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Arastun Orujlu: Central Asian Experience of Working with “Returnees” from Syria is Useful for Azerbaijan

“Participation of CIS in radical groups fighting in Syria, Iraq and some parts of Afghanistan is a common issue for all CIS states. Joint efforts would facilitate the fight against this phenomenon and terrorism in general,” Arastun Orujlu, Azerbaijan-based expert in security issues, former officer of the Ministry of National Security of Azerbaijan, and head of the Vostok Zapad think tank, said in the interview to CABAR.asia.

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Arastun Orujlu. Photo: turan.az

CABAR.asia: Central Asian countries have encountered a problem when their citizens who went to fight some time ago to Syria or Iraq are now coming back – both militants and their families – children and wives. And the society is now discussing whether they should be assisted in their return, whether they would spread destructive ideas back home. This topic is rarely discussed in the information space of Azerbaijan. How relevant, in your opinion, is this topic for the country or how relevant it can be in future?

Arastun Orujlu: Some five years ago I was the first man in Azerbaijan who wrote about the presence of Azeris in terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, and I even wrote their approximate number – 800 to 1,200 people. I obtained this information due to my cooperation with my colleagues from the German magazine Spiegel.

Spiegel was the first media outlet that claimed that the Free Syrian army was not the Syrian army anymore, but almost 90 per cent of it was terrorists who came to Syria and Iraq from other countries.

Back then, the official authorities totally opposed my suggestion and representatives of the ruling entities accused me of casting aspersions on the state and even insulted me. But two years later, the then chief of the State Security Service, Madat Guliev, officially reported almost the same number 900-1,200 people.

In the meantime, I wrote an article where I recommended not letting those people back to the country as they posed a tremendous threat to the state. The simplest way to prevent it was to identify their names and to cancel their passports.

How can be they identified? The majority of them get to Syria and Iraq illegally, while their legend is that they earn a living in Turkey, for example.

As the former intelligence officer, I know that one source is enough to get information about 70-80 per cent of militants in the country. I have studied this issue deeply and a few years ago I found some very trusted contacts who helped me contact the Azeris who were in Syria and understood they were deceived. When they saw the atrocities committed by extremists there, especially against the civilians, they got disappointed.

It’s very difficult to get back from there as they don’t forgive the fugitives and destroy them once they suspect the escape. I spoke to some Azeris, who managed to survive. In Syria, people group in terrorist groups by their ethnicity – people from the post-Soviet countries group together, Azeris may also join groups from Turkey.

The militants that have been fighting there for some months know well how the network works, the regions where people come from, the groups they join. As to the legends about work in Turkey, it’s very easy to find out in cooperation with the Turkish authorities once they agree to cooperate.

The Syrian pot has turned into a space of conflict of interests of many states, where all international rules failed. Back in 2015, during the G20 summit in Antalya, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that according to Russian information, 40 countries contributed to the formation of [terrorist organisation] Islamic State (ISIS) (a prohibited terrorist organisation in some countries of the world, including Central Asia – editor’s note). And he was right.

And the worst measure, I think, is to lock up these people in jails as they would make propaganda among inmates. And it would be very easy to do as the inmates are unhappy. This is what happens now.

How should we treat the wives and children of militants who died in Syria and Iraq?

That’s another story. Children must be returned and taken special care of by the state due to the psychological trauma they suffer. They are not responsible for the crimes of their parents as well as other relatives.

As for the wives, it’s a controversial question. It’s one thing when women sit at home, raise children, take care of fighters, serve them. But often wives also were involved into the terrorist activity and passed training. Of course, a case-by-case approach is required. There is no shared responsibility for crimes.

However, another question arises as to how developed is the system of investigation in Azerbaijan. Very often the staff, both of police and of security services, has very low professional level and cannot identify potentially dangerous people even during individual investigation. I don’t think the system of Central Asian countries differs significantly.

On the other hand, a certain part of the society notes they are the same citizens of the republic and the state must help them…

Officially, the state must take care of every citizen. The first duty of the state is to protect its citizens at any spot of the world, even if they are criminals. However, these citizens voluntarily joined terrorist organisations, killed other people. They have access to the international terrorist network, arms, methods. They are dangerous.

Those whose guilt was proved and who were charged must be supervised carefully. They should be isolated from the mainstream inmates, be under control 24/7. These people are psychologically damaged. Potentially, they are ready to do the same in future.

Do we have a team of psychologists who are ready to be in charge of their psychological rehabilitation? The state doesn’t have enough knowledge of rehabilitation work with these people. The tragedy is that they don’t even want and understand how to perform it.

How developed is the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Central Asian states in terms of antiterrorism?

Participation of CIS in radical groups fighting in Syria, Iraq and some parts of Afghanistan is a common issue for all CIS states. Joint efforts would facilitate the fight against this phenomenon and terrorism in general.

We are already sharing data in this field. There’s a CIS Anti-terrorism Centre, where the leaders of security services and police bodies of the region hold regular meetings. We have been witnesses to some cases when the citizens of some CIS countries that took part in terrorist organisations were hiding in other Commonwealth countries, but were deported back to their countries due to this cooperation.

However, the bilateral [cooperation] must be also developed as the experience shows that it is more efficient in countering the threats to the national security.

Are there countries that have been successful in this sphere and that could set the example?

Yes, there are. These are mainly European countries. We need to have a state programme to work with former militants. Unfortunately, in the authoritarian countries, including Azerbaijan, they prefer using force against these people. However, this is not a way out. Those convicted of participation in terrorist groups should be held in strict conditions. But they also should be treated by specialists in prisons.

May the experience of Central Asian countries be useful to Azerbaijan?

Every experience may be useful. Moreover, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have wider experience in this matter as the number of their citizens taking part in terrorist groups is exceeding the number of Azeris.

Besides, we are closer to Central Asia than to Europe in terms of developed of national security agencies and mentality. Understanding the mentality and culture is helpful to counter terrorism.

As you said, you talked to some Azeris who took part in terrorist groups in Syria. What happened to them afterwards?

There is a stereotype that only illiterate and ignorant people go there. However, this is not so. The people I talked to were very literate. When they got to Syria, they understood in a couple of days what they had to do, which contradicted their religious values. They got back to Azerbaijan, turned themselves to the police, repented, and certain measures were taken towards them.

They realised and understood everything; nevertheless, these people are psychologically damaged. Professional psychologists must work with such people. Later on, I met one of them, he got back to his normal life, but was still in fear that he would be revenged for desertion. This fear is a negative factor that can push people to new crimes. I don’t know where those people are now.

Are there any researches on the number of citizens of Azerbaijan who could come back from the combat zone in Syria and Iraq?

I don’t know about them. A comprehensive intellectual research should be held to find out.

Last year, I obtained some interesting information from my sources that the state border service analysed the number of tourists entering Azerbaijan from Arabic countries and found out that the number of Arabs entering the country exceed the number of them leaving the country. These might be illegal Arab migrants who try to use Azerbaijan as a transit country. However, the state must be always ready for the worst.

It’s entirely possible that some citizens of Azerbaijan who took part in various terrorist groups got back to the country with Arab passports as they understood they could be revealed and arrested with their Azeri passports. The state should pay close attention to this situation.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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