After roughly 15 years of neglect, Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) politicians and the country’s Islamic community, each for its own reasons, have nearly simultaneously adopted a harsher approach toward former Islamic fighters who fought on the Bosnian side during the 1992-1995 war.
Since the end of the war, Bosniak officials have avoided dealing with the issue of these former fighters, but after much arm-twisting on the part of the international community, it seems the issue will have to be addressed and these Islamic warriors will inevitably be deported to their countries of origin.
Islamic fighters recently have found themselves in the spotlight in Bosnia, not necessarily because they present a direct or potential terrorist threat to the country or its foreign installations, but largely due to their criminal activity and the influence they have among young Bosnian Muslims, who are increasingly gathering around the growing Wahhabi movement (a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia).
In 1993 the Bosnian Islamic Community banned the Wahhabi movement as well as the practice of fundamental Islam in Bosnian mosques. The ban came at a time during the war when foreign fighters began recruiting moderate Muslims to their cause. However, the Wahhabi movement has since spread dramatically, even in largely secular Bosnia, since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the ban in 1993, the Bosnian Islamic Community has done nothing to prevent Bosnian Muslims from taking up radical Islam. Nevertheless, since emboldened Wahhabis began making attempts to occupy the Islamic Community’s administrative units and mosques this spring, including one in Sarajevo just several meters from its headquarters, the moderate Muslim leaders were forced to react.
The grand mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, embarked on a series of visits to world capitals with a message. The main financiers and ideological leaders of the Bosnian Wahhabi movement are based in Western Europe, primarily Austria, as well as Saudi Arabia, according to the mufti. He has also pleaded with world leaders to take steps to prevent the activities of radical Islamic groups there before they are imported to Bosnia. As for Bosniak politicians, they have neatly swept the radical program under the rug for years, not necessarily because they wish the militants to remain in Bosnia, but because any action against them could cost the politicians Bosniak nationalist votes.
Under international pressure in early 2006, the Bosnian government formed a commission tasked with reviewing how some 1,500 people—most of them fighters who came to Bosnia from Muslim countries during the war—gained Bosnian citizenship. Under similar pressure, the government has ordered the commencement of the deportations.
In July the international community’s newly appointed high representative, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak, stepped up the pressure on local authorities, particularly the security minister from the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Tarik Sadovic, to move ahead with the deportations . Sadovic had stalled over alleged technical difficulties, arguing that he was not authorized to sign the deportation orders and had attempted to place the onus of the move on his assistant. However, after Lajcak threatened to fire Sadovic by saying “it’s either them or you,” the minister gave orders to speed up the deportations. Soon afterwards the Bosnian government announced preparations for the deportation of the first group of 48 people originating from 11 African and Middle Eastern countries.
On September 30, a man identified only as Hattab72 published footage on YouTube threatening SDA leader Sulejman Tihic, Haris Silajdzic (the Bosniak member of the state’s rotating presidency) and Grand Mufti Ceric over the Wahhabi deportations. Hattab72 accused the three of betraying all human and religious principles and ordered them to take care of “the brothers who are being extradited without any reason,” threatening that otherwise he would release video footage that would destroy them politically.
“Anyone should see that you sell this country piece by piece, Muslim by Muslim; you betray everything that can be betrayed …And be aware that Allah has the power and that you will face Him and answer for the betrayal of Islam and Muslims,” Hattab72 threatened. The message threatened action by the time of Ramadan Bayram, in early October, but the deadline passed and no attacks were made.
So far, the commission has revoked some 620 citizenships in cases where procedures were clearly violated (e.g. false personal data, falsified documents, fictitious addresses, unreported criminal histories, etc.). According to the initial plan, these violators would lose their status and be deported to their countries of origin with no right to appeal. However, this action would not be taken should the violators face potential ill treatment in their countries of origin. To date, only two former combatants have been deported from Bosnia, both last year.
