Azerbaijani authorities claim to have thwarted an Islamic terrorist plot before the Eurovision Song Contest, but skeptics say Baku is trying to distract from criticism of its human-rights record.by Shahla Sultanova 20 June 2012
BAKU | Azerbaijani authorities say they foiled an elaborate plot to bomb religious buildings, assassinate the president, and sow terror over the two months leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest last month in Baku.
The arrests of 40 men allegedly funded by insurgents in the Russian republic of Dagestan, like similar raids over the past few years, have sparked debate over the degree to which foreign-inspired Islamist terrorists pose a threat to the country. Many Muslims in Azerbaijan deny any connection between the growing number of new Islamic organizations and violent ideology, while critics of the government say Baku exaggerates the threat of terrorism for political motives.
The 40 suspects were detained in raids, the National Security Ministry said in a statement on 30 May. The group was reportedly led by an Azerbaijani citizen, Vugar Padarov (nicknamed Busra), and had allegedly planned a string of attacks. One of its main aims was to disrupt the Eurovision contest and bomb Crystal Hall, the auditorium newly built for the event, the ministry said. Eurovision culminated on 26 May in Baku.
Padarov and another Azerbaijani named Samir Saniyev reportedly participated in a council of “emirs” in Dagestan in February 2011, the ministry says. At the meeting, the so-called emir of Dagestan, Ibrahimkhalil Davudov, appointed Padarov the emir – a title connoting military or political leadership in Islamic countries – of a new armed group. The council handed a large amount of money over to the Azerbaijanis, the authorities say. Davudov was killed by Russian forces early this year, according to Azerbaijani media. The Azerbaijani Security Ministry said Padarov himself was killed during a 6 April raid in the city of Ganja.
Natig Javadli, a journalist who covers religion and security affairs for the independent Bizim Yol newspaper, said Azerbaijan could be an attractive country for some Islamist terror groups because of its location between Iran and Dagestan and its majority Muslim population. However, the underlying reason for the repeated arrests of foreign-inspired criminal groups is to bolster the regime itself, he suggested.
“In the last eight years, the government has been arresting groups, mostly radical Islamists, who it claims to be terrorists," Javadli said. "In this way it tries to show its importance – that if not for the current government, radical Islamists will come to power.”
“This is nonsense, because Azerbaijan lacks the social basis for building Sharia rule,” he said.
The government’s claim that it held off releasing crucial information to prevent panic – the announcement of the arrests and the alleged plan to assassinate President Ilham Aliev, were delayed until 30 May – adds to Javadli’s doubts that the detainees were involved in terrorism. The timing of the arrests makes it more likely that the raid was a response to the chorus of Western criticisms of the country’s human-rights record ahead of Eurovision, he said.
“The government wants to demonstrate that there are more serious issues than human rights," Javadli said. "They [made the arrests] because the West is so sensitive to terrorism cases.”
A COMMON PATTERN
Historian Arif Yunus, author of several books on Islam in Azerbaijan, said the tactic of linking radical Islam to terrorism for political purposes has long been used by governments in Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
Yunus is also skeptical of the claim that the 40 suspects are linked to terror networks. He said the arrests are more likely a response to Western pressure on the regime to seriously implement democratic reforms.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised concerns over human rights during her brief visit to Azerbaijan on 6 June.
“By claiming that Azerbaijan faces a terrorism threat, the Azerbaijani government wants to show that it is in a vulnerable situation. The claim of terrorism is a good way for the government to have a dialogue with the West,” Yunus said.
In the weeks leading up to the widely watched Eurovision contest, that dialogue mostly consisted of the government trying to fend off criticisms of the human rights situation and lack of democracy in the country from both domestic and foreign activists.
Whatever the reason for their timing, the raids against the Padarov group were the latest in a string of roundups of accused terrorists in the past several years. In most cases the authorities have accused the groups of working in cahoots with foreign terror organizations.
In 2007, for instance, Said Dadashbeyli, an employee of a U.S.-Azeri oil services company and the founder of a small Islamic group, and 14 others were charged with violent seizure of power, organizing a criminal group, and other offenses. Authorities said the group had links to Iran and accused it of working for Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas movements in the Middle East.
Dadashbeyli was sentenced to 14 years in prison. His lawyers said all the charges were unfounded, a view Yunus shares.
Another scholar and expert on Islam, Altay Goyushov, said the number of radical Muslims is rising fast as part of a general Islamic revival in the country. He agrees with the official view that terrorist groups may take advantage of this situation, especially insurgents located just over the Caucasus range in Dagestan, home to several armed Islamic movements. But he, too, doubts that Padarov and the rest of his group were involved in terrorist activity.
“The Azerbaijani government misuses the cases of radical Islamists and presents them as terrorists: radicalism is not terrorism,” he said.
THE WAHHABI CONNECTION
Just as Dadashbeyli’s supporters and family claim he was a pious Muslim with an interest in helping the poor and no ties to terror groups, supporters of jailed “Wahhabi” Kamran Asadov say the police used his peaceful Islamic activities as a pretext for terror accusations. Asadov, then a first lieutenant in the Azerbaijani army, was given a 15-year prison sentence in 2009 for planning attacks on foreign embassies in Baku. Authorities said he was a member of a radical Wahhabi group, but according to his cousin Nargiz Ismayilova, Asadov was no terrorist. She said he was a radical Salafi – a strict school of Sunni Islam – for whom Islamic living was the solution to many problems in Azeri society.
“He believed that the Islamic lifestyle would change people and make them better,” she said. “Also, he was accusing high-ranking military personnel in his unit of corruption, while soldiers had unhealthy food and lived in unsanitary quarters. Raising those issues is not terrorism. He had nothing to do with what he was accused of.”
Not all observers are so skeptical of the official line that Islamic terror poses a serious threat to the Azerbaijani state.
Elchin Askerov, head of the nonprofit Religious Research Center, said Azerbaijan could be a target for extremist religious groups operating in the North Caucasus.
The adherents of the so-called Caucasus Emirates, a radical Islamic insurgency based in Chechnya and Dagestan, include northern Azerbaijan in their plans, according to Askerov.
“Those regions in the north have more tendencies to radical Islam," Askerov said. "They share the same ethnicity with those living in the North Caucasus. Events happening in the North Caucasus can have a significant impact on them.”
Avars, Lezgins, and several other non-Azeri, Sunni rather than Shiite, ethnic groups live along both sides of the northern border with Georgia and the Russian Caucasus.
The National Security Ministry could not be reached to comment on the arrests, but an Interior Ministry spokesman, Ehsan Zahidov, said the weapons and explosives confiscated from the suspects and what he called their mission to set off bombs and kill people justified calling them terrorists.
For Mairbek Vatchagaev, a specialist on the North Caucasus at the conservative-leaning Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., said Azerbaijan in general, with its Shiite majority, is not apriority area for radical Islamists from the North Caucasus. However, Islamists are looking to expand their influence in northern regions with Sunni ethnic minorities, he said.
Vatchagaev downplayed the terrorist threat to Azerbaijan from the North Caucasus, saying the region’s Islamists, or jamaat, had nothing to do with terrorism. The jamaat organization set up by the Azerbaijani citizen Ilgar Mollachiyev was not related to Dagestani jamaat groups, he said, and in any case the Islamists periodically rounded up by Azerbaijani authorities have never been definitively shown to have carried out acts of terror.
Mollachiyev was killed in 2008 by Russian security forces in Dagestan.