Assessing Militant Islamist Threats in the Balkans

By
Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic

Aug/Sept. 2002     - On the first anniversary of the events of September 11, there remains a credible danger of terrorist attacks by groups of well-funded Islamists in the Balkans, especially in the Muslim part of Bosnia, against American or allied targets.

Anti-American terror in Albania and the majority-Albanian regions of the former Yugoslavia -- parts of Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro -- is possible but unlikely. There is no strong support for an Islamist solution to the problems the Albanians have. Conditions such as weak border controls, a plentiful and cheap supply of weapons, rampant corruption, and strong organized crime networks are not sufficient reasons to suggest the likelihood of the re-emergence of an Islamist threat in these areas against American vital interests.

While there is reliable evidence that worrisome Islamist currents surfaced among various Albanian groups during the 1990s -- Osama bin Laden almost certainly made an appearance in Albania in 1994 to scout out a possible European beachhead, bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror organizations certainly moved about the Albanian lands with some success until about the end of 1999, and the presence of Islamist "charities" may still be cause for regional concern -- there is scant evidence that such currents could rock the American ship of state enough for it to take notice now or in the foreseeable future, for two simple reasons.

First, the governments and populations in Albanian lands are friendly to the United States and will continue to cooperate fully with any American requests for help in the war on terrorism because they will not forget the "humanitarian intervention" that gave Kosovo to them. Second, Serbs, Croats, and Macedonian Slavs, being Christians, are entirely deaf to calls for jihad and have every natural incentive to aid the U.S., not hinder it, in the war on terror.

Consistent with these factors, the focus on regional terror threats is necessarily centered on the Muslim area of Bosnia. Although this is the case, Bosnia's predominantly Muslim entity is no longer governed by a regime that is openly friendly to Islamic fundamentalism, as was the case during the Bosnian civil war and the first few years following the war. This is a key positive regional development from the point of view of American national security interests, for the current government in Sarajevo has attempted, with success, to cooperate with the United States in its war on terror.

Unfortunately, Bosnia remains open to the charge of harboring terrorists and facilitating the spread of Islamism for at least three inter-related reasons. First, more than 400 of the 4,000 "Afghani-Arab" mujahedin veterans of the Bosnian war remain in the country. They are protected by Islamist-friendly elements of the Bosnian secret police -- the Agency for Investigation and Documentation, or AID -- and its political sponsor, the still-influential Party of Democratic Action, or SDA, formerly headed by the Islamist former president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic. Second, there is a continuing shadowy presence of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups in Bosnia. Third, the institutionalized presence of an active Wahhabist "Islamic charity" network remains strong in the country. Wahhabism, an extremist offshoot of Sunni Islam, is an 18th century movement that calls for a return to an idealized form of Islam as practiced in the Arabian peninsula more than 1,000 years ago. It receives strong support from the current Saudi government.

As such, America must continue to keep a vigilant eye on the region so as to remain able to thwart attacks on its interests and incapacitate the ability of bin Laden and his Islamist associates to use the Muslim parts of the Balkans as staging areas for attacks on the United States, Europe, or Israel.

The terrorist network in Bosnia has yet to be disabled despite the presence of over 10,000 U.S. ground troops. On the other hand, the Bosnian Muslim government no longer sponsors terrorism by actively allowing its territory to be used as a staging ground and safe haven for terror or by directly supporting Islamist extremists close to bin Laden.

Since its pivotal November 2000 elections, the Bosnian Muslim government has become noticeably friendlier and categorically more responsive to U.S. requests for cooperation. For example, today, no Al-Qaeda lieutenant would be able to count on obtaining a Bosnian passport, something that was done routinely from 1993 until recently, including the issuance of one to bin Laden himself by the Bosnian Embassy in Vienna.

Abu Zubeida, a Palestinian from Gaza and bin Laden's point man on cooperation with other Islamist terror groups, would not be granted citizenship today as he was by Izetbegovic during the Bosnian war. He was the supervisor of the foiled attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001.

Iranian terrorist bases in central Bosnia were used as late as 1997 to train close to two dozen men, veterans of the Bosnian war who held Bosnian, Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan passports, to plan and carry out the assassination of Pope John Paul II in September of that year. Today, this would not be tolerated, much less encouraged.

Al-Qaeda bosses such as Mohammed Haydar Zammar, best known as Mohammed Atta's recruiter, and Abu El Maali (a.k.a. Abdelkader Mokhtari), the Algerian-born leader of a Bosnia- and Egypt-based group that plotted to attack U.S. military installations in Germany in 1998, no longer operate out of Bosnia -- but only as of a few months ago.

Men like Bensayah Belkacem and Imad El Misri, suspected senior Al-Qaeda operatives, as well as Karim Said Atmani, the roommate of Ahmet Ressimi, arrested at the U.S.-Canadian border on the eve of the new millennium with a carload of explosives destined for the Los Angeles airport, are no longer officially welcome to come in and out of Bosnia.

Despite the best efforts of the government in Sarajevo, however, the Muslim part of Bosnia remains a hub for Al-Qaeda recruiting and logistical support. As CIA Director George Tenet said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19, 2002, "U.S. and other international forces [deployed in southeastern Europe] are most at risk in Bosnia, where Islamic extremists from outside the region played an important role in the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s . . . . Some of the mujahedin who fought in the Bosnian wars of the early 1990s stayed there . . . . There is considerable sympathy for international Islamic causes among the Muslim community in Bosnia."

