An important European security issue I’ve tried to raise awareness about for years is the nefarious role played by Iranian intelligence in Southeastern Europe, above all in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Tehran’s covert tentacles in that unfortunate country reach deep, since Iran began extending its malign influence there back in 1990, as Communism collapsed in Yugoslavia, and the mullahs dispatched spies with cash to Sarajevo to buy politicians, spread radicalism, and recruit and train terrorists. Iranian intelligence, meaning both its civilian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) and the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), became very influential among Bosnian Muslims in the 1990’s thanks to their secret alliance with the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which has ruled in Sarajevo for most of the post-Yugoslav period. I’ve explained this messy saga in detail in my book Unholy Terror.
When the United States and NATO intervened in Bosnia’s civil war in the latter half of 1995, the presence of hundreds of Iranian spies in the country was a major concern, and pressure from Washington, DC, forced the SDA to become more discreet about its links with Tehran. Yet these have never disappeared, and for VEVAK and Pasdaran, Bosnia remains very much “their” playground. As Sarajevo would ultimately like to join NATO and the European Union, they understand that every few years the Americans and the EU will put pressure on them to reduce their ties to Iran, particularly to its intelligence services. A sort of Balkan kabuki theater inevitably follows, with promises by the SDA to crack down hard, this time. A few Iranian “diplomats” are discreetly asked to leave the country, some of the more overt Iranian intelligence fronts in Bosnia shut their doors, usually only temporarily, and the Americans and Europeans are bought off for a couple years. And the Iranians remain.
The result of all this is that Iran has a considerable espionage base in Bosnia, which they view as a safe haven for their secret operations in the rest of Europe. Of greatest concern are the detectable ties between Iranian intelligencers and Salafi jihadist groups in Bosnia, some of which operate more or less openly (Sunni-Shia disputes notwithstanding, Tehran is happy to arm, train and equip Salafi jihadists, and nowhere more than Bosnia, where they have been doing that for over two decades). This Tehran-Sarajevo spy-terror nexus cannot be divorced from radical activities in Vienna, since Austria’s capital in many ways is the de facto capital of Salafi jihadism in Southeastern Europe, as well as a major playground for Iranian spies. These form an extended web of malevolence that stretches across Eastern and Central Europe.
Things came to a head in the spring of 2013, however, when the behavior of Iranian spies in Bosnia became so dangerous that Sarajevo was forced to do something about it. In addition to their normal sponsoring of jihadist fronts and radical NGOs in the country, Iranian operatives were visiting known jihadist training camps, distributing cash and weapons, and making little effort to hide this activity. In particular, Iranian spies were seen visiting the jihadist colony at Gornja Maoča in northeastern Bosnia which, despite occasional police raids, has operated for years as a more or less open training camp for jihad-minded radicals. Gornja Maoča has long been the base of Nusret Imamović, the leading extremist cleric in the country, who since late 2013 has been in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida faction fighting the Assad regime.
Regular visits to Gornja Maoča by Iranian intelligence officers were too much for even Sarajevo to stomach, so Bosnia’s Ministry of Security took the unprecedented step of ordering two Iranian “diplomats,” specifically Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, ostensibly the second and the third secretaries in the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Sarajevo but known by local counterintelligence to actually be spies, to leave Bosnia by the end of April 2013, or they would be officially declared persona non grata and expelled.
Then, in a telling revelation about who really calls the shots in Sarajevo, that deadline passed and the Iranians were still in Sarajevo, an almost unimaginable breach of diplomatic protocol. Nearly two weeks late, the Iranian “diplomats” finally left Bosnia, and for a time VEVAK and Pasdaran activities in the country adopted a somewhat lower profile, in a manner that pleased Western governments as well as the many Bosnians who do not like their country being used as a spy-terror safe haven by revolutionary Iran.
Yet now the Iranians are back to their old tricks. This week the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz reported, based on Bosnian intelligence sources, that Tehran’s spies have resumed their old operational tempo, and their nefarious activities have been rising fast since early September. Over the last six weeks, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security has noticed a significant increase in the activities of known Iranian intelligence officers in Bosnia. Outreach to local jihadists by VEVAK and Pasdaran operatives has been observed, and visits to Gornja Maoča are happening again. Although these activities are more subtle than what Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab had been doing, namely driving up to the jihadist camp in their car with Iranian diplomatic tags, Bosnian officials are nevertheless deeply worried. As an anonymous Bosnian security official explained:
There have been a number of contacts with individuals from the Wahhabi community in Gornja Maoča. In recent months, associates of this [Iranian] service have been crossing the border frequently. Many of them use identification documents from Bosnia-Hercegovina, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel, which they received via HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.
Worse, many top Iranian intelligence officials have been visiting Bosnia in recent months, including Abolghasem Parhizkar, one of the most senior VEVAK officials, who has visited Bosnia twice in 2014 on a diplomatic passport. Pasdaran officers have also been showing up, customarily including a visit to Vienna along with their drop-in in Sarajevo, as the Bosnian security official explained:
Nasrolah Pezhmafar and Mohamad Mahdi Fadakar Davrani have used their diplomatic passports to enter Bosnia, while Vahid Hozouri and Sorouh Jusefi have been using their official passports. During entry, particular attention was paid to one suspect “diplomat,” who came to Sarajevo, having previously spent time in Thailand, India and Georgia, where [Iranian-backed] terrorist attacks had been carried out previously.
Of particular concern is the large number of Iranian intelligence fronts operating in Bosnia that provide cover for operations and funding of terrorists and radicals: NGOs, charities of various sorts, and schools. For the Pasdaran, its most important cut-outs in Bosnia are the “Ibn Sina” Research Institute and the Persian-Bosnian College, but there is a long list of Iranian-linked fronts in the country (my analysis of these and how they provide cover for VEVAK and Pasdaran is here) that play an important role in Tehran’s secret war in Europe.
Then there is the knotty question of just how many spies from Middle Eastern countries are actually in Bosnia. The Ministry of Security assesses that about one thousand secret operatives are present, counting those employed in various front organizations, with the lion’s share from Iran, but with significant representation from the secret services of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait too. (Western security agencies place the figure around 650, but this has more to do with counting methods, i.e. who is actually a spy, than disagreements about the extent of the threat.) For Bosnian counterspies, monitoring so many targets is a simply impossible task, particularly considering the country’s deep financial problems and limited budgets.
For years, Bosnian counterintelligence has been well aware of Iran’s nefarious activities in their country, but customarily there has been little political will to do much about this threat, not least because important SDA officials are on Tehran’s payroll, and have been for many years. Privately, Bosnian security officials express their exasperation to Western friends, but barring a major crackdown, which can only happen if NATO and the EU demand it in exchange for any progress on Bosnian membership in Atlantic and European institutions, nothing will change. Since Iran views Bosnia as a safe haven for its espionage and terrorist activities elsewhere, one which they have enjoyed for a generation, we ought to be asking what this current surge of VEVAK and Pasdaran activity in Southeastern Europe means for regional security. It can’t be anything good.