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What’s Going On in Azerbaijan?

The Iran-al Qaeda alliance.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Then in March, the Azerbaijanis arrested 22 people accused of plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as other targets. They, too, took their orders from the IRGC. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said the men were trained in “camps around Tehran” and elsewhere in Iran. The cell’s members were native Azeris, and according to the Azerbaijani government, the Iranians worried that authorities might grow suspicious of their frequent travel to and from Iran. So the cell’s IRGC handlers met with some of them in other countries, including Syria and Russia.

It is in this context that Azerbaijan disrupted the al Qaeda-linked cell in mid-April. The Azerbaijanis did not say who had trained some members of the cell in Iran for two months, and  numerous requests for further information went unanswered. 

It is possible that the training was conducted by al Qaeda operatives. Al Qaeda has a substantial network inside Iran that, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, exists as part of a formerly “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. This network has delivered recruits to al Qaeda operatives in northern Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. 

The al Qaeda-connected cell disbanded in April was originally assembled with help from Ibrahimkhalil “Saleh” Davudov, before he was killed by Russian security forces early this year. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security describes Davudov as “linked to [the] al Qaeda global terrorist network.” Davudov had been named head of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Dagestan by the notorious Chechen Doku Umarov, designated by the United Nations and the United States an al Qaeda-connected terrorist.

Umarov ordered the March 2010 suicide bombings on Moscow’s Metro, which killed 40 people, and the January 2011 Moscow airport bombing, which killed 37 people and wounded nearly 200 more. He has extensive ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), both of which are closely affiliated with al Qaeda. The IMU and IJU funnel fighters and recruits through eastern Iran into northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to the Azerbaijani government, some members of the al Qaeda-linked cell disbanded in April were trained in northern Pakistan by the IJU.

It is also possible that the training was conducted by the IRGC or Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Their fingerprints were all over the earlier cells dispatched from Iran. Both have been implicated in supporting al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. One clue may be the al Qaeda cell’s ties to Syria. Prior to receiving their training in Pakistan and Iran, some members of the group spent time in madrassas in Syria, where they were indoctrinated in jihad. Interestingly, some members of the terrorist cell detained in March had also been to Syria. The Syrian government, which is fighting a substantial insurgency, has long cooperated with the Iranians in exporting terrorism. 

Iran’s precise role in the al Qaeda-linked cell’s plotting against targets in Azerbaijan remains unknown. An Azerbaijani spokesman said that the cell was unrelated to the Iranian-backed operatives who were detained earlier in the year. This may simply mean that the other cells were not linked to al Qaeda. He also said the investigation is ongoing. But a clear pattern has emerged. Around the world, far beyond Azerbaijan’s borders, the Iranians are using terrorists to target the Israelis. Concurrent with the thwarted plots in Azerbaijan, similar plots and Iranian-backed attacks have been carried out in India, Georgia, and Thailand.

The shadow war over Iran’s nuclear weapons program continues. And by all appearances, al Qaeda is on Iran’s side.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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