Bin Laden's Azeri Connections

Osama bin Laden's links with Azerbaijan stretch back to the mid-nineties

Bin Laden's Azeri Connections

Osama bin Laden's links with Azerbaijan stretch back to the mid-nineties

Azerbaijan, one of the 34 countries identified by US Congress as having links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, has pledged to the assist Washington in its efforts to neutralise such militant groups.

President Haidar Aliev last week confirmed his wholesale support for the US-led fight against terrorism, declaring that it was in Azerbaijan's national interest to do so - as terrorist groups both affiliated to and under the control of Bin Laden have operated clandestinely in the country over the last decade.

Next to nothing is being said about the level of cooperation between Washington and Baku, but intelligence agencies from both countries have been active in joint anti-terrorist operations over the past few years. US President Bill Clinton even sent President Haidar Aliev a personal message of thanks in 1998 after the capture of several extremists.

A former official with the Azeri national security ministry told the Baku-based daily Echo over the summer that some of the groups "neutralised" during those operations were intending to use Azerbaijan as a regional support base.

The terrorist trail leads back to the days of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing confusion among the states trying to make the transition to democracy. Extremist activity focuses on one main group - Egyptian Islamic Jihad, considerned a wing of bin Laden's Al Qaeda organisation.

Two figures known to have belonged to the Azeri cell of Islamic Jihad were arrested in London in May 2000. The US state department revealed that one, Ibrahim Eydaruz, the leader of the Baku cell until 1997, had been detained in connection with the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Both Eydaruz and Adel Abdel Bari, the other suspect arrested, went on to head the Islamic Jihad's cell in London.

The group had for several years been closely tied to Bin Laden's organisation. Their links were cemented when Jihad's leader Ayman Al Zawahri joined Al Qaeda's majlis al-shura or consulation council.

According to the London based Arab daily Al Hayat, Bin Laden had paid Al Zawahri's way out of a Dagestani jail after he had been arrested for illegal entry in 1996. It was around this time, it seems, that the Saudi dissident used the Jihad structure in Baku as a base for his own network.

Two years later, in February 1998, Bin Laden and Al Zawahri signed a fatwa, called International Islamic Front For Jihad Against the US and Israel, demanding attacks against the two countries' nationals and interests.

When Bin Laden's telephone records fell into the hands of the CIA, it transpired that he had made around 60 calls to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Baku between 1996 and 1998.

More concrete evidence pointing to Bin Laden- backed activity on Azeri soil emerged during investigations into the 1998 US embassy bombings. The trail started when it was revealed in the Kenyan daily, The Nation, that one of the terrorists, Mohammed Rashid Daud Al-Owhali, who survived the attack in Nairobi, had received several phone calls from Baku at his hotel prior to the attack.

Then, according to US intelligence sources, one hour before the attacks, a fax in Arabic from Baku arrived in London alerting the recipient that the terrorist operation would be taking place.

US intelligence sources, quoted in the Afghan weekly Omaid, said that similar attacks had been planned for the American embassy in the Azeri capital but the attempts were foiled by US and Azeri security services.

By 1999, there seemed conclusive proof that Azerbaijan was being used as a base for Al Qaeda. Three members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ihab Saker, Esam El-Din Hafez and Salama Mabrouk, were extradited to Egypt. Mabrouk, according to Yasser Serri, a high profile member of London's Islamic community, was Al-Zawahri's right-hand man.

The uncovering of a Hizb-ut Tahrir cell earlier this year confirmed fears that radical Islamic groups were still active in Baku. Though this group officially espouses non-violence, its aim to set up a pan global Islamic government is enough to cause concern.

Samir Razimov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist based in Azerbaijan

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