The Balkans - a hub of worldwide terrorist network?
The March 20 arrest of five Wahhabi Muslim radicals in Bosnia indicates the continuing threat of terrorism in, and from, the Balkans. The men were reportedly planning to carry out attacks against Catholic churches on Easter in addition to the obvious religious significance here, the event is also important as all of the aspiring terrorists were homegrown. As with a similar arrest in late 2005, also involving native Bosnian extremists, it shows that the radicalizing effect of foreign mujahedin and preachers who came to the region in the 1990s has born fruit.
Compared to the Middle East or Southwest Asia, the Balkans have been relatively forgotten as a front in the West’s ‘war on terror.’ Nevertheless, an increasing number of incidents involving radical Islamists in and from the region – up to and including arrests of terrorist plotters – indicate that the threat, while underreported, exists and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, wealthy fundamentalist Islamic movements such as Saudi Wahhabism continue to challenge the endemic, and more liberal brand of Islam associated with the region’s former rulers, the Ottoman Turks, in the battle to shape Muslim social and cultural practices. While strong resistance has emerged in the face of these attempts from Balkan Muslims themselves, there are no signs that the power of foreign-directed Islamist movements has been diminished to the level it was 17 years ago, when this trend first became noticeable; quite to the contrary, Muslim organizations preaching a variety of Islam far different from Balkan Islam in its historic sense have solidified their presence in several key sub-regions, with the repercussions being felt in ongoing political turbulence, social schisms, and a widening ‘safe zone’ for individuals linked with terrorism and organized crime.
The last of these developments should be a special cause of concern for Western countries, given that they and their assets are the ultimate targets for Islamic radicals based in, or transiting through the Balkans. At present, most news stories involving the region have been obsessed with political issues; these include the perceived struggle of Russia versus America and the EU over the future of an independent Kosovo, the furor over centralization of power in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the ongoing disagreement between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s constitutional name and NATO aspirations. Lost amidst all these more bombastic disputes is any media perception of the reality of an Islamic threat in the Balkans- despite the increasing, if quiet attention of Western intelligence services to the problem.
In the following exposition of this issue, the author refers to a number of facts and arguments contained within his new book, The Coming Balkan Caliphate: The Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West (Praeger Security International, 2007). Several citations that are not otherwise made clear in the text below refer ultimately to content disclosed in that work.
Context: Recent History
The end of the Cold War created an unprecedented opportunity for Islamist ideological movements seeking to expand into the Balkans. Muslim-inhabited areas in the rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia, as well as Albania and portions of Bulgaria were the focus of massive funding, mosque-building and proselytization campaigns by fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Iran, Pakistan, North Africa and elsewhere. Turkey, despite its staunchly secular government, also had a strong interest in retaining the Ottoman characteristic of Islam in the region its forebears had ruled for five centuries. While the particulars diverged, the goal of all these actors in general was to strengthen the social and political role of Islam in the post-Communist Balkans.
Among these new arrivals, however, were members of notorious terrorist organizations and seasoned mujahedin fresh from the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Their arrival was aided by sympathetic elements within local governments and, incredibly, by Western governments intent on swaying the outcome of the Yugoslav civil wars. Seeking investment, impoverished Albania developed close relations with wealthy Arab benefactors; yet with investment came foreign jihadis and hundreds of new mosques. Albania’s first post-Communist secret service was originally oriented towards the Islamist cause, and allowed members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, organized by the brother of senior al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, to establish a cell in Tirana through the clandestine cover of a large network of charities. The cell would present a continual challenge for the CIA, which was concerned with apprehending such foreign Islamists while at the same time training the Kosovo Liberation Army – an ethnic Albanian paramilitary force fighting the Serbs in neighboring Kosovo – whose numbers, according to a diverse range of first-hand sources, included a small number of foreign mujahedin.
