Monday, 23 April 2012

Caspian: Shootout in northern city raises terror fea

A rare clash between security forces and Islamist militants in the northern city of Ganja this month has raised concerns about the threat of terrorism in Azerbaijan. Although much recent attention has focused on Iranian-backed cells, the militants killed and captured in the April operations were referred to as 'Wahabbis', the catch-all term for hardline conservative Sunnis. The government claimed that the group was linked with Al Qa'ida, had trained in Iran, Syria and Pakistan, and had engaged in combat against NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In the Ganja incident, two people – one militant and one member of the security services – were killed when police stormed a house being used by the groups. Some reports suggested that the two died when the militant set off a suicide vest – if true, this would be the first case of a suicide attacker in Azerbaijan (other accounts reported that the militant set off a grenade which killed the two).

Subsequent operations across the country, mainly in the north but also in Baku and Sumgait, rounded up 17 suspects and netted a large cache of explosives and weapons, including assault rifles and a machine gun. The authorities accused them of planning “provocative acts and terrorist attacks with the view of violating socio-political stability”. The dead militant, allegedly the leader of the group, was identified as Vugar Padarov from Zagatala in the north-west, near the border with Russia.

The arms involved, the location, and the purportedly 'Wahabbi' identity of the suspects suggests that the group may be linked to Russia's volatile North Caucasus. Dagestan, just to the north, has steadily become the focal point of the Islamist insurgency there. In August 2008 Azeri and Dagestani security forces fought a group of militants, including Azerbaijani citizens along the border region. The leader of the dead rebels was the 'Emir' of Dagestan, Ilgar Mollachiyev, who was born in Zagatala.

The details of the latest incident suggests that the threat was fairly serious. There is no information on the planned target but state security structures, foreign embassies, and IOC headquarters are all plausible targets. The timing of the sweep, so close to the Eurovision Song Contest in May, has also sparked alarm that the militants were planning a large-scale attack on the contest. Nonetheless the overall scale of the militant threat remains insignificant and the country's security services are fairly well-equipped to cope with it.

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

© 2012 Menas Associates

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