Operation DAMASCUS: The Italian Job
Bosnia-Hercegovina’s troubles with terrorism and extremism were back in the news this week, with police raids leading to the arrest of eleven radicals associated with the Islamic State, several of whom recently waged jihad in Syria. This was the second part of Operation DAMASCUS, which began two months ago, a long-delayed effort to dismantle Bosnia’s radical Islamist infrastructure.
Among the five extremists still in custody since their arrest in early September is Bilal Bosnić, a Salafi man-about-town with connections all over Central Europe. As I noted at the time of his arrest:
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.
Unsurprisingly, counterterrorism officials from several countries are interested in talking with Bosnić, and the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz this week reported that Lamberto Giannini, the counterterrorism boss for the Italian State Police, has been in Sarajevo for the last few days, tracking down leads relating to Bosnić, who has spent considerable time rabble-rousing among Salafis in Italy. It’s not clear if Giannini has talked with Bosnić — Sarajevo officials admitted only that there has been “an exchange of information” with Italian partners, though it clear that the counterterrorism relationship between Rome and Sarajevo is better than it has been in years. Interest in Bosnić and his activities is not new in Rome, though it was spiked by an interview the imam gave to La Repubblica in late August, shortly before his arrest, in which he boasted that fifty Italians were fighting with the Islamic State, with his encouragement, as well as the customary Salafi bluster about conquering Italy, including the Vatican.
Closer cooperation between European security services is vitally necessary if there is serious intent, at last, of dismantling Salafi jihadist networks across the continent. The Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria is generating an unprecedented security crisis in Europe, with thousands of Europeans having gone to wage jihad under Da’ish’s black flag. Bosnia is a hotspot for this sort of radicalism and terrorism, and extremists like Bosnić have deep connections to Austria, Germany, and Italy in particular. This is an encouraging, if belated, sign that European governments are taking this threat seriously, before it becomes a major threat to peace at home.
More will be forthcoming soon …