Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Baku Alarmed Over 'Wahhabi Menace'
Seven people - six local policemen and a serviceman - have been killed in Zakatala district in northern Azerbaijan over the past two months, prompting fears that Wahhabi militants are attempting to establish a grip on the region.
Some local officials suspect the Islamists are trying to mobilise the Avar and Tsakhur minorities - who form around a third of the local population - to demand the transfer of parts of the region to Dagestan, where Avars are in the majority.
The latest violence flared on August 19 when a group of armed men attacked and seriously injured five policemen in the town of Zakatala. According to police officer Shakir Veliev, who was wounded during the incident, the attack was launched to secure the release of four suspects from an earlier attack.
One of the wounded officers, Akhmed Amirov, described what happened, "It was night. A car approached us from nowhere and, all of a sudden, people started shooting at us. We couldn't see their faces. The attackers changed their positions ... So we were just shooting in all directions. It's difficult to say whether we wounded anyone. A bullet hit me in my stomach. It was burning inside. I could hardly breathe..."
There were a series of similar attacks in June. On the night of June 5-6, three policemen were shot down on a road leading to Zakatala. A state of emergency was announced and, within two days, police arrested two suspects: one was a Georgian of Chechen origin and the other a Turk from Germany.
The police said that the two men, who were travelling to Baku via Dagestan, had been carrying 4 million US dollars in cash. Two other suspects accompanying them, local sources said, had escaped in Zakatala and disappeared across the Dagestan border.
"No one believes that this was an ordinary criminal incident," said a Zakatala resident after the shootings. "Everything is mixed here: politics, religion and the Chechen War." Three days later, two more policemen were shot in Zakatala, one of them the deputy head of police, Ilgar Gasilov.
And on June 24 an unknown group of at least ten men attacked a 500-strong interior ministry unit in Zakatala. The skirmish ended with two soldiers being wounded, one of whom died in hospital.
The deputy head of the interior ministry, Zakhid Duniamaliev, arrived in Zakatala shortly afterwards to supervise the police investigation. A number of suspects were arrested, including local businessman Akhmed Abakarov, who allegedly provided refuge to the two suspects who escaped after the June shooting.
In Baku, police also arrested an intermediary known as 'Musa', who was reportedly waiting for delivery of the 4 million US dollars, which some believe had originated in Chechnya. Ten more people, whom the police described as Wahhabis, were later arrested across the region. In mid-August, two other alleged participants in the attack on the interior ministry unit were arrested, one in Zakatala district, the other in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan.
Deputy interior minister Zakhid Duniamaliev, who returned to Zakatala after the August attack, confirmed that all three incidents were the work of the same group. Shakhir Veliev, a policeman wounded in the August incident, did not exclude the possibility of fresh acts of terrorism and said that, in all likelihood, the militants' weapons were obtained in Dagestan.
Police are also pushing the theory that the unknown group had been spreading Wahhabism - the austere form of Sunni Islam practised in Saudi Arabia - and recruiting new members among the disaffected local youth. It is a widely believed theory in the region. According to the Baku newspaper Ekho, the mainly Avar population of Kebel-Oba village in Zakatala district had recently complained that their young men are being "disorientated by outside forces".
But why did the local police suddenly become a target? Sources in Zakatala told IWPR that the police had long been aware of the group's activities, and were taking bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye. The first attack on June 6, the sources said, occurred soon after the police demanded a larger cut.
Rafael Medjidov, head of the Zakatala district council, told journalists on August 21 that "domestic and foreign enemies of an independent Azerbaijani state" are behind the incidents, Turan news agency reported. Their motive, he said, was to fan existing ethnic tensions and mobilise the Avar and Tsakhur minorities to demand the transfer of the Zakatala and Belokany districts to Dagestan, where Avars are in the majority.
Dagestan denies any role in the attacks. Mukhu Aliev, head of the Dagestani parliament, told the Russian news agency Interfax on August 29 that his republic has had no territorial claims on Azerbaijan. He said the cause of the fighting lay more in the Avars' dismal economic conditions and their lack of representation in Azeri institutions.
Who is then to blame for the rising tension in the region? According to the Baku newspaper 525 Gazeti, the answer is Russia and Iran. But Russian parliamentary leader Ramazan Abdulatipov denied that the intelligence services were trying to stir up ethnic tensions in Azerbaijan. "If there are any intelligence services involved, they are not Russian," he said.
Russian media point to Iran's growing influence. In June, the daily Vremya Novostey quoted Azeri intelligence sources as saying that "although the Iranian clergy does not officially support Wahhabism, the Wahhabis who are engaged in illegal activity in Azerbaijan have direct links with Iranian intelligence".
Baku does not deny that growing Wahhabism is making significant inroads in Azerbaijan. Deputy national security minister Tofik Babaev said in May that 7000 Azeris had converted to Wahhabism so far, identifying northern Azerbaijan as a particular stronghold.
While the authorities appear to be content to blame Wahhabism for the spate of attacks on police in Northern Azerbaijan, the evidence is far from conclusive. Azeris, as a whole, are the victims of a deteriorating economy and an instability that is spreading quickly across the North Caucasus. Few harbour expectations of ever sharing in the country's long-promised oil bonanza, and the Avars and Tsakhurs, in particular, stand at the very back of the queue
Some observers believe that a more thoughtful government would treat the latest outbreak of violence not purely as a security problem, but as a symptom of deeper ills. But, so far, the signs are not promising.
Mamed Suleimanov is a staff writer with the Baku newspaper 7 Days.
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