Skip to content

Is Islamist Radicalism Rising in Serbia?

The Sandžak region of southwestern Serbia — what the Serbs call Raška — is home to most of the country’s Muslims, where they form about sixty percent of the population. They call themselves Bosniaks, just like their neighbors and co-religionists in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and there are close religious and cultural connections between Sarajevo and Novi Pazar, the Sandžak’s main urban center.

Islamist radicalism has long been a worry for Belgrade and Serbian nationalists, who have warned since the 1980’s of a “green transversal” linking majority-Muslim Bosnia and Kosovo via Sandžak, a potential land-grab at the expense of Serbia and Orthodox Christianity in the Balkans. While there has never been convincing evidence that such a plan exists, neither is it fully a figment of the Serbian nationalist imagination, as some Balkan Muslims indeed have spoken of their desire to unite all their co-religionists in Southeastern Europe in a common, religiously-based state. Moreover, Serbian paranoia has been stoked by the independence of Bosnia and Kosovo, leaving only little Sandžak in the way of achieving this Islamist dream.

Just how much radicalism there is among Sandžak’s Muslims is an open — and to Belgrade very important — question. There is no doubt that extremist views have taken hold in certain quarters, as periodic police raids have revealed, while the issue cannot be separated from the far larger problem of Salafi jihadism in neighboring Bosnia. Some terrorist incidents in recent years have a Sandžak connection, for instance the 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy by Mevlid Jašarević, a native of Novi Pazar, while a few dozen Bosniaks from the region have gone to the Middle East, particularly Syria, to wage jihad, and some have been killed.

The biggest factor, however, is Muamer Zukorlić, a fiery preacher who has been the mufti (i.e. head imam) for Sandžak since 2007. Never missing a chance to act theatrically, the mufti, who has two wives and seven children, regularly gets into quarrels with Serbian authorities, having honed his ability to find hot-button yet mostly symbolic issues — the names of streets, for instance — that fire up Muslim hardliners and Serbian nationalists in equal measure. Zukorlić has carved out a niche as the defender of Bosniak rights in Serbia, while pushing a somewhat radical version of Islam that avoids the taint of overt jihadism. He has also spent energy on public quarrels with fellow Muslim clerics that have not contributed to Islamic unity in the region, while his attention-getting political stances have caused greater disharmony in an already troubled part of Europe.

Hence there have long been questions about what the mufti’s real agenda is. His political acts have veered towards the absurd, for instance his campaign to become Serbia’s president in 2012: he got 1.1 percent of the vote but garnered considerable media attention, while his call for autonomy for Sandžak predictably provoked outrage among Serbian nationalists who, having seen the Kosovo example, view that as mere cover for separatist revolt.

Zukorlić’s latest stunt has put him back on Balkan front pages. On September 5, the mufti led a parade of activists through Novi Pazar, men clad in military-style green uniforms and wearing red fezzes, carrying the flags of the Bosnian Army of the 1992-95 war. To make matters worse, they congregated to honor the memory of a local Muslim notable who served as mayor of Novi Pazar under Nazi occupation, overseeing the deportation of the region’s Jews to death camps, and was later executed by Tito’s regime for his collaboration, which included the murder of several thousand Serbian civilians.

Predictably, this parade generated press coverage and outrage. Rasim Ljajić, a Sandžak Muslim who serves as a minister in the Belgrade government, denounced the mufti’s stunt, observing that “Zukorlić is now demonstrating force to gain something more and promote his personal interests,” adding that the parade is harmful for the impoverished region: “It was hard to find investors for this area before, and this event removes even a theoretical chance of attracting them. The citizens of Sandžak should not look for culprits for this in Belgrade, Brussels, or Washington, but in their own backyard.”

On cue, Serbian nationalists have responded to Zukorlić’s parade — to them a pure provocation — with denunciations and hysterics. At last the feared “green transversal” is being made real, according to Belgrade hardliners, while bearded ultra-nationalists fighting in Ukraine with Russian-backed separatists have announced that, upon their return to Serbia, they will head straight to Novi Pazar to stage their own march, a measure that seems certain to harm the already precarious relationship between Bosniaks and Serbs in the region.

All this has led some to wonder what’s really going on here. This is the Balkans, after all, where intelligence agencies have a long history of penetrating extremist groups of all sorts and exploiting them for political purposes. As I’ve written about extensively, using agents provocateurs to manipulate enemies has long been Belgrade’s preferred method of neutering the opposition and reframing political debates. Balkan Islamists have had problems with Serbian intelligence for decades. Back in 1990, when Yugoslavia was falling apart, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosnian Muslim party, headed by Alija Izetbegović, was penetrated by Belgrade’s spies at the highest levels, while the wily Izetbegović, who had done multiple stints in Yugoslav prisons for his Islamist activism, himself had a relationship with Tito’s intelligence services than can be fairly assessed as complex.