Yet the Bosnian Muslim government is trying. In January 2002, it handed over six Algerians -- one carrying both Yemeni and Bosnian identification -- to American military officials, who arranged their transport to the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba. The Algerians' plan, discovered through "illegally obtained" wiretaps of their cellular telephone conversations by U.S. intelligence, was to highjack several aircraft at an airstrip near Sarajevo and use them as missiles, à la 9/11, against American military installations in central Bosnia and the U.S. Embassy in the Bosnian capital. The discovery of the plan prompted the embassy's temporary closure.

Four of the Algerians were Al-Qaeda henchmen, with one having direct access to Abu Bakr Zubaydah, a close bin Laden associate. Another was a member of the Algeria-based Armed Islamic Group, and yet another belonged to Egypt's Al-Gama'at Al-Islamiyya, funded in part through the Saudi-based Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, whose assets were frozen in March 2002 following joint U.S.-Saudi raids on its Saudi headquarters. After these raids, the foundation's Bosnian operations were taken over by the Egyptian Islamic Group. This group, headed by a bin Laden associate, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was responsible for the 1997 attack in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 62 people. The foundation's Bosnian office was raided by Bosnian Muslim police in early June 2002.

In October 2001, a U.S.-led NATO contingent, with the cooperation of local authorities, raided the Sarajevo office of the Saudi High Commissioner for Aid to Bosnia, which had spent $600 million of the kingdom's money on Bosnia over the previous 10 years on the construction of arena-sized mosques, one costing an estimated $10 million, support for Islamic schools, and the financing of orphanages. To allow units of the strongest symbol of Western military might to take out a cash cow such as this was a strong display of the Bosnian Muslim government's apparently genuine shift in policy.

Domestic opposition to the policy shift diminished markedly when the NATO contingent discovered computer files containing marked photographs and maps of government buildings in Washington, files explaining how to operate a crop duster, millions of dollars in unmarked bills, and equipment used to make credit cards and State Department identification badges in the Saudi High Commissioner's office. The Saudis claimed strenuously that the whole thing was a set-up, but even the Bosnian Muslims knew better.

In the most encouraging display of cooperation with the U.S. yet, the Bosnian Muslim government has begun to move against non-Arab radicals as well. In mid-March 2002, Bosnian Muslim authorities were provided with intelligence that prompted the U.S. ambassador in Sarajevo to order the closure of the embassy for the second time since September 11, deciding that a credible threat of an imminent attack against American targets in Bosnia existed.

Apparently, an Al-Qaeda regional meeting to plan the attack was held in February 2002 in Sofia, Bulgaria, under the leadership of Esad Cancar, a Bosnian Muslim who fought in one of the Islamist units of the wartime Bosnian Muslim army, whose command structure at brigade level, indoctrination, and tactics were modeled after the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Cancar is fluent in Persian and attended Iranian training camps inside Bosnia in the days of Izetbegovic's accommodative policies toward Islamist fundamentalism. Cancar was arrested in March 2002 by Bosnian Muslim authorities, who questioned him about possible Al-Qaeda sleeper cells, but he was released on account of insufficient evidence.

More impressive was the arrest in May 2002 of five former Bosnian Muslim officials, including a former interior minister and head of AID, Bakir Alispahic, on charges of terrorism and espionage. The indictment charged that these officials cooperated with MOIS, an Iranian intelligence agency, in the establishment of a terrorist training camp near Sarajevo for the purpose of teaching espionage and terrorist skills, as well as training for the papal assassination. It also stated that they had plans to compromise or assassinate moderate Bosnian Muslim opposition figures such as Fikret Abdic, a long-time opponent of Izetbegovic.

An even more potentially dangerous threat to U.S. interests is the Sarajevo-based Wahhabist and jihadistic Active Islamic Youth, a group closely associated with rumors of a training camp in central Bosnia for Islamist fighters wanting to go on jihad to Chechnya and elsewhere. The Bosnian Muslim government is watching the group closely, but human rights regulations imposed from abroad make it difficult to do anything more than monitor its movements.

The insistence by the EU, OSCE, Office of the High Representative, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and non-governmental organizations on extremely tight legal procedures, total transparency, and human rights standards, which even the "progressive" Dutch or Swedes have trouble upholding, could result in a situation in which bureaucratic entities such as these are accused of supporting and rewarding terrorism under the guise of encouraging human rights and democratic self-determination.

The Bosnian Muslim government has been cooperative with the United States in the war on terror. Its intentions seem right, and its means seem just. But the road is long. This war will not end soon, and the need for Bosnian Muslim cooperation will be persistent. As NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said in mid-October 2001, "We . . . have been impressed by the actions of the government authorities in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The threat, however, has not gone. These networks have been disrupted, not eliminated. Investigations are continuing. Our work is therefore not finished."

The Muslims of Bosnia now seem to be turning their backs on Islamic fundamentalism. However, if the next elections return the SDA to power, whether it is led by a now visibly ailing Izetbegovic or an appointed successor, Bosnia could take a significant step backward. More importantly from the point of view of American security interests, the United States could lose a strong partner in its war on militant Islamist terror.

Cooperation between the Bosnian Muslim government and the United States needs to be consolidated and made to seem routine. Bosnia's turn toward the West should be secured with the strongest and most durable foundation contrivable. Just as the Serbs once stood as the bulwark against Ottoman ambitions in Europe in earlier centuries, the Bosnian Muslims can now stand as a bulwark against Islamist terrorism in Europe in the 21st century.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant