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Russia's FSB Accuses Azerbaijani Apple Seller Of Financing Syrian Militants

The report about Gachai Haciyev's arrest in Lipetsk is the latest development in a curious and murky story about Azerbaijani militants in Syria.

The report about Gachai Haciyev's arrest in Lipetsk is the latest development in a curious and murky story about Azerbaijani militants in Syria.

An Azerbaijani citizen living in Russia has been charged with financing militants in Syria, according to a report by Russia's Kommersant newspaper on April 6.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has filed criminal charges against Gachai Haciyev, an Azerbaijani who lives in the Lipetsk region of Russia, Kommersant reported.

The FSB arrested Haciyev, an ethnic Talysh (a group concentrated in southern Azerbaijan whose members speaks a northwest Iranian language) on February 26, as he was driving home from his job selling apples at a market in Lipetsk.

His ex-wife, Viktoria Babkina, told Kommersant that Haciyev spent the night after his arrest "who knows where."

"He came home with [FSB] operatives, they say he had bruises. He was arrested, and after 10 days he was formally charged. Now Gachai is in a Lipetsk jail," Babkina said.

The FSB alleges that Haciyev, who has been remanded in custody until the end of April, used money he raised from his apple-selling work to fund an armed group in Syria named Jund al-Sham ("Soldiers of Greater Syria").

Haciyev's ex-wife Babkina told Kommersant that the apple seller was a small-time businessman who had not financed terrorists but had merely sent whatever money he could to help support his brother Agil Haciyev who lived in a "turbulent area" of Syria, and later -- after Agil had disappeared -- his family.

And Agil had a big family, according to Babkina. "[Haciyev] said that apart from his four kids, Agil was raising another two from his second wife, whom he took under his wing in Syria, plus two adopted orphan kids," Babkina told Kommersant.

Talysh Agil And The Sumqayit Jamaat

The report about Haciyev's arrest in Lipetsk is the latest development in a curious and murky story about Azerbaijani militants in Syria. The story first emerged a year ago, in April 2014, when the pro-government Azerbaijani media claimed that a militant named Agil Haciyev, also known as Talysh Agil, had been captured by fighters from Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Talysh Agil, the reports said, had been sentenced him to death, although it was not specified on what charges.

Talysh Agil is, of course, the man thought to be Haciyev's brother and the recipient of money Haciyev allegedly sent to Syria.

Azerbaijani press reports on Talysh Agil's alleged abduction in Syria were -- as usual -- sparse in detail. However, the reports did claim that the Azerbaijani authorities believe Talysh Agil had been the commander of the Syrian branch of the Sumqayit Jamaat, an Azerbaijani militant group that has reportedly cooperated with the North Caucasus-based faction the Caucasus Emirate.

According to the pro-government APA news agency, Talysh Agil was born in 1980 in the village of Bolad in the Lankaran district. He married a woman from Sumqayit, a city near the Caspian Sea. Agil's wife was a member of the "Khawarij sect," according to APA, a term used in Azerbaijan to refer to a minority Salafi Muslim community that is considered to be radical.

Talysh Agil had moved to Syria with his wife before the Syrian armed conflict had began, according to APA.

In another strange twist, the pro-government website claimed that police in Sumqayit had detained Agil's brother-in-law Murad Magerramov in December 2013 during a violent clash between the Khawarij and a Salafi group in a local tea house. The police alleged that before the clash, the group in the tea house had "discussed the question of whether to send fighters to the war with [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad's army and whether that constituted jihad."

APA also claims that the Azerbaijani Sumqayit Jamaat that Talysh Agil supposedly commanded in Syria had fought alongside a Syrian group named Jund al-Sham, the group that the FSB now alleges Haciyev was knowingly funding.

The Jund al-Sham group referred to by the Azerbaijani and Russian security authorities in relation to the Haciyev brothers is almost certainly a Salafi jihadist faction that was formed in Syria's Idlib Province in December 2013. The group's leader was named as Abu Suleiman al-Muhajir ("the immigrant"), suggesting that he is a foreign fighter. After a December 2014 clash with Syrian government troops near Homs in March 2014, the surviving 300 soldiers and their families reportedly retreated to Lebanon.

A Washington, D.C.-based analyst who blogs under the name North Caucasus Caucus and who tracks Azerbaijani militants in Syria told RFE/RL that while he had never heard of a militant named Talysh Agil, a number of the early waves of Azerbaijani militants who came to fight in Syria "had historic connections to the previous iterations of the Sumqayit Jamaat."

The group predates the Syrian conflict, North Caucasus Caucus said. "My assumption is that Nicat Ashurov [an Azerbaijani militant killed in Syria, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Yahya] was part of the Sumqayit Jamaat back around the time of the Abu Bakr [mosque] bombing [in August 2008] but fled the country when the crackdown came down. I saw some photos that indicated he was in Ukraine around 2010/2011 and then made his way to Syria from there," North Caucasus Caucus added.

A photograph shared on social media that shows Abu Yahya flanked by two militants identified by a commenter as ethnic Talysh fighters is another shred of evidence that indicates members of the Talysh minority are or were fighting in Syria.

Remaining Mysteries?

Many aspects of the story of the Haciyev brothers remain murky.

It is not clear if Jabhat al-Nusra really did kidnap Talysh Agil, or if they killed him -- or whether he is still alive. The Russian-language Azerbaijani news reports about the alleged kidnapping gave no details about where the event took place and admitted that there was little information about the abduction. It is also unclear why the Sumqayit Jamaat was fighting alongside Jund al-Sham, if indeed it was.

And while Haciyev's ex-wife Babkina did admit to Kommersant that Haciyev's brother Agil had "disappeared" in Syria, she did not say Agil had been captured by Jabhat al-Nusra. Babkina said Haciyev had transferred money to Agil, but denied that either had links to a militant group.

Babkina did note that Haciyev's brother Agil had been the sole breadwinner in his family in Syria before his disappearance, and that the people involved in the transfer of money to Agil's family in Syria had "changed after [Agil's] disappearance."

It remains to be seen whether Haciyev's trial in Lipetsk will shed light into any of these mysteries.

-- 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