Our Analytics 1 november — 15:30

The impact of ISIL on Azerbaijan



As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or the Islamic State) continues its territorial designs and economic plans, questions are emerging about ISIL’s plans for areas outside of the Middle East.  Already, we are seeing splinter groups emerging in the Taliban who are supporting ISIL and there is support for ISIL as far away as Southeast Asia.  Significantly, a statement from Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi (KUN), a joint AQIM-Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia effort in support of the Islamic State as a Caliphate reflects an international jihadist trend to boost ISIS in the face of the US-led coalition.

Another group splintered from AQIM, the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, pledged support to the Islamic State. In South Asia to the Far East, the Islamic State is gaining traction in the international jihadist network. There are now emerging more expressions of support for Islamic State, especially the formal offerings of allegiance, and reports about Muslim youth moving to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State, as well as support from Maldives, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and others.  Azerbaijan is no exception.

Target: Azerbaijan

In the immediate past, reports of Wahhabists and Salafists from the Northern Caucasus making trouble in Azerbaijan are legitimate.  The Sunni population on the northern border of Azerbaijan is fully exposed to the extremism of the Northern Caucasus. The fact that jihadist extremism is spreading into the Russian Federation not only in places such as Dagestan but also in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan is proof of the ongoing problem with Sunni radicalism.  ISIL’s impressive performance in the Levant helps to energise those who find the Islamic State appealing.  The results in Azerbaijan are becoming apparent.

In late July 2014, the Islamic State’s Minister of State Security Abdulwaheed Khudair Ahmed stated that ISIL will reach Azerbaijan in the near future.  His argument rested on the fact that the Caucasian jihadist fighters in ISIL will be seeking to avenge ‘the blood of their martyrs who have fallen in Syria.’ He said that ISIL ‘will punish the communist governments in Moscow, Tbilisi and Baku’ noting that ‘Baku’s oil fields belong to the Islamic State.’ This comment is certainly noteworthy given ISIL’s ability to expand their mercantilist economy to include oil fields in Iraq and Syria.

In early July, the Azerbaijani press asserted that ISIL had ‘committed provocation against the state symbols of Azerbaijan.’  ISIL made calls on social media networks portraying maps and the national flag of Azerbaijan on a black background with the Arabic phrase La Ilaha ill-Allah (there is no god but Allah) written on the seal and Muhammad Rasulullah inside the seal.  In addition, in late July, ISIL also targeted Azerbaijani recruits for their cause in mosques in Istanbul’s Fatih, Ataşehir, Esenyurt, and Bağcılar neighbourhoods.  These Azerbaijani youth are whipped up into a frenzy according to local Muslim leaders, which is leading to violence against the Jafari Muslim community in Istanbul’s Muhammadi Mosque.

ISIL is targeting Azerbaijan not only for energy and recruits but to also put a stop to Baku allowing its airport to become a transshipment point in the Northern Distribution Network, which supplied Afghanistan, and Azerbaijani troops were deployed there side-by-side with NATO troops. Azerbaijani soldiers also were deployed to Iraq. This factor – the alignment with infidels – explains why there are Azerbaijanis among the Taliban fighters.

This story is not new: earlier, Al-Qaeda and its followers, who are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in Yemen and Somalia, attracted some Azerbaijani nationals such as the now deceased Azer Misirkhanov.  Other groups, such as ‘The Forest Brothers’ find inspiration too.  Al-Qaeda theorists are also attempting to influence the ‘criminal-ethnic-Islamic’ elements in the Russian northern Caucasus egging them on to start a wider regional violent jihad that affects Azerbaijan. That recruitment is now playing out in the Levant.  Clearly, the history of the Forest Brothers is clear but instead links between ISIL and Azerbaijani recruits offers a new chapter in the evolution of the jihadist universe, which covets Azerbaijan fighters that ultimately target Baku and its interests.

Azerbaijanis on the ground with ISIL

In September 2014, the arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining ISIL and other jihadist groups in the Levant including al-Qaeda.  These arrests halted, at least for now, the recruitment capabilities of Levant-based jihadists to join the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, specifically the Azeri Jamaat in Syria.  What is important to realize is that as this flow evolved, many Azerbaijani fighters ended up with ISIL given its agenda, message, organisational skills, and quite frankly, better pay and benefits.  ISIL fighters make up to 100 dollars a day, are provided room and board, health care, and a wife and sex slaves.

The Azerbaijani government released important information regarding the arrestees, which illustrates the reach of the jihadist extremist movement. Baku claimed that one of the detainees, Taleh Soltanov, allegedly led Taifa al-Mansoura, a jihadist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement. On route to Syria, Soltanov was detained in Iran and deported to Azerbaijan. His wife and mother-in-law, though, made it to Syria with the help of local fighters. Another individual arrested, Vugar Dursunaliyev, is accused of sending his juvenile son, Elvin, to Syria to join ISIL.

Those Azerbaijanis killed in the Levant reveal the links between ISIL and Azerbaijani recruits.  One case, in particular, of an Azeri joining ISIL is Nijat Ashurli.  Ashurli, who was killed in Syria, was commander of one of the divisions of the group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA).  At that time, JMA was led by Umar Shishani, the Georgian-born cum Chechen rebel leader who had a sizable Azerbaijani jamaat in Syria. When Umar Shishani moved over to ISIL, and became a senior commander, he brought with him the Azerbaijani contingent.

Citizens of Azerbaijan are reportedly fighting among various terrorist groupings in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. According to the data of Azerbaijani information agency Vesti.az, the total number of Azerbaijani terrorists in these countries is 300. Meanwhile, according to information provided by the Azerbaijani media, about 200 Azerbaijani terrorists have died within the last three years in Syria alone.

Implications for Azerbaijan

There are several implications for Azerbaijan.  There is a need to watch ISIL’s rhetoric and activity carefully and understand the subtle nuances that govern inter-regional activity such as transnational linkages with the Islamic State’s jihadist universe relations.  There is a need to watch for Warnings and Indicators (W&I) about ISIL activity so investments in Azerbaijan remain safe and secure.  There is a need also to understand the blowback potential from Azerbaijani jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It would be wise for the Azerbaijani government to liaison with appropriate government officials who face the ISIL threat – that being all neighbouring countries regardless of any political problems – and increase intelligence and law enforcement ties.

On that note, Azerbaijan enjoys varying relations with the Gulf littoral states and Afghanistan and Pakistan. This fact that the Gulf littoral states and South Asian states and Azerbaijan, nevertheless, do face many common security problems – specifically with ISIL.  This trans-regional fact signals the need for further understanding of the many linkages that ISIL is pursuing and to see what the implications are for each state, if taken as ‘a whole’ from the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian littoral.

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