Al-Qaeda's Recruitment Operations in the Balkans
By Anes AlicThe recent arrest and pending trial in Bosnia of three young men believed to have been plotting terrorist attacks on Western targets in the capital of Sarajevo has sparked fears that al-Qaeda is recruiting "white Muslims" in the country. Bosnia's porous borders and weak law enforcement institutions, coupled with the presence of hundreds of Islamic fighters who arrived from Arab countries during the 1992-1995 war, make this small war-torn country an easy meeting point for al-Qaeda networks.
During the pre-trial hearing on May 3 of Bosnia's first-ever terrorism case, three men—Mirsad Bektasevic, Cesur Abulkadir and Bajro Ikanovic—pleaded not guilty to charges of plotting a terrorist attack either in Bosnia or elsewhere. Two others—Senad Husanovic and Amir Bajric—who were charged with possession of explosives and believed to be heading up the alleged network's logistics, also pleaded not guilty and were released on bail.
The five men, four of whom are teenagers, were arrested in October and December last year in the Sarajevo suburbs of Butmir and Hadzici. Bektasevic and Abdulkadir were arrested in late October in Butmir's apartment owned by Bektasevic's cousin. They also rented two apartments in Sarajevo center, an anonymous high-ranking Bosnian police source told The Jamestown Foundation. While Bektasevic is a Bosnian Muslim national with Swedish and Serbian citizenship, and Ikanovic is a Turkish national with Danish residency, the remaining suspects were all Bosnians.
On October 20, 2005, agents found some 30 kilograms of explosives and dozens of guns in raids on three apartments used by the suspects. They also said that they found a suicide vest. Yet, the most significant piece of evidence discovered was a videotape showing the two men asking God for forgiveness for the sacrifice they were about to make. Two of the suspects—Bektasevic and Abdulkadir—were wearing face masks and had videotaped themselves making bombs, the police source said.
Nevertheless, the first months of the investigation failed to turn up enough concrete evidence that the alleged network was plotting a terrorist attack in Bosnia, so the local authorities turned to Scotland Yard and the FBI for forensic assistance. FBI forensic tests on the face masks determined that they had been worn by Bektasevic and Abdulkadir, while Scotland Yard confirmed that the voice on the videotape belonged to Bektasevic.
Faced with the new evidence, the two main suspects changed their original statements where they had denied plotting terrorist attacks, saying instead that they had intended to "warn" Bosnian and Western European authorities about Muslims suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also said they were plotting to "warn" the Bosnian government to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. Bosnia recently sent some 30 soldiers there as part of a de-mining unit, the source said. He also said the alleged network was most likely plotting an attack on the European Forces (EUFOR) base in Sarajevo, located just 100 meters from the house where the two main suspects were arrested.
The investigation, however, has extended well beyond Bosnia, indicating the possibility of a "white al-Qaeda" network operating from Western to Southeastern Europe. Bektasevic operated under the code name Maximus and kept in touch with a group of at least three men in Britain, all of whom were arrested by British police in early November. The British police have not revealed details on the arrests. Days after the Sarajevo arrests, police in Copenhagen detained seven men and one woman, most of them Danish converts to Islam, on suspicion that they were planning suicide bombings somewhere in Europe. Four of the suspects arrested in Denmark have been released due to lack of evidence against them, while the other three have been released on bail. Evidence linked those arrested in Denmark to those arrested in Sarajevo (Slobodna Bosna, April 22).
In the meantime, however, the trial in Bosnia has been postponed for at least three months while prosecutors and investigators attempt to collect more solid evidence against the five. Some experts say that the Bosnian authorities moved too quickly to arrest the five, preventing authorities from learning the intended target of the alleged terrorist plot and revealing the extent of a wider "white Muslim" network in Europe. Bosnian security agencies allegedly discussed the repercussions of making the arrests too soon, but chose to move to thwart a possible terrorist attack before it was too late (Vecernji List, April 26).
