The Islamic State group has released a new video showing four Azerbaijani men it says were arrested as part of a “cell of extremists” who had been plotting an armed rebellion in Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria.
The men, two of whom speak in Azeri and two in accented Russian, look frightened and give what appear to be forced “confessions” -- possibly read from a script -- about their part in the alleged plot.
In the video, shared on social media on December 21, the first Russian-speaking man, named as Abu Maryam, says that he and others considered “this nation” (a reference to local Syrians) “mushriks” (polytheists). Abu Maryam said that he and his fellow conspirators wanted to kill them and appropriate their property.
“We also considered [Islamic State] to be infidels because they didn’t make takfir (the practice of a Muslim declaring another Muslim an apostate) with the people but considered them brothers. And we considered [IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] a mushrik because he collected zakat (a mandatory duty payable by Muslims) from the local mushriks,” Abu Maryam says.
The same message is given by the second Russian-speaker, an older man, who says that he and his comrades “started to fight IS and the locals because we considered them to be mushriks.”
“I also want to add that we also found Sheikhs Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Adnani mushriks because they addressed the Syrian and Iraqi people as their brothers,” the man, named as Abu Yakub, says.
Abu Yakub says that he and others plotted with their leader, who told them to fight IS and take their weapons.
The video ends by quoting a verse from the Koran that talks about execution as a punishment for those who “wage war against God.”
It is not known exactly how many Azerbaijanis are fighting in Syria, but estimates in news reports have ranged from 200 to 300. The largest group of Azerbaijani militants in Syria is likely fighting for the Islamic State (IS) group. In May, Muhammad al-Azeri, the leader of an Azerbaijani IS faction in Raqqa, said in a video message that IS was on the "correct path of jihad" in Syria.
Though Abu Yakub, the older man shown in the Islamic State video, does not appear to fit the profile of other militants from Azerbaijan and other former Soviet states fighting in Syria, a Washington D.C.-based analyst who blogs under the name North Caucasus Caucus told RFE/RL that there are several examples of older Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria.
These include two members of the group known as the Karabakh Partisans -- Rustem Askerov, who was killed in January and who had fought in Chechnya, and Rovshan Badalov, who was killled in Kobani in October. Members of the so-called Karabakh Partisans were arrested in Azerbaijan in 2004 on suspicion of planning a paramilitary jihad to liberate the Karabakh region from Armenia.
“The bottom line is that there was/is a cadre of older Azerbaijani jihadis in Syria -- many arrived early on in the conflict and were veterans of other conflicts, mainly in the North Caucasus. Chechnya had a high participation for Azerbaijanis. No one has good numbers, but it was likely in the hundreds,” North Caucasus Caucus told RFE/RL.
The video showing the four Azerbaijani men comes after reports via activists that Islamic State militants executed as many as 100 of their own members, most if not all foreign fighters, in Raqqa. Other activists in Raqqa denied that a mass execution had taken place.
However, the Islamic State video of the four Azeri men’s “confessions” does suggest that there is some sort of internal crisis with infighting within the ranks of Islamic State militants in Raqqa, and that the infighting involves foreign fighters.
The reports of the mass execution of foreign fighters originated in the "Financial Times" newspaper, which on December 19 quoted an activist from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria as saying there had been a mass killing of up to 100 foreign militants who had tried to leave the Islamic State group and flee Raqqa.
However, the Raqqa-based activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently said on December 20 that the reports of 100 fighters being killed by Islamic State were false. The activist group said that Islamic State’s military police had conducted arrests targeting militants who were not on any official mission.
The details from Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently does match up with other information given by the activists in the "Financial Times" report, however. The activists told the "Financial Times' that Islamic State had created a military police to crack down on militants.
“Local fighters are frustrated -- they feel they’re doing most of the work and the dying..foreign fighters who thought they were on an adventure are now exhausted,” the activist told the "Financial Times." The activist said that Islamic State had created a “military police” to crack down on those who were frustrated with the group.
The "Financial Times" report said that morale in Raqqa was dropping as Islamic State casualties grew, and that activists said dozens of militants’ homes have been raided by the “military police.”
-- Joanna Paraszczuk