As the civil war in Syria continues, more and more alleged Azerbaijani fighters’ names appear in the media. Regional analysts and religious experts discuss why Azerbaijanis head to fight in Syria and whether they impose any danger to their home country.
More reports of Azeri fighters in Syria
On January 16 Qaynar.info wrote about Azerbaijani student Tural Ahmadov, who dropped out of college and headed to Syria. Days earlier online media reported deaths of two more Azerbaijani fighters in Syria: Rauf Khalilov and 14-year-old Najaf Karimov. Two others were killed on January 4,
according to APA.
In early August 2013 the
video that showed a few men
, who claimed to be Azerbaijani citizens fighting in Syrian civil war against president Bashar al-Assad and invited other Azerbaijanis to join them, went viral in the local media. The video was later removed from Youtube for violent content.
Azerbaijani media also reported in August that there were around 60 Azerbaijani fighters in Syria and that some 30 others had been killed during clashes with the government forces. The majority of these fighters are part of the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar group, which,
according to Wikipedia
, is an Islamist jihadist group of foreign extremists.
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman
Abdullayev told APA
January 9 that the state needs to determine if those citizens were indeed Azeri citizens and, if so, how they went to Syria.
Meanwhile, a few aspects remain unclear.
Are those actually Azeri citizens? How do they get into Syria?
, a nonresident senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Silk Road Studies Program, said that while there wasn’t any official confirmation of their identities, it is possible that those fighters are Azerbaijanis.
“Even though the numbers may vary, every society has its thieves and murderers,” he said.
He said the easiest way to get into Syria would be through Turkey.
“The Turkish government has recently been clamping down on the movement of jihadists across the border into Syria. But people are still crossing. Even though it is more difficult than before, it is still relatively easy,” he added.
, visiting scholar at the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there were many videos on Youtube showing Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria.
“We don’t have very strong proof but I think the videos we have are enough to judge the situation. Moreover, Azerbaijani media have published many reports, I think they are serious.”
He said there were two sorts of Azerbaijanis going to Syria.
“Initially some Salafis went from Azerbaijan through Turkey in order to combat in Syria. For Azerbaijanis it is relatively easy to go to Turkey, as they can get visa at the airport. When I was in Azerbaijan last October, I heard that since the war in Syria is becoming more and more sectarian, even Shia Azerbaijanis go to Syria, but through Iran. Not very numerous, these young Azerbaijanis went to Syria with other Shia militants from Iran with the clear aim to help Bashar forces. It wasn’t necessarily because they adore Bashar, but because they fear Salafis and Muslim Brothers who were the main adversaries of Bashar.”
Why Azerbaijanis head to Syria?
Haji Gamat Suleiman, imam of the Abu-Bakr Mosque in Baku, said he had been approached by some young people, who expressed wish to go to Syria.
“This is all driven by emotional factors,” he said, adding these men were usually concerned that children and overall other Muslims were dying in Syria. In other cases, he said, young men had their own problems, and assumed that going to Syria would somehow solve them.
“Of course, I always tell them not to go, I say that we already have enough problems to deal with in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Balci said Azerbaijanis were motivated to join Jihad in Syria for religious, fanatic, nihilistic as well as personal reasons.
Foreign jihadists in Syria
Washington Post has
reported in October
that foreign fighters dominate in the Syrian war. There have been numerous reports about fighters coming to Syria from all over Middle East, Central and South-East Asia, Europe and elsewhere. New York Times has
reported in August
that with the flood of foreign extremists there is a fear that Syria might become the new militant hub. A research,
cited by The Telegraph in April
put the overall number of foreign extremists in Syria at 5,500 people.
Jenkins said, the vast majority of jihadists in Syria are Arabs, but there were others, even from Western Europe.
“Most of those who go from non-Arab countries seem to be very young men who have been brainwashed into thinking that the armed campaign to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a holy war, and that it is their religious duty to fight in it. In reality, of course, the jihadists in Syria now seem to spend as much time fighting other opposition groups as they do fighting the Syrian government.”
Abdul Wazir Khan, a reporter with Afghanistan’s TOLO News, who covers militancy, said what is happening in Syria reminds him very much of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Some fighters go because they believe in holy Jihad, others come for money, or because they have nowhere to go, because they are, for example, criminals, or lost their families in conflict, or are just unhappy.”
What kinds of Azerbaijanis go to Syria?
Haji Gamat Suleiman said Azerbaijanis that head to Syria are usually in their late teens or 20s, they might come from poor families or from very religious families, and they might be troubled by something.
“I’m often asked how do they get the idea to go to Syria? Usually through the Internet. There are all kinds of videos out there, social network messages, asking young people to join.”
Balci, who mentioned that some of the people who join the Syrian war are ordinary people, draws parallels between Syrian war and the war in Spain 1936.
“In order to understand, I try to imagine why and what was the motivation for many Europeans who had join Spain in 1936 to combat Franco. It was for a noble cause, for democracy and against the dictatorship of Franco. I think for the fighters in Syria there is something similar: they join this ugly war for something they consider very sacral,” he said.
Jenkins said that often “the reasons are quite complicated and there are personal factors – such as alienation from the countries in which they have grown up – as well as ideological brainwashing. Of course, becoming a jihadist also requires a specific psychology, including the ability to being able to ignore everything it says in the Quran about not taking innocent lives. Some appear to be motivated solely by selfish motives. They join the Jihad because they think that by killing people they will guarantee themselves a wonderful life in heaven. So they are really doing it for themselves, not for God.”
Are uneducated mullahs to blame?
Abdul Wazir Khan reminded that in the case with the post-Soviet states, where Muslims have only recently reconnected with their religion after more than 70 years of atheism, people are often not well educated about Islam, and therefore make mistakes.
“The mullahs at the mosques are to blame, too, of course, as it is them who educate Muslims. If mullahs don’t know much, what would those who look up to them know? More education is needed. One of the most important things in Islam is that a true Muslim will not kill,” he said.
Haji Gamat Suleiman said mullahs in Azerbaijan did not have enough knowledge to stand against the propaganda that comes from Syrian jihadists on the Internet. Asked if Azerbaijani youth is advised against joining Jihad in Syria during Friday prayers at Azerbaijani mosques, he expressed doubt, and said he wished local mullahs had more information to be able to oppose the jihadist propaganda.
Is Azerbaijan in danger?
Following calls from Syrian jihadists to join the fight, national security topped the agenda in many countries. But when in comes to Azerbaijan, is it in danger, too?
Jenkins said that Azerbaijan, as a country with a history of secularism, was not in danger.
“I do not think that there is a danger of radical Islamism becoming rooted in Azerbaijani society in the way that it has in some other countries… I am sure that the Azerbaijani security forces are aware of the danger and are monitoring any actual or potential jihadists in Azerbaijan. But, overall, I don’t think that jihadism is a major domestic threat to the country,” he said.