Will the newest flare up in Nagorno-Karabakh lead to Armenian terrorism?

Renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh could lead to a new wave of Armenian terrorism.

Renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh could lead to a new wave of Armenian terrorism.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH, AZERBAIJAN – Armenian terrorists have targeted supposed enemies before and may do so again over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Some terrorists don’t seem to have to look far for a cause

When I worked in SIGINT (signals intelligence) way back in the 1990s I recall a reporting series that dealt with the conflict in an area of Central Asia known as Nagorno-Karabakh. I imagine that most of my readers have never heard of this enclave and could not find it on a map, so perhaps a little explanation is in order.

Nagorno-Karabakh (NB I think I’ll call it NK from now on as it is a very long name to type!) is a part of the country of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet socialist ‘republic’ (yeah, that is what the Soviets called their vassal states back then) which is largely Muslim. The region, a little more than 5,000 square kilometres in area, was historically dominated by ethnic Armenians (largely Christian) and the current state of Armenia is right next door (see map below).

Going back to those 1990s, just after the break-up of the USSR and the creation of all these new independent states, including Azerbaijan and Armenia, the former was given territorial sovereignty over NK, much to the chagrin of the latter. War broke out between ethnic Azeris and ethnic Armenians and some 30,000 people died before the conflict petered out for a few decades. That was the SIGINT reporting I was reading.

Well, the dispute has come roaring back over the past few weeks. This description from The Economist gives you a sense of how serious it has become:

For weeks missiles and shells have been launched at urban areas on both sides, killing dozens of civilians. Successive ceasefires have been broken. Armenia says that half of the 150,000-strong population of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have been displaced; those who stay cower in basements to avoid the shelling. Though few Azerbaijanis live in Nagorno-Karabakh these days – hundreds of thousands were displaced from Armenian regions in the late 1980s and early 1990s – the government refuses to say how many of Azerbaijan’s troops have died. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said on October 22nd that the overall death toll was “nearing 5,000”.

The Economist

This conflict is fueled, as many are, by religion: most Armenians are Christian while most Azeris are Muslim. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia see NK as the ‘cradle’ of their respective civilisations (remind you of anyone – Israel and Palestine perhaps?). And both have received big backers: Russia has traditionally supported (Christian) Armenia while Turkey, always on the prowl to promote pan-Turkism, especially under its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands for (Muslim) Azerbaijan. It is not clear why the conflict has flared so violently of late but it is showing no signs of ebbing.

Here is where the terrorism angle comes in – maybe. Armenians have traditionally given birth to terrorist movements to correct historical ‘wrongs’. The dozens of attacks against Turkish diplomatic targets around the world (including two in Ottawa in the 1980s) to force an ‘apology’ for the early 20th century genocide of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire are a good example.

Should the current dust up in NK go badly for the Armenians could we see a new terrorist wave emerge? If the majority Armenian population in NK is mistreated or forced to leave, how would this be any different, except perhaps as a matter of scale, than the forced march in 1915-1917? Would the cause not be similar?

I see a possibility, albeit perhaps a small one for now, of terrorist attacks aimed not only at Azeri government and civilian facilities but also against Turkey for its role in favour of Azeri Muslims. After all, Armenian hatred for Turkish actions goes way, way back. Some extremists could see current Turkish activity as a continuation of what happened a century ago.

I may be off base with all of this and, in all honesty, I hope I am. On the other hand, terrorism has arisen for all kinds of ’causes’ over the years. What is transpiring in NK could be one more.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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