Nahla Abdel Moneim
New videos broadcasted by ISIS elements in which they renew their allegiance to the terrorist group’s leader have caused controversy surrounding the real existence of the organization and how it was able to redeploy its followers in more than one geographical location.
Those who have declared their allegiance to Baghdadi are found in Libya, East Asia, West Africa, Khorasan and elsewhere, but the most striking among these states is the emergence of Azerbaijan as a relatively modern variable on the radical Islamist map.
A three-minute video of three masked and black-clad men announced the establishment of a “state” branch of the alleged ISIS caliphate in Azerbaijan, along with their pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi, calling for unity under the group’s banner.
In the video, the group’s terrorist leader in the country, who calls himself Abu Yusuf al-Azeri, spoke about Baghdadi as the caliph. He also threatened Western countries that are fighting the organization with retaliation and destruction, especially officials of Russia and Iran, as well as their collaborators.
Although the Azeri elements appeared with shoulder-mounted weapons and rifles, they were not as armed as their counterparts in Libya.
Azerbaijan is a country located in the Caucasus region on the border between Asia and Europe – the so-called Eurasia region. It borders many countries, including Russia, Georgia, Turkey and Iran. The country shares the Caspian Sea with Iran, while the people speak Turkish or Azeri.
But what previous links are there between the state and the terrorist organization? When the name ISIS began to circulate in 2014, accompanied by the news of the amount of people joining the group, what proportion was made up by Azerbaijani citizens. According to a report by the then-head of the country’s State Security Service, Madat Guliyev, in September 2017, about 900 of the country’s citizens had joined the organization since its inception in Syria and Iraq following the famous appearance of Baghdadi in July 2014.
Guliyev also confirmed that the state has information about the deaths of 300 of them in Iraq and is conducting investigations in this regard, in addition to revoking the citizenship of many of these people. However, the country still fears about other elements whose statuses remain unknown.
Recent statistics are related to the emerging links between the state organization and ISIS beyond the country’s borders, but what opportunities does it have in the country? What factors are likely to have contributed to the group’s announcement of establishing a state within the country and what rhetoric provided the ground for its existence?
The oil-rich Caucus nation gained its independence from the Soviet Union after its disintegration in the early 1990s. It suffered from the turbulence and militancy of some of its neighbors, such as Chechnya, Armenia and Ingushetia, but did not reach the same degree of religious extremism and destructive attacks as compared to them.
During this period of secession, militant Salafi networks were formed to counter Russia and were sometimes linked to al-Qaeda, which explains some of the reasons that brought about the large numbers who joined the organization.
Regarding the Salafi networks in the country, a study entitled “The Rise of Armed Salafism in Azerbaijan and Its Regional Implications” published by the Middle East Policy Institute said that the origins of the takfiri trend in the country were the result of external factors and international parties that intervened to plant it in the country; however, it has since grown domestically, making it fertile ground for extremist groups in the future.
The state did not counter the extremists firmly at the outset because of its fear of the Turkish authorities and their reaction to the relative corruption of the state apparatus, which has enabled other groups to grow and rise.
Therefore, it is obvious that the takfiri ideology is long-rooted in the country and not a modern phenomenon. This means that ISIS has found support in this country, especially with the increase in arms trafficking and terrorist operations carried out by its factions in the Caucus region.
In this context, the Green Policy Organization issued a study in 2015 predicting that Azerbaijan would be one of the countries most likely to embrace ISIS in the future. According to the report, the country’s geopolitical environment was favorable to the growth of Islamist radicalism. The study reduces the serious effects of the government’s suppression of terrorism and the Takfiri groups, considering that imprisonment and arrests will not change anything. If the organization is allowed to exist in the country then extremism would grow there, because the state is not fighting intellectually and methodically, but only militarily.
Despite the state’s claim to adopt a secular system, the study argues that this is not able to be truly applied politically. The study also drew attention to the state’s political and geographical rapprochement with Turkey, which played a role in exporting extremist ISIS elements to Azerbaijan.