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.