The Clear Banner sub-blog on Jihadology.net is primarily focused on Sunni foreign fighting. It does not have to just be related to the phenomenon in Syria. It can also cover any location that contains Sunni foreign fighters. If you are interested in writing on this subject please email me at azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
The Forgotten Fighters: Azerbaijani Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq
By North Caucasus Caucus
This article, the first of two parts, will focus on the activities of Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq in 2014 – their leadership, units, and overall trends. The follow-up will focus on the impact of the conflict in Syria on the Azerbaijani domestic scene and the Azerbaijani government’s response.
My first article on Azerbaijani foreign fighters for Jihadology was published in January 2014 and focused on their activities since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Several incidents that occurred around that time caused the Azerbaijani mainstream media to begin actively covering developments relating to the actions of their countrymen in Syria. The most prominent such incident occurred on 03 January 2014, when the Islamic Front attack on the Sheikh Suleyman Islamic State (IS) training camp led to the death of six Azerbaijani foreign fighters. During the infighting, some Azerbaijani fighters were reportedly taken hostage, but they were still texting friends in Azerbaijan who posted their messages on Facebook. At this time, Azerbaijani journalists began to follow the social media postings of fighters in Syria regularly.
Since then, the main source of information about the activities and views of fighters has shifted from their own social media postings to mainstream media coverage. With this shift, a problem has arisen of parsing fact from misinterpretation, as well as the general lack of fact-checking endemic to the Azerbaijani media. I have tried to corroborate press reports with social media reporting whenever possible. Repeatedly throughout 2014, the Azerbaijani media published photos of fighters as having recently been killed, when in fact they had been killed up to a year earlier. There were also indications as early as February 2014 that Azerbaijani foreign fighters were aware of the scrutiny of their online activities and were in some cases counting on the media helping to distribute their messages or videos.
One somewhat surprising trend that has held since the publication of my last article is that there have been no confirmed reports of Azerbaijani citizens fighting with pro-government Shi’a units in Syria or Iraq, despite Shi’a making up approximately 70% of Azerbaijan’s population (though the occasional news story on the trend is still occasionally published). Instead, all confirmed Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria have fought with Sunni rebel groups, and many with IS in particular. Although an Azerbaijani Sunni news website posted the names of eight Azerbaijanis from Nardaran, the center of conservative Shiism in Azerbaijan, and claimed they had been killed in Syria, leaders from Nardaran denied the story. No visual evidence has emerged to corroborate it and the claims remain questionable considering the source. The impact of Syria on sectarian issues within Azerbaijan will be covered in-depth in a follow-up to this piece.
Hometowns and Numbers
Despite some very prominent databases overlooking Azerbaijani foreign fighters, leading to their exclusion from several prominent infographics, they continue to have a presence in Syria and Iraq. Azerbaijani media outlets consistently report that close to 200 Azerbaijanis have died fighting in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. An April 2014 estimate put the number of Azerbaijanis in Syria at approximately 250. In May 2014, according to a survey of 40 police districts in Azerbaijan, 104 people were identified as having gone to fight in Syria, with 60 killed. In December, the Azerbaijani Border Service reported that 30 returning former fighters had been detained throughout the year.
Along with fellow analysts, I have identified 216 Azerbaijani foreign fighters and their family members in Syria (88 killed, including 64 in 2014 alone, 49 returned, of whom 40 were arrested, 66 still in Syria or Iraq, and 13 whose status is unknown). The number is likely higher since this database only includes fighters and their family members with some unique personal identifying information.
The hometowns of fighters remain relatively consistent with the data from 2013. According to the survey of police districts mentioned above, of the 104 identified by police, 40 were from Sumqayit, 22 from Shabran, and 15 from Qusar. Other locations mentioned in the police report were Xacmaz, Zaqatala, Qax, Yevlax, Oguz, Quba, and Sheki. From my own data, Baku, Terter, and Ismayilli were also other hometowns that appeared to be prominent.
At the beginning of 2013, Azerbaijani foreign fighters started out primarily fighting with the Azerbaijani jamaat of Jaysh al-Muhajirin val Ansar, led by the charismatic leader and face of Azerbaijani fighters in Syria, Nicat Ashurov (aka Abu Yahya al-Azeri). After Ashurov was killed in September 2013, the majority of Azerbaijani fighters appeared to have joined the Islamic State.
