Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former Soviet Republic engaged in a protracted war with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh, a region administered by the government in Baku, is fiercely contested by an overwhelming majority Armenian population and the government in Yerevan. Hostilities have recently threatened to spill out of the region and into other parts of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the resulting interest from European and Russian leaders has underlined the destabilizing potential of the conflict.

In the most recent peace talks, held in Paris this month, Haydar Aliyev—President of Azerbaijan—appeared to change the tone of the Azerbaijani position:

Few observers seriously believed that the Paris talks would yield significant progress, let alone a breakthrough, in resolving the conflict. But by the same token, neither was it widely expected that Azerbaijan would soften its negotiating position, as it did with regard to confidence-building measures.

That shift in the Azerbaijani rhetoric was, moreover, just one of several reasons why the meeting between the two presidents — their third within the past three months — may herald a new phase in the ongoing international effort to mediate a political solution that would at least partially satisfy all three parties to the conflict. (Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian, RFE/RL, October 30)

In appearing to remain open to a resolution to the conflict, Aliyev is perhaps signaling a reprioritization of security concerns for the regime in Baku. Political leaders and writers have recently made statements reflecting a renewed sense of urgency for the government in addressing a potential rise in Islamic fundamentalist-inspired militancy in the South Caucasus. In the most public example yet of Azerbaijani participation in the war in Syria and Iraq, Azerbaijani professional wrestler Rashad Bakhshaliyev was reportedly killed while fighting for ISIS in Syria. The story of Bakhshaliyev’s death did not resonate with media in Europe nor the United States. However, among the few media reports outside of Azerbaijan that detailed the event, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty posted an article on the death of the wrestler last week:

Azerbaijani media sources are reporting that a  professional wrestler from Azerbaijan was killed while fighting for the Islamic State (IS) militant group. The wrestler, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, is reported to have joined IS in August after suddenly leaving Azerbaijan for Syria, taking his wife and child with him.

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Bakhshaliyev’s wife provided the information about his death in a telephone call from Syria, according to Azerbaijani news site Haqqin.az. She said the former wrestler was killed “several days ago” but did not give details about where he died. (Joanna Paraszczuk, RFE/RL, October 17)

RFE/RL also cited Azerbaijani news sources, which pointed to a growing number of Azerbaijani-speaking militants taking part in the war. Most interestingly, the source noted Azerbaijani participation in the ongoing fighting this month in Kobani:

In the Syrian city Kobanov, Kurdish rebels executed Azerbaijani youth who fought in the group “Islamic state.”

According to APA citing news «France Press», Cuneyt Chemo – Kurdish refugee, settled in Turkey, told AFP of the capture of Azerbaijanis in the age of approximately 20 years.

He said the militants, was taken prisoner during the shootings in the western part of the city Kobanov, was taken to the mosque, “to talk to him and try to change his opinion. But he always called us infidels and said that executes the order on counsel us on the path of true Islam. He was twenty years old. Speak Arabic. He said that he came from Azerbaijan, to “save the land of the infidels.” Continually begged us to kill him, because that he will go to heaven.”

According Dzh.Hemo during interrogation Azerbaijani behaved with restraint and only asked to kill him. When the dispute was delayed, Kurdish rebels shot him in the head.

On the identity of the Azerbaijanis, who was a member IGISH, no further information. (APA, October 17)

In a similar story appearing in The Jordan Times, an event in Kobani involving another Azerbaijani man was conveyed to a reporter by a Kurdish grocer who had escaped the fighting into Turkey:

A grocer who had escaped to Turkey from Kobani offered insight Thursday into those fighting for IS, saying that one they had captured, an Azerbaijani in his 20s, had even asked to be killed.

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“He begged us to kill him so he could go to paradise and be rewarded,” said Cuneyt Hemo, adding that the jihadist was held for a day and ultimately shot dead by his captors. (The Jordan Times, October 16)

Recent reports of the number of Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria and Iraq have varied. In January, EurasiaNet published information detailing the estimated size of Azerbaijani elements in ISIS to be between 100 and 300. Further, the issue of Salafism in Azberaijan’s northern areas became a concern with events during the winter, notably tied to al-Qaeda affiliated groups:

The first reports about Azerbaijani citizens fighting in Syria appeared in May 2013. Most of those Azerbaijani citizens who have taken up arms against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime appear to be adherents of Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia.

Of the four Azerbaijani fighters reported killed this month in Syria, three were members of Salafi militant factions with ties to the al-Qaeda network. Salafis, also described as Wahhabis in the Azerbaijani press, remain a distinct, urban-concentrated minority in mainly Shi’a Azerbaijan. (Eurasianet, January 29)

EurasiaNet’s report went on to elaborate on the issue of growing Salafist support in Azerbaijan, noting specifically the impact of economic factors on the expansion of the ideology and, consequently, the boon in recruitment pools for prospective fighters in Syria:

The prevalence of Azerbaijani fighters in Syria has raised concern in some quarters about a potential increase in militant activity down the road in Azerbaijan. Suleymanov predicted that while the return of militant Azerbaijanis from Syria could cause problems, it would not lead to “serious destabilization.” Yunusov echoed that sentiment, saying the number of radicals among Azerbaijani believers would remain relatively low.