Hence the recent analysis by the journalist Miloš Vasić in the Belgrade weekly Vreme, which asks important questions about what Zukorlić is really up to. Vasić has previously elaborated the problems that remain pervasive in the former Yugoslavia thanks to a lack of lustration. Communist-era secret services remain largely in place there, with baleful impacts on politics and society, as spies continue to play their old provocative games. As he observes of the mufti’s march:

The main question — namely, what this brings to Sandžak and its people and whom it benefits — has not been raised by anybody, but it is high time this thing was finally cleared up. Sandžak and its people have only harm from the mufti’s charlatan political adventurism. After twenty years (and more) of suspicions, pogroms, and discrimination, all they needed were the mufti’s uniformed thugs.

Cui bono? is indeed the relevant question in this case, and for anyone acquainted with Balkan politics and secret services, it must be asked, as Vasić does directly:

On the other hand, who benefits from the mufti? Well, those who made him, of course, those who brought him in, encouraged him, and push-started him way back when, in order that he should go on under his own steam until now, when fuel is running out. With this feeble-minded adventuristic gesture of parading uniformed louts, Mufti Zukorlić has come dangerously close to being branded as a paid agent provocateur in the service of forces to whom, in their desperation, Sandžak remains as the only “secessionist” bogeyman in a pandemonium of “haters of all things Serbian” and “destroyers of Serbia.” When such people do not exist, they need to be made up and at this activity, agents provocateurs have no match.

While there is a bona fide problem with Islamist radicalism in Sandžak, and it appears to be growing, there can be no doubt that the stunts of Mufti Zukorlić serve only to inflame internethnic passions and discredit his brand of extremism, at least temporarily. It certainly merits looking closely into what is really going on here. Belgrade’s spies have played such clandestine operational games for decades, sometimes successfully, sometimes with horrific consequences. Given the tinderbox that Southeastern Europe is today, thanks to war, instability, poverty, hopelessness, organized crime, and rising extremism, this is a dangerous game indeed.

The Isonzo and the Madness of War

Today Pope Francis denounced war as “madness” in a moving homily delivered at Redipuglia, at a vast monument to the dead of the First World War located in northeasternmost Italy, a stone’s throw from the Slovenian border. The pontiff did not mince words:

Humanity needs to weep and this is the time to weep … Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction … War is irrational; its only plan is to bring destruction: it seeks to grow by destroying … Greed, intolerance, the lust for power. These motives underlie the decision to go to war and they are too often justified by an ideology.

Pope Francis chose a very appropriate place to castigate war and those who advocate it as mad and irrational, as Redipuglia perfectly represents the brutal stupidity of deeply flawed war-making. It is located close to the Isonzo River, which witnessed the worst fighting of perhaps mankind’s most brutal conflict, the Great War. Between May 1915 and August 1917, the Italian Army attempted to cross the Isonzo and break through Austro-Hungarian lines in a series of eleven offensives, all of which were failures to one degree or another. Led by the inept bungler General Luigi Cadorna, who favored sheer brutality over tactical finesse — he made the much maligned Field Marshal Haig look like Napoleon — the Italians never achieved any major breakthroughs. In over two years of attritional fighting, the front budged only a few miles and in some places the Austro-Hungarian defenses never moved at all. In the process, Cadorna cost his country nearly a half-million dead.

After the bloodbath ended in late 1918, Italy collected its mountains of dead, gathering them in large ossuaries, the greatest of them at Redipuglia, located in the middle of the rocky limestone plateau overlooking the Adriatic known as the Carso, which witnessed so much fighting between mid-1915 and late 1917. After his Fascists took power in 1922, Benito Mussolini, who had been wounded in action in the Carso fighting, not far from Redipuglia, oversaw the construction of grandiose monuments to the dead of the Isonzo, his fallen comrades in arms.

Redipuglia’s massive multi-level ossuary, located at the peak of Monte Sei Busi, which witnessed savage fighting in 1915-16, is silently impressive. Here is the resting place of a hundred thousand dead Italian soldiers, victims of the Carso battles: forty thousand of those are unknown. To honor them, there is a monument with the simple inscription:


What does my name matter to you?

Cry to the wind


And I will rest in peace

The votive chapel at the top of the Redipuglia ossuary has a small museum filled with personal artifacts dug up all over the plateau — crosses, rosaries, pins, buttons, and the like — belonging to the legions of Italian dead. It is a story of a hundred thousand tragedies. One such recorded there is the death of three brothers, Achille, Ermino and Luigi Cortellessa, sons of a peasant family in Caserta, all of whom died on the Carso inside a year, the oldest of them just twenty-four. A faded photograph of the Cortellessa boys, located in the votive chapel, is all that remains of them.

The pope’s paternal grandfather, Giovanni Carlo Bergoglio, was one of the lucky ones. He fought on the Isonzo with the elite Bersaglieri, the rifle corps Mussolini also belonged to, but survived the war, later emigrating to Argentina, where the pontiff was born. Pope Francis recalled hearing “many painful stories from the lips of my grandfather.”

Before visiting Redipuglia, the pope started the day at Fogliano, just down the road, where the only major Austro-Hungarian cemetery located on the Italian side of the Isonzo valley can be found. Francis said prayers for the 14,406 Habsburg dead buried there, only 2,406 of whom lie in marked graves, with the rest remaining unknown. Above the entrance to the Fogliano cemetery is a sign reading Im Leben und im Tode vereint (United in Life and Death), and the men of a dozen nationalities of the long-defunct Habsburg Empire who gave their lives on the Isonzo indeed are united in perpetuity.

Today, in the era of the European Union, the notion of Italians and Austrians slaughtering each other in the hundreds of thousands over a minor Alpine river seems absurd. This is progress of an important sort. But Pope Francis’s visit to the Isonzo and his denunciation of war there is a message that the world needs to hear, especially as Europe’s largest country exploits nationalism in a manner Mussolini would have appreciated, saber-rattling and invading neighbors, thereby threatening Europe again with needless war. The ossuary at Redipuglia is a powerful reminder of where such madness ultimately leads.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about this subject, read my book, Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, which is available in English and Italian.


Arctic Move: Russia Gets Its Own NORTHCOM

In an important sign of Russia’s increasing militarization of the Arctic, a development with troubling implications for several NATO countries, the Kremlin has announced the establishment of a new military command that will be responsible for the country’s north and the Arctic sector. As reported in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) states it is creating the new Joint Strategic Command (JSC) North* “for the defense of Russia’s interests in the Arctic,” effective 1 October of this year, with all assigned units to be fully manned and equipped by 30 December.

In accordance with the MoD’s “Arctic 2020″ strategic plan that was approved by the Kremlin last year, JSC North will be comprised mainly of forces drawn from the present Western Military District (MD), and will function as Russia’s fifth military district, de facto, though it will not be termed as such. The new command’s lead element with be the Navy’s famed Northern Fleet, which will leave the Western MD by 1 December. 

JSC North will be composed also of new military contingents to be deployed in the Arctic zone, on Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Franz Josef Land, and Wrangel Island. Beyond naval units, JSC North will gain authority over the 1st Air and Air Defense Command, specifically the 1st Air and Space Defense Troops, including the 531st, 583d, and 1258th Air Defense (SAM) Regiments, the 331st and 332d Radio-Technical (i.e. Electronic Warfare and SIGINT) Regiments, plus other unnamed units stationed in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions. The quick stand-up of the new command will require considerable logistical support from the Central and Eastern MDs, according to Kremlin sources.

JSC North will collaborate closely with the Northwest Regional Command of Russia’s Interior Troops (MVD) and the regional border directorates of the Federal Security Service (FSB). General Dmitriy Bulgakov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, announced that new troops and bases in the Arctic will be in place and fully supplied and armed by the end of September, adding that JSC North will possess an eighteen-month supply of fuel, food, clothing, and medical equipment, to be pre-positioned in the Arctic region.

*ОСК «Север» in the original

Time for a Counterattack on the Kremlin

It’s my pleasure to offer an insightful guest post from Johan Wiktorin, former Swedish Military Intelligence and a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences. Follow him on Twitter: @forsvarsakerhet


In Ukraine, the cease-fire is on the ropes with daily reports of artillery-fire and shootings. It is established that the Russian Armed Forces is one of the warring factions. A couple of weeks ago, the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, acknowledged on television that Sweden had verified, supposedly by its own intelligence services, that Russian artillery was firing into Ukraine.

There are other proofs as well. In a long blogpost at Bellingcat a few days ago, journalist Iggy Ostanin showed convincingly that the individual Buk SAM-system that shot down MH17 in July has returned to Russia and resumed its place in the 53th Brigade of the Russian PVO (Air Defense Forces).

In Russia, different numbers are circulating with regard to how many soldiers have died in Ukraine. From members of the President’s Council of Human Rights a number of “more than 100″ has been named. Another figure is 140, taken from transcripts with soldiers from the Pskov area, where the elite 76th Airborne (VDV) Division is based. We also have an assessment between 300-400 KIA, but that claim has been rejected by the organization “Soldiers’ Mothers” as being too high. Since we have some experience to lean on, when it comes to losses in combat, it is possible to do a reasonable calculation in reverse.

In Sweden, the calculus for combat losses is around eight percent for a unit’s prolonged heavy combat. The spectrum for the losses themselves are 1/5 KIA, 3/5 WIA and 1/5 WIA with no medical care needed. This would mean that 1.6 percent (0.08 x 0.2) of the troops inserted to combat is KIA, which would mean 8,750 troops participating would result in 140 KIA, for example.

The figure of nearly 9 000 Russian troops in Ukraine can be corroborated by the courageous Valentina Melnikova, head of ” Soldiers’ Mothers” in Moscow, who claims their count is that 10,000 Russian troops have been deployed inside Ukraine, in total.

Not that the Kremlin cares. By using a twofold strategy, Moscow is outflanking one of the most efficient tools in the Western world, the free and credible media. Since the volume of information has been and is rapidly rising in the modern world, and at the same time the human mind’s ability to value information is more or less the same, they are flooding the world with outright propaganda and lies by establishments such as RT outside Russia and Channel One (State TV) inside the country.