Though an Azerbaijani fighter appeared in photos posted by the Twitter account of the Bitar Battalion, a predominately Libyan affiliate of IS, there appear to be two primary units within IS in which Azerbaijanis fight. The first is a mixed Turkish-Azerbaijani unit previously based on Raqqa, which appears to have been engaged in Kobane. Ebuzer Sahin, a Turkish citizen and likely spiritual leader of the unit identified it on social media as the Cundullah (pronounced Jundullah) jamaat.
The second unit is another mixed group of Turkish and Azerbaijani fighters currently fighting in Iraq. On 8 November 2014, this group released a video via the Turkish-language version of al Hayat Media showing them eating a large meal together in Fallujah, Iraq. The video gained some prominence because one of the fighters complained about women being afraid of them. It’s possible this was the Jamaat Khattab, lead by Emir Khattab (more information on him below). Elshan Qurbanov, an alleged former IS fighter, who gave a televised interview
after his arrest upon return to Azerbaijan, said he fought in a unit led by Khattab until he was wounded in Anbar Province, Iraq in August 2014. Azerbaijanis are also reportedly part of the Abu Kamil Jamaat,
which is primarily a Chechen IS jamaat.
Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN)
Despite the majority of Azerbaijani foreign fighters appearing to fight with IS, there are at least several still fighting within various JAN units. In early 2014, Fariz Abdullayev from Sumqayit was reported killed in Syria. As recently as 18 December, Ruslan Aliyev was reported to have been killed fighting in attack on Wadi al-Deif military base in Idlib, likely fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra that was engaged there.
Azerbaijanis have also aided in the JAN-IS propaganda war. In May 2014, A pro-JAN Turkish language outlet Ummetislam.com, published an interview conducted by Turkish Islamist journalist Muhammed Isra with a man named Ebu Hasan Kerimov, an alleged IS defector who disparaged the group and its activities. He described how he travelled to Sanliurfa in southern Turkey and met with an IS facilitator who smuggled him into Raqqa via Tal Abyad.
Conversely an Azerbaijani was part of a major propaganda coup by IS against JAN. In February 2014, an English-speaking fighter calling himself Abu Muhammed al-Amriki briefly gained some prominence. In the video Abu Muhammed claimed that he had lived in the US for 10-11 years and described when he had left JAN to join IS. The video gained enough attention that Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, JAN’s emir personally responded to al-Amriki’s accusations. There is strong evidence that Abu Muhammed (who was reportedly killed by an airstrike in October 2014) was an Azerbaijani in reality (though he might have been a resident of the US at some point). First, Abu Muhammed appeared in a major address by Abu Yahya in May 2013. In the address, Abu Yahya calls on his countrymen to come to Syria and join the Azerbaijani jamaat of Jaysh al-Muhajirin val Ansar, indicating all the men appearing in the video. Besides the February video in which Abu Muhammed spoke English, he appeared in a number of other videos in which he exclusively spoke Russian. Second, Turkish IS member Ebuzer Sahin posted a photo of himself with Abu Muhammed, indicating that he was also from Azerbaijan. He was likely primarily a Russian speaker.
The death of Ashurov (mentioned above) in September 2013 appears to have been a major blow to Azerbaijani fighters in Syria. Ashurov appears to have been communicating with contacts in Azerbaijan and trying to convince them to join the fight. Since Ashurov’s death, several other leaders have emerged, but none appear to command the same respect.
Some of the leadership came from an older cadre of Azerbaijani jihadis – including those who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Several of the experienced Azerbaijani jihadis in Syria had been part of a group known as a “Karabakh Partisans.” This was a group of Azerbaijanis who fought in Chechnya and then desired to start a jihadi paramilitary campaign against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani security forces captured and imprisoned them in 2004. However, a number of those imprisoned were quietly released in 2010. One of these fighters was a highly respected fighter, Rustem Askerov, who was killed in 2013. More information about this fighter emerged in 2014. A journalist from al Jazeera Turkish interviewed Askerov’s mother, who still lives in Baku and is taking care of three of his children. Askerov had attended religious studies in Medina in 1998 before eventually going to fight in Chechnya.
Rovshan Badalov, a second member of the “Karabakh Partisans” was killed in Kobane in October 2014 – some reports claim he was killed in an airstrike, while others state he conducted a suicide attack. Like Rustem Askerov, Badalov had also fought in Chechnya in 2001, reportedly leading a group called the Tabuk jamaat. According to a report from Azerinfo, Badalov had connections to the pro-IS Turkish preacher