Azerbaijan Waiting for the Islamic State: What's Next?

a newly built skyscraper overshadows an old mosque near martyr's alley in baku
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a newly built skyscraper overshadows an old mosque near martyr's alley in baku

The threat nearby and the threat from afar

A sad anniversary is upon us. The 29th of June marks exactly one year since the declaration of the global Caliphate - the Islamic State (previously the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). This anniversary is an occasion to reflect on the impact that the various radical Islamic movements and groups have on Salafis (adherents to a strain of Sunni fundamentalism) in Azerbaijan and just how active Azerbaijani Salafis may be in transnational networks and organizations of Islamic radicals. It is also a good time to consider the effectiveness of the Azerbaijani political system’s response to the new challenges that have emerged with the birth of this new quasi-state, especially given the fact that the eastern boundary of ISIS runs so close to the southern borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

At the time of writing, the radical Salafis taking part in the conflict on the side of ISIS are by far not the main headache of the leaders of Azerbaijan. They are much more concerned about the sharp drop in oil prices, and the forced devaluation of the national currency. It is these events that have been the latest unpleasant surprises for the political regime, especially on the eve of the first European Games, whose closing ceremony, coincidentally, is to be held the day before the first anniversary of the Caliphate's proclamation.

However, the immediate geopolitical environment is becoming less and less favourable for Azerbaijani politicians, and is much more likely to become a source of more unpleasant surprises. The neighbours to its north (Dagestan and other Russian regions) do not inspire great optimism, while relations are complex with the Islamic Republic of Iran to the south. The closest ally, Turkey, is already facing a full-scale war on its borders, and the entire Middle East region is a proverbial powder keg, but one that has already exploded.

Azerbaijan - an oasis of peace?

All of this aside, at first glance it seems that the worse things are going for its Middle Eastern neighbours, the more Azerbaijan looks like an oasis of peace. At the end of April, the capital city of Baku hosted the participants of the Global Forum III. In June the country will hold the first, generously financed, European games, and this autumn Azerbaijan will be home to the fifth Humanitarian Forum.

Of course, Baku, in spite of this parade of shows and forums, formally expresses concern over the tragic events taking place in its region. On 28 April, President Ilham Aliyev expressed his disappointment about the ever-expanding geography of conflict at the farewell reception honouring the most significant participants and organizers of the Global Forum. Perhaps the conflicts he had in mind included Crimea, ISIS, and many others, but he did not get into specifics. Speaking about the country’s achievements though, he allowed himself to get a lot more specific, as is usually the case in his speeches. In Azerbaijan, according to him, everything is fine because it has always been and remains a place where for centuries followers of various religions and members of different ethnic groups have peacefully co-existed. He did not fail to remind guests about the first European games in June, and the Islamic Solidarity Games scheduled for 2017. The two events seemed to symbolize the essence of modern Azerbaijan. The president once again publicly reiterated the main points of the official discourse, repeated like a mantra by all Azerbaijani politicians, journalists, artists, and others. Azerbaijan, the mantra would have it, is a space of tolerance, the last refuge of true multiculturalism, the country that organically combines the wisdom of the East and the pragmatism of the West. As part of the official discourse, any presence of serious conflicts on the territory of the republic is simply denied with the exception, of course, of the conflict with Armenia over Karabakh.

The official discourse may be considered a kind of a coded message stating that the regime controls the country confidently and effectively. Control is definitely needed, because radical Islamists have long been a reality in Azerbaijan, and not mythical characters that operate somewhere far away, in the arid highlands and deserts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Since September 2001, when the United States declared a campaign against Islamist terrorists, citizens of Azerbaijan have taken part in several wars and conflicts. The political regime had sent a token military contingent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Salafi radicals, whose numbers in Azerbaijan are slowly but surely growing, in turn, are not sitting idle. They also sent their symbolic contingents to assist the Taliban, and later the Caliphate. The radical Salafi survivors of these conflicts have combat experience and will likely eventually return home.

Who likes ISIS in Azerbaijan?

The Azerbaijani authorities are in no hurry to share information about the scale of the spread of Salafis and other groups and radical networks involved in supporting ISIS. However, it is difficult to imagine that the country's law enforcement agencies have the resources to fully control them. Security forces themselves do not have even remotely accurate numbers, but it is clear that we are talking about hundreds of mobile Azerbaijani citizens, many of whom have military training and consider the war waged by the Caliphate to be their war. There are different figures circulating today, ranging from 400 to 1,000 Azerbaijani citizens fighting for the Caliphate. Many Salafis are ready to die for ISIS ideology and Azerbaijani prisons do not scare them. It is known that Salafi propaganda works very effectively among the prison population and imprisonment does not mean discontinued activity.

In recent years the authorities expanded their set of oppressive practices against the radicals. They closed Salafi Mosques, their visitors condemned to various terms of imprisonment. Attempts have been made to squeeze out radicals from Azerbaijan, complicating their lives in the country. However, as soon as the conflict in Syria broke out, Azerbaijani Salafis started crossing over through Turkey. Many of them not only did not try to hide their activities - they actively posted about it on Facebook and Twitter. The public is constantly shaken by information about the latest fighters from Azerbaijan killed in clashes with Syrian troops. It is possible there are so many militants that a separate Azerbaijani battalion has been established. At any rate, a person that aspired to the presidency of such a battalion - Musa al Azeri - was killed in May 2014 in Syria, shortly before the proclamation of the Caliphate.

In September 2014 the Ministry of National Security made a series of arrests, taking 26 people, some of whom fought in Syria for ISIS, into custody. In January 2015 another series of arrests followed. This time 10 supporters of the Caliphate were arrested. Hundreds of Azerbaijanis are already at war; dozens have been killed in combat or captured. The exact number of Salafis sympathetic to Islamic State and seriously thinking about setting off for the conflict zone is unknown, but the number maybe in the thousands. Salafism, especially popular in the northern parts of the country inhabited by Lezgins and Avars, as well as in Baku, gathers in its ranks more and more supporters across Azerbaijan. Among those arrested were many ethnic Azerbaijanis.

What, other than repression?

It is difficult to make forecasts, but it is obvious that repressive practices will remain effective for as long the regime has sufficient financial resources. The ongoing collapse in oil prices shows that the situation could change very quickly. Wealth will be replaced by crisis. The weak link in this situation may be the secret services, who are currently monitoring the situation. In addition, the weakness of the current regime of controlling radicals lies in the abuse of power by police: the actions of special services not only suppress the activity of the radicals, but also effectively radicalize them. Closing mosques is meaningless (the Islamists quickly find other places for their meetings, which are more difficult to monitor), and the humiliating practice of forcible shaving of beards generates new supporters of ISIS.

What, other than repression, can the authorities offer? Paraphrasing Jose Casanova, one can say that the Azerbaijani regime is not strictly secular, but rather lives in accordance with the myth of secular neutrality. In April, President Aliyev visited Mecca for the second time, this time with his whole family. A little earlier in this year he opened the largest mosque in the South Caucasus. The regime is trying very hard to appear Muslim and secular at the same time, but can it comfortably sit on two chairs at once? The one thing that is certain is that in the coming years the regime will have to confront the growing number of radical Islamists and the situation cannot be reversed by repression alone. What's needed is an effort to form broad and massive civil resistance to radicalism, but the current regime is not ready for such civic mobilization, as it is afraid of such a thing far more than is it is afraid of the Islamists themselves. Therefore, the danger that the current policy will play a bad joke with the country is increasing, and it will be Azerbaijan’s turn to deal with uninvited guests, just as is happening now in Syria and Iraq.