A specter is haunting Europe—fear of the impact hundreds of European volunteers to the Syrian jihad might have on their home countries once they return. Perhaps nowhere is the potential danger of this Syrian blowback greater than in the Balkans. According to one estimate, Bosnia has provided more volunteers per capita for the Syrian jihad than any other country in Europe, and various reports suggest there are probably more than five hundred jihadis from southeastern Europe now in Syria.
While the Muslims of southeastern Europe remain the world’s most moderate Islamic populations, an estimated five to ten percent has become indoctrinated in the more extreme forms of Islam typical of places such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This is not an accident—the rise and growth of militant Islamism in southeastern Europe is the result of long-term efforts by extremists to radicalize local populations. Over the past several decades, the militant Islamist movement in southeastern Europe has created a sophisticated infrastructure consisting of local safe havens in isolated villages and in mosques controlled by radical clergy, along with a wide array of electronic and print media propagating news from various jihad fronts, relaying orders from al-Qaeda leaders, and attempting to convert impressionable young people to join their cause. All of this is funded by generous Middle Eastern donors and supported by small groups of local extremists who have infiltrated influential political, religious, and social institutions.
The origins of the militant Islamist movement in southeastern Europe can most directly be tied to the life and work of Bosnia’s late Islamist president, Alija Izetbegovic. In the late 1930s, Izetbegovic and a conspiratorial group of like-minded Islamist extremists formed an organization called the Mladi Muslimani (“Young Muslims”), a Balkan version of the Muslim Brotherhood whose goal, as Izetbegovic himself frequently noted, was the creation of a “great Muslim state,” or as one author has described it, an “Islamistan,” throughout the Balkans, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Toward this goal, the Mladi Muslimani swore an oath promising perseverance on their “path of jihad” and their “uncompromising struggle against everything non-Islamic.” Tellingly, the name of their underground journal was Mudzahid (“Holy Warrior”).
Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s opened the doors for a second generation of militant Islamists to establish itself in the region. Composed mostly of foreign transplants from Afghanistan and other jihadi fronts, it was even more extreme and dangerous than Izetbegovic’s original group. Mostly concentrated in a unit Izetbegovic formed in August 1992 named the Katibat al-Mujahideen, veterans of the Bosnian jihad in the 1990s included people such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, involved in the attack on the USS Cole; Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, involved in the August 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa; Abu Hamza al-Masri, the spiritual father of the July 2005 London Underground bombings; and Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the participants in the November 2008 Mumbai bombings. Ali Hamad, a Bahraini-born al-Qaeda operative, has claimed that al-Qaeda figures would visit Bosnia with “state protection,” and both the US and Saudi Arabia accused the Izetbegovic regime of giving Bosnian passports to known terrorists.
Unfortunately, these people did not simply pack up and leave when the Dayton Peace Accords brought an end to the Bosnian War in December 1995. Instead, together with local extremist allies, an entire infrastructure supporting militant Islamist causes (and not infrequently outright terrorism itself) was created during the latter part of the decade, the consequences of which are still plaguing the region today.
Thus, 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. According to writer Janez Kovac, in the central Bosnian village of Bocinja Donja, for instance, inhabited by some six hundred people, extremists live “separate lives untroubled by local police, tax-collectors, or any other authorities. Outsiders never set foot in the small community.” Another Bosnian village, Gornja Maoca, is the headquarters of Bosnia’s main Wahhabi leader, Nusret Imamovic. Gornja Maoca has frequently been used as a way station for extremists joining jihads in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In October 2011, Mevlid Jasarevic, a Wahhabi from the Sandzak region, left the village with two other residents on the day he attacked the US Embassy in Sarajevo.
Throughout the western and southern Balkans, extremist-led mosques also serve as bases for militant Islamists. The Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque and Cultural Center in Sarajevo, which the researcher Juan Carlo Antunez has called “the epicenter of the spreading of radical ideas” in Bosnia, 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 the global intelligence firm Stratfor has described as a go-between for Albanian and Bosnian extremists. In Kosovo, the journalist Mohammad al-Arnaout has reported that the Makowitz mosque on the outskirts of Pristina and the Mitrovica mosque are recruiting militants to fight alongside Islamist groups in Syria. In Macedonia, Wahhabi extremists have been engaged in a struggle with the country’s official Islamic community to take control of Skopje’s Yahya Pasha, Sultan Murat, Hudaverdi, and Kjosekadi mosques.
Militant Islamists support their efforts in southeastern Europe through a network of “NGOs,” “charities,” and “humanitarian aid” organizations, often funded by known al-Qaeda financial donors. The CIA has estimated that one-third of the Bosnian NGOs operating worldwide have terrorist connections or employ people with terrorist links. In the aftermath of 9/11, a raid on such a “charity” in Sarajevo, the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia, according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, netted “maps of Washington, material for making false State Department identity cards, and anti-American manuals designed for children.”
Militant Islamists in the Balkans have developed an extensive array and network of print periodicals, bookstores, websites, and YouTube spots spreading religious intolerance, glorifications of violence, and anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic messages. Islamic bookstores from Belgrade to Novi Pazar distribute tracts by extremists such as the contemporary Islamist ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the mid-century Marx of Islamism Sayyid Qutb. Militant Islamist websites promote jihad, suicide bombings, and the killing of non-Muslims. These websites also relay news from other jihadi fronts, sermons by extremist preachers from the Middle East, and messages from al-Qaeda leaders. For instance, the Bosnian website Put Vjernika (“Way of the Believer”) recently carried “A New Order from Zawahiri: Focus on Attacks on American Interests.”
