Religious attack on Azerbaijani embassy with blurred motifs

5 August 2022
Religious attack on Azerbaijani embassy with blurred motifs

An expected attack of a group of London-based religious extremists at the building of the Azerbaijani embassy in the United Kingdom has triggered serious protest among Azerbaijanis across the world, as well concerns over the security of the Azerbaijani diplomatic mission in the kingdom.

In video footage that went viral on social media platforms on August 4, a group of bearded men in black were seen ardently chanting religious slogans at the balcony of the embassy in London. Their hatred-based emotions even climaxed to such an extent that they furiously demounted and threw the Azerbaijani flag from the balcony and replaced it with an unknown religious banner.

The blatant scandal continued for dozens of minutes in the prestigious high-protected Kensington borough of London and bizarrely, did not prompt an immediate reaction from the police, who arrived at the scene almost in the last minutes of the incident.


Members of "Mahdi Servants Union" radical religious organisation chanting slogans before the Azerbaijani embassy in London

“After the intervention of the local police, the group members were taken out of the building and detained. Embassy employees were not injured as a result of the incident,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said in a statement, calling the incident an “act of vandalism.”

According to the ministry, the UK law enforcement agencies launched an investigation into the case. Eight men of the group were arrested on suspicion of trespass and criminal damage and taken to custody. 

Azerbaijan’s envoy to the UK, Elin Suleymanov, said the “duress and endangerment” fuelled by the extremists did not cause harm to diplomats and personnel at the embassy.

Meanwhile, the ministry summoned on August 5 the Chargé d'Affaires of the Embassy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Azerbaijan to submit a note of protest over the incident. Baku demanded the UK authorities administer a thorough investigation into the vandalism in the embassy and bring the culprits before the law.

Despite numerous reports on the incident in the British, Azerbaijani, and other media outlets, the UK authorities have been refraining from addressing an official assessment of the scandal.

Members of "Mahdi Servants Union" radical religious organisation attacking the Azerbaijani embassy in London

What is “Mahdi Servants Union”?

The attackers of the embassy introduced themselves as members of the “Mahdi Servants Union” religious extremist organisation. Mahdi is believed to be the 13th Islamic Imam.

According to media reports, the “Mahdi Servants Union” is a Shia Muslim organisation based in London. The ultimate goal of the religious hardliner group it to prepare the world for the “reappearance of the promised Imam Mahdi through faith advancing of societies in accordance with the Islamic Rafida values and achieving the Shia civilizational dominance.”

The leader of the group Yasser Al-Habib is said to be a controversial cleric whose film “The Lady of Heaven” was banned in cinemas across the UK earlier this year following protests from some Sunni Muslims, who claimed the movie offended Islamic history through a biased interpretation.

Al-Habib’s religious life started in Kuwait as a member of the Dawah Party, later he established a non-profit religious organization named Khoddam Al-Mahdi Organization. He was well known for his religious views regarding Islamic khalifs Abu Bakr and Umar, whom he criticized sharply in a serious confrontation with mainstream Sunnis in Kuwait and other Arabic-speaking Sunni communities.

Al-Habib was detained due to his hatred-based radical views and released in February 2004 under an annual pardon signed by the Emir of Kuwait but was put behind bars again a few days later. Al-Habib fled Kuwait before he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years imprisonment, settled in Iraq and Iran for a few months before gaining asylum in the United Kingdom, where he currently resides.

The same organization attacked the Iranian Embassy in London on March 9, 2018. In the incident, four men reportedly affiliated with dissident Shia cleric and the Islamic Republic critic Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Hosseini-Shirazi used ladders to climb to the embassy's first-storey balcony where they took down the Iranian flag and raised one belonging to a group called Khoddam al-Mahdi (Servants of Mahdi).

The move came as a protest against the arrest of Ayatollah Shirazi's son, Hossein, who has recently made critical remarks regarding Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The group demanded the release of their leader’s son, Hossein, who was arrested on 6 March in the central Iranian city of Qom. Following the attack, Iran summoned the British ambassador to Tehran and Iranian officials have been making statements about the British government's alleged involvement in the incident. Iran accuses Ayatollah Shirazi of receiving support from the British government and promoting "British Shia".

