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Islamic State Flags In Baku: 'Cheap Provocation' Or Spread Of Extremism?

A man tries to raise the black flag of Islamic State militants at an opposition rally in Baku on October 12.

A man tries to raise the black flag of Islamic State militants at an opposition rally in Baku on October 12.

Five people were arrested for waving Islamic State flags at a mass opposition rally in the Azerbaijani capital on October 12, according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

Thousands attended the Baku meeting, which was organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces, a pro-democracy movement of Azerbaijan's united opposition.

The council's leader, Jamil Hasanli, reportedly compared Azerbaijan to North Korea and called for the release of political prisoners.

It is unclear whether the flags were brought by Islamic State supporters or were an attempt to create unrest and provocation at the rally, taking advantage of fears of a growing Sunni-Shi'ite divide in Shi'a-majority Azerbaijan. According to one report, a man attending the rally said he was given an Islamic State flag by an unknown man and, when he opened it, he was dragged out of the stadium and taken to a local police station.

The Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State have provoked debate among Muslim communities in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan fears the growth of Islamic State-related extremism on its soil. In September, Azerbaijani authorities arrested 26 citizens suspected of fighting with the Islamic State and the Taliban.

Last week, there were unconfirmed reports in the Azerbaijani press that two Azerbaijani Islamic State militants had been killed in Syria.

In July, BBC Russian reported that the website published an interview with an Azerbaijani man who claimed that harassment of Salafi Muslims in Azerbajian had pushed him to join and fight with the Islamic State in Syria.

"We are criticized a lot in Azerbaijani. But there is a reason why we went [to Syria]. That reason can first and foremost be found in Azerbaijan. People don't accept us. The media incites against us and calls us Wahhabis. The cops cut off our beards," the man said.

Reactions to the Islamic State flag incident are mixed. Some Azerbaijanis have exaggerated it, saying that the opposition rally was rife with Islamic State banners:

"In Baku, there was an opposition meeting and 900 people came and tried to raise the ISIL [Islamic State] flag, the police gave them all what-for! Well done to our police!"

Azerbaijani blogger Wind from the Absheron, writing on the Kavkazskyi Uzel website, said that the flags were a "cheap provocation" against the opposition.

The blogger said the flags were a "pure scam by pro-government forces who wanted to taunt, to put a shadow on the fence, to disgrace and even somehow 'expose' the opposition."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena