Just how large the Balkans loom over Europe’s security problems should be clear from the dramatis personae of last year’s Paris terror tragedies. The man who took credit for the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, Nasser bin Ali Ansi, was a veteran of the Bosnian jihad in the 1990s and subsequently became a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Charlie Hebdo attacker Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Koulibali, who carried out the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris, were recruited by Djamel Beghal, a longtime Al Qaeda operative. Beghal himself, in turn, had been recruited by a man with both Bosnian citizenship and a Bosnian passport, Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s key lieutenants. Another key figure in Beghal’s life had been Abu Hamza al Misri, likewise a Bosnian jihad veteran, imam of London’s Finsbury Mosque, and alleged “spiritual father” of the London 7/7 bombers. The ringleader of the later November 2015 Paris atrocities, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, directed preparatory work for the attacks from Athens, and Salah Abdeslam and two of the suicide-bombers used the migrants’ Balkan route to get to France. Weapons and ammunition, used in both Paris attacks came from the former Yugoslavia, and Balkan arms smugglers have been implicated in helping the terrorists obtain their weapons. Clearly, improving the security environment in southeastern Europe is going to be crucial to any effort to maintain security in the European Union (EU) itself.
This will be a heavy lift. Conservative estimates suggest that in Albania, Bosnia, and Kosovo alone, extremists control more than 150 mosques and prayer rooms. In the Sandžak, religious officials have warned that Kuwaiti extremists are providing significant sums to build mosques which are independent of the local official Islamic organization, and in Macedonia, a battle between moderates and hardline Islamists for control over numerous important mosques across the country has been raging for a decade.
In September 2014, Albanian foreign minister Ditmir Bushati acknowledged that terrorist training camps for individuals joining the Iraqi and Syrian jihads had emerged in Albania, while just a few months ago, Bosnian security minister Dragan Mektić decried the fact that there were areas in his country in which extremists had set up their own order, operating independently of legal authorities. The police director of the Bosnian Federation, Dragan Lukač, recently claimed that his service had sixty “extremist communities” under surveillance, and a recent Austrian intelligence report claimed that in Bosnia, the Wahhabi movement continues to build new outposts.
Various European intelligence reports on these camps provide ample evidence of their participants’ intentions. After North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces moved in to Bosnia, it shut down an Iranian-run camp outside of Sarajevo where “students” were taught, among numerous other things, how to manufacture booby-trapped children’s toys. Leaked German intelligence reports describe how Arab mudžahedin with Bosnian citizenship trained locals the proper techniques to “cut throats and use explosives,” and the former head of Al Qaeda’s propaganda operation in Germany, Irfan Peci, has told of being instructed in the use of explosives and Kalashnikovs in the Bosnian Wahhabi enclave of Gornja Maoča.
With the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), these camps now provide local recruits for the Syrian and Iraqi jihads. Europol’s January 2016 report on Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State Terrorist Attacks describes how training facilities in the Balkans (and within the EU itself) provide ISIS recruits with survival and interrogation-resistance training, and “sports activities” simulating combat experience. An indication of how seriously the Balkan terrorist training camps are now viewed is evident by the fact that they were even a topic for discussion at the June 2015 G7 Summit at Schloss Elmau.
Among the graduates of such Bosnian facilities have been Madrid train bomber Amer Azizi and would-be shoe bomber Saajid Badat. Arid Uka, the Kosovo émigré who murdered two U.S. servicemen at Frankfurt Airport in March 2011, spent two months in the town of Zenica, the heartland of the Bosnian Wahhabi movement, in the period leading up to his attack.
Former intelligence director Almir Džuvo estimated that there were three thousand potential terrorists in Bosnia alone while former Al Qaeda operative Ali Hamad has claimed that his organization had recruited some eight hundred Bosnians who are able to avoid profiling when passing through security checks. Other local police officials have suggested that there are about six hundred “persons of interest” in Bosnia believed to be potential terrorist threats. When an agency as capable as Britain’s MI5 can monitor less than fifty terrorist suspects 24/7, it is near certain that a lot of terrorist recruiting and training activity is being missed in southeastern Europe.
Studies by Thomas Hegghamer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and Radio Free Europe have shown that Albania, Bosnia, and Kosovo provide more jihad volunteers per capita than any other countries in Europe. Conventional estimates suggest some seven hundred to eight hundred people from the Balkans have joined ISIS or the Al Nusra Front. Unofficial accounts, however, suggest these numbers could be significantly higher; some observers believe that Kosovo alone may have provided up to one thousand ISIS volunteers.
Often these extremists take their entire families with them. At least thirty Albanian children and some seventy Bosnian children have been taken to territory controlled by the Islamic State. Sometimes entire families die there as well; in February 2016, a Bosnian extremist named Valdes Karić died in Syria along with his pregnant wife and three children.
