Arrests after religious extremists attack Azerbaijan’s London Embassy

A radical group of Shias targeted the Azerbaijani Embassy in London on Thursday afternoon, damaging the building and disrespecting the country’s flag as part of their protest.

In broad daylight, a group of men used a long ladder to climb up to the first floor of the embassy in Kensington, where they proceeded to deface the building, its windows and walls and furniture inside the building, using white paint to write slogans in Arabic. Others chanted radical slogans below.

The protestors also violated the Azerbaijani flag by removing it from the flagpole and letting it drop to the road below, before flying their own flag and draping banners over the balcony. For Turks, the flag of a country is sacred, reflecting a nation’s honour and identity.

Footage inside the embassy afterwards also showed various items broken and strewn on the floor in the room by the balcony.

Dozens of police officers were quickly on the scene, making multiple arrests after they arrived. The police then formed a barrier between the building and the remaining protestors. Despite the threatening nature of the protest, no embassy staff were injured.

A Met spokesperson said officers were sent to the Azerbaijani Embassy in Kensington after receiving “reports of protestors who had entered the premises” at around 4.30pm on Thursday.

‘”Eight men were arrested on suspicion of trespass and criminal damage. They were taken into custody where they remain. No injuries were reported. Enquiries are ongoing,” they added.

Who are the protestors?

The protest was carried out by members of the Mahdi Servants Union (MSU), a Shia Muslim organisation based in Britain that is led by controversial cleric Yasser Al-Habib. The group state on their website that they wish to achieve “Shia civilizational dominance.”

Originally from Kuwait and now in exile in Britain where he claimed asylum, Al-Habib recently caused outrage with his divisive film The Lady Of Heaven, which compared early Sunni Muslims with ISIS/Daesh. He runs a mosque in Buckinghamshire and various media outlets used to propagate the views of ‘Rafida’ (a radical Shia Muslim sect that rejects the two successors of the Prophet Muhammed, Abū Bakr and Omar).

Footage of Friday’s protest was shared by the Mahdi Servants Union spokesperson on Twitter, who stated the action was taken against alleged ‘persecution’ by the Azerbaijani government of a Shia Muslim women in the country.

In a statement about Thursday’s protest, issued by MSU spokesperson Hicham Lachkaron on 6 August, said the attack was “carried out by supporters of The Mahdi Servants Union in opposition to the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev and his government.”

Mr Lachkaron accused President Aliyev’s government of “longstanding heinous crimes and persecution against the rights of the population”, claiming that the “last straw” was the “persecution of a woman who was abused and harassed for only writing the name of the holy figure and iconic symbol of freedom, Imam Hussain (peace be upon him), on the wall of her own house.”

Most Azerbaijanis identify as Shia Muslims, but the country is largely secular. There was a massive outcry from ordinary Azerbaijanis about the attack on their embassy in London, with many taking to the streets with their national flag on Friday in a show of solidarity with their diplomats and government, while thousands of others took to social media slamming the actions of the MSU, described by many as “radicals” and “extremists”.

Widespread condemnation

There has been widespread condemnation of the attack on Azerbaijan’s Embassy, including by its Ambassador Elin Suleymanov, who said on Twitter:

“The attack on @AzerbaijaninUK by London-based radicals is unacceptable & barbaric. It directly undermined the principle of diplomatic premises’ inviolability. I am currently in Baku & grateful to see that our colleagues are safe in spite of the threat to their safety & security.”

The Foreign Ministers of Turkiye, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and Georgia, Ilia Darchiashvili, have conveyed their solidarity to their Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov. The Kazakh and Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Organisation of Turkic States also issued statements condemning the attack on the embassy.

In its statement, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry said they “consider absolutely unacceptable any actions that pose a threat to the life and health of members of diplomatic missions”, and called “for a comprehensive investigation of the incident and bringing all those involved to justice.”

“The Uzbek side expresses its support for brotherly Azerbaijan in ensuring the security and protection of its citizens abroad” they added.

The British All Party Parliamentary Group for Azerbaijan also issued a statement, where they said: “Yesterday’s unprovoked attack on @AzerbaijaninUK by radicals is unacceptable. The APPG condemns this attack and is glad that staff at the Embassy were unharmed despite the very real threat to their safety. Our thanks also to the Police who dealt with the situation.”