Baku Crushes 'Wahhabi' Gang

Reeling from a recent barrage of criticism, Azerbaijan demonstrates its commitment to the fight against international terrorism

Baku Crushes 'Wahhabi' Gang

Reeling from a recent barrage of criticism, Azerbaijan demonstrates its commitment to the fight against international terrorism

The Azerbaijani security services claim to have smashed the Army of Allah, an Islamic fundamentalist group which they believe to have carried out a string of attacks across the former Soviet republic.

The news comes in the wake of reports in both Russia and America that Azerbaijan has become a safe haven for international extremist organisations - allegations that have caused severe embarrassment to the authorities in Baku.

Last week, units from the National Security Ministry arrested 15 suspected members of the notorious Army of Allah, including its alleged leader, Mubariz Aliev.

Among a catalogue of charges, the suspects stand accused of staging the December 1998 attack on the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development offices in Baku as well as murdering the famous Azerbaijani psychic, Etibar Yerkin, and his two sons in 1999. Prosecutors say they also organised the failed raid on Baku's branch of the International Krishna Society in May, 1997.

The findings of the ministry's investigation have already been handed to the High Court in Baku.

Security chiefs believe the Army of Allah was founded by Aliev - formerly an officer in the Azerbaijani interior ministry - and financed by foreign extremist organisations. Drawn from the region's disaffected ethnic minorities, the recruits embraced the extremist Wahhabi faith which calls for a return to the traditional values of Islam.

The Army of Allah was reputedly based in a mountain fortress to the north of Azerbaijan from where its leaders planned terrorist operations.

The arrests come in the wake of angry accusations from both Russia and the USA that Azerbaijan has become a refuge for international terrorists.

Earlier this month, the Russian newspaper Moskovskie Novosti reported that Wahhabi groups were using Azerbaijan as a springboard for military campaigns in Chechnya. The paper claimed the Baku government had first forged links with the Afghan mujahedeen during the war in Nagorny Karabakh. Allegedly, hundreds of mercenaries were flown in from Kabul - among them an obscure field commander known only as Khattab who is now one of Russia's most wanted men.

According to Moskovskie Novosti, the Azerbaijani government continued sending Wahhabi fighters into Nagorny Karabakh right up until 1994. It also arranged for Chechen guerrillas to be flown to Afghan training bases in Kunduz and Talukan.

The Azerbaijani authorities have yet to make an official response to the accusations.

In July, the US State Department released its report on "international terrorism" for 1999 which stated that, "Azerbaijan, although it has yet to face a serious threat from international terrorists, serves as a centre providing material and technical support to terrorists worldwide and maintains contacts with several terrorist groups, some of which supported the Chechen revolt in Russia."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baku has been quick to deny the allegations, dismissing the report's findings as "entirely unfounded". A statement from the ministry stressed that the Russian security forces had never found any evidence to suggest that Chechen fighters were operating out of Azerbaijan or that arms had been smuggled across the border into Dagestan.

The ministry's statement concluded, "The US State Department report is based on subjective evaluations and may seriously damage our country's reputation, as well as impeding the development of friendly relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the United States of America."

Novruz Mamedov, head of the foreign relations department in President Heidar Aliev's administration, said the fight against terrorism, separatism and religious extremism had become a top priority for the government in Baku.

He added that the former Soviet republic could never actively support terrorists because it was as much a victim of their activities as any other country.

The Azerbaijani National Security Ministry claims the Army of Allah was committed to damaging international relations between Azerbaijan, Russia and the West. Documents confiscated from the group's headquarters reportedly included detailed plans for a raid on the US Embassy in Baku.

Meanwhile, the authorities have been targeting other organisations suspected of spreading Wahhabi teachings in Azerbaijan. In August, the justice ministry closed down the Baku branch of the International Humanitarian Appeal, IHA, which has its headquarters in the United Arab Emirates.

Fazil Mamedov, spokesman for the justice ministry, said that the IHA had been working to stir up religious conflicts in Azerbaijani society. The branch chief, he added, was a Sudanese national, Al Rashid Ali Mohammed al Amin, who was a known member of the Islamic Brotherhood militant group. Current legislation banned foreigners from taking part in "religious propaganda".

"Allowing any member of a terrorist organisation to continue his activities in Azerbaijan would be unforgivable," said Mamedov.

Mamed Suleimanov is an independent journalist based in Baku

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