Here is a copy of a warning I received from the UK Embassy in Baku this morning:
We wish to draw the attention of the British Community in Azerbaijan that the UK’sTravel Advice for Azerbaijan was updated on Saturday 29 January. The updated was made to the Safety and Security – Terrorism section. We encourage members of the community to check the Travel Advice regularly at:
Safety and Security – Terrorism
Azerbaijan faces a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate and against civilian targets, including places frequented by foreigners, such as international hotels, restaurants and pubs, as well as energy sector facilities. You should be aware of these risks and take sensible precautions. We are aware of US reporting of the potential for attacks in Azerbaijan, including against American interests. British nationals in Azerbaijan are advised to exercise vigilance at all times.
It is a paranoid response the ongoing troubles in Egypt or is there a real threat to UK citizen’s security in Azerbaijan? According the US State Department, the warning was “based on terrorist threat information,” whatever that means…
According to the department’s 2009 Country Report on Terrorism it describes the government of Azerbaijan as being “actively opposed [to]terrorist organizations seeking to move people, money, and material through the Caucasus. The country stepped up efforts and has had some success in reducing the presence of terrorist facilitators and hampering their activities. At the end of 2009, Azerbaijan demonstrated an increasing level of seriousness and urgency in taking steps to combat terrorist financing, and is proceeding with efforts to implement its law on anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing (AML/CTF) and to establish a Financial Investigative Unit (FIU)”.
That having been said, there have been several terrorist attacks in Azerbaijan over the years.
There were a series of bomb attacks on the Baku Metro in 1994. The first attack was perpetrated at the “20 January” metro station, while the second one took place between the “28 May” and “Ganjlik” stations. As a result of the first attack, 14 people were killed and 49 wounded. The second attack resulted in 13 people killed and 42 injured.
The responsibility was assumed by a now defunct regional separatist movement. As a result of investigations and subsequent trials, two people were sentenced to life imprisonment and nine others to 15 years.
On October 29, 2007 Azeri law enforcement agencies reported that they had detained a group of Salafi Islamists armed with grenade launchers who were preparing an attack near the United States and British embassies. According to the National Security Ministry spokesman it was discovered that the group had four Kalashnikov assault rifles, one Kalashnikov grenade launcher, 20 grenades, ammunition and automatic weapon parts. The group was also reported to have planned to attack a number of state buildings and representatives of private companies.
An Attack on Abu Bakr Mosque of Baku took place on August 17, 2008 when a grenade was thrown through a window of the mosque in central Baku, during the evening prayer. Three people were killed and 13 injured.
On the 30th April 2009, 12 people were killed by a gunman at the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy in Baku. The gunman killed both students and staff members of the institution, including the Deputy Principal of the institution. The perpetrator as 29-year-old Farda Gadirov, a Georgian citizen of Azerbaijani descent. After the shooting he turned the gun on himself.
The earliest of the terror attacks was secular in aspiration and the last could have been the result of mental illness leaving the thwarted 2007 plot and the 2008 grenade attack on a Baku mosque as the only examples of religious-inspired terrorism.
Endemic corruption, widespread poverty and disillusion with Western style democracy have combined to cause a small minority to turn to radical Islam according to Svante E. Cornell, a Swedish academic specializing in the politics and security issues of Eurasia. He goes on to suggest that radical groups in Azerbaijan remain weak but have a potential to grow under the current domestic and international circumstances.
“Azerbaijan can rightly claim to be among the most progressive and secular Islamic societies. Aside from having been the first Muslim country to have operas, theater plays, and a democratic republic, Azerbaijan today is among the Muslim countries where support for secularism is the highest, and where radical ideologies have met only very limited interest”.
He notes that the level of radicalism is growing, though from a low base.
“Several factors have contributed to this. A first has been the return to
traditional values and an increased interest in religion, especially on the part
of the young generation. This factor, common to all post-Communist states,
has been compounded by factors specific to Azerbaijan. First among these is
the conflict with Armenia, which has brought increasing frustration in
Azerbaijani society, and accentuated the post-Soviet identity crisis. More
particular still has been the disillusionment with the West, and in particular
the United States, resulting from U.S. sanctions on Azerbaijan regulated by
section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. The waiver to section 907, in place
since 2002, has not alleviated this problem; Azerbaijanis now feel the yearly
waiver is a form of blackmail against their government. American assistance
to the separatist government of Karabakh has added fuel to the fire. These
issues have contributed to anti-western sentiment, which has fed Islamic
radicalism. This has been further compounded by dissatisfaction with the
U.S. war in Iraq. Put together, these elements have substantially and
negatively affected America’s image and popularity in Azerbaijan. Moreover,
the continued problems of corruption, poverty, and semi-authoritarian
government has contributed to continued dissatisfaction with the political
system, which radicals have exploited. It is too early to say whether Ilham
Aliyev’s reforms will alleviate this trend.
External influences have had paramount importance on the development of
radical Islam in Azerbaijan. Indeed, most radical groupings are supported or
trained abroad. Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, Turkey and the
Russian North Caucasus are the main sources of external influence on Islam
in Azerbaijan. Among these, Iran has particularly supported radical Shi’a
groups, and used this as leverage against secular and pro-western Azerbaijan,
affecting its freedom of movement in foreign policy. The Arab Middle East,
particularly Saudi Arabia, and the Russian North Caucasus, primarily
Dagestan, have been equally important in fostering radical Salafi Sunni
groups in Azerbaijan”.
So, Azerbaijan’s involvement in a wider world, an awareness of the effects of American foreign policy and the infiltration of radical islamic ideas from Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased the level of radicalism in the country.
When I walk from my home above central Baku to Fountain square, I pass two large mosques. Do I feel intimidated or concerned? No. When I go out for the evening to a bar or restaurant, do I look over my shoulder? No. When I talk to Azeri friends, do I sense an Islamic judgement of my lifestyle in their eyes? No.
I used to live in Egypt and felt all of those things in my day-to-day life in Cairo. In Egypt, a “moderate” Islamic country, I was always aware of the part Allah has in the lives of ordinary Egyptians be it street prayers five-times a day, the use of “Inshalla” and “Hamdulla” at the beginning of nearly every sentence or the veils worn by the majority of women in the streets.
Azerbaijan is not like that. It is sometime jokingly suggested that Ramadan in Azerbaijan means cutting back on the vodka and cigarettes. There is some truth in that statement and I for one, am grateful.