The flag of the radical religious "Mahdi Servants Union” organisation

Why the Azerbaijani embassy?

The vast majority or 96 per cent of Azerbaijan’s multi-faith population of ten million are Muslims, mainly Shia Muslims. However, the country’s constitution declares the country as secular and free from religious rule or dominance. The country’s government has created equal conditions for the followers of all religious beliefs, who worship their religion and celebrate religious holidays free of intervention and restrictive guidelines.

President Ilham Aliyev is the key motivator in preserving a tolerant and multi-faith society in the country. However, in a statement about intruding on the Azerbaijani embassy in London, “Mahdi Servants Union” members said, “they had been directed by their leader to take urgent action against Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev.”

Probably, their motif lies in recent alleged complaints of a handful of religious people in Azerbaijan about the government’s stance on religious activities within the country’s borders.

The group hung a photo of a woman in a black veil in Azerbaijan, who recently tried to instigate religious unrest in the country by allegedly accusing the authorities of restraining the Shia worshippers’ rights to practice their beliefs. The woman was also seen included in the video She painted “Labbayk ya Hussain” (Here I am! At your service, Hussain!) on the outer wall of her house with threats addressed to the authorities that the wording could be erased from there only through her dead body. The local police advised the extremist to refrain from biased remarks and follow tens of thousands of others who enjoy religious freedom granted in the country. However, she later filmed a video claiming allegedly that the police used force against her and her family, as well as forcibly erased the wording from the wall - a claim that was not backed up with any evidence.

The peaceful approach of police was later labelled by extremists as “suppression” against religious people in the country and actively shared on social media to fuel a riot against the government. By the way, Article 48 of the Constitution of Azerbaijan recognizes freedom of religious belief for everyone in the country; freedom of practising religious ceremonies unless it violates public order or contradicts public morals, and confirms that religious beliefs or convictions cannot be an excuse for violating laws.

Coincidence or perfect timing?

In a statement issued on August 3, “Mahdi Servants Union” criticized the Azerbaijani government for an alleged clampdown on religious people in the country, recalling the veiled woman's disobedience under the "Ya Hussain" slogan and labelling the government's legal measures against extremist sentiments as Baku's intolerance against them. It called the people to support those who intend to demine the public order in the country.

Imam Hussain is revered as a hero among Shia Muslims due to his deeds against Sunni rulers. He is called the “leader of heaven’s martyrs”. The month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, which is currently observed in almost all Muslim and Muslim-majority countries, including Azerbaijan, ends in mass mourning of his death in 680 AD. The Mourning for Hussain, according to multiple sources, was first officially observed in Iran, where the world’s largest Shiite population lives, in 923 AD. Shia Muslims are commonly seen crying and slapping their chest or even harming their head or back with a whip, knife or dagger during the ceremony.

The sound of the slaps on the chests and “Labbayk ya Hussain” slogans were echoing through the street in front of the Azerbaijani embassy in London during the attack organized by “Mahdi Servants Union”. Moreover, the woman’s photo hanged by the extremists of the “Mahdi Servants Union” on the Azerbaijani embassy’s balcony warned “Ya Hussain slogan will never be erased” hinting at the alleged reports of Azerbaijani police’s unproven aforementioned action.

In the meantime, Baku-based political analyst Elkhan Shahinoghlu said the motifs for the attack would come to light following the culprits’ interrogation by the Metropolitan police. However, he is convinced that the real reasons behind the plot could be deliberately concealed.

“If this attack was carried out on the order of one of the religious centres residing overseas or sponsored by the Armenian lobby, they will hide the real reason,” he wrote on Facebook.

Worth to mention that, a day before the attack on the embassy, Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed in short but bloody skirmishes in the latter’s Karabakh region. The hostilities sparked following the murder of an Azerbaijani soldier by the illegal Armenian armed gangs on August 3 morning. Azerbaijani army deployed artillery and drones to suppress the provocation of the illegal gangs, killing at least four and wounding nearly 20.