World

Extremists worry the Balkans, Europe’s Muslim heartland

An Islamic State flag appeared in early February on the roof of a house in Gornja Maoca, a community of ultra-conservative Muslims that Bosnian officials and Western intelligence services say is linked to networks that recruit jihadis for Syria and Iraq​. Photo taken Feb. 3, 2015.
An Islamic State flag appeared in early February on the roof of a house in Gornja Maoca, a community of ultra-conservative Muslims that Bosnian officials and Western intelligence services say is linked to networks that recruit jihadis for Syria and Iraq​. Photo taken Feb. 3, 2015. Reuters

One day in early February, the black flag of the Islamic State appeared on the roof of a dilapidated home in Gornja Maoca, an isolated hamlet in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The flag was gone when the police arrived, and whoever hoisted it was never found. But the episode reaffirmed to Bosnian officials and Western intelligence agencies that the settlement, peopled by followers of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, has ties to the networks that have recruited hundreds of Muslim men from across the Balkans to fight in Syria and Iraq.

“It is fair to say that it (Gorjna Maoca) is perhaps the biggest center of extremism in Bosnia,” said a Western intelligence official. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss sensitive information with a journalist. While the region hasn’t seen the kinds of mass terrorist attacks that have shocked France, they wouldn’t be a surprise, the official said: “We’ve seen aspirational plotting.”

Most of the men who’ve left the Balkans to fight in the Middle East come from Bosnia and Kosovo, parts of former Yugoslavia whose independence was secured by U.S.-led military interventions in the 1990s. Nearly half of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people are Muslim. Kosovo, whose 1.8 million population is 95 percent Muslim, arguably is Europe’s most pro-American country. A statue and massive portrait of former President Bill Clinton overlook a thoroughfare named after him in the capital, Pristina, where there’s also a street named for George W. Bush and a boutique named for Hillary Clinton.

Since the wars, the United States and its European partners have spent billions of dollars and years of diplomacy trying to help build the two nations into stable democracies. Yet both countries are mired in dysfunctional governance, pervasive corruption, ethnic divisions and poverty-fueled despair, conditions that have boosted the appeal of hard-line Islam, the seeds of which were planted, ironically, with the help of some of America’s closest Arab allies.

And even as Balkan men fight in Syria and Iraq, mostly with the Islamic State, fundamentalists at home are intensifying attacks on the legitimacy of the liberal version of Islam that’s evolved in the Balkans over centuries. The result is mounting fears that the assault on traditional Islam will intensify, fueling insecurity, and that Bosnia and Kosovo could become pathways to the West for deeply radicalized jihadis.

“For these conservative radical groups, their first purpose is to take over the Muslim community of Kosovo,” said Ramadan Ilazi, the country’s deputy minister for European integration and an expert on political Islam. “It’s a real challenge.”

Even if they don’t indulge themselves, most Balkan Muslims tolerate drinking and smoking. They eschew Islamic-style beards and veils and rarely – if ever – attend mosque. They freely mix with the opposite sex and members of other faiths, and marry non-Muslims.

Some traditional clerics who’ve spoken out against extremism have been harassed, assaulted and forced out of their mosques. They’ve had their sermons disrupted and have been denounced as infidels on videos and radical websites that condemn traditional Islam as apostasy.

On Monday in Bosnia, an alleged Islamist extremist died in an attack on a police station that killed a Bosnian Serb officer. In November in Kosovo, two American women serving as Mormon missionaries were assaulted by suspected extremists, two of whom were later charged, along with five others, with plotting terrorist attacks. An expatriate Kosovar was convicted of raking a bus with gunfire in 2011 at Frankfurt Airport, killing two U.S. soldiers, Germany’s first fatal attack by an Islamist. In 2013, a Bosnian court convicted a Wahhabi of planting a bomb that killed a Bosnian Croat police officer.

Reporters who’ve investigated Islamist groups and the recruitment of fighters, and politicians who’ve sounded alarms about creeping fundamentalism, have received death threats.

“Anyone who is not like them is (considered) a nonbeliever,” said Alma Lama, a Kosovo Assembly member who’s sought police protection for herself and her family because of “thousands” of threats triggered by her denunciations of hard-line Islam and its denial of women’s rights. “These guys are inciting hatred between religious groups and gender hatred.”

“The radicals are threats to us traditional Muslims, not to Serbs and not to Croats,” said Shaykh Edin Kukavica, a Bosnian cleric of Islam’s mystical Sufi branch who recently received a text message warning him that “The arrow is on its way.”

While the number of hard-line Islamists in both countries is very small, officials agree that just a few who acquire combat skills in the Middle East is too many.

“Even if only one person had gone, it would be a problem, and we are taking this problem very seriously,” said Amir Veiz, the director of counterterrorism for the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Bosnian state police.

Both countries have stepped up crackdowns on extremists, officials say, and are coordinating closely with U.S. and European intelligence agencies to throttle the flow of men and women to Iraq and Syria, where as many as 160 Bosnians and some 300 Kosovars, some with their families, are said to be fighting. A few joined the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian wing, but the bulk enlisted with the Islamic State.

Still, Kosovo, with its small population, remains the largest per-capita European contributor of fighters to the Islamic State, and some experts say both governments initially minimized the problem to cover up their failures to act earlier and to avoid alienating powerful religious conservatives.

“I had information that 150 to 200 people were fighting, but the government said there were only 10,” said Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist at Kosovo’s main independent newspaper, Koha Ditore, who charged that he was pressured to stop writing about the issue. “The government was trying to suppress this, but they couldn’t because the problem is a big issue for Kosovo.”

“We are already a bit late, I think, and this is why this is an emergency situation in terms of the need for a response, a response that is comprehensive economically speaking, socially, politically,” said Ilazi, Kosovo’s deputy minister for European integration.

Hard-line Islam was carried to the Balkans by hundreds of mostly Arab foreign fighters who helped Bosnia’s Muslim-led government, hamstrung by a U.N. arms embargo, resist the country’s dismemberment by Serbia and Croatia in a war that lasted from 1992 to 1995. A much smaller number joined the ethnic Albanian rebels who fought for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

The foreigners – many of whom later are thought to have joined al Qaida – were Takfiris, radicals who embrace violence in rejecting secular politics, culture and other faiths, and seek to return to the “pure” Islamic rule that they believe was founded by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh-century Arabian Peninsula.

They were backed by funds from Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Arab allies, and their proselytizing was reinforced by a flood of Islamist charities offering money, food and educational training in return for devotion to their hard-line practices.

Virtually all the foreigners eventually left – a few married Bosnian women – but the charities stayed. Flush with cash in struggling, war-damaged societies, they won devotees by expanding aid programs, rebuilding mosques and constructing new ones, supported by officials who welcomed the money and the patronage of powerful Muslim countries, experts said.

The charities “found a fertile place here,” said Denis Hadzovic, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Sarajevo policy institute. “They began to be more aggressive in their behavior and their efforts to promote another approach to Islam.”

While the Bosnian and Kosovar governments shuttered more than a dozen Islamist charities during crackdowns last year, the organizations’ influence is widely apparent.

Skullcapped men wearing Islamic-style beards and Arabic dress now are a common sight in the villages and cities of Kosovo and Bosnia, where their baggy, calf-length trousers are derided as “floodwater pants.” Young local clerics trained in fundamentalist seminaries in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are running mosques.

Stores selling Islamic women’s garb – including veils and head-to-toe coverings – religious texts and videos, halal food and other Arabic goods are clustered around Pristina’s Ottoman-era mosques, sharing streets with Western-style boutiques and bars offering martinis and mojitos.

In Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, sidewalk vendors hawk the same wares outside the Saudi-built King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud Cultural Center, the largest of its kind in the Balkans.

The center – with its Saudi-style mosque – is run by Saudis with diplomatic status, adding to the discomfort of many Sarajevans unnerved by the Gulf-funded mosque-building and Arab property investments such as the Hotel Bristol, where alcohol is banned.

“I try not to have any contact with these radical people in mosques or elsewhere,” said Adnan Talic, 54, a cobbler whose tiny shop in Sarajevo’s centuries-old Ottoman market is thick with the sweet scent of newly tanned leather. “We are afraid of them, but ignoring them is my way of fighting radical Islam.”

Several men in Gorjna Maoca denied any ties between the village and violent groups.

“We are good Muslims. We are true believers, and just as we don’t want anything bad to happen to us, we don’t want anything bad for anyone else,” said a bearded, skullcapped man working in his driveway. Like the others, he declined to give his name during a recent visit by McClatchy.

“More attention is being given to the way we look than is warranted. More attention was given by the media to that flag, and it represented nothing. Maybe the children put it there,” the man replied when asked about the display of the Islamic State flag, pictures of which were published by local media.

Current and former Bosnian security officials tell a different story, saying the hamlet is linked to extremist networks that run from Western Europe through the Balkans into the Middle East.

More than a dozen men associated with the village are among the Bosnians who’ve gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, they said. One of them, Emrah Fojnica, 23, blew himself up last August, killing 23 people in Baghdad. In 2011, the settlement hosted a Muslim from Serbia who’s now serving an 18-year jail term for spraying more than 100 bullets at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.

Possible U.S. ties to the extremist networks were highlighted in February, when a federal grand jury in Kentucky indicted six Bosnian immigrants on charges of sending money, military uniforms, combat boots and other military goods to Bosnians fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Political analysts, moderate clerics and other experts in Bosnia and Kosovo blame senior political and religious leaders, charging they ignored the creeping extremism for years. The leaders were happy to let Islamist charities reconstruct war-damaged mosques, build new ones, and provide aid and educational programs in return for devotion to their brands of Islam.

The few Bosnians who spoke out were publicly denounced by some political and religious leaders as “Islamophobes,” said Senad Pecanin, a co-founder of Dani, a crusading investigative magazine that he left in 2010 to practice law. “For years they were attacking anyone who was warning about the threat.”

In Kosovo, moderate clerics and political experts charged that the official Islamic Community, the independent body that oversees Islamic affairs, had been taken over by conservatives who’ve been replacing moderate imams with fundamentalists in a bid to appease radical elements and ensure continued financial support from the Middle East.

“I saw that I couldn’t get help from anyone, from the government, from the Islamic Community,” said Musli Verbani, 49, a moderate cleric whose car was fire-bombed in 2006 in what he charged was an intimidation campaign that led to his 2011 replacement by a hard-liner as imam of the main mosque in the southern Kosovo town of Kacanik.

Vedat Sahiti, an adviser to Kosovo’s chief Islamic cleric, Naim Ternava, denied that the Islamic Community had succumbed to Islamist influence and said the organization didn’t accept foreign aid.

“We don’t take money from the Middle East,” said Sahiti, shortly before proudly pronouncing that the organization’s new headquarters and seminary were built with funds from the Saudi and Qatari governments.

Critics noted that 15 clerics, including the then-grand mufti of Pristina’s main mosque, were among 55 people detained in August and September crackdowns for allegedly promoting violent extremism and recruiting fighters for Syria and Iraq.

Shpend Kursani, a senior researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a policy institute in Pristina, said the crackdowns last year had slowed the flight of young men to Syria and Iraq but that now he was seeing whole families going.

As part of an in-depth study, Kursani has been interviewing young Kosovars who’ve returned from Syria and Iraq. One has a master’s degree in international relations, while 37 percent had police records before they embraced radical Islam, he said.

What they all shared, he said, was little hope of a better future and bitter disillusionment with the corruption and nepotism that infect all levels of Kosovo’s political system. Even the anti-corruption mission in Kosovo run by the European Union is under investigation on suspicion of corruption.

Another factor contributing to radicalization, experts and officials said, is that many Kosovars feel betrayed and isolated by the West.

The country’s 2008 declaration of independence still hasn’t been recognized by the United Nations or all 28 EU members, making Kosovo the only Balkan country whose citizens need visas to travel to EU countries. They can, however, travel without visas to nearby Turkey, the crossing point to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Serbia refuses to renounce its claim to its former province, and it continues to exert enormous political influence through Kosovo’s tiny Serbian minority and its representatives in the legislature.

“We have all the elements of a failed state,” said Kursani. “The state cannot provide security to its citizens.”

  Comments