On the night of October 10, a service car belonging to Azerbaijan’s embassy in Washington D.C. was fired upon by a suspected Armenian nationalist. Such incidents in international affairs are usually dismissed as the work of lone radicals and individual malcontents. But this case is far from being an isolated incident. After an assault by Islamists against the Azerbaijani embassy in London on August 5, several other attacks against Azerbaijani embassies took place throughout the month of September.
This is not the first time such attacks against Azerbaijan diplomatic outposts have occurred. Many may recall the wave of Armenian terrorism and political violence during the 1970s and 1980s, with the attacks by the Armenian Secret Army for Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), and the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide/Armenian Revolutionary Army (JCAG/ARA). Even as recently as 2021, the United States invited controversy by paroling (unrepentant) JCAG terrorist Hampig Sassounian, who assassinated the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles, California in 1982.
Though the violence mostly settled down over the past few decades, it never really ended. Now, the recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have served as an impetus for a new wave of violence that could worsen the closer Yerevan and Baku come to making peace. If the appropriate measures are not taken, this could be the prelude to a new wave of bombings and assassinations on American and European soil. Washington must act to prevent this.
Why Are These Attacks Occurring?
Following its victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan put forward a proposed peace treaty with Armenia. Initially, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan feared the domestic reaction to such overtures. But after securing an absolute majority in both votes and seats during the June 2021 Armenian legislative elections, he proceeded to negotiate a lasting peace.
Pashinyan, however, has faced fierce hostility, particularly among vengeful elements of the Armenian military, often linked to Russia or Iran, as well as radicals amongst the Armenian diaspora. European Union (EU) mediation markedly improved the situation by the end of 2021 but last month Armenian soldiers—acting independently, it should be noted—opened fire on the Azerbaijani military and tried to mine territory that was formerly Armenian-occupied.
This spate of violence was followed by an attempt at mediation. On September 27, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan organized a meeting between Armen Grigorian and Hikmet Hajiyev, his counterparts from Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively. Then, on October 2, a meeting took place between the two countries’ ministers of foreign affairs. The official Azerbaijani communiqué summarized Azerbaijan’s position on the situation: “[Azerbaijani foreign minister Jeyhun] Bayramov once again stressed Azerbaijan’s commitment to ensure peace and stability in the region, and readiness to sign a peace treaty. It was agreed to continue discussions in this regard.” On the Armenian side, Pashinyan tweeted: “I highly appreciate the efforts of the United States for assisting to return our 17 POW’s. I hope with joint efforts together with our international partners we will further register progress in resolving both humanitarian issues and establishing peace in the region” (emphasis added).
Officially, both sides want peace. Yet the actions of rogue Armenian soldiers and attacks by radical members of the diaspora suggest that the Armenian government may not be in full control of its own people. Each step towards peace increases the risk of renewing violence aimed specifically at preventing the signature of such a treaty. Consider that the official Armenian communiqué, with its stated willingness to stay the course on negotiations, also seemed to relegate the question of the “rights and security guarantees for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh” to a separate process, including the “establishment of a discussion mechanism between Stepanakert [the “capital” of the unrecognized breakaway Armenian entity] and Baku.”
Attacks in Beirut
Lebanon has the unfortunate distinction of experiencing most instances of Armenian terrorism after the dislocation of the Ottoman Empire. There was much infighting there, including several assassinations by Armenian nationalists from 1924 to 1933, dozens of others in 1958, and so on. Later, the ASALA was established here in 1971, which was followed by even more infighting between 1983 and 1986. Hampig Sassounian and many other Armenian terrorists were born in Lebanon—both literally and figuratively.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the holding group of the JCAG/ARA, proudly commemorates many of these terrorist attacks up to the present day—especially the suicide attack against the Turkish embassy in Lisbon, Portugal in 1983. Even now, the ARF is currently integrated with the Lebanese parliamentary coalition led by Hezbollah. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, ARF demonstrators burned Azerbaijani, Israeli, and Turkish flags.
In more recent times, the local Azerbaijani embassy was attacked twice in one weekend on September 16 and 17. Mercifully, in both cases, the local police warned Azerbaijani diplomats—and as a result, nobody was present—and repelled the ARF demonstrators without much difficulty, as videos posted online prove. In both cases, the Lebanese branch of the ARF claimed responsibility via its Facebook page without regretting the violence used, provoking hundreds of favorable comments from both members and sympathizers. At the end of the September 16 demonstration, a placard representing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wearing a puppet with the (caricatured) face of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev was burned. Another placard held by demonstrators said, in English, “Ailyev [sic] is terrorist.” There is a certain irony in calling Azerbaijan’s president a “terrorist” when the accusation comes from a political party that has repeatedly committed terrorist attacks since 1890 and still commemorates past assassinations and suicide attacks.
The most optimistic interpretation of these events would emphasize that all this took place over the weekend, with the probability of hurting an Azerbaijani diplomat being close to zero. In other words, these violent demonstrations are a way to canalize the ire and fanaticism of militants while keeping any damage to a minimum. However, this is not the only possible reading of the situation. It could be argued that these attacks were a way to test the resistance of the Lebanese police and the reactions of Azerbaijan before attempting a more serious offensive. This is not unprecedented; the terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s did not emerge spontaneously. They occurred after years of verbal and physical violence quite comparable to the demonstrations of the ARF in Beirut and elsewhere this month.
