Terror Crackdown in the South Caucasus

As the South Caucasus starts a roundup of suspected Syria-linked terrorists, Azerbaijan, the region’s only majority Muslim nation, is considering de-naturalizing citizens found guilty of terrorism.

The proposed amendments to Azerbaijan's citizenship law, currently under parliamentary review, also propose banning foreign nationals from proselytizing and practicing religious rituals.

“Rejecting constitutional norms and attempts to replace laws with radical rules are inadmissible,” Siyavush Novruzov, a senior member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, commented during a December 2 parliamentary discussion of the proposed amendments.

Discussion of the draft comes right after a fatal police raid last week, when special troops were sent to “quell rebels” in the Baku suburb of Nardaran, home to a conservative Shi’a community. Two law-enforcement officers and four men tagged as alleged militants were killed. Police arrested a local spiritual leader, Taleh Bagirzade, and members of his Movement for Muslim Unity. They accused the group of plans to overthrow the government and establish a sharia state.

Given the government’s practice of running roughshod over critics, some question its motivations in the Nardaran raid. The town, EurasiaNet.org has reported, has generally been seen as “a different world” from the rest of Azerbaijan, with no national police allowed on its territory.

Against that backdrop, the de-naturalization measures, and how they would be applied, raise additional questions.

Novruzov likened religious extremism to the values promoted by human-rights groups. “If before, the export of ideologies and ideas happened under the guise of humans rights and democracy, now outside forces are banking on the religion card,” News.az quoted Novruzov as saying.

Scores of Azerbaijani citizens are believed to have gone to Syria to fight with various Islamic militants, including ISIS.

Azerbaijan’s northern neighbor, Georgia, has experienced a similar outflow. After a Georgian-language video surfaced threatening beheadings and to place this predominantly Orthodox Christian country under ISIS rule, police on December 1 arrested four individuals named as suspected collaborators with the Islamic State terror group. Police footage showed guns, explosives and an ISIS flag allegedly owned by the detainees. The suspects’ parents denied the accusations; some said that their sons were framed by the police.

News reports say that some of the November 29 arrests were made in the village of Nasakirali, in Georgia’s western region of Guria. Earlier on, three young men from the same village appeared in the online, ISIS-promo video.
One of the recently detained men, Lasha Gobadze, turned out to be a relative of one of the video’s narrators, identified by local media as Khvicha Gobadze. Both men come from Achara, a Georgian region bordering Turkey with a Muslim minority.

In Armenia, which has the weakest ties to Islam of all of the three South Caucasus countries, police have gone to work as well, though not against Islamic militants. 

Last week, Armenian police stormed a house on the outskirts of the capital, Yerevan, to detain 10 individuals identified as terror suspects. An additional 11 have also been detained.

The National Security Service claimed that the group, believed to be an assortment of nationalists, planned terror attacks and assassinations against senior officials. It did not elaborate. The alleged leader of the group, Artur Vartanian, has said that he visited Syria to put up armed resistance to terrorists threatening Syria’s ethnic Armenian population, RFE/RL reported.

The US embassy told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on November 30 that it is following the case and “will consider helping” the government with its investigation.

Terror Crackdown in the South Caucasus

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