In Bosnia, meanwhile, thousands of mujahedin funded by Saudi charities and trained by Iranian intelligence were imported by the Muslim government for the 1992-95 war against Bosnia’s Serb Orthodox Christian population (the mujahedin, then and now, also targeted Croatian Catholics). The Clinton administration tacitly allowed the infiltration, enabled via a charity network spanning Europe, especially Austria and Germany, as an Islamist victory in Bosnia coincided with America’s short-term goal of defeating the Serbs. However, despite deceptive media coverage of a hard-pressed Bosnian government only reluctantly accepting the mujahedin, their arrival was directly facilitated by the Izetbegovic government, and was a crucial part of the late Bosnian leader’s goal of making Bosnia an Islamic state- a goal to which he had been devoted since the late 1930’s.
The direct relation between Bosnia as a localized jihad and Bosnia as a springboard for Islamist attacks in the West became felt almost immediately. Hundreds of foreign mujahedin, treated as heroes and presented with Bosnian passports after the war, were naturalized into the country, and were awarded their own enclaves ruled by Sharia law. Veterans of the Bosnian war who had seen it as just another in a series of jihad operations proved reluctant to settle down into rural ‘retirement,’ however. Failed terrorist attacks against the 1996 G-7 Summit in Lille, France and Los Angeles International Airport in December 1999 both involved veterans of Bosnia. Indeed, “five years before the sophisticated terrorist assault on the U.S.,” the Los Angeles Times would conclude in October of 2001, “the French were starting to uncover loosely linked violent networks spreading into several countries, all tied together by a common thread: Bosnia.”
Most disturbingly, with the seminal attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington several individuals, including fundraisers, planners, and actual hijackers were associated with the Bosnian jihad. In addition, a tight-lipped CIA source also told the Washington Times on September 18, 2001 that there was a definite connection between the 9/11 plotters and Albania-based Islamic terrorists. Finally, a group of Albanian-American imams who had gleefully predicted the attacks the month before, and who had links with Kosovo Albanian organized crime structures, were briefly detained in Kosovo by UN police; however, they were inexplicably released. In November, 2007, it was revealed that some of the 9/11 hijackers had also been trained in Turkey, which despite being a secular Islamic state had also long been a two-way conveyor belt for international mujahedin and fundraisers active in both the Bosnian and Chechen jihads.
Despite concerted efforts to break up the European Islamic charity network funding and concealing terrorists after 9/11, radical groups in the Balkans have flourished, with organizations renaming themselves, reorganizing, or even continuing to operate in plain sight, due to a failure of execution by the international community there. Since 9/11, and the energized law enforcement those terrorist attacks provoked, there has actually been a sharp increase in the number of planned terrorist attacks involving Balkan actors; while most have been thwarted, a few – such as the Madrid train bombings and several bombings in Turkey – have succeeded, to deadly effect. And, with the inculcation of radical views among a new generation of young adherents to radical doctrines, the objective of generating actual terrorists from the indigenous Balkan Muslim populations – not just foreign-born Muslims – has been realized.
Mistakes Made: Policy, Peacekeeping, the Media
To what can the failures of the West and rise in Balkan extremism be attributed? Primarily, they are due to specific interventionist and foreign policy failures and structural flaws inherent to international peacekeeping missions in general. The desire of the Clinton administration to present itself before Arab leaders as friendly to the interests of the ‘good Muslims’ of the Balkans influenced the interventionist policy on behalf of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, as did the cunning lobbying of the latter, which warned of the alleged danger of a ‘Greater Serbia’ arising from the ashes of Yugoslavia. In Macedonia’s brief war of 2001, directly abetted by Kosovo-based Albanian paramilitaries, the West again broadly if more quietly favored the rebels, who resorted to fundraising amongst foreign Islamist institutions and whose numbers also included a small number of veteran mujahedin. And the Western powers also allowed fundraising and personnel transfer sponsored by the Islamic world to be channeled through diaspora and charity networks in Germany, the US and Britain.