The ARF has ample reason to be disgruntled since they, along with other Armenian diaspora nationalists, lost significant sources of revenue when Azerbaijan’s reacquisition of its territories ended the illegal exploitation of mines, including a gold mine. A peace treaty signed by Pashinyan—who was called a “traitor” by the ARF during his visit to New York at the end of September—would mean the end of any irredentism against Azerbaijan. As a result, the ARF and similar organizations consider that they have nothing to lose anymore.
Even more concerning, particularly for U.S. national security officials, is that this demonstration highlights the alliance the ARF has with Hezbollah and the Iranian mullahs. As it so happens, the ARF-controlled Armenian National Committee of America is a fierce opponent of U.S. sanctions against Tehran. On September 20, 2016, the ARF organ, The Armenian Weekly, published an unabashed plaudit of the mullahs’ regime by its main pen, Harut Sassounian. More recently, on October 6, 2021, the same newspaper published a communiqué from the ARF’s world bureau, declaring that the organization “has always worked to strengthen Armenia-Iran relations.” Perhaps the uptick in ARF activity also has to do with recent events: Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is now complete, Israeli-Azerbaijani relations are in excellent shape, and Iran has been weakened by Azerbaijan’s 2020 victory. The Islamist Republic fears that peace will result in infrastructure development, culminating with a road that cuts through the Caucasus and Russia. This would strengthen various regional ties, including those between Baku and ethnic Azerbaijanis within Iran.
Attacks in Paris
Lebanon is not the only place where Armenian violence is rearing its head. In France there hasn’t been homicidal violence by the ARF since the assassination of Turkish ambassador İsmail Erez on October 24, 1975, followed by the assassination of the Turkish tourism counselor Yilmaz Çolpan four years later.
Yet the ARF has recently become more aggressive in Paris again. Several Azerbaijanis were physically assaulted during an ARF demonstration in front of the Azerbaijani embassy in July 2020—when the Armenian nationalists tried to present the assaulter (Armenian) as the victim of the clashes in the Tovuz region. Stones were hurled at the embassy by ARF members, breaking windows. ARF world bureau member Franck “Mourad” Papazian led the demonstration and, far from calming those assembled, used inflammatory language when the stones were hurled. The fact that no complaint was filed by the assaulted Azerbaijanis gave the ARF a feeling of impunity.
As a result, as recently as last month, another violent demonstration took place in front of the Azerbaijani embassy. It should be noted that both of these demonstrations were conducted without any prior notification given to, or permission received from, the local police—something that is quite illegal. This is why no policemen were present at either demonstration. As such, a number of ARF members took advantage of their absence to try to break down the door to the embassy before being repulsed by diplomatic security. After being alerted, the police arrived less than thirty minutes later and the demonstrators left.
Notably, ARF rage has lashed out at targets other than the Azerbaijanis. Consider that the ARF deploys a bitter and abusive tone on its Facebook pages against many media outlets—particularly Le Monde, which has become much more impartial on the topic of Armenia-Azerbaijani after the Armenian defeat of November 2020.
It’s clear that the ARF, and a number of its sympathizers, are quite angry and stewing in resentment, and feel that they have nothing left to lose. The sense that acts of intimidation and public pressure are not bearing fruit as they once used to opens the door for further radicalism and violence. For example, consider a comment with many “likes” from an ARF member on the Facebook page of the ARF’s youth branch: “I think it is time to stop the demonstrations and to act…” She did not specify what kind of “actions” she had in mind, but considering the ARF’s history, including its recent actions, one can assume it won’t be legal.
Is America Next?
American officials and law enforcement officers must take heed of these incidents in Europe and the Middle East. The recent shooting in Washington, D.C. is but the latest example of Armenian terrorism; a number of other concerning incidents have occurred recently. The Azerbaijani consulate in Los Angeles has received death threats several times over the past few months alone. In March, two Armenian Americans in California were sentenced to jail for having attacked a family-owned Turkish restaurant on November 20, 2020, screaming “We came to kill you!” The Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation of hate crimes perpetrated by ARF members against Azerbaijani Americans in July 2020 is still ongoing. Meanwhile, the strident tone used by the ARF-controlled Armenian National Committee of America against the U.S. State Department only raises additional concerns.
Ignoring or downplaying the growing threat posed by Armenian extremists or terrorist organizations to the peace process does not serve U.S. national interests. Aside from the fact that this could lead to foreign-motivated homicides on American soil, there is a geopolitical imperative too. The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War is partially being financed by Russian energy sales to Europe. If Washington wants to cut off this source of revenue for the Russian state, it will have to find alternative sources of gas for Europe. Azerbaijan is one of these sources. Similarly, if the United States wishes to see the end of Armenian dependency on Russia and Iran—which coincides with the best interests of ordinary Armenians in Yerevan—then a formal and lasting peace with Azerbaijan (followed by a normalization of ties with Turkey) is necessary. Such a lasting peace is precisely what Armenian extremists want to prevent.
Dr. Maxime Gauin is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Development and Diplomacy of ADA University located in Baku, Azerbaijan. He previously served as Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Eurasian Studies in Ankara.