Among the first group slated for deportation was Tunisian-born Karray Kamal bin Ali, alias Abu Hamza, the alleged ringleader of the Wahhabi movement in Bosnia and the mastermind of the recent incidents between his supporters and moderate Bosnian Muslims. Abu Hamza gained Bosnian citizenship during the war due to the fact that he fought with and was commander of the Mujahid unit and married a Bosnian woman. In mid-May this year, his citizenship was revoked because of false information in his citizenship application.
According to police information, Abu Hamza was part of a 15-20 member group of Egypt’s militant Gama’a al-Islamiyya that arrived in Zenica and Travnik in the summer of 1992. While living in Bosnia, Abu Hamza used seven names and falsified Yemeni and Libyan documents, commission sources revealed to Jamestown.
However, Abu Hamza has managed to postpone his deportation to Tunisia—where he was sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison—after being arrested only a week before the deportation date for his involvement in a shooting in a village near the central Bosnian city of Zenica. Abu Hamza and three associates were arrested on June 9 after an attack on a house owned by Zijad Kovac in which three members of Kovac’s family were wounded.
In the car Abu Hamza was driving at the time of his arrest, police found a Kalashnikov assault rifle used in the attack and a hand grenade. Of Abu Hamza’s co-conspirators, some were members of the local Wahhabi movement while others were common criminals who served their sentences with Abu Hamza in Bosnian prisons.
Abu Hamza became known to the Bosnian public after he murdered Egyptian Hisham Diab, alias Abu Velid, in Zenica in 1997. After managing to evade arrest for three years, Abu Hamza was finally captured in Germany in 2000 and deported to Bosnia. After being sentenced to seven years in prison he was released in January of this year.
The motive for the attack remains unclear, since nothing was taken from the house, nor could the owner or the house be linked with the radical Muslims. Zijad Kovac is a distant relative of Zahid Kovac, a Zenica prosecutor at the time when Abu Hamza was tried for the murder of Abu Velid. Because of his involvement in the attack, Abu Hamza managed to delay his deportation and secured a stay in Bosnia to face trial on the new charges.
After his release from prison in January, Abu Hamza became a close confidante of Jusuf Barcic, a former Bosnian Muslim cleric and later radical Islam cleric and self-proclaimed sheikh. Barcic served a seven-month prison sentence for domestic violence in Zenica at the same time that Abu Hamza was serving his sentence. When Barcic died in a car accident in early May, Abu Hamza assumed his role as an aggressive preacher calling for a return to traditional Islam. However, Barcic’s short career as leader of Bosnia’s Wahhabis clarified long-sought answers about the group, such as who their financiers and real leaders are.
At times Barcic himself answered many of these questions during his sermons, all of them recorded and published on the internet. It became clear that Barcic and his movement were supported and financed by the Vienna-based radical Islam cleric Muhammad Porca, who among other things donated the car in which Barcic met his end.
Porca, a former Bosniak imam, runs the Islamic Community’s administrative unit in the Austrian capital, and moderate Muslim leaders in Bosnia believe he is a key financial and ideological supporter of radical forces in Bosnia. Some Bosnian Islamic Community officials also accuse Porca of organizing and financing visits to Bosnia for radical Muslims from Germany and Austria, a high-ranking federal anti-terror squad source close to the investigation of Wahhabi movements told Jamestown.
One such radical is Nusret Imamovic, a naturalized Austrian citizen living between Vienna and the northern Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca, near the city of Brcko. Imamovic founded a small Wahhabi community in Gornja Maoca, where journalists and non-Wahhabis are not welcome. Children there do not attend the public schools, but are instead given lectures held by Imamovic in accordance with a Jordanian school program. While in Vienna, Imamovic is said to frequently visit Porca’s offices and attend his sermons.