However, the ultimate result of these policies today indicates a clear victory for the "Islamist Internationale". Bosnia, where high officials have made statements supporting Iran’s nuclear program, is nevertheless being urged to centralize the federation in favor of the Muslim population, and the recently self-declared independent Kosovo, represents both an area devoid of the rule of law and with a small but committed extremist minority. A weakened Serbia and a small Montenegro fairly recently severed from it both have increasing problems with Wahhabi extremists operating in their shared border region, the Sandzak. Considering the demonstrated usefulness of these territories for terrorist generation, logistical support and the kind of large-scale organized crime that makes terrorism possible, the pro-Muslim interventionist policy has turned out to be an extraordinarily short-sighted and self-destructive one for the West.
On the structural level, the international peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo were, from the outset, susceptible to chronic disorganization, collective ignorance and a lack of accountability. Under the general aegis of the United Nations, the civilian personnel involved were contracted via foreign ministries around the world which frequently subcontracted to private firms- thus assuring a confused chain of command and responsibility.
Further, both civilian and military personnel were frequently rotated, usually every six months or one year, guaranteeing that the supposed authorities were constantly starting from square one and a mindset of ignorance and naïvete while trying to understand and operate in complex Balkan societies. This briefness of tenure and the overriding concern for simple financial and careerist rewards on the part of the peacekeepers also dramatically reduced the incentives for engaging in any work which could prove dangerous or politically incorrect- thus dooming the war against terror from the outset. Numerous interviews with present and former international officials confirm that this fostered a ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality, by which international staff chose more often than not to ignore a growing terrorist presence in their desire to preserve their own self-interest.
At the same time, pervasive organized crime structures, especially the Kosovo Albanian mafia, were able to penetrate and control the international mission. As a result, a criminal-political class developed in both Bosnia and Kosovo which, while ostensibly working together with the international community on local political leadership and development, retained close connections with international criminal enterprises connected with terrorism, such as traffickers of heroin originating in Afghanistan and human traffickers who have abetted the movement of terrorist fugitives moving to and from Western Europe.
Finally, along with and connected to the policy flaws has been an undeniable tendency in the Western media to downplay the threat and even to criticize those who speak of it. The reasons for this ignorance and bias are more complex, considering that the enormity and amorphousness of the Western media precludes blanket assessments; nevertheless, it is clear that for those journalists and think-tank ‘experts’ who have made reputations based on supporting governmental policy in the Balkans, being forced to admit the catastrophic results of that policy would be both embarrassing and damaging. Nevertheless, the media’s relative failure to connect the dots in terms of Western policy, execution and structural flaws has meant that a vital mechanism for exerting pressure on policy makers – that is, media-influenced public opinion – has by and large not been activated.
Results: Terrorist Activities and Radicalized Societies
One serious repercussion, therefore, of the flawed policies, doomed peacekeeping structure and execution, and an acquiescent media in the contemporary Balkans has been the creation of a criminal and terrorist transfer zone through the heart of southeastern Europe, as well as the gradual creation of a new culture of fundamentalism among a minority of local Muslims exposed to foreign preaching and funding. Today, it is undeniable that a security vacuum which simply did not exist at the end of the Cold War has come into existence, one which has had and will continue to have a direct effect on the increasing likelihood of terrorist activity throughout Europe. In recent months, police actions and intelligence summaries announced by the governments in Germany, Austria, Spain, the UK and elsewhere attest that the threat of new terrorist attacks remains persistent.
