Militant Islamists in Southeast Europe
Dr. Gordon N. Bardos
February 8, 2014
Over the past several years, the Balkans has emerged as a new battleground for militant Islamism. In June 2010, Islamist extremists bombed a police station in the central Bosnian town of Bugojno, killing one police officer and wounding six others. In February 2011, a Kosovo radical killed two US servicemen at Frankfurt Airport. In October 2011, a Sandzak Wahhabi attacked the US Embassy in Sarajevo. In April 2012, suspected Islamist extremists murdered five Macedonian citizens outside Skopje. In July 2012, Hezbollah operatives bombed a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria. In March 2013, a Hezbollah operative was discovered monitoring Israeli citizens in Cyprus. In the first six months of 2012 alone, some 200 Iranian "businessmen" entered Bosnia, including an individual Israeli intelligence has tracked in Georgia, India, and Thailand--all countries in which terrorist attacks have targeted Israeli officials over the past two years.
As concerns grow that European and even American jihad volunteers in Syria could pose new security threats if and when they return to their home countries, large numbers of individuals from the Balkans have joined the Syrian jihad. According to one estimate, Bosnia has provided more Syrian jihad volunteers than any other country in Europe per capita, with several hundred citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina now reported to be fighting in Syria, along with a large number of Bosnian émigrés. It has also been reported that Bosnia and Romania are sources of weapons for the Syrian jihad, as the arrest of a Swedish imam-turned arms-procurer, Haythan Rahmeh, revealed. In addition, reports suggest up to 140 ethnic Albanians are now fighting alongside Islamist groups in Syria, as well as and some thirty individuals from the Sandzak. Priština media have reported that some 30 individuals from Kosovo went to Syria in January 2014 alone, and that six Albanians have already died in the fighting there. In an interesting example of comparative rates of radicalization, one observer has noted that more individuals from the Balkans have joined the Syrian jihad than from Central Asia or the Caucasus. An indication of the degree to which the threat of violent Balkan extremists joining the Syrian jihad has become, and the danger they pose to their native states and societies upon their eventual return, is the January 2014 dispatch of a large, multiagency US government delegation (including individuals from the FBI, the NSA, the Department of State, and the Department of Justice) on a fact-finding mission to the region.
The Balkan blowback from the Syrian jihad is already being felt. In November 2013, six suspected terrorists (two of whom are believed to have fought in Syria) were arrested in Kosovo on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks using cell-phone activated explosive devices. The group was also believed to have been involved in an attack on two American Mormon missionaries in Priština on November 3rd. Subsequently, a group called "Xhemati i Xhehadit" warned police of "painful attacks" if their comrades were not released. The warning noted that "without doubt, we have people who love death more than you life in this world." The continuing threat from militant Islamist groups in the region was further on evidence in Bosnia, when at the beginning of the month the largest illegal arms cache discovered in postwar Bosnia was found near the central Bosnian town of Tešanj, in the heart of territory where foreign mujahedin and their local Bosnian allies operate. The weapons, which arrived in the area about 1999, included over five hundred 84mm grenades for rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Local authorities believed the weapons could have been used for terrorist attacks or provided for use on other jihad fronts.
These have not been unexpected attacks and developments. Already in May 2007, a leading American observer of Islam in the Balkans had noted that "a visitor to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia encountered unmistakable evidence that extremist intruders are opening a Balkan front in the global jihad," and in January 2010 Israeli officials warned that the Balkan region "is global jihad's next destination for creating an infrastructure and recruiting activists."
Indeed, almost every major terrorist action against the US and other western countries and interests over the past two decades has had Balkan ties or connections--including the 9/11 attacks, the August 1998 US African embassy bombings, the December 1999 Millenium Bomb Plot targeting Los Angeles' LAX Airport, the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden Harbor, the November 2003 Istanbul bombings, the March 2004 Madrid Train bombings, the 7/7 London Underground bombing, the May 2007 Fort Dix bomb plot, the July 2009 Raleigh Group conspiracy, and the January 2010 conspiracy to attack the New York subway system. The late Richard Holbrooke made clear the dangerous extent to which militant Islamism has infiltrated southeastern Europe when he noted that had it not been for the Dayton Peace Accords, "al-Qaeda would probably have planned the Sept. 11 attacks from Bosnia, not Afghanistan."