For every news article produced in the West, there is one counter-proposal and one hilarious conspiracy produced by Moscow, which slows the information process and decision-making for the Western public and thereby the political base.

On the other hand, there is a concealment strategy as well. By raising the bar to “prove” important facts, the Russians are masquerading in every detail. No patches, no paintings and heavy use by proxies, some of them intelligence officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB) or Military Intelligence (GRU) posing as separatists. These steps produce ambiguity, and therefore the established media has difficulty checking facts out, and instead has to be careful in the wording describing the Kremlin’s actions and policy.

Thus, as in guerrilla warfare, the opposition wins by not losing. By overwhelming the Western public information system in terms of both quantity and demands on quality, the Kremlin is producing a counter-narrative powerful enough to reduce Western responses.

Plus Vladimir Putin is playing in other arenas as well. Over the last decade, Russia has refined its overarching strategy to bear upon each and individual European country. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sounds rather similar to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when describing the future for liberal democracies.

In France, the Kremlin has been flirting with the nationalist right, resulting in an open admiration of the Russian leader by the republic’s very possibly next president, Marine Le Pen. The socialists in France for their part are doing everything to avoid a cancellation of the sale of the already ordered two Mistral amphibious ships to Russia: a 21st century version of Lenin’s rope to the capitalists.

In the UK, the government is in a stir and distracted, after the last poll showing a possible independence vote for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. While Prime Minister David Cameron has displayed some leadership qualities regarding the threat from the “Islamic State”, his European policy is in tatters with a promise to organize a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, should the Conservatives win the election next year. Labour, on the other hand, risks losing their most important electoral region, Scotland, which would mean a strong downturn for them in the next election. All this leaves the floor open for the nationalists of UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage often is seen on the TV programs of … RT.

This leaves us with Germany. This economic engine of Europe is the most consistent power with the potential to confront Russia. While Germany has been zig-zagging between a pragmatic conservative, NATO-positve line, and an equally pragmatic line similar to 1970s Ostpolitik, for now Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaning in the former direction. Being raised in DDR and speaking the Russian language, she knows more than most the Kremlin mentality.

Being a strong economy that is treated with respect even in the Kremlin, Berlin is very important for the Transatlantic link to hold together. However, Germany has one disadvantage. Berlin does not want to get involved in an armed conflict with Russia and that is also known in the Kremlin. That line of thinking resonates through German political life, and Vladimir Putin knows that too well, having the former Bundeskanzler Schröder as a close friend.

Such is the state of Europe, which the USA is supposed to lead. NATO just finished its summit in Wales and the spin-doctors were working at double-speed. Now, it was announced, it is the time to form a new force inside the Alliance. Like a Russian doll, obviously, and much drumming was heard for the foundation of NATO’s new mission. Although Russia has broken both the CFE and INF Treaties, invaded Georgia and grabbed Crimea, it was not until this summer the Alliance started to wake up. But 4 000 soldiers will not impress the Kremlin, which can muster tenfold as many on NATO’s eastern borders in a moment.

And just to prove their point, Russian special services snapped a seasoned Estonian counterintelligence officer on duty close to the Russian border. Here, Kremlin rulers displayed outright contempt for NATO by performing this skillful and stunning act just days after President Obama in the capital of Estonia assured everyone in the Alliance that the “Musketeer credo” — all for one and one for all — is still in place. By carrying out this cunning operation the Kremlin has done its best to discredit the US President personally as well as undermining his words.

The truth is that Vladimir Putin and his loyal oligarchs are on their way to outperform Western leaders on the ladder of escalation. Grounded in a solid and proper belief that Western superiority is overwhelming in conventional arms, the Kremlin has admitted that fact and therefore developed a modern concept for warfare below the threshold of ordinary conventional warfare with tanks and artillery. By crafting Special War, as Professor John Schindler coined it, with propaganda, provocations, deception and special forces working under the umbrella of the officers in of Moscow’s security state, Russia does everything it can to avoid confronting Western strengths in the conventional military arena.

The same goes for the nuclear field, where the risk of mutual annihilation by intercontinental missiles with multiple warheads builds a scary ceiling. In contrast, the Russian armed forces are devoting significant resources and thinking to develop a concept for using tactical nuclear missiles on the 21st century battlefield. By building that capacity into platforms such as the SS-26 Stone, they are putting forward two difficult questions to the Western world.

The first is to find these mobile systems in order to engage them. Compared to strategic weapons, which in many cases can be localized and followed, the SS-26 in their mobile missile brigades moves around on the battlefield and can be relatively easy hidden. More important is that the capacity of these weapons drives a wedge across the Atlantic. The strategic message from Russia of having this capability is that they may be ready to use them, but it is not directed at the Continental United States since their range is far too limited.