To illustrate the severity of the threat, one might examine the following, very partial list of Balkan-linked terrorist plots noted since 9/11; the details around these plots indicate the stated relational dynamics of terrorism and the particularities of the region. They range from links to organized crime and radicalized Balkan Muslims, to foreign extremist involvement and foreign funding that has facilitated the activity of would-be terrorists. This list includes the following incidents:
- The November 2003 al Qaeda bombings of two synagogues, the HSBC Bank and the British Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey; the alleged ringleader, Syrian-born Louai al-Sakka, had also been planning to blow up an Israeli cruise ship off the Turkish coast when he was arrested in August 2005, had previously participated in the Bosnia jihad effort, and claims to have trained some of the 9/11 hijackers in Turkey
- The summer 2005 arrests in Italy of a Bosnian Muslim involved with a plot to bomb world leaders gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April
- The August 2005 arrest in Serbia of Moroccan Abdelmajid Bouchar, a fugitive from the Madrid attacks seeking to escape into the Balkans
- The October 2005 arrests in Bosnia of several young Bosnian Muslims who, in cooperation with religious peers elsewhere in Europe, had acquired explosives for an attack on Western embassies in Sarajevo; the group had links with the late al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
- The UN police in Kosovo’s 2005-2006 surveillance of North African terrorist suspects fleeing Western Europe and taking refuge in ‘safe houses’ in Pristina
- The September 2006 arrest in Norway of Pakistani al Qaeda operative Arfan Qadeer Bhatti, a close associate of Kosovo Albanian heroin smuggler Princ Dobrosi; Bhatti had planned to bomb the American and Israeli embassies in Oslo
- The December 2006 detention in Treviso, Italy of several Bosnian and Macedonian Muslims; some were reported to be involved with weapon smuggling from Turkey and potential terrorist attacks; several were deported
- The February 2007 arrests in Bulgaria of four Bulgarian Muslims involved with local and Arab groups glorifying the Chechen jihad and advocating a Sharia state in Bulgaria
- The Serbian police’s March 2007 seizure of heavy weaponry and other military paraphernalia from a mountain camp run by a Wahhabi group of Bosnian Muslims from Novi Pazar, in the Sandzak region of western Serbia; the weapons were later confirmed to have come via Kosovo
- The November 2007 Macedonian police operation in a mountain village near the Kosovo border, which seized weaponry sufficient for 650 soldiers; the Kosovo-based Albanian paramilitary group targeted included a Wahhabi sympathizer who had been part of a foreign-sponsored plot to violently overthrow Macedonia’s Islamic leadership two years earlier
- The December 2007 arrests in Germany of several extremists, including an ethnic Turk, planning attacks on German public transportation network
- The January 2008 Turkish police operations against alleged members of former terrorist group, Turkish Hizbollah, in connection with prior bombings
- The March 2008 arrest of five Wahhabi extremists in Bosnia, captured with weapons and other terrorist supplies, who were planning attacks against Catholic worshippers on Easter
Of even greater concern to many Western and regional terrorism experts in the long-term is also one of the most difficult to predict: the impact of foreign Islamic funding and proselytization on existing Balkan Muslim societies. Calculating this risk involves comparing a list of variables which include urbanization, economic development, demographic trends and the question of war, peace and Western intervention in the wider Muslim world as motivating factors in group and individual behavior. A short list of the social trends and incidents witnessed in the region, and pointing to an increasing fundamentalization of Islamic practice, might include:
- The ongoing trend, witnessed everywhere in the region, towards unrestrained construction of new mosques in a Saudi (as opposed to traditional Ottoman) style, especially in areas of high public visibility or near Christian-majority areas
- The rise, everywhere in the Balkans, of a new generation of non-governmental organizations which utilize the Western language of ‘human rights’ to aggressively and surreptitiously advance an Islamist agenda
- The participation of Muslims in Macedonia and Serbian Sandzak in the ‘cartoon protests’ against the Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad
- The creation of a very active and extensive publishing and distribution system for Islamist propaganda in the Balkans, including videotapes and other material glorifying jihad; these are also purveyed on a growing number of jihadist websites in local languages
- Growing antagonism in certain towns in Albania between Christians and Muslims, threatening to undermine the traditional ethnic-based unity of Albanians