Balkan Jihadi Threat Matrix
Making these attacks possible is the sophisticated infrastructure Balkan Islamist militants have created over the past two decades. The infrastructure consists of four main components: 1) local allies in political, security, and religious establishments; 2) safe havens consisting of radical-controlled mosques and remote villages which provide militant Islamists places to recruit, organize, train and hide; 3) NGO's and financial institutions providing terrorists with cover identities and the ability to clandestinely transfer operational funds; and 4) various electronic and print media promoting their extremist ideology. Such complex, multi-faceted organization allows militant Islamist groups to sustain the occasional crackdown or arrest without substantial damage to their networks or infrastructure as a whole.
The origins of militant Islamism's rise in the Balkans can be traced to the life and work of Bosnia's late Islamist president, Alija Izetbegović. In the late 1930s/early 1940s, Izetbegović and a conspiratorial group of like-minded Islamist extremists formed an organization called the Mladi Muslimani ("Young Muslims") whose goal, in Izetbegović's own words, was the creation of a "great Muslim state." Towards this goal, the Mladi Muslimani established an underground journal with the telling title Mudžahid ("Holy Warrior") and swore an oath asking Allah to grant them perseverance in their "path of jihad" and their "uncompromisingly struggle against everything non-Islamic." Several decades later, Izetbegović continued to promote this view; in his seminal work, the Islamska Deklaracija ("Islamic Declaration") Izetbegović would argue that "There is no peace or co-existence between Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions...the Islamic movement can and may move to take power once it is morally and numerically strong enough, not only to destroy the existing non-Islamic government, but to build a new Islamic government.
Given the existence of such local Balkan allies and sympathizers, it proved easy for Al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups to extend their reach throughout Europe. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Bosnia, according to one study, became "[a] new refuge, close to both the heart of Europe and the Middle East...an excellent tactical base for espionage, fundraising, and terrorist activities...a major center for terrorist recruitment and fundraising...a place where recruits could train, coalesce into cells, and seek shelter from prosecution by foreign law enforcement." The former NATO commander in Bosnia, US Army Major General Virgil Packett, has claimed that "Bosnia has moved from being a sanctuary for terrorism to a gateway for terrorism." Other analyses further support this view, suggesting that the existence of an extensive network of individuals sympathetic to militant Islamism makes Bosnia a command and control center for various groups of regional militants. Estimates of the number of non-indigenous mujahedin who moved to Bosnia in the 1990s range from several hundred to six thousand.
Increasing the threat and capacity of militant Islamists in the Balkans is the support and cooperation they receive from local authorities sympathetic to their cause. In February 1996, NATO forces raided an Iranian-operated terrorist training camp in Bosnia where they found plans to NATO installations, booby-trapped children's toys, and essays on how to assassinate political opponents and critical journalists. The camp's director was the personal intelligence advisor to Bosnia's late Islamist president, Alija Izetbegović. His son, Bakir Izetbegović (currently a member of the Bosnian state presidency) has admitted to personally being in touch with leading mujahedin figures in Bosnia such as Imad al-Husin, a.k.a Abu Hamza, and offering "to help in any way."
Local allies also provide international jihadists with new identities allowing them to travel and conduct operations around the world. A secret report prepared for the Clinton Administration in late 2000 "shocked everyone" when the scale in which the Izetbegović regime had provided travel documents to international extremists was revealed. By one count the Izetbegović regime distributed some 12,000 Bosnian passports to international jihadis. Osama Bin Laden himself was the owner of a Bosnian passport, and Western reporters even saw him Izetbegović's office during the war. When Italian police discovered a plot to kill Pope John Paul II in Bologna in 1997, all fourteen men arrested were travelling on passports issued by Izetbegović's foreign ministry. (In April earlier in the year, another attempt to assassinate the Pope had been made in Sarajevo.) In the 1990s, Al Qaeda operative Safet Abid Catovic was given cover as a diplomat at Bosnia's Mission to the UN in New York. In 1998, just days before the bombing of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, the mastermind of the attacks, visited Bosnia on a "business trip" on a visa issued to him by the Bosnian consulate in Ankara. In September 1999, Turkish police arrested Mahrez Auduni (at the time considered one of bin-Laden's top aides) traveling on a Bosnian passport (Number 0801888). As of January 2014, the chairman of the security committee in Izetbegović's Islamist party is a man on the US government's Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, and who is otherwise widely considered to be the leading Iranian agent in Bosnia.