The emergence and growth of the Balkan militant Islamist movement did not occur spontaneously but is rather the result of a long-term, planned campaign. Since the 1990s, indigenous and foreign extremists financed by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other hardline Islamist states have embedded throughout southeastern Europe and created a sophisticated infrastructure consisting of independently controlled mosques and madrassas, safe havens in isolated villages for new recruits to be indoctrinated, hidden, and trained. Radical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide operatives with cover identities allowing them to travel across continents, efficient financial networks transfer monies to fellow conspirators, and a variety of print and electronic media spread their message to draw new recruits.
Some have estimated that the Saudis alone have spent more than $6 billion just in Bosnia in the past twenty-five years. The centerpiece of the Saudi effort has been the construction and operation of the largest mosque in southeastern Europe, the King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo, which for many years operated as an extra-territorial enclave within Bosnia. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, American officials discovered that many European volunteers for the Iraqi insurrection were being funneled through Sarajevo with the aid of the King Fahd mosque’s Al Qaeda cells. Since opening, the mosque has become popular with extremists across Europe, with second-generation Pakistani and Afghan youth in Britain using it as a weekend excursion destination. After the London 7/7 bombings, a relative of one of the terrorists and three other individuals being watched by British authorities immediately left for Sarajevo spending most of their time at the mosque.
Southeastern Europe has also become an active theater of operations for the intelligence agencies of hardline Islamist states. Iran’s largest embassy in Europe is in Sarajevo, and a couple of years ago three Iranian diplomats were expelled from Bosnia for their dealings with Wahhabi leader Nusret Imamović. In late 2014, the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz claimed that Iran, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia had some one thousand intelligence agents operating in Bosnia alone. Although the numbers are probably exaggerated, these countries clearly see the Balkans as a convenient place from which to penetrate Europe, and to battle each other for support and influence among the Balkans’ Muslim populations.
This history and these activities have combined to create a substantial pool of individuals psychologically and politically predisposed to ISIS’ message and activities. The Pew Research Center’s 2012 survey of Muslim public opinion around the world is a clear indicator of the degree to which radicalization has progressed in the Balkans. In response to questions that inquired about their support for imposing sharia law, for suicide bombing and other forms of violence, for public whippings and cutting off the hands of alleged thieves, for stoning accused adulterers to death, and imposing the death penalty for apostasy, some four hundred thousand people across Albania, Bosnia, and Kosovo answered affirmatively to all of the questions.
In Bosnia alone in recent years, local Wahhabi extremists have been involved in a litany of horrific crimes. One Wahhabi murdered three members of a Roman Catholic family as they were preparing to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Another cut his mother’s throat because she refused to pray with him. Another Wahhabi killed a man because he had refused to let him marry his daughter—who was nine years old at the time. A Bosnian extremist who had recently returned from the Syrian jihad was arrested for trying to carry out a female circumcision on his then-wife; the woman had to be taken to hospital with broken legs and knife wounds to her genitals. In July 2014, Kosovo jihadi Lavdrim Muhaxheri gained international notoriety when he posted pictures of himself on Facebook beheading a captive in Syria. In July 2015, authorities arrested Italy’s “Lady Jihad,” Maria Giulia Sergio, after wiretaps revealed her boasting how her Albanian jihadi husband, Aldo Kobuzi, had stoned an adulterer to death in Syria in 2014. She also praised the young jihadists they had met, saying, “There are mujahideen who are fifteen, sixteen years old and have killed fifty non-believers. Allah is great.”
Only recently has the threat posed by militant Islamists in the Balkans been taken seriously. Over the past two years, various websites associated with these extremists, such as PutVjernika and VijestiUmmeta have been taken down. All of the countries in southeastern Europe have also passed legislation making it illegal for their citizens to fight in foreign conflicts. And across the region, attempts are now underway to shut down extremist-controlled mosques.
In Bosnia, intense international pressure led to an effort codenamed “Operation Damascus” which has netted several dozen jihadists and fellow travelers, including a prime leader of the Bosnian Wahhabi movement, Bilal Bosnić. In the 1990s, Bosnić had been a member of the Al Qaeda unit in Alija Izetbegović’s army during the Bosnian jihad. He has now been sentenced to seven years in prison for recruiting volunteers for ISIS from a network that spanned across Bosnia, Germany, Italy, and Slovenia.
Albania and Kosovo have similarly arrested several dozen extremists for allegedly funding and recruiting fighters to join the jihads in Syria and Iraq. Among the most prominent of those arrested is Shefqet Krasniqi, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Priština, and Fuad Ramiqi, the leader of a small Islamist political party.
In September 2014, the U.S. State Department listed Bosnian Wahhabi leader Nusret Imamović and Kosovo jihadi Lavdrim Muhaxheri among ten major “global terrorists.” In February 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) broke up a Bosnian-American ISIS support group operating in several American cities, and in October 2015, Malaysian officials acting on a U.S. warrant arrested Kosovo citizen Ardit Ferizi, who had hacked into U.S. government computer networks and passed personal information on more than one thousand U.S. military personnel and federal employees to ISIS.