- The violent attempt of foreign-funded Wahhabis to attack, threaten and depose the moderate leaders of Macedonia’s official Islamic Community in summer 2005
- Death threats from Muslim groups against apparently ‘non-observant’ Albanian Muslims in Kosovo
- A Wahhabi attempted ‘exorcism’ of a Muslim in a Macedonian village
- The Macedonian government’s recent concession to Muslim lobbying, which demanded women be allowed to wear head scarves in photographs accompanying official documentation
- The increasing presence of Islamic banking, directed by financial institutions in the Arab world and Turkey, in Bosnia and Kosovo, which pulls local businesses and societies into the Islamic orbit; the eventual goal is one of regulating goods sold and purchased to be only those allowed according to Islamic law
- The confirmed presence of terrorist-linked charities, such as the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, in Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania, which remain despite having been blacklisted in other countries
- The dedicated efforts of foreign-organized Islamic charities to ‘red-educate’ Muslim orphans in Kosovo and Bosnia
- The success of Islamists in the Kosovo Albanian government to install sympathetic officials throughout the civil administration, according to American special investigators
- The violent disruption in of an ethno-music concert in Novi Pazar by a local Wahhabi group
- Violent incidents concerning control of local mosques instigated by Wahhabi groups, especially in Bosnia, Serbian Sandzak and Macedonia
- The previously unknown practice of female circumcision appearing in Serbia’s Sandzak region and, reportedly, in some Macedonian Muslim villages
- The startling appearance of over 3,000 Balkan Wahhabis at the funeral of extremist leader Jusuf Barcic in Bosnia in April 2007
- Ongoing attempts by Saudi and other Islamic charities to provide funding, and religious scholarships for study abroad, to universities in Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Serbia
- Increasingly prominent ‘show of force’ public gatherings by Wahhabi youth groups in tourist locales in Macedonia and Montenegro, sponsored by Arab funding through NGOs
- Ongoing proselytization efforts by foreign Islamist groups, including Tablighi Jamaat, through various Balkan countries
- The appearance of a small number of Balkan volunteers in the al Qaeda training camps of Pakistan and Afghanistan
Conclusions and Recommendations
There are two threats associated with Islamic radicalism in the Balkans; that of terrorism and that of forcible social change. While neither present an immediate emergency situation, without vigilance and more attentive intelligence activity, the existing threats can only multiply as well-funded and extraordinarily patient foreign Islamic movements continue to exploit areas made vulnerable by poverty, war, corruption and ethnic nationalism. The following recommendations are made with an eye to both past failures and future concerns.
- As it prepares to take over from the United Nations in Kosovo, the European Union’s EULEX mission should strive to learn from and improve upon the failures of the UN mission there over the past eight years. This corrective action would involve analyzing both the structural and personnel shortcomings that have resulted in a chronic lack of accountability and incompetence- defining characteristics of the international mission in Kosovo which, among other things, have created a lawless zone of operations for organized crime and terrorist-linked individuals. The UN’s neglect of certain rural areas in Kosovo has created enhanced conditions for fundamentalist Islam to take root- a preventable disease that the EU can seek to cure through increased attention and funding.
- Western governments should implement long-term intelligence gathering operations not reliant, as has been the case up to now, on the cooperation of dubious, criminally or politically-motivated local partners. An emphasis should also be placed on quality human intelligence, rather than on technology alone
- Decision-makers should also recognize and acknowledge the fact that pan-Islamist movements everywhere operate on a much different timeframe than do elected democratic governments; while the latter organize themselves around four-year terms and constant elections, the former are accustomed to patiently and quietly increase their strength until they can act.
- Allied agencies should also seek to streamline bureaucratically hampered operations and improve intelligence-sharing, while increasing cooperation with nations that have a demonstrated commitment to and expertise in fighting terror, especially Israel.
- Finally, the media should reappraise the issue of Islamic extremism in the Balkans, taking a more objective view and questioning old precedents which may no longer apply to a fluid and increasingly complex situation on the ground.