Police in Azerbaijan say they have arrested six people affiliated with a clandestine Islamic group that it claims was likely to be planning attacks on the US Embassy in Baku and offices of international organizations. There was no immediate word on formal charges against the six, which were first reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. But Azerbaijan's targeting of the group raises questions about the extent to which its government wants to squelch any possible growth in Islamic radicalism.
Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry says the group includes Azerbaijanis Elcin Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Yasar Mammadov, Firudin Nabiyev and Elburus Allahverdiyev, as well as Ukrainian national Yunus Valiyev. All are alleged to be members of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The ministry said the ringleader of the group, Uzbek citizen Abdurasul Abdurahimov, nicknamed Abdulla, had managed to escape. Agence France-Presse reported that police also claimed to have found revolutionary leaflets and bomb-making instructions when they arrested the members.
By pursuing Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which has no known members, Azerbaijan is stepping beyond the bounds that other nations have set in the war on terrorism. The group, which advocates nonviolent methods, has faced persecution in Uzbekistan but is not on the United States' list of foreign terrorist organizations. But the movement, which seeks to restore an Islamic global order called the caliphate, does have aims that Azerbaijan's secular Muslim government may genuinely fear.
While other nations that have persecuted the group have relatively stable governments, Azerbaijan has drained energy and money for years in a conflict with neighboring Armenia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed semiautonomous region. According to Agence France-Presse, Hizb-ut-Tahrir had planned to try to take over Azerbaijan en route to establishing a fundamentalist Islamic regime throughout Central Asia. The country, which is staking its economic future on its ability to attract international energy companies, fears any taint of Islamic extremism.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir might have expected a strong response from Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev when it circulated leaflets in Baku that denounced the US-led military strikes in Afghanistan and called for the creation of an Islamic state in Central Asia. Aliyev's attitude toward dissent is clear. Last fall, he used tax and licensing laws to interfere with several private news organizations, eventually drawing criticism from the Council of Europe. Aliyev met with media representatives in late December, though questions remain about the sincerity of his commitment to reforms.