This puts Washington, DC, in a major dilemma on how to respond, even today. Should the Americans start a rearmament of their own limited-range nuclear capacity and place these weapons on European soil, risking protests from strategically disengaged Europeans? Or should the White House just leave it there and risk a Russian propaganda offensive about how vulnerable and even abandoned Europe is? Thereby the Kremlin is threatening to outmaneuver the West by surrounding the conventional capability both below and over it in terms of escalation. How to break this momentum?

As the great Sun Tzu stated: “Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans.”  It is now time to start acting and not going merely tit-for-tat with Moscow.

One formula to employ, though the techniques required might require deep thinking, is to break the bond between the Farages, the Schröders, the de Villiers alike and the Kremlin on the Western side. That means attacking possible venues of Moscow-funded corruption, which is slow-cooking Western values.

Another angle of attack is much easier to spell out. The time has arrived for some good, old-fashioned treatment of Russian intelligence operatives. We have to expel them from the West. A coordinated US/European counterintelligence operation, in which every suspected Russian operative is sent home, sends a very powerful message into the heart of the security state that Russia regrettably has become. It also disrupts operations going on in our countries, where officers from the FSB, GRU and SVR are directing illegals, trying to influence people in high places while recruiting more to secretly work for Moscow.

This will buy the West some time and space to craft a workable strategy to counter Russia’s powerful propaganda and its tactical nuclear weapons. Not that we should have any doubts that the Kremlin eventually will fail, but it is the potential for great havoc wrought by frightened men around Red Square that we must avert, while there remains time to do so.


Defeating the Islamic State: A How-To Guide

Last night President Barack Obama addressed the nation, explaining his plan to degrade and defeat the Islamic State. I liked much of what I heard, with the “better late than never” caveat, but I long ago grew skeptical of Obama’s speeches, which often over-promise and under-deliver, so I will be suitably impressed if this plan is actually carried out. I’m not convinced that the suggested counterterrorism templates of Somalia and Yemen are ideal for employment in this case, but at this point any bias for presidential action against the murderous Islamic State is welcome.

We already have the nay-sayers, complaining about the lack of an “exit strategy,” as well as bellowing from George W. Bush-era strategists who, having failed to make their counterinsurgency dreams come true in Iraq the last time, are determined to harass President Obama until he makes the same mistakes. Fortunately, he will not, and the potshots of yesterday’s soi-disant war-makers can be ignored.

I recently explained what a successful strategy to defeat the Islamic State should look like, involving the aggressive application of U.S. and Allied airpower in combination with local proxies on the ground. This approach is attritional — there will be no “big wins” in this fight — and imperfect, but it is the only practical strategy at present. Putting large numbers of American “boots on the ground” in Iraq to defeat an uprising would be a fool’s errand now (it always was, but that’s another story). That said, the addition of superb American Special Operations Forces, the world’s most lethal covert killers,  to this strike package will degrade the Islamic State’s military capacity over time, meaning years not months, and will lead to its ultimate defeat in the Middle East. It remains to be seen if Obama will actually do this, but the path to victory is clear for those inside the Beltway who wish to find it.

I also advised Washington, DC, to get serious about the jihadist threat in other ways, such as dropping security-as-theater and dealing with real threats in a straightforward and adult manner. This, alas, seems unlikely to happen in this administration — though, to be fair, it didn’t happen under Obama’s predecessor either (indeed, the current occupant of the White House has continued, not created, most of this silliness). Institutionalized escapism has become a fully bipartisan American political trait, with baleful consequences for our national security and much beyond.

Nevertheless, it ought to be made clear that the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria is ultimately manageable as long as the United States is willing to employ persistent force in combination with partners. If we fail to do so, others — meaning above all Iran — are far less squeamish than we are in such affairs, and will annihilate Salafi jihadists in their region, along with lots of civilians, if we refuse battle. The Pasdaran, Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guards Corps, is not encumbered, as Western militaries are, by platoons of lawyers and restrictive Rules of Engagement. We may not like the consequences of Tehran taking the lead in this struggle, however.

The real threat presented by the Islamic State is to the West itself, thanks to the vast and unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have joined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. Even top-notch European security services are already overwhelmed by the size and scope of this threat, with hundreds of European jihadists returning home every month, fresh from battle on behalf of the Islamic State, and ready to cause mayhem and recruit others for the jihad.

What, then, is to be done? What does strategic victory over Salafi jihadists look like? I hinted here:

The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.

To vanquish the Salafi jihad in the West, where the Islamic State wishes to perpetrate acts of terror on a scale even Osama bin Laden never attempted, its infrastructure in Europe and beyond must be put out of business. This growing cadre of extremists among us in the West, what I term the Sixth Column, actually is comparatively easy to defeat, since their skills in counterintelligence and operational security — the vital tools of any successful terrorist group — are customarily lacking, indeed often laughably weak. Although they are paranoid about spies in their midst, which constitutes a critical weakness for them, Salafi jihadists (unlike, for instance, Iranian-trained Hizballah) are seldom adept at rooting them out effectively.

Taking a page from the Russians, who are masters of this dark art, this is where a counterterrorism strategy based on provocation is needed. It is not difficult to cause terrorists, particularly inexperienced ones longer on radical talk than effective action, to do self-defeating things, thereby discrediting their virulent message. It is not necessary to perpetrate “false flag” terrorism to defeat the terrorists — which, although highly successful in many cases, is something which no law-based democracy could countenance. Instead, through careful application of offensive counterintelligence coupled with denial and deception, in a patient and holistic manner, Western states together can undo the Salafi jihad movement in the West before it grows unmanageably dangerous.

This would be simply a 21st century version of the Second World War’s British Double-Cross System after which this blog is named: employing multidisciplinary counterintelligence, aggressively applied in a strategic manner, to gain control of the enemy’s intelligence apparatus and thereby blind him and render him vulnerable to mistakes, confusion, and self-deception.

Western security services actually have considerable experience with such messy matters more recently than the Second World War. The British managed a small-scale version of this in Northern Ireland, leading to the ultimate defeat of the IRA in any military sense by the early 1990s, thereby paving the way for long-term peace in that troubled province. In Germany today, the Neo-Nazi movement is so thoroughly swiss-cheesed with government agents, at the highest levels, as to be more or less an appendage of the domestic security service. America is no slouch in this shadowy department either. Hoover’s FBI in the 1960s and early 1970s did a commendable job with its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in disabling far-left and far-right groups in a comprehensive manner without killing anyone. (I know the mere mention of COINTELPRO brings nostalgics on the Left into a lather; I notice they object less when the identical offensive counterintelligence techniques, applied by the FBI, broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The issue is will more than capability. If we are not willing to apply non-lethal counterintelligence techniques against the Islamic State, which is vastly more dangerous than the IRA, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, or the KKK, we may wish to consider giving up now. Applying offensive counterintelligence in a strategy based on penetration and provocation is a messy business, and there will be mistakes, but it is not based on killing, neither does it involve invading other people’s countries, much less occupying them.

Assassination is a legitimate technique against virulent terrorists, but it is a dangerous tool that must be applied carefully; it can be overused as well as misused, with bad consequences for any democracy. Moreover, provocation done right leads terrorists to kill each other, rather than innocent people. Every hour Salafi jihadists spend trying to detect moles in their ranks is an hour they are not building bombs, spreading hate, and learning to fly airliners. Offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, is highly effective at growing lethal paranoia in the minds of the already pretty paranoid.

We need not reinvent the wheel here. The implosion of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) offers an ideal template. Back in the mid-1980s, the ANO was one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations, responsible for murder and mayhem across Europe and the Middle East, including the deaths of several Americans. Abu Nidal had been thrown out of Arafat’s PLO for his violent madness, becoming the world’s arch-terrorist during the mid-Reagan years. (Providing the spark for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was one of his more consequential terrorist acts.) Then, suddenly, he disappeared from the radar and went Elvis.

What happened was Abu Nidal killed off his own organization. A long-term deception operation by several intelligence services (including American), working together, convinced the already half-mad Abu Nidal that his group was swarming with spies and traitors. Instead of finding these (mostly mythical) moles, Abu Nidal decided to basically kill everyone. Over a few months in 1987-88, he unleashed his fearsome security force against his own people, murdering about 600 ANO members, many of them tortured to death in a medieval fashion. Some 170 terrorists were murdered in a single terrible night. With half the group dead and the other half terrified and demoralized, Abu Nidal fled to Baghdad with the remnants of the ANO, under Saddam Hussein’s protection, where they remained until the Americans arrived in the spring of 2003. (U.S. intelligence very much wanted to find Abu Nidal, but it turned out he was dead, ostensibly after having shot himself….several times.)

The Islamic State represents a far more serious and persistent threat to the West than any Palestinian terrorists ever did, and they merit at least as tenacious and cunning counterterrorism techniques applied against them as were used against the ANO. There is considerable false morality at work if we are willing to use drones to kill thousands of terrorists — and along with them hundreds of innocents from “collateral damage” — not to mention occupying countries for years with awful humanitarian consequences, but we are unwilling to wage Special War, which is far less expensive in blood, treasure, and morality.

But will does not represent the only challenge. There are bureaucratic issues at play as well, as there always are in the real world of espionage, which day-to-day has a lot more to do with jockeying for institutional influence, budgetary cat-fights, and endless PowerPoint presentations than actual spying. In the first place, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is not conditioned to think in strategic terms; by its very nature it’s about tactics, not the big picture. Therefore it may be necessary to create a new organization — small, select, elite, and very secretive — to wage Special War against terrorists (and against troublesome states like Russia too: the counterintelligence methods employed are more or less identical against both state and non-state actors) that can think and act strategically, not just tactically.

Over a decade ago I briefed this concept in classified detail to IC and DOD seniors and was told it was “impossible” — they meant bureaucratically of course. When DC rice bowls win, so do the terrorists. In 1942, FDR created the shadowy Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA — over the strenuous objection of the Army, the Navy, and the FBI, who all (rightly) saw their secret rice bowls getting dented — with a pen-stroke, and there is no reason something similar cannot be done today by any president, if there exists the will to do so.

There is also the touchy matter of keeping secrets. Simply put, if we cannot keep Special War out of the newspapers, there is no point in doing it. Beyond the issue of leaks, which all White Houses of late have been prone to, the Snowden disaster raises troubling questions about the ability of the IC and DOD to protect its most cherished secrets. Until Washington, DC, can get serious about security clearances and merely defensive counterintelligence, it would be a mistake to embark on any shadowy offensive counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State, which must be kept secret for decades to be effective.

Seriousness, then, is the real issue. If the West wants to win this war, it will. We cannot lose to a cabal of neo-medieval barbarians, we can only defeat ourselves. The Islamic State is murderous and fanatical, but not yet accomplished in international terrorism. It is imperative that we defeat them before they learn those deadly skills and apply them against our homelands, as they ardently wish to. Today, the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the day that opened the new era of Western counterterrorism, it is high time, at last, to seriously start thinking strategically — not just tactically — about victory over Salafi jihadism and how to achieve it.

Operation DAMASCUS

Ten days after I castigated Bosnian officials for not enforcing their own counterterrorism laws by arresting some fifty Islamist foreign fighters known to have returned to Bosnia-Hercegovina from Syria and Iraq in recent months, Sarajevo belatedly sprung into action and launched a major assault on the Salafi jihadist infrastructure in the country.

Last Wednesday, 200 Bosnian police plus officials from the State Protection and Investigation Agency (SIPA) raided more than a dozen locations over six hours in what the authorities named Operation DAMASCUS. Planned for weeks and based on months of SIPA surveillance of extremists in towns and cities across Bosnia, the police executed arrest warrants in Sarajevo, Kiseljak, Zenica, Maglaj, Srebrenik, Buzim, and Teslić.

The details of Operation DAMASCUS have been reported in the Sarajevo newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna, where this event is the cover story. The biggest catch was Bilal Bosnić, a radical imam who is the de facto leader of Salafi jihadism in the country, particularly its very radical variant that is affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (his competitor, Nusret Imamović, has been in Syria for several months, where he backs the rival, Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra faction). Notorious for his fiery and YouTube-friendly sermons exhorting his followers to join the caravan with the Islamic State, Bosnić has spent considerable time in Central Europe causing trouble and recruiting for the jihad, principally in Italy and Austria. His arrest therefore is important.

The bearded imam was taken into custody at his farm near Buzim, in Bosnia’s far west where he lives with his four wives and sixteen children; there were also a dozen “guests” in the residence who had come to Bosnić to receive religious instruction, he said, in his very crowded house. The imam ostensibly supports himself by tending goats — his previous career as an accordion player in a folk band ended abruptly when Bosnić found religion — but Bosnian intelligence believes that he receives funds from abroad, likely with the help of Iranian intelligence, which possesses a robust covert infrastructure in Bosnia dating back more than two decades.

Bosnić is the “big fish” in this operation, since he can be linked to dozens of Bosnians and other Europeans who have joined the Middle Eastern jihad on behalf of the Islamic State. Also arrested was Hamdo Fojnica, a highly radical preacher who sent his own son, Emrah, to Iraq, where last month he killed himself with a suicide vest in Baghdad, killing twenty-four civilians, including six children, two of them infants. The elder Fojnica publicly celebrated his son’s “martyrdom.” Another radical taken into custody was Fikret Zukić, a prolific Islamic State recruiter who has sent two of his sons to fight in Syria.

Several jihad veterans were taken into custody too, including Ibro Delić from Zenica, who fought in Syria for several months last year then went home to recruit more fighters, regaling them with tales of his derring-do in the battle for Aleppo. Emin Hodžić was arrested in Sarajevo, where he was living since his return from Syria, where he met his wife, a Serbian citizen who had gone to Syria with her parents and brothers to partake of the “family jihad” experience. Senad Hukić from Tuzla, a close friend of Imam Bosnić, is an economist who had participated in “humanitarian missions” to Syria that were actually cash-smuggling operations for the jihad, according to SIPA, which led to his arrest. The police missed Senad Čolaković from Zenica, a veteran of the notorious 7th Muslim Brigade during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, and now an energetic jihad recruiter connected to several Bosnians who have gone to Syria and Iraq, who was not at home when authorities tried to execute his arrest warrant. His family said he was in Slovenia “on business.”

Operation DAMASCUS has revealed a troubling connection to Slovenia, where Bosnian radicals have been agitating among the Muslim community in that small and peaceful Alpine country. According to Bosnian intelligence, two Slovene converts, Rok Žavbi and Boštjan Skubica, went to fight in Syria after meeting with Bilal Bosnić (perhaps importantly, the imam has family in Slovenia). After spending time on Bosnić’s farm at Buzim, presumably to prepare them for jihad, the pair traveled to Sarajevo via the Salafi “ratline,” then proceeded to Syria via Turkey. Žavbi and Skubica are believed to be the first Slovenes to join the Salafi jihad on behalf of the Islamic State.

