(December 15, 2023 / The National Interest) In October, in the Iranian holy city of Qom, an indignant, portly mullah with a neckbeard riled up hundreds of faithful, flag-waving supporters by threatening to strike “Zionist” targets in the North Caucasus, Azerbaijan, and Northern Iran.
Meet Tawhid Ibrahim Begli, the founder and leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan, better known as the Husseiniyyun—or followers of Hussein, the third Shia Imam— an Iranian-backed proxy with subversive cells in the Republic of Azerbaijan. Its purpose—to overthrow the secular government of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev.
Since October 7, the Husseiniyyun have flooded Azerbaijani language social media with videos promoting radical religious ideology and calling for public demonstrations and attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Baku. But the incitement does not stop with striking Jews. Many of the propagandists also called for attacking Azerbaijani government buildings and overthrowing the current “Zionist regime.”
The Husseiniyyun information campaign against the Republic of Azerbaijan is not new. Last year, Ibrahim Begli claimed that the Husseiniyyun had over 100 channels on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook, spreading the group’s ideology. Yet, the October 7 Massacre and the resulting Israel-Hamas War have provided a powerful radicalizing tool to use in their fight against Baku.
While in the West, Azerbaijan is often only thought of with regard to its conflict with Armenia, its destabilization could have massive regional and global repercussions. Azerbaijan serves as a key supplier of oil and gas to U.S. allies such as Israel and the European Union, especially as the latter attempts to wean itself off Russian energy. Azerbaijan’s strategic position, historic military cooperation with Israel, and antagonism toward Iran make it a crucial U.S. partner in the extremely likely chance that U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorate further. Additionally, because Azerbaijan is the only nation-state for the Azerbaijani people, it has potential sway over Iranian Azerbaijanis, Iran’s largest minority group.
Azerbaijan is also the key country in the “Middle Corridor”—a trade route from Asia to Europe bypassing both Russia and Iran. The Middle Corridor has already allowed Central Asian energy to reach the West without benefiting Moscow or Tehran.
Should the Husseiniyyun succeed in destabilizing Azerbaijan, this would all disappear.
In the past, Husseiniyyun threats have translated into action. In January 2017, Ibrahim Begli called for the assassination of Elmar Valiyev, the mayor of the Western Azerbaijani city of Ganja. A year later, a Husseiniyyun militant who studied in Qom and reportedly underwent combat training in Syria shot and seriously injured Valiyev and his bodyguard. Although this is the only attack attributed to the Husseiniyyun, it is far from everything.
Sources familiar with the activities of Azerbaijani security services told National Interest that Azerbaijani authorities have been hesitant to accredit the Husseiniyyun. Their hope is to avoid raising the group’s profile among pro-Iranian Shias living in Azerbaijan and pro-regime Iranian Azerbaijanis. But according to these sources, Husseiniyyun cells have been behind various subversive activities in Azerbaijan and abroad, including a thwarted attack on the Israeli embassy in July (in cooperation with the Iranian-backed Afghan proxy Liwa Fatemiyoun), the attempted assassination of an Azerbaijani member of parliament in March and a 2021 terror plot in Cyprus targeting Israelis.
The Iranian leadership appreciates the group’s work. On November 30, the regime honored Ibrahim Begli at the yearly Malik Ashtar National Festival celebrating Iranian military achievements.
Although Ibrahim Begli is an Azerbaijani national, the Husseiniyyun are one of Tehran’s many proxy projects. Former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iranian irregular warfare strategy, oversaw the Husseiniyyun’s creation in 2015 and even christened the group with its name. Like other Iranian proxies, Husseiniyyun fighters have deployed to Syria to fight side by side with Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces to defend Tehran’s interests.
In structure, the Husseiniyyun are a typical Iranian proxy. They are an ethno-religious armed group and socio-political movement based on radical Shia Islamism and Khomeinism, the religious and political ideas of the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The group even has the same flag template as all other Iranian proxies—a green hand grabbing a rifle against a yellow background with the group’s name in Arabic. Like Hezbollah, the Husseiniyyun are an extension of the Iranian forward defense and deterrence strategy that inserts armed proxies in areas important to Iranian strategic interests. Also, like Hezbollah, by spreading Khomeinist and radical Shia ideology, the Husseiniyyun are part of Iran’s policy of exporting the Iranian Revolution.
The Husseiniyyun fit into the Khomeinist narrative of fighting on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors. According to Husseiniyyun propaganda, they, like Imam Hussein, are righteous zealots fighting against a corrupt and illegitimate regime. Ayatollah Khomeini said that to achieve unity of the Islamic Ummah, it is imperative to “liberate the land of Islam” from “imperialists and puppet governments.” Iranian state media often echoes these sentiments, referring to the “Aliyev regime” as a “puppet state” controlled by “the Zionists.”
But Iran has realpolitik interests in destabilizing Azerbaijan as well. Tehran is concerned with Baku’s military cooperation with Israel and Turkey. It also fears that Baku will stir up separatist sentiment in Iran’s own sizeable ethnic Azerbaijani minority.
Iran has tried to foment Khomeinist sympathies amongst its ethnic Azerbaijani population with mixed results. Azerbaijanis make up an estimated twenty million of Iran’s population of over eighty-eight million, with a majority in the northwestern region bordering Azerbaijan. While Iranian Azerbaijanis are more religious than their neighbors, many are hostile to the Iranian regime and its ideology due to ethnic-based discrimination and a government campaign of cultural repression. For Tehran, the mere existence of an independent Azerbaijani state is a threat.
Iran believes the only true guarantor of security on its northern border is a puppet state based on Velayat-e-Faqih. This doctrine deposits political power with the Shia religious clergy and the supreme leader. The Husseiniyyun are Iran’s means of achieving this goal.
The scale of Husseiniyyun action in Azerbaijan is hard to estimate. The security services are tight-lipped about counterterrorism operations against Islamists. But so far, the group has proved capable of striking targets in Azerbaijan and abroad. As Iranian proxies batter U.S. military and government targets across the region, the U.S. and Israeli personnel in the Caucasus must be vigilant.
Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), focusing on the Middle East and post-Soviet Space.
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