An Azerbaijan Terror Plot Reality Check

Sorry for the silence lately, but I was in Afghanistan for work and transited through Baku. Lucky for me, I was there during the "foiled terror attack" that forced the UK and US Embassies to shut down for a day or two.

Personally, I'm pretty skeptical of the whole story. Whenever Azerbaijanis, or Russians for that matter, claim credit for showy crackdowns on Islamic extremists, my bullshit detector goes off.

A story in Pravda, the FOX news of the FSU, was pitch-perfect for international consumption.

The National Security Ministry foiled a radical Islamic group's plot to carry out a "large-scale horrifying terror attack" against government structures and diplomatic missions in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital.

It said that one suspect was killed and several others were detained in a weekend sweep outside the capital.
The British Embassy in Baku closed temporarily and the U.S. Embassy scaled back its operations in response to the threat.

The ministry said in a statement that the radical Islamic group included an army lieutenant who had stolen 20 hand grenades, a machine gun, four assault rifles and ammunition from his military unit and made them available for the planned attack.

Security forces tracked down the group and arrested several of its members during a sweep Saturday in the village of Mastaga about 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Baku. One member of the group offered resistance to the arrest and was killed, the statement said.

The ministry said that a hunt for other members of the group was still under way.

That story has all the critical elements of a tight war on terror narrative: high profile targets; a "large scale horrifying" attack in the works disrupted by a daring raid by the Ministry; an Army lieutenant with links to Islamic groups arrested and resisters killed in a gun battle in a village far enough from Baku to deter careful scrutiny. It's a nice tidy package handed over to western governments who want Azerbaijan's oil and western journalists who are too lazy, ignorant or too far away to dig a little deeper.

Are there any sources to verify all these claims, other than the Ministry of National Security? Has anyone bothered to ask around? Has anyone seen the weapons that were confiscated or the damage from the gunbattle? Do the arrestees have lawyers? Of course not. It's an open and shut case. The US and UK Embassies were protected and terrorists were killed.

Since we'll never really know for sure what happened on Monday, let's take a look at two other news stories that have come out Azerbaijan this week that shed light on the current environment in Azerbaijan.

First of all, former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev was sentenced to ten years in prison for "embezzlement."

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - Azerbaijan's former economics minister and his brother, the former chief of the Caspian nation's largest private oil company, were convicted Wednesday on charges of embezzlement, bribe-taking and tax-evasion.

The Court for Grave Crimes in the capital, Baku, sentenced Farhad Aliyev, the former minister, to 10 years in prison. The court also handed out a 9-year prison term to his brother, Rafiq, who headed Azpetrol oil company.

Farhad Aliyev denounced the verdict as politically motivated revenge. "I was conducting an active fight against corruption and supported Azerbaijan's integration into the European structures, and many people didn't like it," he said....

Aliyev lost the minister's job and was arrested in October 2005, along with a dozen of other people, on charges of plotting a coup. His brother was arrested at the same time on economic charges.

I was in Baku when Mr. Aliyev was arrested in in October, 2005, just before the parliamentary elections. The roadblocks and tanks in the streets -- bulwarks against the "coup" he and Rasul Guliyev were planning -- were impressive. Methinks Mr. Aliyev doth protest too much about his courageous stand against corruption and I do admire his jail-house conversion to human rights activism, but Aliyev was a favorite of the US Embassy and was considered a "reformer" by Azerbaijan standards. Arresting a top government official in Azerbaijan for corruption is like arresting water for being wet. Of course he was corrupt. Did he present a serious challenge other interests within the government? Almost certainly. No longer, though. He's had all his property holdings appropriated and is headed to the big house.

(EurasiaNet has a good article about the Aliyev trial)

There was another interesting court case this week too. Eynulla Fatullayev, the founder and editor of two independent newspapers (two papers described by RSF as "the most important" in Azerbajian, sort of a tallest building in Topeka situation in a country were all newspapers have a combined weekly circulation of about 20,000) was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for suggesting that Azerbaijan might suffer if it is used as a staging ground for a US attack on Iran. He even listed facilities in the country that might be targeted by Iran in response. The charges? Terrorism threat, tax evasion and inciting racial hatred.

The point of this post is not that I think it's impossible that Islamic extremists are operating in Azerbaijan. I don't deny the possibility at all. I just haven't seen a lot of evidence from sources that don't have something to gain politically from the perception.

My point is that there just might be angles to this story that have nothing to do with Islamic extremism in the Caucasus and everything to do with Azerbaijan's murky political and economic environment. In a country where many powerful interests within government control private militias and wage fierce internal battles for control over lucrative income streams, where journalists are jailed as terrorists for pointing out the obvious and uppity Ministers are jailed for corruption and coup plotting, a dramatic bust-up of a terror plot deserves a bit more than casual scrutiny. As so do a lot of other stories in that country.