Many of those going to fight in Syria come from Azerbaijan’s more economically depressed areas. The industrial city of Sumgayit  — a half-hour’s drive from Baku, and considered a center of Salafism in Azerbaijan — is the reported hometown of at least one of the Azerbaijanis (former professional boxer Rahman Shikhaliyev) reported killed this month in Syria.

Yunusov said the apparent connection between Sumgayit and Syria-bound militants is logical. “Sumgayit has a high level of unemployment and a lot of IDPs; therefore, tension over social issues in the city is high,” he said. (Eurasianet, January 29)

However, in the latest media posts, the strength of the Azerbaijani contingent fighting for ISIS appears to be at least several hundred:

Some Azerbaijani outlets reported that Bakhshaliyev received payment to fight for IS, although those reports are impossible to verify.

It is not known how many Azerbaijanis are fighting in Syria. Estimates in news reports have ranged from 200 to 300.

The largest group of Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria is likely fighting for Islamic State. In May, the leader of an Azerbaijani IS faction in Raqqa, Mohammad al-Azeri, gave a video address in which he stated that IS was on the “correct path of jihad” in Syria. (Joanna Paraszczuk, RFE/RL, October 17)

The issue of Azerbaijani support for Islamic militancy is a growing concern for the Aliyev regime in Baku. It is also a sensitive subject for Azerbaijani leaders. Aliyev has put down previous efforts of opposition groups to foment dissent and revolution in Azerbaijan, notoriously targeting human-rights workers, journalists, and other opposition leaders for long jail sentences and torture. Most famously, in November of 2005, an effort to galvanize support for opposing the rule of Aliyev’s regime in the wake of the Color Revolutions in Ukraine and neighboring Georgia was put down in vicious fashion:

Hundreds of police charged the main reviewing stand where opposition Popular Front Party leader Ali Keremli had only moments before encouraged supporters to stay beyond the scheduled 5pm (local time) deadline to leave the square.

Dozens of opposition supporters were hurt as hundreds of police attacked, using batons initially to drive back demonstrators near the speakers’ podium.

As panicked demonstrators fled into the main crowd, they were met by a second phalanx of police who indiscriminately beat up men and women, including members of the Yeni Fekir (New Idea) youth movement.

Hundreds more police then attacked fleeing demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas as they ran towards the 20th January metro station, more than a kilometer away from Galaba Square.

In squads of 75 to 100 men, police roamed over a square kilometer area searching for pockets of demonstrators – some throwing rocks at police lines – and violently dispersing them in a series of skirmishes that lasted an hour after the rally was broken up. (The International Relations and Security Network)

Compared to its neighbors to the south in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Azerbaijan has reflected little in the way of militancy as the wars in Iraq and Syria have engulfed the neighboring region in the past decade. The authoritarian regime of President Ilham Aliyev has maintained control over the government since his election in 2003. In the wake of the most recent reports and the high-profile nature of Bakhshaliyev’s death, strategists in Baku are reassessing the potential destabilizing effects of increased militancy, fundamentalism, and Salafism in Azerbaijan.

Further, strategists are assessing the long-term capacity of the movement to foment cohesive opposition to the regime in Baku and create wider instability in the South Caucasus. Eldar Mamedov, a political advisor to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament of the European Union, wrote a piece for EurasiaNet explaining how the threat is perceived both inside and outside of Azerbaijan:

In recent years, authorities have awakened to the potential Salafi threat. But addressing it now is infinitely more challenging than it would have been a decade ago. Salafis have a solid foothold in Azerbaijan, and at least some of them are prone to radicalization, as the steady stream of Azeris who have left their homeland to go fight in Syria and Iraq demonstrates.

It is clear that jihadists, especially those now engaged in Syria, do not recognize state borders and consider the entire Muslim world as fertile ground for the expansion of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Thus, no Muslim-majority state should feel secure enough to ignore this threat.

The Aliyev administration in recent years has ruthlessly persecuted independent journalists and civil society activists, and the pace and scope of its crackdown has intensified in 2014. Over the same period, Baku has occasionally clashed with the United States and European Union, in particular Germany, over what Azerbaijani officials contend are the West’s “double standards” on human rights. These policies merely weaken Baku’s ability to address its most serious security threat – the metamorphosis of Salafism into militant Islam. Stability in Azerbaijan would be much better served if Baku focused on taking action that would diminish the potential for international and homegrown jihadism. (Eurasianet.Org, October 31)

With recent Georgian government warnings about the future of jihadist and Islamist militancy spreading to the South Caucasus fresh in the minds of observers, many have been left wondering if alliances and policies in the states of the region may soon realign to address what appears to be a growing problem.

(Featured Image Courtesy: Azeri Report)