While there is largely agreement that al-Qaeda is attempting to recruit white Muslims in Bosnia, there is some disagreement on the extent of these efforts. EUFOR says that it has no evidence that Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Balkans represent a bigger terrorist threat than any other country in Europe (Fena.ba, April 26). "We cannot exclude the existence of the threat in any country and that goes for BiH as well," EUFOR Commander Gian Marco Chiarini said. "However, at this moment EUFOR has no data that would lead us to the conclusion that the threat of terrorism and terrorist attacks is larger in BiH than elsewhere" (Dnevni Avaz, April 25).
The U.S. State Department's 2005 report on terrorism, however, warned that while Bosnian authorities had been highly cooperative in the war on terrorism, Bosnia could be an attractive locale for terrorists because of its weak state comprised of semi-autonomous power centers. Additionally, while secular Bosnia is no friend to Islamic extremism, several hundred Arab mujahideen warriors who arrived in Bosnia to fight on the Bosnian Muslim side during the war are likely to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda. According to the Bosnian Foreign Ministry, it is believed that as many as 6,000 Arab volunteers arrived during the war. After the war, up to 400 of them acquired local citizenship, many of them marrying local women. They came from a variety of locations in the Middle East and North Africa, but largely from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Algeria.
Perhaps most significantly, the pending terrorism trial has ignited a fierce debate about these naturalized citizens, prompting fears of a backlash. Bosnia-Herzegovina security agencies are actively investigating individuals and groups, including Al Hussein Imad, also known as Abu Hamza, the informal leader of naturalized Bosnian citizens, who recently warned that revoking citizenship from these Arab fighters could result in protests, blockades and other forms of unrest (Radio B92, May 26).
Anonymous EUFOR sources told The Jamestown Foundation that Abu Hamza was believed to have recently formed an organization called "Ansarija" to provide legal assistance to former mujahideen threatened with deportation to their home countries. Abu Hamza told Bosnian FTV's 60 Minutes political talk show on April 18 that those being targeted for deportation could not be legally expelled as they faced charges in their countries of origin. The Syrian-born Abu Hamza is among those who are facing deportation. He arrived in Bosnia in the early 1990s as a student. Investigators say he lied on his citizenship application.
Bosnian authorities have stepped up their investigation into how hundreds of Arabs obtained Bosnian citizenship. According to a high-ranking police source speaking to The Jamestown Foundation, 104 naturalized citizens are in the process of having their citizenship revoked. Yet, the whereabouts of 64 of those being targeted remain unknown. The Bosnian government believes that these people present a potential security threat, and Western intelligence agencies agree. Western agencies are cooperating with Bosnian authorities in the terrorism investigation and pressuring local officials to locate and conduct checks on the 64 naturalized citizens who remain unaccounted for—some of whom authorities believe may have been in touch with Bektasevic and the other suspects (Nezavisne Novine, May 25).
Most of these naturalized citizens are believed to live in Sarajevo and the central Bosnian towns of Zenica, Tuzla and Travnik. Since late last year, police have conducted several raids in the mountains surrounding those towns, suspecting that militants have training camps there and caches of weapons and explosives. Thus far, however, nothing has turned up.
Without a significant amount of technical and other assistance from Western intelligence and security forces, Bosnia is ill-equipped to prevent terrorist infiltration. Recent police reforms—including one significant reform that created a state-level police agency replacing the two separate Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska agencies—are only embryonic and untested, as is cooperation between the present three agencies.
Although Islamic extremism is not nearly as prevalent in Bosnia as it is in many Western European countries, the threat must also be measured against its security forces' counter-terrorism capabilities, which in this case are starting from ground zero. Furthermore, while secular Bosnia is far from being a sympathetic haven for Islamic extremist activities, its institutional weaknesses and its wartime history of having been "saved" in part by Arab mujahideen could make it an easy and symbolic meeting and recruitment point for a new, white al-Qaeda network.