nonviolence, like himself, have a much more difficult time influencing the community and convincing young men not to go. In an interview, Suleymanov claimed that some fighters are connecting with groups in Azerbaijan via the Internet. He also claimed that he had convinced at least one young man not to go to Syria.

Shi’a Community

Within in the Shi’a community, similar to the general public, there has been general condemnation of Azerbaijanis going to fight in Syria. Among more intense Shi’a Islamists, there has even been support of Assad and his fight with “terrorists.”

The head of the Caucasus Muslim Board, Allahsekur Pashazade released a fatwa on 28 January 2014, saying outside forces are spreading false truths about the meaning of jihad and martyrdom, tricking young men, with the ultimate goal of destabilizing the country. He calls on men thinking about fighting in Syria to stay in Azerbaijan and fight to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh.

The imam of the popular Shi’a Meshadi Dadash mosque, Haji Shahin Hasanli stated that what is going on in Syria right now is not jihad. Even if it were jihad the local people should be fighting it, not foreigners. Hasanli, showing that he has not really been keeping up with the news, oddly came out against “sexual jihad” in Syria, saying, “it has no connection to religion,” despite the story spread by the Tunisian government being debunked many months before.

Conclusion

So far, Azerbaijan seems to have similar issues as other countries with regard to returned fighters. Some fighters returned to quiet lives, while others are actively stirring up trouble. The overall effect of their eventual return to Azerbaijan is likely not to be major. Azerbaijan is a relatively small country with a robust law enforcement mechanism that is likely keeping track of returning fighters, probably arresting returnees occasionally for connections to possible plots, both real and imagined. As in previous cases, the now extensive media coverage will likely cause a large crack down on the broader Sunni community whole in Azerbaijan, despite the vast majority of the community being apolitical and non-violent. This could actually be a great threat, as the Salafi community as whole is already relatively marginalized.

Azerbaijan will face serious issues over the next several years as lower oil prices and overall reductions in Azerbaijani extraction will began to affect the state budget, which is heavily reliant on hydrocarbon revenues. The lifting of some subsidies on gasoline and natural gas and increases in food prices has begun to squeeze the population. As we saw in early 2013, civil unrest can break out unexpectedly. Adding combat veterans to that mix, many of whom have highly radicalized views, could increase the overall danger.

North Caucasus Caucus is written by a Washington, D.C.-based analyst. Views here are his alone. Read more at northcaucasuscaucus.blogspot.com and follow at Twitter at @ncaucasuscaucus.