Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Terror threat increases as Baku-Iran tensions mount

In late January, the US Embassy in Baku issued a warning to its citizens in Azerbaijan of a terrorist threat against American interests. On 11th February, the Embassy reiterated its warning, stating that “[t]he threat remains serious”. No further information was provided.

In a parallel development, on 15th February Israel's Foreign Ministry said that several of its embassies had received information on specific threats in Azerbaijan as well as Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and others. The exact reason has not been publicly disclosed, but numerous reports attribute the increased state of alert to the upcoming third anniversary of the death of Imad Mugniyeh.

Mugniyah was a senior military commander in Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'a militant group, until he was assassinated by a car bomb in Damascus in February 2008. Since then, reprisal attacks have been plotted and thwarted on several occasions, including in Baku in mid-2008 when alleged Hezbollah agents tried to blow up the Israeli Embassy. Iranian backing was suspected, as it was in several other recent terror plots in Azerbaijan (although nothing was ever proven).

As well as the anniversary of Mugniyeh's death, the recent increase in the Baku threat levels also coincides with other interesting developments. On 10th January, police arrested the head of the Azerbaijan Islamic Party (AIP), a small unregistered outfit, for calling for the overthrow of President Ilham Aliyev's government. The call from Movsum Samadov came following a ban on wearing the hijab in public buildings, a ruling which Samadov denounced.

Iranian officials have criticised the arrests, sparking a tumult of anti-Iranian sentiment in Baku. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the repeated accusations that Iran is interfering in Azerbaijan's affairs, allying with Azerbaijan's arch-rival Armenia, and attempting to export its own brand of revolutionary Shi'a Islam (through groups such as the AIP).The government, however, appears to be encouraging public anger: it made no move to stop the protests, and reportedly instructed television stations to broadcast an anti-Iranian documentary.

Drawing a link between the Tehran-Baku animosity, and the increased threat levels to the US and Israeli embassies, could be a leap of the imagination. The resurgence of Islam in Azerbaijan, however, supported in many cases by Iran, is undoubtedly causing concern in Baku. The AIP arrests and the terror alerts may not be directly linked, but they are all part of a much larger and much murkier picture.

Sources: Eurasianet, APA, RFE/RL

For more news and expert analysis about the Caspian region, please see Caspian Focus.

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