The New Great Game Round-Up: April 20, 2014

Azerbaijan Cracks Down on Mullah Gülen Movement, Azerbaijan’s Syria-Problem, SCO Fights Color Revolutions & Drug Trafficking

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

Although the U.S.-backed Gülen movement has tried to topple Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by all available means, the controversial political leader managed to achieve a decisive victory in Turkey's recent local elections, which were viewed as a "referendum" on the Erdogan-led government. The Turkish PM did not waste any time by celebrating and instead continued his crackdown on the Gülen movement. Less than a week after the vote, the fight against the vast network of CIA puppet Fethullah Gülen led Erdogan to Azerbaijan, where Hizmet enjoys a strong presence:

Gülen: Top Issue in the Agenda of Erdoğan’s Visit to Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has always had a tremendous importance for the Gülen movement, partly because that is where they started to expand and where they met success. Further development throughout the Caucasus and post-Soviet Central Asia helped them become one of the most
powerful and influential transnational Islamic movement present in more than 130 countries. Still, Azerbaijan is the one place outside Turkey where the movement is the most involved. Indeed, numerous businesses and educational companies managed by Gülen’s disciples and sympathizers operate here. Among them are the highly visible international Qafqaz University, a network of 15 high schools and more than 20 Araz prep schools spread around the country. Besides, some major media, like the newspapers Zaman Azerbaijan, the radio station Burç and a TV channel, are close to the Gülen movement.

Azerbaijan Cracks Down On Gülen Movement

The transnational Turkish-Azeri Gülen community plays an important role in the bilateral relationship between the two countries and the Azerbaijani authorities have always been very supportive of Hizmet's activities in Azerbaijan. But a few weeks ago, the Aliyev regime demonstrated its support of the Turkish PM by taking measures against the Gülen movement. In late February, while Erdogan stepped up his fight against Gülen's shadowy network in Turkey, Azerbajani media reported that a similar “parallel structure” existed in Azerbaijan. Erdogan then shut down Gülen-associated private schools in order to target Gülen's finances and asked other countries to follow suit. Within a few days, Hizmet's schools in Azerbaijan were put under tight control:

Azerbaijan Backing Turkey's Crackdown on Gülen Movement

In early March, Khalik Mammadov, vice-president of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR), announced that the government-run energy company had taken over 11 Turkish-language high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and the private, Baku-based Caucasus University, all run by a Turkish educational company called Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education).

Çağ Öğrətim has never acknowledged a link with the Gülen movement, but most Azerbaijani education specialists and political experts have viewed its facilities as part of the Gülen movement’s 140-country network of schools. Çağ Öğrətim is part of the International Association of Turkish and Azerbaijani Manufacturers and Businessmen, a group that contains many Turkish companies that advocate Gülen’s principles.

 Furthermore, the diplomatic missions of both Turkey and Azerbaijan reportedly provided the government in Baku with a list of local Gülen followers and emails showing ties between Azerbaijani officials and Hizmet were leaked to the media in early March. One of the implicated officials was Elnur Aslanov who is considered to be the "patron of the Azerbaijani branch of Gülen followers". Shortly afterwards, Aslanov lost his job:

Turkey's Gülen Controversy Spills over to Azerbaijan

Aslanov was sacked on March 17 after a decision by President Aliyev, but the document did not name a reason for his dismissal. He headed the political analysis and information department in the President's administration since 2007, and is the son of Rabiyyat Aslanova, a ruling party MP, and reportedly has ties to the influential "grey cardinal" Ramiz Mekhtiyev, head of the President's Administration. He was responsible for supervising the Center for Strategic Studies, some leading pro-governmental media outlets, and the pro-governmental youth organization Ireli. Two days later, Aslanov's department was closed and merged with the Department of public-political issues.

A published list of alleged Azerbaijani Gülenists also included Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov and, ironically, SOCAR’s vice-president Khalik Mammadov, which has prompted some speculation whether Baku is really cracking down on Hizmet by placing its schools under SOCAR's control or if the Gülenists are in league with the state-owned oil and natural gas corporation. Whatever the case may be, the Azerbaijani authorities have detained several Gülenists, who are also often referred to as "nurcu", in the last few days after Erdogan's visit to Baku and are now starting to blame them for Azerbaijan's Syria-problem. In light of the increasing number of Azerbaijani fighters heading to Syria, Sheikh ul-Islam and Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazadeh had already called for harsher measures against Islamic extremists including nurcus at the beginning of this month [emphasis mine]:

Allahshukur Pashazadeh calls for joint fight against wahhabi, nurcu and takfiris not honoring state law 

Pashazadeh underlined the importance of joint fight against believers not honoring the laws of Azerbaijan Republic.

According to him, today there are all necessary conditions in Azerbaijan for religious people: “New mosques are being built. All conditions have also been created for representatives of other religions. Those who call themselves wahhabi, nurcu and takfiris should not pursue their policy against the Azerbaijani statehood. Each state has its own laws. If these people don’t obey the state laws, we all need to fight together with them, not only mullahs.”

The Syria-Problem

Given Azerbaijan's key role in NATO's jihadi operations in the region, the increasing number of Azerbaijani terrorists in Syria is hardly surprising. By now, dozens of Azerbaijani fighters have sacrificed their lifes for the efforts of the NATO-GCC-Israel axis to topple the Syrian government and the Aliyev regime is totally fine with his as long as the jihadists do not come up with the idea of "liberating" their home country. One terrorist learned this the hard way when he returned to Baku a few days ago. But even if the jihadi mercenaries do as they are told and continue to fight in Syria, there might be an unpleasant surprise:

Armenia and Azerbaijan Share a Syria-Problem

The Syrian war is giving a headache to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, with jihadists heading into Syria from Azerbaijan and refugees heading out of Syria into Armenia. Most recently, Azerbaijani news outlets have reported that the leader of an Azerbaijani militant group has been captured by the rebel Al-Nusra Front, which recently took control of the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab, and allegedly sentenced to death.

