According to the findings of a research on the religions and sects in Azerbaijan, up to the breakout of the former Soviet Union not only the country had no Wahhabi communities but also it did not have even a small group of Salafists. The communist Soviet regime clampdown on religion made it difficult to have accurate statistics about the followers of different religions across Azerbaijan. However, in a general view of the figures related to the religion in Azerbaijan along with consideration of the tangible realties in the Azeri community, it could be said that at least 98 percent of Azerbaijan population are Muslims. Shiite Muslims account for at least 85 percent of the total Muslim population of the country. That means Azerbaijan after the neighboring Iran is the second country with largest Shiite population compared to the total number of its population. In addition to the Shiites, Shafi’i and Hanafi Sunnis as well as Sufis are living in Azerbaijan. But in no historical period Azerbaijan saw a Salafist movement.
In the last years of the Soviet Union, and specifically the early years of Azerbaijan’s independence period, the Wahhabi movements, which called themselves Salafists, grew in Azerbaijan artificially by fundings of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Egypt and some other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia particularly has managed to give its support of the Wahhabis a legal guise after it signed a religious cooperation agreement with Azerbaijan’s government as well as the Baku-based Caucasian Muslim Board. But even before creating this legal cover, many of children of families who, amid a vacuum deriving from Soviet Union’s breakout, were trying to restore their religious roots were educated by the Medina International Islamic University, the major center for education of Wahhabi clerics and missionaries. Most of them now are active in religious promotion missions in Azerbaijan. Some of the key figures of Azerbaijani Wahhabi figures are Qamat Suleymanov, Alikhan Mosaov, Vissel Uroojov, Sohrab Sheikhaliov, Samen Mohammadov, who are active on the web and the social networks to promote Wahhabi teachings under the title of Salafism.
There are no accurate figures determining the exact number of the population of Wahhabists and Salafists of Azerbaijan. The Azeri media since past few years have talked about existence of 15,000 to 65,000 Wahhabists across the country. By considering the Wahhabists’ and Salafists’ gatherings in Baku Mosque, which was closed down in 2008 by the Azeri government after the ministry of security and police reported clashes between two Wahhabi groups and explosion of a grenade, and also their gatherings on Fridays in Qarachokhor, a villaige in Baku’s outskirts, as well as their population in Sunni-inhabited areas of Azerbaijan, it could be said that tens of thousands of Wahhabists exist in Azerbaijan, and have reached a dangerous level.
The media and political experts and activists in Baku believe that the Wahhabists are getting further financial sources due to Saudi Arabian fundings as well as Azeri government’s ease on licensing them to do business in the country. Because of doing undercover financial and commercial activities in Azerbaijan, it is almost impossible to get accurate information and figures on their financial status. The government of Azerbaijan, for its close and friendly ties with Saudi Arabia, is not willing to break the secrecy over conditions and facilitation of activities of Wahhabists in the former Soviet Union’s republic. However, the field observations of thickly-bearded shopkeepers with short cloths in major Azeri shopping centers show that the Wahhabi class of population formed by Saudi Arabia in Azerbaijan is of considerable financial potentials in the country.
It is suggested that Wahhabists in Azerbaijan are doing business in a network form. Any Wahhabist who receives fundings from the Arab sheikhs should be committed to job creation also for his relatives. While most of Azeri population is suffering from unemployment, Wahhabists are the only social class in the country who has no employment problems. Due to financial facilities of Wahhabists, they are influencing fast the different parts of Azeri society. There are reports that the Wahhabists have managed to make their way among the Azeri state officials, members of the parliament and specifically the media activists. Despite the fact that the affected people have no Wahhabi looks, they guard and accomplish the interests and demands of Wahhabi centers, especially Saudi Arabia, in Azerbaijan. Among the state officials the Azeri Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov holds open and special relations with Emirati sheikhs, and though they could not be seen as Wahhabists, they move in line with Wahhabist Saudi regime and leave considerable impacts on Azerbaijan.
North of Azerbaijan is particularly under Wahhabists’ focus because the Sunni population is larger than the Shiite population in some areas there. In past few years, the Azeri ministry of interior and ministry of national security have submitted reports of attacks carried out on public places, and looting the shopping centers and foreign currency exchange stores; an act that is condidered legal by the Wahhabi Forest Brothers group in northern Azerbaijan. The police arrested some members of Forest Brothers in northern areas of Azerbaijan.
In addition to north, which due to its proximity to Russia’s Dagestan Republic is an attractive place for activities of dangerous Wahhabi groups, the city of Sumqayit, Azerbaijan’s third largest city, and Baku the capital city are principal areas of activity of Wahhabi groups in Azerbaijan. Though the Wahhabi movements in Azerbaijan keep their activities undercover and use hypocritical ways to hide their hazards for the Azeri community, the eruption of Wahhabi wars against Syria and Iraq have played a crucial role in uncovering the real face of Wahhabi groups in the Caucasian country. The reports suggest that between 400 and 1000 Wahhabi militants went to fight in Syria. Due to their large number in Syria they founded the Society of Wahhabi Azeris in the war-torn country.
So far about 30 Wahhabi Azeri fighters were arrested and tried upon their return from Syria by the government. There is a concern in Azerbaijan that a larger number of Azeri fighters could return from Syrian battlefields and pose large-scale threats to the country; and due to the fact that the Azeri government does not have enough intelligence it could not arrest them. The Arab states, excluding Iraq, are the major supporters of Wahhabi or Salafi movements in Azerbaijan. To hold its own religious sway in Azerbaijan, Turkey has founded Nurchi group in Azerbaijan, which turned out as a dangerous factor in the country. In some periods the Nurchi group even presented a risk of carrying out a coup and taking over the power in Azerbaijan.
Ankara-backed Nurchi group have started a special tactical and perhaps strategic cooperation with the Wahhabists especially after new regional developments, the most evident of which is the terrorist wars waged against Syria and Iraq. In a larger scale, the cooperation with Azerbaijan’s Wahhabists and use of them is also part of an Israeli, American and British policy in Caucasus.