April 21 2004
AZERBAIJAN: PHONE PRANKS RAISE TERROR CONCERNS
A recent string of anonymous bomb threats in Baku has set Azerbaijan
on edge. Though the threats proved to be hoaxes, they have prompted
officials to express concern that Azerbaijan could be at risk of a
terrorist attack because of Baku’s participation in the US-led
occupation of Iraq. Some independent analysts, however, are skeptical
of the government’s analysis.
The series of threats began April 1, when an anonymous caller told
Azerbaijani authorities that a bomb had been planted in the Turkish
Embassy. That call was followed by a threat against the Heidar Aliyev
Palace, a large concert hall, at the time of an April 10 performance
by the American rapper Coolio. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. Subsequent calls targeted the city’s subway system
and, finally, on April 13, the US embassy. Other calls have warned
about bomb explosions at Baku’s Opera and Ballet Theater and Space
TV, a privately owned television company. No explosives were found at
any of the locations, but the US embassy has issued a warning to
Americans in Baku to avoid using the city’s subway system.
The telephone threats in Baku began immediately after militant
attacks in Uzbekistan left at least 47 people dead. [For additional
information see the Eurasia Insight archive] Uzbek authorities insist
that an international radical Islamic terrorist network carried out
the attacks in Tashkent and Baku. [For additional information see the
Eurasia Insight archive].
So far, four people have been arrested in connection with the pranks.
No connection between suspected terrorist groups and the detainees
has been firmly established. But that hasn’t stopped Azerbaijani
officials and many analysts from playing up the radical Islamic
terrorist threat. They suggest that Islamic militants may be
targeting Azerbaijan in order to punish the country for its strategic
cooperation with the United States
Sitting on the border of Iran and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan has
developed into a key US ally in the Caspian Basin. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The late president Heidar Aliyev
granted the US military over-flight rights following the September 11
terrorist attacks, and the country has since deployed about 150
troops to assist US operations in Iraq. Azerbaijani troops are also
deployed in Afghanistan and Kosovo in similar peacekeeping
Security Minister Namig Abbasov suggested that the presence of
Azerbaijani troops in Iraq had played a role in the Baku terror
threats. One military analyst agreed. “Azerbaijan is face to face
with terror,” the expert, Khagani Huseinli, said. “The recent events
in Spain and Uzbekistan show that terrorists are targeting not only
the United States, but also its allies.”
Other analysts downplay the notion that Azerbaijan is in imminent
danger of a terrorist attack. Although concern is warranted about the
possibility of terrorist acts in the energy-rich state, political
analyst Rasim Musabeyov told EurasiaNet, it is unlikely that the
Azerbaijani troop deployment in Iraq alone would spur Islamic
radicals to target Baku. Madat Quliyev, head of Azerbaijan’s Interpol
National Central Bureau, also voiced doubts about radical Islamic
involvement. In an interview with the Ekho newspaper, he indicated
that if radical Islamic terrorists had been involved, they would not
have issued telephone warnings about the potential bombings.
Those detained in connection with the telephone threats don’t have
readily evident ties to each other, or to any known radical
organization. In connection with the April 13 threat against the US
embassy, police have taken into custody Cavansir Sadikhov, the Turan
news agency reported. Authorities suspect that Sadikhov was also
responsible for making a threat against the US embassy in January.
Others arrested include a 15-year-old high school student from Baku,
Nadir Aydinoglu Babayev, who is accused of threatening Space TV.
Madina Mehdiyeva, a reportedly mentally ill woman from Baku, is the
third alleged phone caller, while a fourth suspect, Ramiz Muradov, an
ex-convict, has been charged with prank calling the police in Imisli
District about an explosion in a railway hospital.
Authorities in Azerbaijan are taking no chances. The Baku subway
system, as well as strategic facilities such as oil pipelines, oil
refineries, water supply systems and Baku’s electricity grid have all
been placed under “special guard,” Interior Ministry Deputy Security
Chief Atas Masimov told Ekho. Reinforced police patrols have also
started to monitor Baku’s streets, the newspaper reported.
The possible terror connection appears to have resonated with many
Baku residents, who retain vivid memories of a 1994 bombing in the
Baku subway system. Rasmiyya Aliyeva, a secondary school teacher in
Baku, said that the latest warning of a bomb attack stopped her from
riding the subway altogether. “We don’t want to live under the threat
of terror again,” Aliyeva said.
The bomb threats have come at a time when Azerbaijan is looking to
secure strategic assistance from the United States. Baku is slotted
to receive $12 million in security aid from the United States for
fiscal year 2005, the highest amount for any country in the Caucasus.
Georgia will receive approximately $8 million and Armenia $2 million
in security assistance. The intended security funding for Azerbaijan
is part of an overall $38 million US assistance package. That amount
is second only to Georgia’s overall aid total of $90 million.
As with Uzbekistan, human rights groups have long criticized the Bush
administration for pursuing close strategic ties with Azerbaijan
while overlooking political repression, media restrictions and
routine human rights abuses. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. Last October, some 300 Azerbaijanis were injured and more
than 1,000 opposition members arrested following a crackdown on a
protest against the controversial election of President Ilham Aliyev.
His political opponents contend that Aliyev rigged the vote. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Editor’s Note: Konul Khalilova is a freelance journalist based in