Amid ongoing protests in Egypt, a US State Department warning about a terrorist threat “against American interests” in Azerbaijan has placed the government in Baku in an awkward situation. Senior members of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party have criticized the US action, while law enforcement agencies have questioned the basis for the alert.
By Shahin Abbasov for EurasiaNet
The January 29 alert, distributed by the US Embassy in Baku, said there was a “potential for attacks in Azerbaijan, including against American interests,” and urged American citizens “to be vigilant … in public places associated with the Western community.” Without elaborating, the embassy alert stated that the warning was “based on terrorist threat information.”
Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country with a weak opposition, does not seem to be at high risk for a bout of unrest. Even so, with the ongoing protests in Egypt generating a steady buzz among Azerbaijanis in Baku, officials are eager to maintain the prevailing sense of stability. A recent directive, for example, instructed government employees to avoid any type of action that could rile citizens, EurasiaNet.org has learned.
Against this backdrop, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanly, speaking during a February 1 session of parliament, called on legislators to demand that the US Embassy disclose the reasons for issuing its security alert. “Such information creates fear and tension among both foreign and Azerbaijani citizens,” news agencies quoted Gurbanly as saying. “I think the alert is false.”
Stressing that “the situation in Azerbaijan is calm and stable,” YAP Deputy Chairman Ali Akhmadov echoed Gurbanly’s call for clarification.
So far, parliament has not officially sought an explanation for the distribution of the US alert. The US Embassy in Baku also has not publicly provided any additional information concerning the warning.
The ongoing US silence on the issue means that it cannot be determined whether the information prompting the alert was provided by the Azerbaijani government, or came from another source. But one former Ministry of National Security official underlines that whatever the US embassy knows, the Azerbaijani security services most likely know as well.
Washington “usually” shares with Baku information about potential terrorism threats related to Azerbaijan, said Arastun Orujlu, now director of Baku’s non-governmental East-West Research Center. “The US embassy would never issue such an alert if they did not have the relevant intelligence information,” he added.
Orujlu contended that the risk of terrorism in Azerbaijan has increased recently. “The Muslim world is now being shaken by revolutions and international religious terrorist networks could make provocations in order to fuel the tensions further,” he said.
The embassy warning was issued just weeks after the arrests of members of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, whose leader, Movsum Samadov, called for the overthrow of President Ilham Aliyev’s government. A senior Iranian cleric subsequently denounced the arrests, prompting Azerbaijani officials to complain about “Iranian interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.”
There is no way at this time to determine whether the US terrorist warning has any connection to those arrests.
It is not the first time that the US government has issued a terrorism alert for Azerbaijan. In October of 2007 the American and British embassies, as well as BP-Azerbaijan and the Norwegian energy company Statoil, closed their Baku offices for three days after a similar security notice was issued.
At the time, Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies also denied the existence of any threat. But a few weeks after a visit by then-Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden, an army officer who had deserted his post with guns and other armaments was arrested on terrorism charges. The officer, along with two other individuals, was sentenced to prison in 2008 for allegedly planning to attack the American, British and Israeli embassies in Baku.
This time, Azerbaijani security officials are likewise steadfastly denying the existence of a terrorism threat. Ministry of National Security spokesperson Arif Babayev told EurasiaNet.org that “preventive measures are being taken to avoid any threats.” Interior Ministry spokesperson Orkhan Mansurzade similarly commented to Turan news agency that the police are “securely protecting” all embassies and sites of “state importance.”
Whether or not the Azerbaijani security officials know more than they are saying, a former foreign policy advisor to the late president Heydar Aliyev, political analyst Vafa Guluzade, expressed the belief that the US embassy would not have issued an alert unless it was based on “real intelligence information.”
“It’s difficult to say what kind of information they obtained and if the Azerbaijani security services have it, too, or not,” said Guluzade. “There is no country in the world which is fully insured against possible terrorist attacks.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan. This article was originally published by EurasiaNet. To view the original, please click here.