Europe’s Extremist Cradle: Revisiting “Balkans 2020”

By Marinko Bobić, PhD in International Studies at the University of Trento. His areas of expertise are geopolitics and international security, including organization crime, terrorism, human security, and interstate conflict.

Scott Nicholas Romaniuk, PhD Candidate in International Studies at the University of Trento. His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.

One would intuitively not expect an Islamist terrorist to be white, light haired, or European. Yet, as we approach 2020, it is worth revisiting the “Balkans 2020” plan of Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, who considers the Balkans one of the centers of Islamist terrorism in Europe. Fair-haired Bosniaks are a particularly valuable asset in this plan given the perception that they can elude authorities across Europe relatively easily and maintain, at least, physical discretion.

Predominantly trained as suicide bombers, these Bosniaks have been the recipients of a great deal of attention in many parts of the world outside of Europe, but not within Bosnia. Because they are able to maintain their presence in Bosnia, with authorities reluctant to deem them a threat due in part to passive public attitudes, evening pursuing their training and further recruitment, they represent one of Europe’s counterterrorism fault lines.

They live frustrated lives, given their recent historical past and the ongoing political strains of the region – something that external actors have taken notice of and are interesting in exploiting (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [RFE/RL, 2016).

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has been a safe haven of Islamist extremists for more than two decades, and has received considerable support from Arab states. Most of these extremists came to Bosnia during the 1990s, when Bosnia was embroiled in a civil war that pitied Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim, against Croats and Serbs, who are mostly Christian. As a way of offering help, Saudi Arabia and Iran, among other states and non-state actors, provided considerable financial assistance, and sent other resources like weapons and fighters to their Bosniak brethren.

Wahhabism’s permeation of Europe has not been the failure as some have claimed. Stephen Schwartz called its “infiltration” of BiH a failure and claims that it “suffered a smashing repudiation in Kosovo” (Loflin, 2015). Yet, those who are quick to suggest that Wahhabism has failed to take hold in European, especially the Balkans, would be remiss in their assertion.

To an extent, Islam in the Balkans was traditionally Sufi Islam so it was quite connected with tradition and different kinds of rituals. But in the 1990s and when the conflict started, the penetration of new ideas from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia, occurred, and during that time extremist views slowly began to form. Today, though it is difficult to measure, one cannot avoid the obvious signs such as ISIS flags, Wahhabi gatherings, isolated religious teachings not integrated into mainstream religious institutions. There are an increasing number of mosques that are not necessarily controlled by traditional religious leaders.

Bosnia’s President at the time, Alija Izetbegovic, saw Islamic Communities’ efforts as a very important lifeline for Bosnia to sustain its independence. This presented a rather interesting connection point between the European Union’s (EU) interest in building free and liberal states within Europe and an opportunity for outsiders like al-Qaeda (notwithstanding the rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS as both are violent extremist groups) to breed terrorism.

The semi-autonomous Serb entity (Republika Srpska) is now attempting to use the situation to its advantage, claiming that it is the main obstacle to creating an Islamic state in Europe. If separatist situation deteriorates, could be exploited by radical Islamists, who are adorers of social and political confusion and chaos (Balkan Insight, 2016).

More than 20 years later, Bosniaks remain unconvinced that the primary problem they face is Islamist terrorism, but rather past injustices conducted by the so-called “Christian warriors” – terrorists from the Bosniak perspective who committed mass atrocities and now refuse to recognize them as such. The call is for Bosnian-Serbs to recognize Srebrenica as genocide. Perhaps, only then, will more Muslims in Bosnia consider growing Wahhabism as a more important threat.

In a recent video produced and disseminated by the Islamic State (ISIS), one can see these Bosniaks calling for their brethren throughout the Balkans to take action against “infidels” and “enemies” of the “true way of Allah,” or in other words, enemies of Wahhabism (The Guardian, 2015; The World Post, 2015).

IS realizes that potential is certainly there. Last year, Bosnia’s village of Gornja Maoča received media attention for its open support of ISIS. A relatively isolated settlement, the village already had a history as a Wahhabi stronghold (Dailymail, 2015). In 2005, a terrorist cell was dismantled in the area. In the last year alone, two terrorist attacks occurred on Bosnian soil while a terrorist plot that would have wielded considerable destruction and death was thwarted. Prior to last year, terrorist attacks on Bosnian soil occurred only once every few years. It is worth considering whether the events of 2015 were merely coincidental or part of what could be a burgeoning trend.

Consider that with the poll conducted by the Prizma agency in which approximately 16% of Bosniaks either declare themselves Wahhabi or support its ideology. This is a very high number for a relatively secular Sufi state that only became exposed to Wahhabi teachings for the first time in the 1990s.

According to the latest information from government sources, such as Minister of Security Dragan Mektic, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Igor Crnadak, the problem in Bosnia is very serious (, 2015; Al Jazeera, 2015). Thus, the EU faces a problem of dealing with potential terrorist threats external to the EU but well within the boundaries of Europe.

Mustafa Cerić, a Bosniak imam who served as the Grand Mufti of BiH and is currently president of the World Bosniak Congress (WBC or Svjetski bošnjački kongres, in Bosnian), refuses to recognize that radicalist propaganda emanates from Bosnia, but rather that of the Western community, since that is from where many Wahhabi cells operate (Becirevic 2008, 87). He is referring to Saudi finances that are transferred through European banks. As a response, he publicly appealed to Austria to restrain radical groups operating there.

As far as the problem of rising Wahhabism in Bosnia goes, for Cerić, it is not there. Thus, it might be an inconvenient fact that Bosnia, per capita, has one of the highest numbers of fighters with ISIS (although most of them are currently abroad and sustaining a high level of casualties) (The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch, 2014). Ayman al-Zawahiri may be somewhat pleased with the lack of regional recognition of the problem.

With recent arrests of several Bosniaks in the United States (US) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), however, US intelligence operations in Bosnia itself, and mounting political pressure for Bosnia to deal with the problem far more effectively and in-line with European and EU security interests, Bosnia must also live-up to its commitments associated with Euro-Atlantic integration.

The predicament, unfortunately, offers no easy solutions, and tensions in Bosnia will almost certainly make any future moves important to watch. The question stands: Is the EU and the rest of Europe looking in that direction?

Neretva, near Mostar” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  tm-tm via Flickr

Categories: Europe and NATO, Terrorism

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