Over the past week, the Azerbaijani authorities have detained or formally arrested
up to 30 prominent Muslim activists after Movsum Samadov, the chairman of the unregistered pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP) called for the overthrow of the country's "despotic regime."
The Azerbaijani authorities have apparently conflated that statement with a full-fledged call to wage jihad. But there is no hard evidence that the AIP has either the manpower or the materiel to begin an armed struggle under the banner of Islam. Nor has it ever been linked either with any of the radical religious terrorist groups apprehended in Azerbaijan in recent years that reportedly did consider a jihad, or with the Daghestan wing of the North Caucasus Islamic insurgency that includes an "Azerbaijani sector."
Samadov and three other AIP members were taken into custody on January 8. Samadov has since been charged
with preparing to instigate mass unrest and commit an act of terrorism. His current whereabouts are not known.
The arrests have been widely construed as the official riposte to repeated public protests against the recently imposed ban on wearing the hijab in secondary schools. In a statement
on January 2, Samadov criticized that ruling and called on the population to "rise up and put an end to this despotic regime."
The Azerbaijani authorities have apparently chosen, for whatever reason, to interpret that statement as a call for jihad. Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry released a statement on January 8 saying Samadov had tasked his cousin, Dayanat Samadov, with "inciting the population to jihad." Dayanat Samadov has reportedly been taken into custody. According to a joint statement
by the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry and General Prosecutor's office, a search of his home revealed 20 hand grenades and two Kalashnikovs plus ammunition.
Those statements may be intended to serve as the rationale for charging the two Samadov cousins with "terrorism" and/or for measures to neutralize a political party that the authorities fear might seek to parlay popular resentment at the hijab ban into a broader wave of antigovernment protest.
The AIP issued a statement on January 10 attributing the arrests to "the popularity the party enjoys among broad segments of the population and its growing popularity."
Overtly pro-Iranian in its orientation, the AIP was founded in 1991 and formally registered in 1992 but stripped of its legal registration in 1997 after one of its leaders was accused of spying for Iran. The party lay dormant for two years before resuming its activities, but its successive applications to reregister have been rejected, preventing it from participating in national elections.
Support for the AIP is particularly strong among the 8,000-plus residents of the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku, the main stronghold
in Azerbaijan of radical Shi'a Islam.
Movsum Samadov, 45, who trained as a doctor before studying theology in Qom, has by his own admission been a member of the AIP from day one. He was elected AIP chairman
in July 2007. He denied in an interview three months later with the news agency day.az that the AIP receives any financial support from Iran.
Samadov's January 2 call for the overthrow of the Azerbaijani leadership was the second within 12 months. The party adopted a statement at a congress in April 2010 similarly calling on President Ilham Aliyev to step down. The statement reportedly deplored
the suppression of Islam in Azerbaiijan, including restrictions on wearing the hijab, and the government's cordial relations with Israel.
Despite its pro-Iranian, anti-U.S., and anti-Israeli rhetoric, neither the AIP nor any of its individual members has been publicly implicated in any of the high-profile trials in Azerbaijan in recent years in which the defendants were charged with religiously motivated terrorism.
One of those trials, which opened in November 2008, involved a group of 20 men commanded by a former army lieutenant. Identified as "radical wahhabis," they were said to have discussed in 2007 the possibility of launching a jihad in Azerbaijan
and to have plotted a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baku.
A second group of 31 "religious extremists" apprehended in February 2009 was charged with planning to blow up the Baku-Novorossiisk oil export pipeline and stage further terrorist attacks in the run-up to the presidential election in October 2009.
Neither of those two groups was said to have any ties with the Daghestan wing of the North Caucasus insurgency, unlike a third group of 26 men (including one Russian and two Turkish citizens) who went on trial in 2009
in connection with the bomb attack in August 2008 on the Abu Bekr mosque in Baku.
That group, purportedly known as the "Forest Brothers," was said to have connections with, and possibly to have acted on orders from, Ilgar Mollachiyev (nom de guerre Abdul-Madjid), a Lezgin from Azerbaijan's northern Zakatala raion, whom then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov named in September 2007
to head the Daghestan front. Mollachiyev was killed in a shootout in southern Daghestan in early September 2008.
The Daghestan wing of the North Caucasus insurgency still encompasses an "Azerbaijani sector," whose leader, Abdullakh, was one of six senior commanders present at a meeting
in mid-October at which Amir Khasan, supreme commander of the Daghestan vilayet, threatened new attacks
on civilian targets in Russia.
Whether the "Azerbaijani sector" is the northern regions of the Azerbaijan Republic, and if not, how it dovetails with the "Southern Sector" of Daghestan and the Derbent jamaat, remains unclear. But it is worth noting that neither of the two jihadist Azeri websites -- azerijihadmedia.com and milleti-ibrahim.com -- reposted the video clip of the October meeting referred to above, which suggests their respective webmasters did not consider it relevant or of interest. (It was originally posted on the Caucasus Emirate main website, kavkazcenter.com.)
In a very few cases over the past couple of years, Russian security officials have identified Islamic militants killed in engagements in the North Caucasus as citizens of the Azerbaijan Republic. In October 2009, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and his Ingushetian counterpart, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, separately accused Azerbaijan of abetting the North Caucasus insurgency after an Azeri fighter identified as Akif Muradov was killed in Ingushetia, according to echo-az.com on October 31, 2009.
Azerjihadmedia.com last August posted a tribute
to those Azeri fighters by a comrade-in-arms who fought alongside them in Ingushetia in 2006. Whether young Azeris choose to head for the North Caucasus to join insurgent groups there because no such groups exist (yet) in Azerbaijan, or whether they go there with the express aim of acquiring the necessary military experience to return and bring jihad to Azerbaijan, can only be guessed at. Either way, there is no known evidence linking them to the AIP.