The Mujahideen institute in its current format was formed in 1980-1990 during the Afghan War and was associated with the realities of the Cold War. During the Afghan War (more precisely, in the years of Soviet involvement, 1979-1988), the United States, among others, through Saudi and Pakistani special services provided large-scale financial and military assistance to military groups fighting against the Soviet army.
As a result, after the end of the war and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country, a resource of Afghans and Arab Afghans was formed. These units had extensive experience in conducting military operations. Later, giving special importance to the idea of “Islamic solidarity” and waging war in the name of Islam, these groups participated in military operations in Algeria, Central Asia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Aside from that, these groups were used during the preparation and implementation of a number of international terrorist acts.
It is noteworthy that in 1991-1994, and in a more active form, in 1993-1994, the Mujahideen also participated in the Karabakh War at the side of Azerbaijan.
From the very beginning of the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan had high expectations from Islamic circles – the cooperation with them seemed promising. After gaining independence, Azerbaijan emphasized its belonging to the Islamic world, seeking to give religious shades to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
In 1993, when the balance of military forces radically changed in favor of the Armenians, Azerbaijan (already after Heydar Aliyev had come to power) took more concrete steps to attract mercenaries from Islamic states – in particular, the Mujahideen – to military operations.
In August 1993, Deputy Interior Minister of Azerbaijan Rovshan Javadov met the Prime Minister of Afghanistan and the leader of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (“Islamic Party”) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, reaching an agreement on sending Mujahideen to Azerbaijan.
And a few months later, in December, an Afghan delegation including famous field commander Rashid Dostum visited Baku to discuss at the state level issues related to the established cooperation. As a result, air communication was established between Baku and Kabul.
Among the Mujahideen sent to Azerbaijan, Afghans were the majority (although there were also Arab Afghans). They were mainly militants of the Hezb-e-Islami group. According to some experts, the transfer of Mujahideen to Baku would not have been possible without the assistance of Pakistani and American intelligence services.
The numbers of Mujahideen that participated in military operations are unclear to this day. Their number is thought to have been between 1,000 and 3,000.
One of the 1994 numbers of Washington Post noted that mercenaries from Afghanistan, Iran, the United States, Russia, and Turkey were incorporated in the Azerbaijani army, while Turkey and Iran, in particular, provided Baku with military instructors. Referring to Western diplomats, Washington Post noted that in 1993, Azerbaijan had recruited 1,000 Afghan Mujahideen.
According to some reports, the Mujahideen were stationed mainly in the southwestern regions of the Karabakh front – namely, in the Fizuli and Zangelan directions. They had nearly zero communication with Azerbaijani soldiers, which was due to several reasons.
Azerbaijani soldiers did not follow Sharia standards and would often get drunk, which would cause clashes between the parties. In addition, the Mujahideen had an antipathy to mercenaries of Slavic descent fighting in the Azerbaijani army.
The Azerbaijani authorities tried to cover up the participation of the Mujahideen in military operations. In order to avoid publicity, the real number of casualties among the Afghans was covered up, and not all the bodies of the dead were transported to Afghanistan.
It is noteworthy that throughout the entire Karabakh war, the Armenian authorities attempted to counteract the military-political assistance provided by Islamic circles to Azerbaijan. Proof of this is the letter of the Armenian President to the leadership of Afghanistan (May 1994) which expressed concern about the involvement of the Mujahideen in the Karabakh war.
In response, the Afghan President condemned the participation of Afghan citizens in the Karabakh war, expressing hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. But the response of the President of Afghanistan can only be viewed as façade.
In this regard, the letter of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia (December 21, 1994), addressed to the special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission on the issue of mercenaries also deserves attention. This letter expressed dissatisfaction of the Armenian authorities with the large-scale involvement of mercenaries recruited by Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war.
In the letter, data on mercenaries (from the CIS and other countries – Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan) was attached, backed up by relevant sources. Some details about the Mujahideen were presented as well, including their fields of activity (of the 860th and 723rd motor brigades, air, ground, artillery forces, special services), deployment areas (Zhdanov and Shamkhor districts, areas adjacent to Mingachevir, the city of Al-Bayramli), and the names of 12 mercenaries.