This overdue action by Bosnian authorities deserves praise. While not as comprehensive as the police raids recently undertaken in Kosovo, which seem to have dismantled the Islamic State’s infrastructure in the country, at least temporarily, Operation DAMASCUS nevertheless represents a step in the right direction. In addition to the sixteen extremists taken into custody, SIPA seized an impressive stash of automatic weapons, grenades, explosives, and ammunition, much of which apparently had been taken back to Bosnia from Syria. There is no doubt that Bosnian intelligence will learn a great deal about the Salafi jihad infrastructure from these arrests, and that information will be valuable to European partners who are trying to keep domestic extremism in check.

That said, there is no room for optimism yet. Following the familiar pattern, Salafi activists in Bosnia have pushed back, claiming the arrests are acts of “state terrorism” that violate their human rights. More seriously, seven of the sixteen men arrested were quickly released by authorities, among them Hamdo Fojnica, who is free to return to recruiting suicide bombers for the jihad. Bosnian justice has a spotty track record on extremism, with known jihadists going free when charges are mysteriously dropped or terrorists somehow “escape” from custody.

SIPA has promised that more arrests are coming, and all those interested in peace and tranquility in Southeastern Europe will hope that is true. Operation DAMASCUS represents the confrontation with Bosnia’s jihadist infrastructure that Sarajevo has long put off, knowing how deeply that network has penetrated Bosnian society, going back to the 1990s, thanks to foreign money, espionage, and meddling. The longer the reckoning with extremism is delayed, the worse the situation will get — in Bosnia and across Europe.

Putin’s Secret Friends in Paris

Efforts by Russian intelligence to purchase (or at least rent) friends in Western and Central Europe are not new, but in recent months they have increased markedly due to the Russo-Ukrainian War. As the crisis between Moscow and Kyiv has worsened, the Kremlin has redoubled its secret work to acquire helpers, what they term agents of influence, in NATO and European Union countries. While Moscow has friends on the Left lingering from the last Cold War, much of the Kremlin’s recent covert outreach has been to the Right, especially to Europe’s rising far Right. Hungary is a particular hotbed of activity by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Military Intelligence (GRU), where, as I’ve recently reported, Kremlin ties to the far Right (indeed quasi-fascist) Jobbik party are important and barely concealed.

France is a source of particular concern, however, given that country’s size and prestige, as well as its nuclear weapons. The rise of the National Front is the major political story in Paris nowadays, and a certain overt Putinophilia is detectable in that party’s ranks and leadership too. Party boss Marine Le Pen blames the EU, not Russia, for the war in Ukraine, and admits to possessing a soft spot for Vladimir Putin: “I have a certain admiration for the man. He proposes a patriotic economic model, radically different than what the Americans are imposing on us,” she recently explained.

French counterintelligence is concerned that the National Front may be getting a bit too cozy with the Kremlin, as elaborated in an article in the Paris weekend paper Le Journal du Dimanche that looks into the Putin lobby in Paris. There are concerns about TV Libertés, a network established by a former National Front cadre that adheres to a decidedly pro-Moscow editorial line and features a suspicious number of Kremlin-linked guests, including Sergey Naryshkin, the Duma chairman who is banned from coming to France due to sanctions against him. Despite these sanctions, Naryshkin somehow came to Paris to meet with French politicians, mostly right-wing, as well as businesspeople involved in trade with Russia.

Many of those facilitating such meetings and getting Russia good press in France are tied to the National Front, a fact not missed by French counterintelligence which, as I’ve previously reported, is concerned about rapidly rising and aggressive SVR and GRU activities in the country. Parallels with KGB operations are not exact, yet as one Parisian analyst concluded, “The National Front doesn’t have the same social connections as the French Communist Party did during the Cold War, but Russia is investing a great deal on the National Front and the popular right-wing to get its ideas across.”

Front organizations play an important role, as they did in Soviet times, and Paris has made note of advocacy groups such as the Franco-Russian Dialog Association (Association Dialogue Franco-Russe), which is chaired by Thierry Mariani, France’s former transportation minister, and Vladimir Yakunin, a onetime KGB officer. Questions have also been raised about this summer’s visit to Moscow by the right-wing politico Philippe de Villiers, where he was warmly greeted by Putin — the French aristocrat also plans to build a theme park in Russian-occupied Crimea — not least because de Villiers’ brother Pierre just happens to be chief of the French General Staff.

Concerns about Russian money and influence on the French Right, particularly regarding the National Front, are spoken of in mostly hushed tones in Paris, but concerns are mounting in counterintelligence circles about Moscow’s covert influence on the party, particularly because the National Front is rising fast in opinion polls. Notwithstanding the presence of Kremlin agents of influence in the party’s ranks, Marine Le Pen may well be the next president of the republic, amid warnings that her party is “at the gates of power.” The National Front’s message of sovereignty, economic populism, and French patriotism has struck a chord with many alienated citizens. The extent to which the party has also struck a chord in Moscow is an important question that needs to be answered, preferably before Marine Le Pen becomes France’s first female president.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 541 other followers