It is unclear why the Azerbaijani terrorist leader was sentenced to death but the Al-Nusra Front usually does not need a good reason to kill somebody. Since joining "more moderate" terrorist groups can be dangerous, other Azerbaijani jihadists prefer to fight for one of the local al-Qaeda branches. Every other day media outlets in Azerbaijan report about a new video documenting the activities of Azerbaijanis in Syria. The presence of Central Asian terrorists in the Middle Eastern country was likewise first highlighted by online videos, which caused a great stir in their respective home countries. Although the local authorities have tried to contain terrorist recruitment in the 'stans, many young men from the region continue to travel to Syria for jihad. Especially Kyrgyzstan struggles with this problem and so the grand mufti of Kyrgyzstan issued a statement this week calling on Kyrgyz youth to refrain from fighting in Syria. Moreover, two imams were removed from their posts and arrested:

Two imams banned from mosque service in Kyrgyzstan

Two members of extremist religious organizations banned in Kyrgyzstan worked as mosque imams in the Jalal-Abad Region in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security confirmed the arrest: "Efforts are under way to check whether an imam from the Bazar-Korgon District and yet another one from the Suzak District in the Jalal-Abad Region have links to extremist religious organizations."

Over the past few years Kyrgyz police have identified a number of cases where mosque imams were members of banned extremist religious organizations.  

With members of extremist religious organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir working as mosque imams, the influx of Kyrgyz fighters into Syria comes as no real surprise. According to Kyrgyz officials, poor education of imams is one of the main reasons for the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. This has raised some concerns in neighboring Xinjiang, where the local authorities are facing a similar problem:

Xinjiang chairman vows to stop religious extremism

Nur Bekri, chairman of the government of west China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, has vowed to stop religious extremism from spreading in the ethnic region.

In an article in Monday's edition of the Xinjiang Daily newspaper, he said recent years have seen separatists, terrorists and religious extremists renew their efforts to sabotage Xinjiang's prosperity and stability by perpetrating a slew of terrorist incidents.

He went on to say that religious extremism had misled people, particularly the youth, into terrorist activities, and that those deceived became chess pieces in a politically motivated plot. 

SCO to Fight Color Revolutions, Drug Trafficking

Police in Xinjiang clamp down on religious extremism, terrorism and separatism, also known as the "three evil forces", and the law enforcers do not stand for any nonsense. With NATO troops reducing their presence in Afghanistan, the Chinese government is keeping a close eye on the security situation in neighboring countries because Beijing attaches utmost importance to stability in the region. After leading Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has already stated that the "door is wide open for the Taliban" to be included in political process, the Chinese authorities will be even more alert. Beijing is wary of developments, which could further Washington's East Turkestan project. Therefore, China's Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun used this week's meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to warn against new waves of color revolutions:

Guo Shengkun: SCO States are under threat of “color revolutions”

Ministry of Chinese Public Security, Guo Shengkun, stated during a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Security Council secretaries meeting held in Dushanbe on Thursday that the SCO member-states are under the threat of external forces, which are initiating “color revolutions”.

Mr. Guo noted that the SCO should join forces and work out joint measures to combat interference in the internal affairs of the countries. He proposed strengthening the management of NGOs and to strengthen control over social networks in order to “identify, analyze, prevent, and resolve scenarios of ‘color revolutions’ repetition in a timely manner in order to strengthen peace and stability in the region.”

The U.S./EU-sponsored "Brown Revolution" in Ukraine apparently made an impression on several SCO members. Last week, Russian President Putin had also pointed out that Russia faced a threat from NGOs "serving foreign national interests". So other leaders of SCO countries could soon follow Putin's example by enacting "foreign agents" laws or take their cue from Erdogan and ban Twitter. In addition to fighting NGOs and social networks, Shengkun proposed setting up a joint security center to deal with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist groups in the region. China's Public Security Minister emphasized the role of the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir in drug trafficking and wants to deprive them of their funding by tackling the drug trade:

Beijing: Islamists control regional drug trafficking routes

Extremist religious organizations, among them Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan affiliated with Al-Qaeda, control drug trafficking routes which contribute the lion's share of their financing, Chinese Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun said on Thursday.

The notorious terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, are energetically returning to the region, and new terrorist organizations emerge and launch their operations, the Chinese minister told the SCO colleagues.

Many routes of drug trafficking are controlled by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir and the link between terrorism and drug trafficking is growing closer, Guo said.

As Shengkun rightly noticed, Washington's jihadist mercenaries get paid with money from NATO's opium trade, which is booming since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, because the drug money is "off the books". Since the Central Asian authorities are partially complicit in the illegal drug trade, large quantities of Afghan heroin reach Russia and Europe via Central Asia. Small amounts of drugs are regularly seized and minor drug traffickers busted but this does not affect the multi-billion dollar trade with opium from Afghanistan: 

Smuggling of more than 40 kg of Afghan heroin into Russia via Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan prevented in Tajikistan

Tajik special forces prevented the smuggling of more than 40 kg of Afghan heroin into Russia via territory of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the public relations center of the State Committee of National Security of Tajikistan reported on Monday.

Wanted by Interpol drug-dealer from Kazakhstan detained in Bishkek

The employees of the National Central Bureau of Interpol in Kyrgyzstan detained a citizen of Kazakhstan, who is internationally wanted, in Bishkek Manas airport, the press service of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan reported Friday.

The man was trying to fly to Turkey on a passport with different name and photo. The detained man suspected of illegal possession, distribution and sale of Afghan drugs, trafficking via Kazakhstan to neighboring countries.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

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