Back in 2007, my book Unholy Terror ruffled quite a few feathers by pointing out the unpleasant truth that, in the 1990s, Bosnia-Hercegovina became a jihadist playground and a major venue for Al-Qa’ida, thanks to malign Saudi and Iranian influences. This was off-message, to put it mildly, to critics eager to defend failed Western (especially American) policies in the Balkans, as well as the usual coterie of jihad fellow-travelers and Useful Idiots, plus those eager, for personal reasons, not to have anyone look too deeply into where Saudi money goes in Europe.
However, my essential message — that Islamist extremism, though a largely imported phenomenon in Bosnia, has put down local roots and is likely to metastasize further due to that country’s intractable socio-economic problems — has been proven sadly accurate over the last seven years. For years, the debate over Islamism in Bosnia, and Southeastern Europe generally, was divided between security practitioners on one side and academics and journalists on the other, with the former group, which actually understood what was happening on the ground, being concerned about growing radicalism, while the latter bunch was generally happy to avert eyes from obvious signs of trouble, and to hurl accusations of bias and “Islamophobia” at those who pointed out what was happening.
But recently even many academics and related wishful-thinkers have been willing to concede that Bosnia indeed has a rising problem with Islamist extremism. In early 2013, the International Crisis Group, a major NGO that can be considered a standard bearer of Western received wisdom about the Balkans, admitted that there actually is a problem, indeed a “dangerous tango” of Islamic radicalism and nationalism in Bosnia. This was progress of a sort.
By the benchmark of terrorist attacks, Bosnia is not a major hot-spot, there having only been a few, fortunately not very deadly, jihadist terrorist incidents in recent years, such as the blowing up of a police station in Bugojno in 2010 and a shooting attack on U.S. Embassy Sarajevo in 2011. Yet there is little comfort in this, as security experts know. In the first place, Bosnian radicals tend to go abroad to cause mayhem. Their country is viewed as a European safe haven by extremists, a place to build networks personal, ideological, and financial (often routed through Austria too, since Vienna is the de facto hub of Islamist extremism in the region) to support the jihad elsewhere, including in Europe. It is, in other words, a staging base — Iranian intelligence takes a similar view of the country — and it’s off-message for radicals to conduct terrorism in Bosnia, which only brings unwanted scrutiny to their activities.
For years, corrupt Bosnian officials have looked the other way about rising extremism in their midst. Even when they are arrested, known radicals tend to have charges mysteriously dropped or, in a worst case, they “escape” from prison under unexplained circumstances. Here Saudi money and Iranian influence, which have been nurturing clandestine networks for nearly a quarter-century in Bosnia, play a malignant role. Honest Bosnian cops and spies, who do exist, customarily can do little to change this situation, in no small part because Western countries, who could help significantly, are usually reluctant to admit how serious the problem is. Thus you have top Bosnian security officials saying one thing to Western diplomats and media, and something very different — the painful truth — behind closed doors. Welcome to Sarajevo.
The Syrian civil war and the bloody disintegration of Iraq, with the prominent role of foreign fighters in those awful conflicts, have concentrated minds in Bosnia, as in many European countries. Reliable estimates place the number of Bosnians who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage holy war in the low hundreds since 2011, with about seventy in the region right now. Among them is Nusret Imamović, the country’s leading Salafi jihad propagandist and a minor media gadfly, who went to Syria late last year to bolster the troops in the field. It bears noting that Imamović supports Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida-backed jihad faction in Syria, not the more radical Islamic State (IS), leading to a schism of sorts in Bosnian extremist circles, since younger Balkan radicals tend to back IS and seek to join its ranks.
Many Bosnian Muslims were shocked on August 7 when Emrah Fojnica, a twenty-three year old Bosnian IS fighter, blew himself up in a suicide attack in Baghdad. Along with two “brothers” from Saudi Arabia and Libya, Fojnica strapped on a bomb vest and walked into a crowded market, killing twenty-four civilians, among them eleven women and six children, two of them infants. As suicide bombing is all but unknown in Bosnian extremist circles, questions arose about what was going on, particularly when it was revealed that the dead man’s father openly celebrated his son’s “martyr’s death.” Further, it emerged that the younger Fojnica was well known to Bosnian authorities and had been arrested in connection with the 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, but was acquitted of terrorism charges for no apparent reason.
It has been difficult for Bosnian authorities to stem the flow of would-be jihadists headed to Syria and Iraq, not least because Turkey makes it so easy for extremists to transit its territory without hassle. And to be fair to Sarajevo, no European country has yet built a working system to prevent radicals from making for the Middle East with jihad on their minds. It was taken as a positive sign in the spring when Bosnia implemented a new law to punish citizens who go abroad to wage jihad with real consequences, including up to ten years in prison. At last, something was being done, or so it seemed.
In Bosnia, however, signing a law into effect and actually implementing it are two different things. As revealed in new reports in the Sarajevo newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna, which has a long history of excellent investigative journalism on extremism and corruption in Bosnia, some fifty Bosnian jihadists have returned home from Syria and Iraq over the last two months, i.e. since the new law has been in effect, yet not a single one of them has been arrested. Worse, Bosnian authorities have not even brought a single jihadist in for questioning, even though their identities are known to Bosnian security agencies, not least because the Balkan IS contingent openly boasts about its exploits on Facebook.
Moreover, Salafi propagandists continue to exhort young Bosnians to wage jihad abroad, with regular paeans to the new “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, both online and in Bosnian mosques, all of which is said to be illegal, but apparently is not in actuality. Just this week, Bilal Bosnić, the leader of the pro-IS faction among Bosnian radicals, told his followers to join the IS in battle, with no reaction from the authorities.
In the meantime, Salafi-related violence continues to rise in Bosnia. In early August, Damir Delić, a street criminal who turned to religious radicalism in an all-too-common pattern, led police on a Hollywood-style high-speed car chase through downtown Sarajevo, with shots fired at police, and the police eventually subduing Delić with a gunshot to the leg. He was known to authorities, being notorious in his Sarajevo suburb for assaulting young Muslim women on the street who were not dressed according to Delić’s view of modesty. As Bosnians return home, fresh from the killing fields of Iraq and Syria, where they have learned to decapitate and blow up innocents, we can expect thugs like Delić to have a new generation of collaborators and teachers.
This rising tide of violent extremism can be combated successfully. Last week, authorities in Kosovo conducted a series of raids across the tiny country that arrested forty suspected radicals who had fought in Syria and Iraq. This sent a strong message that extremism will not be tolerated and the law will be enforced. Relative to population, forty jihadists arrested in Kosovo is like Germany hauling in 1,800 or Britain arresting 1,400. Prishtina deserves praise for taking a tough stand on this important issue. This is something all Europe should emulate. Kosovo is every bit as mired in poverty and corruption as Bosnia, and perhaps more so. The issue is one of will, not funding or foreign assistance. Until local authorities find the strength to confront the problem of radicalism in their midst, it will continue to metastasize.
The rise of the Islamic State in all its murderousness as a major power in the Middle East will impact Europe too, given the large numbers of Europeans who have joined its ranks. IS-style mayhem is headed to the West: it can only be delayed, not stopped altogether. Bosnia stands on the front line of Europe’s resistance to IS madness, and it is time that this reality is recognized before it is too late.