And, in November 2014, Austrian authorities launched “Operation Palmyra,” billed as the largest security action in Austria’s post-1945 history. A prime target of the operation was a Sandžak Wahhabi named Mirsad Omerović, aka “Ebu Tejma,” accused of personally recruiting some 160 ISIS volunteers.
The extent to which ISIS’ Balkan networks have been damaged or set back by these efforts is still unclear. But now, looking ahead, four important considerations have emerged as central to understanding, measuring, and successfully countering the ISIS threat in southeastern Europe.
First, how does southeastern Europe fit into ISIS’ strategy going forward? Former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler has argued that militant Islamists view Bosnia (and by extension the rest of southeastern Europe) as “a ‘safe space’ in Europe—a place to recruit fighters, train them, and raise funds for jihad. Smart terrorists will not want to disturb that.”
Recent ISIS communications and events suggest that ISIS is preparing to take their Balkan strategy to the next level by opening an actual Balkan front. In a video released in June 2015, ISIS’ Balkan jihadis urged their countrymen and women to engage in indigenous jihad at every opportunity: “For those of you that can’t come here, fight over there. Fight against them over there. If you have to, put explosives under their cars. If you can, take poison and put it in their drinks and their food. Let them die. Kill them in every place, whenever you can. In Bosnia, in Serbia, in Sandžak.”
This cry for indiscriminate murder on the European home front was followed by an appeal in the August issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq calling on followers in the Balkans to kill “crusader citizens anywhere” whether they be Japanese diplomats in Bosnia, or even Saudi diplomats in Tirana, Sarajevo, and Priština.
Evidence that indigenous extremists are taking these exhortations seriously can be found in the lone-wolf attacks carried out in Bosnia recently, including the attack on a police station in Zvornik in April 2015 in which two police officers were killed, or the killing of two soldiers in the Sarajevo suburb of Rajlovac in October 2015. Both attacks involved individuals linked to Syrian jihad veterans.
A second consideration is the extent to which the recent crackdown on ISIS’ Balkan networks has contained the growth and reach of this movement. The flow of jihad volunteers from southeastern Europe to Middle-Eastern war zones seems to have declined somewhat over the past year, but more study and more time are needed to ascertain whether the recruitment and radicalization of people within the region has been slowed.
A third consideration is to determine if the scale and scope of the extremists’ activities have grown beyond the capacity of intelligence and security services to monitor and prosecute them. Certainly, there have been encouraging signs. In December 2015, for example, a plot to stage New Year’s Eve attacks in Bosnia was disrupted by authorities. Likewise, an alleged plot to kill Pope Francis by a group of Kosovo extremists was discovered and broken up by Italian and Kosovo authorities. Despite these successes, however, there remains a sense that these countries are inadequately prepared and staffed to deal with the scale of the problem. As of December 2015, for instance, Bosnia, where it is an open secret that some Islamist hardliners have significant influence in the judicial system, only one prosecutor had been assigned to pursue forty active terrorism cases.
Fourth, and perhaps the most important consideration, is that if this movement continues to draw new recruits and grow, is there a tipping point at which maintaining the democratic polities in southeastern Europe becomes untenable? Given that the vast majority of the Muslim populations of southeastern Europe find ISIS and other radical movements as abhorrent as do their non-Muslim neighbors, there is little chance that Islamic republics will emerge in the region. Not so clear, however, is what happens to regional stability and security if the radicalized populations increase from the current 5-10 percent to perhaps 15-20. Is liberal democracy really possible when such a large percentage of the population believes, à la Bosnia’s late Islamist president Alija Izetbegović, that “there is no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic political and social institutions,” or as Bilal Bosnić now tells followers, “We have to hate infidels, even if they are our neighbors or live in our homes.” And when these views are taken to a (patho)logical extreme, it will surprise no one that the radical Kosovo imam Zeqrija Qazimi posts a sermon on YouTube in which he says “The blood of the infidel is our sweetest drink.”
If history is a guide, these extremists who roam the Balkans will be a fixture and a problem not just in southeast Europe, but for all of Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world. Veterans of the Bosnian jihad in the 1990s went on to carry out the August 1998 U.S. African embassy bombings, the December 1999 attempted LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) attacks, the attack on the USS Cole in Aden Harbor in October 2000, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, the November 2003 Istanbul bombings, the March 2004 Madrid train attacks, the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, and numerous other atrocities across the world.
A Bosnian fighter named Bajro Ikanović told interviewers in 2013 that by allowing jihad volunteers to leave the Balkans, “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.”
We have been given fair warning, but Ikanović himself will not be carrying out the threat. He was killed in Syria in March 2016.
Gordon N. Bardos is president of SEERECON, a political risk and strategic consulting firm specializing in southeastern Europe.