In remote, isolated villages around the Balkans militant Islamists have developed a network of extra-territorial, sharia-run enclaves that serve as recruiting stations for local converts and safe havens for jihadis from around the world. In Islamist-run villages such as the central Bosnian town of Bočinja Donja, extremists live "separate lives untroubled by local police, tax-collectors or any other authorities. Outsiders never set foot in the small community." Bulgaria's former chief mufti, Nedim Gendzhev, claims that extremists are trying to create a "fundamentalist triangle" formed by Bosnia, Macedonia and Bulgaria's Western Rhodope mountains.
The above-mentioned central Bosnian village of Bočinja Donja, inhabited by some 600 people, has been associated with numerous international terrorists, including Karim Said Atmani, the document forger for the Millenium Bomb plot; Khalil Deek, arrested in December 1999 for his involvement in a plot to blow up Jordanian tourist sites; and Omar Saeed Sheikh, involved in the murder/beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, is known to have visited the village in 1997 and spent much of the 1990s in nearby Bulgaria.
Another Bosnian village, Gornja Maoča, is the headquarters of Bosnia's main Wahhabi leader, Nusret Imamović. In 2005, Italian investigators discovered a Gornja Maoča-based plot to attack the funeral of Pope John Paul II and assassinate the assembled world leaders. A former member of the Wahhabi movement from Gornja Maoča gave a detailed description of life in the village to a journalist, reporting that residents claims to personally know the editor of Inspire (Al Qaeda's online publication), and that members of the community who know Arabic regularly inform members about news and information from Al Qaeda websites. The village is frequently used as a way station for extremists joining jihads in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The Gornja Maoča community prefers to send unattached young men to jihad so that it does not have to assume financial responsibility for their families. The Wahhabis are also known to cache weapons in local forests surrounding the village. In October 2011, the Sandžak Wahhabi Mevlid Jašarević left the village with two other residents on the day he attacked the US Embassy in Sarajevo. Another Wahhabi outpost in Bosnia is Bužim (near Bihać) in northwestern Bosnia, home to a prominent anti-American Wahhabi preacher, Bilal Bosnić, known for his YouTube spots supporting suicide bombings, glorifying the Taliban, and various anti-Semitic rants.
In these remote Islamist-controlled areas, under the guise of "youth camps," former mujahedin take young people into the local hills and forests where they are given military training. The camps are intentionally non-permanent to make it more difficult for security officials to track them, but are effective in fostering the relationships needed for creating extremist networks. In March 2007, Serbian police raided one such camp in the mountainous Sandžak region straddling the border between Serbia and Montenegro, arresting a number of individuals and seizing weapons, explosives, and food stocks. The group was allegedly planning to attack western embassies in Belgrade. Similarly, in July 2013, a raid near the village of Kalošević, close to the the central Bosnian town of Tešanj, uncovered the largest stash of undeclared weaponry and explosives found since the end of the Bosnian war, including over 500 rocket propelled grenades. Local inhabitants of the village claimed the arms and ammunition were hidden there on the order of a high-ranking member of Izetbegović's party Bosnian media cite as one of the main local liaisons with Al Qaeda operatives in the country.
Throughout the western and southern Balkans, extremist-led mosques also provide valuable bases for militant Islamists. A focal point for Wahhabi extremists in Bosnia is the Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque and Cultural Center in Sarajevo, "the epicenter of the spreading of radical ideas" in Bosnia, which for a number of years functioned autonomously under the direct supervision of the Saudi embassy in Bosnia. The White Mosque in Sarajevo is the headquarters of Sulejman Bugari, a Kosovo Albanian-born imam whom some reports have described as a go-between and point-of-contact for Albanian and Bosnian extremists. In Kosovo, the Makowitz mosque on the outskirts of Priština and the Mitrovica mosque are reportedly recruiting militants to fight alongside Islamist groups in Syria. In Macedonia, Wahhabi extremists have been trying to take control of Skopje's Jahys Pasha, Sultan Murat, Hudaverdi and Kjosekadi mosques.
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