According to Fahrudin Kladicanin, the co-author of a recent study on Balkan extremists’ use of the Internet and social media, “the number of those who are ‘liking,’ making comments, and sharing the content of these pages, especially when it comes to religious leaders, extreme Islamists, and Wahhabists, is rising on a daily basis.” The Facebook page “Krenaria Islame” (Albanian for “Islamic Pride”), which posts pictures and stories of Albanians fighting in Syria, has twenty-five hundred followers. According to Arjan Dyrmishi, a security expert based in Tirana, the Albanian capital, “if all the followers of this page were identified as terrorists, they would make a small army and pose a major problem. Such a large number of followers would pose a concern, even if these people were to be identified only as supporters of political Islam.”
The ideology spread through the militant Islamists’ media routinely involves the vilest forms of hate speech and intolerance. A Wahhabi leader from Bosnia, Bilal Bosnic, recently gave a sermon in which he claimed, “We have to love the one who loves Allah, and hate the one who hates Allah. We have to hate infidels, even if they are our neighbors or live in our homes.” Grade-school textbooks for Islamic religious classes in Bosnia now include the following: “Today Islamic countries are confronted with a form of blackmail: thus, if they want to join the United Nations, they have to tacitly renounce jihad as an organized form of Muslim interest.”
Misogyny and homophobia are prominent elements of the militant Islamists’ ideology. In Kosovo, the mufti of Prizren, Irfan Salihu, publicly claimed in a recent sermon, “Any woman who has intimate acts without being married according to provisions of the Islam [sic] is a slut and a bitch.” Glorifications of violence and support for suicide terrorism are frequent tropes of militant Islamists in the Balkans. For instance, Bosnic, the Bosnian Wahhabi leader, has posted a song on YouTube in which he sings:
The beautiful jihad has risen over Bosnia
And the Bosnian started calling “Allah Akbar” and praying
America had better know I am performing dawah
God willing, it will be destroyed to its foundations
If you try to harm the mujahedin once more, oh infidels,
Our Taliban brothers will come from all over,
And they will sentence you with their swords.
America and all the other tyrants had better know
That all the Muslims are now like the Taliban,
Jihad, Jihad, oh Allah, will be the redemption of the believers.
Allah Akbar. Allah is my Lord.
Listen, all my brothers, believers from all the world,
With explosives on our chests we pave the way to Paradise.
This unending din of propaganda is having an effect on a new generation. Over the past decade, militant Islamists indigenous to the Balkans have been involved in numerous actions and conspiracies: the October 2002 attack on the US Embassy in Vienna, the May 2007 Fort Dix bomb plot, the July 2009 Raleigh Group conspiracy, the 2009 New York City subway attack conspiracy, the October 2011 attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo, a January 2012 plot to bomb nightclubs in Tampa, and the murder of two US servicemen at Frankfurt Airport in February 2012. Most recently, a young man from Kosovo became “the Balkans’ first suicide bomber,” killing fifty people in an attack in Baghdad in March 2014.
According to Bulgaria’s former chief mufti, Nedim Gendzhev, militant Islamists in southeastern Europe are trying to create a “fundamentalist triangle” formed by Bosnia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria’s western Rhodope Mountains. Although their chances of succeeding are minimal, they can nevertheless still do tremendous damage to Western security interests in the region, and to the possibilities for creating stable democratic societies in southeastern Europe.
With a new generation of Balkan Muslim clerics increasingly being educated in places such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and hundreds of millions of dollars being invested by Middle Eastern donors to build Islamic schools and madrassas in the Balkans, the distinction between the more moderate form of Islam traditionally practiced in southeastern Europe and the more extreme and violent forms practiced further to the east is becoming less apparent. As Esad Hecimovic, a leading expert on the Bosnian jihadi movement, has noted, “There is now a new generation of Islamic preachers in Bosnia who were educated after the war at Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and other countries. . . . Thus, it is no longer possible to distinguish between ‘imported’ and ‘local’ versions of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina anymore.”
Unfortunately, the international response to militant Islam’s rise in southeastern Europe has ranged from neglect to outright denial. For instance, after 9/11, the then high representative in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, somewhat incredibly claimed in a New York Times op-ed that “no evidence has been produced that [Bosnia] has served as a base for al-Qaeda,” while the current high representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, for his part, has similarly argued that the Wahhabis in Bosnia “pose no danger to Europe.” Yet as Evan Kohlmann, a leading specialist on al-Qaeda’s campaign in Bosnia, has put it, individuals who deny that al-Qaeda is operating in the Balkans “are either lying or have no idea what they are talking about.”
Militant Balkan Islamists are not even bothering to hide their long-term intentions. As a Bosnian jihadi fighting in Syria recently noted, “I left Bosnia with the intention only to return with weapons in my hand. I am a part of the revolution and this is the morning of Islam . . . [by allowing us to leave Bosnia] your intelligence agencies made a mistake thinking that they would be rid of us, however, the problem for them will be the return of individuals trained for war.”
Gordon N. Bardos is the president of SEERECON, a political risk and strategic advisory firm specializing in southeastern Europe.
Photo Credit: Michal Huniewicz