Azerbaijan: Muslim Radicals Rounded up

Government officials claim militants are planning pre-election trouble.

Azerbaijan: Muslim Radicals Rounded up

Government officials claim militants are planning pre-election trouble.

Azerbaijan’s national security ministry has been conducting a nationwide crackdown of alleged Islamic militants, generally known as Wahhabis, since late July.


Officials justified the operation, in which 30 suspects have been arrested, by saying the Wahhabis had increased their activity in Azerbaijan in a bid to upset the political balance in the run-up to parliamentary elections later this year.


The security forces have raided mosques in Baku, arresting parishioners. More arrests were carried out in Novkhany near Baku and in the Gusar region in the north of the country.


The small Azerbaijani town of Zakataly, a centre of for radical Islam near the border with Georgia and Dagestan, is now anticipating trouble.


Observers say that extreme Islam has been infiltrating Azerbaijan since the first war in Chechnya in the mid-Nineties. Some of the militants in Zakataly were converted in Chechnya while fighting on the rebel side.


Wahhabism is a fundamentalist version of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. In the former Soviet Union it is mainly used in a negative sense by others and not all proponents of purist Islam accept the term.


“We profess pure Islam, and we’ll see to it that it takes hold across the Caucasus. Azerbaijan must live according to religious law,” said Vugar, not his real name, a self-confessed Wahabbi, who has not held a job since he left school ten years ago, but does not seem to be poor.


Vugar’s involvement in Wahabbism began ten years ago when he met an Islamic preacher from Qatar. The latter lived in Zakataly for a while, married a local woman who bore him a child, only to go back to Qatar a year later. Locals in Zakataly say that he was a key influence in spreading Wahhabi teaching in their region.


Vugar’s wife and all his brothers and sisters say they are Wahhabis. Talking to IWPR, Vugar made no attempt to disguise his contempt for other Muslims. “To us, not only Christians but also Shia and Sunni Muslims are infidels. When we are in power, we’ll kick them all out, even the Turks, who are all over Zakataly,” he said.


But he ruled out the use of force, at least in theory, “We need a jihad, but I don’t think there is a need for violence. We’ll get what we want by propaganda.”


Others may not be as peaceful as Vugar. Four years ago, there were a number of violent clashes in Zakataly and the neighbouring village of Balaken. Internal ministry troops, border guards and the regular army fought with a group of militants. According to the interior ministry, more than 10 policemen were killed, 23 militants were arrested, and their leader Haji Magomedov was also killed. Fearing reprisals, the captured militants were put on trial in Mingechaur, 200 km from Zakataly. Three of them were given life sentences; the rest were sentenced to terms ranging from eight to 15 years in prison.


Many thought this was the end of Islamic militancy in the region, but recently there have been signs of a revival.


Mahmud Mustafayev, 35, the grandson of a respected Zakataly Muslim theologian, says that the Wahhabis are increasing in number with every passing day. The villages of Tretya Tala and Gabagchel regularly celebrate weddings according to the Wahhabi rite, which means no singing is allowed. The dead are buried with no tombstones on their graves.


According to a survey conducted by Arif Yunus, a leading expert on Islam in Azerbaijan, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 militant Muslims in the country today. But he believes there are at least 20,000 additional supporters, who for one reason or another feel compelled to hide their militant leanings.


In Zakataly, you see Wahhabis everywhere. They stand out with their long, bushy beards and short trousers.


Mustafayev is afraid that the militants are planning to stage a rebellion. “What happened here four years ago was merely a drill for them,” he said. “They know exactly when and how to act. Their heads are filled with Wahhabi phrases and commandments from books. And weapons are easy to obtain if you have the money.”


Mustafayev said the reasons why radical Islam was gaining in popularity were not hard to seek: unemployment, social inequality, lack of prospects and direction in life, especially among the young. Unlike the politicians, Wahhabis always make good on their promises, giving people something to believe in, money and a support network.


“But the role of money should not be exaggerated. Wahhabis can always tell who wants to join out of mercenary interest, and who is in it for real,” said a respected local religious figure, who asked not to be named. “They have good judgement. You cannot fool them.”


The religious figure said that the young converts were invited to apartments to watch video footage of the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq, accompanied by religious commentary and inflammatory rhetoric.


He blamed Azerbaijan’s official religious authorities for failing to inspire ordinary people and driving them into the arms of the radicals.


The problem has been made worse by the fact that Azerbaijan’s two top official religious authorities, the Spiritual Board of Muslims and the State Committee on Religion, are at loggerheads, accusing each other from time to time of having ties to international Wahhabi groups.


Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who heads two institutes in Azerbaijan devoted to defending religious freedom, says the government is propagating the idea that Islamic militants are about to attack. “We are witnessing the makings of a new Andijan scenario,” concluded Ibrahimoglu, referring to the mass killing in Uzbekistan in May of protesters whom the government accused of being Islamic militants.


The timing of the government crackdown has caught many by surprise, as it was not prompted by any particular acts by the militants. Ibrahimoglu believes the government is preparing to boost its credentials and stifle dissent ahead of the November 6 parliamentary elections by suddenly detaining suspected radicals.


“Until very recently, government officials always said the government was firmly in control of religious extremism,” said Ibrahimoglu. “But now every passing day brings tidings of new, more secret and dangerous groups with a violent radical agenda, and the threat of terrorist attacks. There is no other sensible explanation for this than the coming elections.”


Mamed Suleimanov is a reporter for Realny Azerbaijan newspaper in Baku.


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