Book Review: ‘Mercenaries, Extremists, and Islamist Fighters in Karabagh War

By Hovhannes Nikoghosyan

Mercenaries, Extremists, and Islamist Fighters in Karabagh War
By Hayk Demoyan
Publishing House of the State Academy of Sciences
Yerevan, 2010

A first-ever study on the role of mercenaries and other foreign terrorist forces employed by Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabagh war of 1992-94 has been released, entitled Mercenaries, extremists and Islamist fighters in Nagorno Karabagh war. The author is a well-known scholar, Dr. Hayk Demoyan, the director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan. The issue has been the subject of several op-ed pieces and newspaper articles, but rarely have any efforts been put together to examine the topic from a scientific perspective. Mercenaries is a must-read for those who wish to study the history of the Karabagh war of the early 1990’s.

The book includes well-grounded facts that go far in explaining how terrorist structures emerged and developed in the Caucasus region. As the author notes, “the struggle of Karabagh Armenians for self-determination and self-preservation [was] a fight not only against regular Azeri troops…but also against…foreign mercenaries and extremists recruited by the Azerbaijani authorities.”

Part 1 examines Turkey’s political, diplomatic, and military support to Azerbaijan. In the pre-1991 period, Turkey saw itself as a bystander, since the developments were perceived as being a domestic issue for the Soviet Union. However, following the anti-Armenian pogroms of Baku (1990) and the presence of Soviet troops in Azerbaijan, Turkic solidarity became increasingly evident and Turkey began to supply armaments, logistics, and other military support to its newly discovered ally. The Soviet leadership was quite critical about that, and the TASS agency reported on Jan. 24, 1990 that Turkey should “refrain from sending military equipment” to the landlocked Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan.

Partly by ignoring this, even before the official formation of Azeri Armed Forces, until early 1992, Turkey organized two secret air flights to deliver arms supplies to its ally, which was already in a state of war—first internally in a fight against the Karabagh people, and then when it attacked the sovereign territory of the newly independent Armenia. As a matter of cautious policy, Turkey provided the Azeris mainly with Soviet-made arms and weapons systems that they possessed in large amounts—in an effort not to anger its NATO allies. Physical support from Turkey also played a key role; beginning in 1992, nearly 150 high-ranking Turkish Army officers, including 10 army generals (mostly retired), took part in military operations. In another instance, the neo-fascist Turkish organization “Grey Wolves” enjoyed legal status in Azerbaijan and had nearly 15,000 members, all of them involved in the army, police, and paramilitary units.

Turkey also planned at least twice (1992 and 1993) an incursion into Armenian territory. Apart from the well-known remark by Russian General Yevgeniy Shaposhnikov in 1992, there is another story uncovered in the book: “According to information from French intelligence sources, which the U.S. ambassador in Armenia later confirmed, there was an agreement between the then-speaker of the Russian Parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov and Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller that in case of the success of the anti-Yeltsin faction in Russia’s parliamentary struggle, Khasbulatov would allow Turkey to execute small-scale incursions into Armenia.”

During the Karabagh War, the territory of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was also used to recruit foreign mercenaries and military instructors. With the initiative and support of a British peer, Lord Erskine of Rerrick, and Turkish businessman Mustafa Mutlu, British and Turkish mercenaries and arms were to be sent to Azerbaijan. The latter was reported to be ready to pay 150 million pounds annually, mainly in the form of oil. The British peer later confirmed that a British registered company, Summit (Consortium) Ltd., had arranged the deal.

The role of mercenaries, extremist, and terrorist forces in different conflicts is rather ambivalent; while the host country either denies their presence or says they are “foreign supporters,” the rest of the world declares them outlawed. The United Nations undertook numerous attempts to condemn the role of mercenaries in conflicts. Along with the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (1977), in 1989, the United Nations General Assembly completed the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries. However, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, a number of other African states, and those engaged in conflicts in Yugoslavia ignored the international law in force. A number of facts and examples are illustrated in the book to shed light on the use of mercenaries in the Chechen, Afghan, and Karabagh conflicts.

Part 2 tells about the actual role of mercenaries in the Karabagh war. Islamist groups and extremists found fertile ground, as the author writes, in Azerbaijan especially after Heydar Aliyev came to power in 1993. He started actively recruiting mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Chechnya, and elsewhere. The Chechen leadership, also in the pursuit of securing foreign allies, managed to establish good relations with Azeri president Abdulfaz Elcibey, cemented with reciprocal visits between Baku and Grozny of Elcibey and Chechen rebel general Johar Dudayev. At first, the Chechen leadership refused to openly engage in the Karabagh conflict, but agreed to provide volunteer corps with negotiated salaries, ranging between 600-1000 rubles per day. The first group of fighters arrived in Azerbaijan headed by well-known terrorist Shamil Basayev, who was shortly after pushed back by Karabagh forces. In early June 1992, the total number of Chechen mercenaries in the conflict totaled 300 fighters.

Further on, Demoyan argues that Afghan mujahideen were the first foreign forces employed in the territories of the former Soviet Union—ranging from the Tajik civil war and Karabagh War. “Hattab, a Jordanian Arab of Chechen origin who was not so well known at that time, was amongst the first to arrive in Nagorno-Karabagh to fight against the Karabagh Armenians. According to the figures uncovered in the book, around 1,500-2,000 mujahideen forces were fighting in Karabagh war, around 300 of them involved in regular military actions on a permanent basis. Still, the Azeri side, which had even hired interpreters for their better involvement, was unsatisfied since the mujahideen soon became too demanding. In the words of Lt-Col. D. Lyatifov, ‘it seem[ed] that they came here to receive treatment rather than to fight.’”

Perhaps the most extraordinary claim brought forward by Demoyan is the one proving that “Azeri and other Islamist radical-extremist organizations operating in Azerbaijan were in direct contact with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda from the 1990s onwards.” Even before the September 11th attacks, the American media had touched upon a possible “Azerbaijani connection” to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Just after those attacks, as the author mentions, the FBI was able to trace around 60 calls made by a satellite phone used by bin Laden to communicate with associates in Baku and through them with partners residing in Africa.

Summing up this ground-breaking study, the author concludes that the political elite of Azerbaijan repeatedly tried to employ the factor of ethnic and religious solidarity to gain external support, in particular from Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chechnya. The recruitment of foreign mercenaries and terrorists to fight in Karabagh on the Azeri side “was constant and extensive,” despite the applicable international law prohibiting the use of mercenaries.

This is the first ever scholarly examination of the issue, which is to be continued and enriched with further contributions to better understand the Karabagh conflict, especially now that a second round of the war is being propagated.

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan is the director and a research fellow at Yerevan-based Public Policy Institute (


  1. Hovhannes, would you mind providing the bibliographic info? Where was it published? by whom? in what language? Is it available in the US?

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