Imamovic became better known to the Bosnian public when he and six other Wahhabis, three of them Austrian citizens, assaulted Bosnian Serb Mihajlo Kisic in Brcko in 2006. After a short trial, the seven were given symbolic sentences on parole and some of them returned to Vienna. Among the seven was another Wahhabi cleric, Effendi Nedzad Balkan (also known as Ebu Muhammed), a Vienna-born Serbian Muslim, the leader of Vienna’s Sahaba Mosque and the alleged financier of the Serbia-based Sandzak Wahhabis.
Connecting these radicals and following their movements from Bosnia to Vienna, it may have caused little surprise when a Bosnian man was arrested in Vienna in early October after attempting to enter the U.S. Embassy with a backpack of explosives. The man was Bosnian refugee Asim Cejvanovic, a 41-year-old with a history of mental illness. During questioning, Cejvanovic named another Bosnian man, Mehmed Djudjic, as the one who gave him the explosives and instructed him to enter the embassy.
Unlike Cejvanovic, Djudjic can be linked to radical Muslims. His relatives told Bosnian media that he turned to traditional Islam after a 2003 car accident, and when visiting Bosnia he would spend much of his time with members of the radical Wahhabi movement. Djudjic was seen in Bosnia most recently in April attending Barcic’s funeral (Oslobodjenje, October 6).
With a lack of evidence in the case, Djudjic has been released from custody, while Cejvanovic has been transferred to the prison hospital. After the release, Djudjic gave an interview to Bosnian media saying that he is not a Wahhabi, even though he is accompanied by them sometimes. “As for Cejvanovic’s claim, I have nothing to do with the explosives. After all police found explosives in his apartment and I believe that his attempt was well organized.” Djudjic also said that Cejvanovic is not mentally ill but just a violent person (Slobodna Bosna, October 25). In their statements, Austrian police and prosecutors downplayed the incident, saying there is no political or terrorist motivation behind the attack. Sarajevo’s Federal Television said in its “60 minutes” political program, however, that the case is actually being investigated and even controlled by U.S. intelligence (FTV, October 7).
As far as Vienna is concerned, it is not an accident that the Austrian capital is the base for Bosnia’s Wahhabi movement, which has a 15-year history there. During the war Vienna was a major logistical and financial center for the Bosnian government, and hosted several Islamic aid agencies that collected funds used for arming the Bosnian Army and transferring foreign fighters and weapons at a time when Bosnia was under an arms embargo.
The biggest financier of Bosnian Muslim defenses during the war was the Vienna-based Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), established by a Sudanese native, Al-Fatih Ali Hassanein. Some U.S.$350 million in donations from Islamic countries flowed through the TWRA’s accounts, half of which was used for financing the Bosnian government. In 1996, Austrian police raided TWRA’s offices and bank accounts in Vienna and the investigations showed that the majority of the cash originated in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia as the largest contributor.
Related to the TWRA’s activity in Vienna, the Bosnian citizenship commission found that nearly 100 Islamic fighters were granted Bosnian citizenship through the embassy in Vienna. Some were recommended by TWRA while others were able to obtain diplomatic passports.
In 2002, the Intelligence-Security Service (FOSS) of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina notified the prosecutor’s office and the Interior Ministry of suspicions that several persons including some embassy personnel in Vienna and the Bosnian Foreign Ministry, as well as Ali Hassanein, were involved in international organized crime. The case was never prosecuted.
There is no doubt that incidents such as that at the U.S. embassy in Vienna are working to create a negative image for Bosnia in the West. Despite the fact that there have never been any terror attacks in Bosnia and no evidence of any Bosnian involvement in terror attacks, the country’s loose policies for granting citizenship during the war ensures the issue comes up frequently in international terrorism trials. The Bosnian Islamic Community, the citizenship revision commission and the international community have only now started to address the long delayed problem of dealing with Bosnia’s foreign jihadi community.
1. The Office of the High Representative is an ad hoc international institution with close ties to the European Union. It is responsible for implementing civilian aspects of the Bosnia-Herzegovina peace accord.