Authorities in Azerbaijan say they have detained a group of heavily armed Islamic militants who were allegedly plotting an attack on the US Embassy in Baku, which closed Monday in response to the threat. The State Department in Washington said there was "specific and credible threat information," but gave no further details.
The detained men were described as being Wahhabis – a Sunni Muslim sect that originated in Saudi Arabia – and their ranks included an Army officer who had supplied assault rifles and grenade launchers, Reuters reported Monday. It quoted a spokesman for the National Security Ministry, Arif Babayev.
Babayev said that part of the militant group was detained at the weekend in the village of Mashtagi, near Baku, including the military officer, who had recently gone absent from his post.
"It was established that the group ... had four Kalashnikov rifles, one Kalashnikov grenade launcher, 20 grenades, rounds and other automatic weapon parts," Babayev said.
The British Embassy in Baku also closed Monday over "local security concerns." The Associated Press reported a statement by the National Security Ministry that the arrests had prevented a wider terrorist plot against national and foreign targets.
"That prevented a large-scale, horrifying terror attack that was being prepared by members of this group against several state structures in Baku and embassies and missions of the countries which are members of the international anti-terror coalition," the ministry said, adding that other members of the group were being sought.
Azerbaijan is a largely secular Muslim republic on the western shore of the oil-rich Caspian Sea. British oil giant BP operates two large oil and gas export projects in Azerbaijani waters that supply energy markets in Western Europe, the Financial Times reported Tuesday from Moscow.
Azerbaijan, with its population of 8m, is a predominantly Muslim republic with borders with Iran, Russia and Georgia….
The arrests come at a time when Azerbaijan is enjoying economic growth of more than 30 per cent amid a growing oil surge.
However, poverty remains widespread. Human rights groups say Islamist religious groups are gaining influence, particularly among the poor.
Azerbaijan's relationship with neighboring Iran may have been the focus of a recent visit to Baku by Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden, Eurasianet.org, a specialist website funded by the Open Society Institute, reported earlier this month. General Hayden met Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, on Sept. 28 during what US officials said was a regional tour to discuss security and international terrorism.
Some local analysts believe the US wants to use Azerbaijan as a base for a possible military attack on Iran, according to Euroasianet.org. It also cited Ilgar Mammadov, an independent analyst, as drawing a link between Hayden's visit and the trial of a pro-Iranian militant group.
A preliminary hearing for the government's case against the 15-member group, named after its leader, Said Dadashbeyli, took place at the end of September in Baku, the Turan news agency reported on October 1. Group members are also charged with high treason, illegal arms possession, illegal contact with foreign intelligence services, robbery and other crimes.
The Ministry of National Security alleges that Dadashbeyli, an Azerbaijani citizen, worked with radical Islamic organizations – as yet not publicly named – and Iranian intelligence agents to set up a state with Shar'ia laws. A military group, dubbed the Northern Army of Mehdi, was allegedly formed by several of the defendants, prosecutors allege. Prosecutors also claim that one of the group's members, Jeihun Aliyev, traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he was offered money by Iranian agents. The money was to be used to mount a propaganda campaign designed to undermine Western and Israeli influence in Azerbaijan.
Earlier this month, Iran hosted a summit for states bordering the Caspian sea, at which leaders from Azerbaijan and four other countries pledged not to allow their territory to be used for attacks against fellow littoral states, Asia Times reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among those attending the summit, which played down the issue of disputed national boundaries in the oil-rich inland sea.
Jamestown.org reported last year that Azerbaijan may have been overstating the risk of a possible Al Qaeda attack in Baku as a way of currying favor with the US government. After 2001, Azerbaijani authorities arrested and extradited several foreign militants to Middle East countries. Six Azerbaijani were jailed in 2005 for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks against national and foreign targets on behalf of Al Qaeda. But the government's claims that Baku was a prime target for foreign terrorists should be treated with caution.
Recent trends show that local radical organizations pose more of a danger to Azerbaijan than does al-Qaeda. Yet, the Azerbaijani government is trying to connect the surge of local radicalism with the influence of al-Qaeda. There are several reasons for that. First, the country's regime is trying to show the United States its loyalty concerning the war on terrorism. Thus, the sentencing of al-Qaeda "members" was done in order to demonstrate the activity of Azerbaijan's special services.
Secondly, by exaggerating the danger from al-Qaeda, the Azerbaijani government is trying to portray itself as the one and only pro-democratic force in a region dominated by anti-Western religious extremists. For many years, the current regime in Azerbaijan successfully sold this propaganda, often depicting outbreaks of social unrest as the work of Islamic extremists….
Compared to other Muslim countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, al-Qaeda will have a hard time influencing and recruiting local Azerbaijanis for suicide terrorist missions. Furthermore, up to 75-80 percent of the population is Shiite, to which the ideology of al-Qaeda is hostile. Finally, a majority of the mosques, where al-Qaeda usually recruits its followers, are under tight surveillance by the Azerbaijani government.
After gaining independence from Soviet rule in 1991, Azerbaijan fought a war in a disputed breakaway region, the British Broadcasting Corp. reports.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, the predominantly Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh region stated their intention to secede from Azerbaijan. War broke out. Backed by troops and resources from Armenia proper, the Armenians of Karabakh took control of the region and surrounding territory.
In 1994 a ceasefire was signed. About one-seventh of Azerbaijan's territory remains occupied, while 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons are scattered around the country.