One of them was an Afghan citizen Bakhtiyar Verbollah Baberzai from the village of Mozari Sharif captured by the Karabakh forces in April 1994. Bakhtiyar Verbollah Baberzai was the source of some of the information about the Mujahideen.
Despite the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities deny the participation of Mujahideen in military operations, this is a proven fact based on the bodies of Mujahideen (in traditional clothes), documents in the official languages of Afghanistan (Dari and Pashto) published in Afghanistan and Pakistan religious literature, and other material evidence discovered by the Karabakh defense forces.
Recently, a significant study on the participation of Mujahideen in the Karabakh war was conducted by Michael Taarnby, a researcher at the Spanish research center Real Instituto Elcano. In his work “The Mujahideen in Nagorno-Karabakh”, he covers a number of issues, including the participation of the Mujahideen in the Karabakh war and their role in further Jihad movements.
Taarnby divides the Mujahideen who appeared in Nagorno-Karabakh into three main groups. The first group includes the Mujahideen who had migrated to Azerbaijan from other regions of the Caucasus and who would become involved in other conflicts, the second includes the Mujahideen who established themselves in Azerbaijan (becoming the stronghold of militant Islam in Azerbaijan), and the third included dead Afghans.
According to Taarnby, most of the Mujahideen who went through the war would return to their homeland. Others would mainly become involved in the anti-Russian struggle in the Chechen war, in which their experience in the Karabakh war would be taken into account. In the latter group was a citizen of Saudi Arabia of Chechen origin and famous field commander Khattab who after the Soviet-Afghan conflict participated in anti-government Islamist movements in Tajikistan and then in the Karabakh war.
Using the connections acquired during the Karabakh war, Khattab moved from Azerbaijan to the North Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan) and until his death in 2002 was one of the key figures in the jihad movement.
In a 2005 interview, the commander of the Azerbaijani army Azer Rustamov noted that hundreds of Chechen volunteers led by Chechen field commanders Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduev had fought in the Karabakh war. However, they had retreated after suffering heavy losses.
Taarnby also makes one very interesting observation. He notes that the Karabakh war in a certain way was out of sight of the international jihadi movement. In the rhetoric of militant Islam, the problem of Karabakh was hardly addressed.
Despite the fact that many Mujahideen died in the war, none of the leaders of the jihad movement (including Bin Laden) would ever address this topic. According to Taarnby, this was mainly due to the fact that the Azerbaijani side was defeated in the Karabakh war. In addition, as Taarnby notes, the Mujahideen participated in the war primarily as mercenaries rather than volunteers.
The involvement of the Mujahideen in the Karabakh war in a certain way contributed to the establishment of separate Islamic radical structures (including Wahhabi) in Azerbaijan. Back in the 1990s, Azerbaijan housed branches of a number of international Islamic radical organizations (Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, Al-Jihad Al-Islam, Jaysh al-Islam, Al-Jihad, and others). The territory of Azerbaijan often served as an intermediary point for weapons, financial, material resources, and militants addressed to Chechnya and Dagestan.
After the events of September 11, 2001, according to the American media, in particular, the New York Associated Press, already on September 10, 2001, the Congressional Research Service released a report which claimed that certain groups or individuals who had links with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda used the territory of Azerbaijan as a stronghold of the terrorist network.
It was also noted that after the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) in 1998, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recorded 60 phone calls from bin Laden to his associates from the Baku branch of Islamic Jihad (Al-Jihad Al-Islam). It is no coincidence that after the events of September 11, many spoke of a possible Azerbaijani trace in the terrorist attacks.
At that time and well after 2001, the US pressurized Azerbaijan, demanding Azerbaijani authorities to fight against radical Islamic groups in the country, which the Azerbaijani authorities did. However, the threat of radical Islamic activities in Azerbaijan still exists today, and it is constantly in the field of vision of the country’s special services.
Factually, in the post-Soviet space, the Mujahideen passed their first test on the Karabakh front. The Armenian defense forces were basically able to effectively oppose international jihadist structures. The severe defeat of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war and the heavy losses of the Afghans forced the Mujahideen to leave Azerbaijan and head for the North Caucasus and the Balkans.
- Hayk Demoyan, “Karabakh Drama. Hidden Acts”, pages 91-92, Yerevan, 2003.
- Michael Taarnby, “The Mujaheddin in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Case Study in the Evolution of Global Jihad”