The Balkans: Militant Islamism's New Front
The July 18 terrorist attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria is only the latest in a series of deadly incidents in the Balkans involving Islamist extremists.
In April, five people on the outskirts of the Macedonian capital of Skopje were murdered by suspected Muslim radicals.
Last October, a Wahhabi convert attacked the US Embassy in Sarajevo.
In 2010, Serbian police broke up a terrorist cell in the mountainous Sandzak region straddling the border between Serbian and Montenegro planning to attack western embassies in Belgrade.
Long ignored or downplayed by western countries, al- Qaida and Hezbollah surrogates in the Balkans are increasingly important, thanks primarily to Saudi and Iranian financial support and the influence and power it buys. From Skopje to Sarajevo to Novi Pazar, Islamists and Wahhabis are attempting to take over mosques and building their own network of almost extra-territorial, sharia-run villages in remote Balkan areas. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, for radical Islamists Sarajevo, home to the largest Iranian embassy in Europe, is becoming "a jumping-off place, a radicalization place, a crossroads, something like Berlin during the Cold War."
The origins of the Islamist/Wahhabi threat to southeastern Europe go back to the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, when the late Islamist president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, invited militants from the Middle East and Central Asia to join his war effort. In August 1993, Izetbegovic ordered the formation of the Kateebat el-Mujahidin, his own personal al-Qaida "Battalion of Holy Warriors."
The roster of veterans of Izetbegovic's Bosnian jihad reads like a who's who of terrorist all-stars. On September 11, 2001, three of Izetbegovic's holy warriors - Khalid Sheik Muhammed, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mindhar - planned and participated in the greatest mass murder in American history. Another Izetbegovic jihadi, Juma al-Dosari, was involved in the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Riyadh which killed sixteen US citizens.
In August 1998, Izetbegovic jihadi Abdul Rashim al- Nashiri participated in the bombing of the US embassies in Dar es Saalam and Nairobi in which over 400 people were killed; the mastermind of the plot, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, visited Bosnia shortly before the embassy bombings for a three-day "business trip" on a visa issued by the Bosnian consulate in Turkey.
IN DECEMBER 1999, Bosnian jihadi Ahmed Ressam was apprehended attempting to bomb LAX airport as part of the failed Millenium Bomb Plot; the document forger for the plot, Karim Said Atmani, was a resident of the Bosnian mujahedeen village of Bocinja Donja.
In October 2000, Izetbegovic army veterans Juma al- Dosari, Ahmed Zuhair, Jamal al-Badawi, Abu Asim al- Makki, and Abd al-Rahim Hussein Mohammed al-Nashiri attacked the USS Cole in Aden Harbor, killing 17 US servicemen.
In February 2002, Izetbegovic jihadi Omar Saeed Sheik was involved in the murder/ritual beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Amer Azizi, the key go-between for al-Qaida's top leadership and the March 2004 Madrid Train bombers, trained in terrorist camps near the central Bosnian town of Zenica. The list goes on, but the severity of the problem is clear.
Moreover, while it is true that Bosnia is not unique in having al-Qaida cells, what does make Bosnia unique is that it is the only country in Europe in which sympathizers, surrogates and collaborators of radical Islamism are in the highest levels of government.
In February 1996, plans to attack NATO installations in Bosnia were discovered at a terrorist training camp near Sarajevo staffed by Iranian instructors. The commandant of the camp was Alija Izetbegovic's personal intelligence chief. In October 2001, a plot to use aerial suicide bombers to attack US Camp Eagle Base in Bosnia was disrupted.
The airport planned for the operation was controlled by Izetbegovic's closest political confidant.
During the 1990s, the leading Islamic cleric in Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, controlled a bank account with, among others, Fatih el Hassanein, a Sudanese national with close ties to Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
Even today, the head of the security affairs committee in Izetbegovic's Islamist party is considered one of the main Iranian agents in Bosnia, despite the fact that he is on the US black list of individuals with ties to terrorist groups.
Along with the threat Islamist and Wahhabi radicals in the Balkans pose internationally, they are also having a severely negative effect on efforts to stabilize inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in the region. Catholic nuns in Sarajevo report that they now only go out in pairs for fear of being attacked by Wahhabis, and that Wahhabi-run bakeries refuse to sell them bread - even when it is in plain sight.
Misogyny and anti-Semitism are of course the Islamists' and Wahhabis' other favorite pastimes. A few years ago, after Grand Mufti Ceric announced on television that Israeli actions in Gaza were "genocide," graffiti appeared around Bosnia equating the Star of David with a swastika.
As a correspondent from Der Spiegel reported when visiting the Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo run by one of Izetbegovic's wartime commanders, the obliteration of Israel is heralded in a torrent of words.
"Zionist terrorists," the imam thunders from the glass-enclosed pulpit at the end of the mosque. "Animals in human form" have transformed the Gaza Strip into a "concentration camp," and this marks "the beginning of the end" for the Jewish pseudo-state... .
Currently, the Bosnian security minister estimates there are 3,000 potential terrorists in Bosnia alone. Hundreds of others can be found in Kosovo, Macedonia and the Sandzak. The dangerous impact these individuals and groups are having should not be underestimated. In societies still struggling with the legacies of hatred left over from the wars of the 1990s and devastating economic problems, well-funded extremists are finding willing converts.
Western policymakers have ignored this problem for far too long, to the detriment of the Balkans, and Europe and the US as well. As was tragically seen last month, the Balkans have become another front in Israel's war against terrorists as well.