The War of 2020, in which Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh – an ancient homeland of Armenian Christians – was notable because of large-scale deployment of Islamic terrorists by Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey.
This was not the first time, Islamic terrorists and armed radicals fought against Artsakh. In 1990s, the government of Azerbaijani brought to the Caucasus thousands of Islamic radicals from Afghanistan, mainly associated with the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami organization. According to British expert Thomas de Waal, Azerbaijan recruited between 1,500 and 2,500 Afghan Mujahedin. The other group invited by Baku to fight against Artsakh’s “Christian infidels” in the 1990s was the terrorist gang of the Chechen commander Shamil Basayev. Both groups suffered serious losses and were ultimately withdrawn from the Caucasus by 1994.
The re-introduction of Islamic terrorists as foot soldiers in military operations in the Nagorno Karabakh war zone in 2020 is tightly linked to modern Turkey’s transformation into the world’s most dynamic sponsor of Islamic radicalism and anti-Western jihadist thought.
Once upon a time, Turkey was a model of secularism in the Islamic world and the West’s NATO ally. Not anymore. With the presidency of Recep Erdogan, Turkish curricula have increasingly replaced the secular and modern state concepts with notions of jihad, martyrdom in battle and a neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkist ethno-religious worldview. Turkey has effectively become a country where its foreign policy is centered on jihad-driven revisionism. The report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, an international research group, and the Henry Jackson Society in Britain, assessed recent Turkish school curricula. The report asserts that Turkish curricula, which now display “sympathy for the motivations of ISIS and Al-Qaeda,” focus exclusively on Sunni Muslim teachings and replace electives, such as Kurdish, with religious courses. That is an astounding development for a country that is still a member of NATO and has long aspired for European Union membership, to include anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Armenian and anti-Kurdish attitudes in schools.
Tightly associated with this notion of Turkey’s Islamist decay is the country’s new demeanor in its immediate neighborhood, in the first instance including its direct involvement in the Syrian Civil War. From the beginning of the war until 2016, Turkey’s border with Syria was virtually wide open for ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other radical Islamic militants to travel between the two countries. Ilyas Aydin, a Turkish ISIS leader now held prisoner by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a predominantly Kurdish, US-backed militia in northeastern Syria – said he had meetings with Turkish national intelligence agents on the Turkish-Syrian border to discuss the passage of fighters and weapons. “This isn’t about Islam,” Aydin said. “Erdogan doesn’t want an Islamic caliphate. He wants an Ottoman caliphate. For a time, ISIS was useful to him, because we controlled the areas of Syria along the border with Turkey. He wants Turkey to control the areas that we occupied.”
Turkey’s successful use of Syrian Islamists in Libya laid the ground for the emergence of a multipurpose Turkish-led mercenary force that was cultivated by Ankara for use in proxy wars and jihadi projects in different parts of the world.
Turkey’s recruitment of mercenaries began shortly before Baku and Ankara launched joint military exercises in August 2020, but increased in speed as the date of the invasion approached in late September. Rumors at first pointed towards Libyan mercenaries but quickly were overwhelmed by the information about Syrian Islamist recruits. By the time the war started on September 27, Turkey had hired at least 4,000 Syrian mercenaries at $1,800 for a period of three months. These mercenaries were drawn from the ranks of well-known terrorist groups, including ISIS. Reports coming from Syria showed that the terrorists were recruited under the banner of jihadist war against “Christian infidels.” For example, AsiaNews quoted a source from Syria who explained that the fight alongside the Azerbaijani Army was “because it is part of the Jihad; it is a holy war of Muslims against Christians.”
Syrian mercenaries captured in Artsakh reported that they were offered cash bonuses based on assorted special “achievements,” such as beheading Christians – $100 for a severed head.
Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan was always transparent about his support for the war against Artsakh. “We support Azerbaijan until victory,” Erdogan said on October 6, 2020. “I tell my Azerbaijani brothers: May your ghazwa be blessed.” Ghazwa in Islam refers to a battle or raid against non-Muslims for the expansion of Muslim territory and/or conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. In another speech on November 1, Erdogan said, “We are in Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan. We have displayed the same dignified attitude from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, from Syria to Libya, from Cyprus to Karabakh.”
As was the case during the 1915 Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, the international community has once again abandoned Armenians, who are an indigenous and peaceful people living in their homeland during the last 2,600 years of recorded history. If new and effective steps are not taken by the civilized world immediately, neo-Ottomanism, pan-Turkist chauvinism, and jihadism will win as an increasingly influential factor in regional and global politics.