Wahhabism and al-Qaeda in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 20

Nine years have passed since the imposition of the Dayton Agreement on war torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. While Dayton facilitated the end of fighting between Serb, Croat, and Bosnian republican forces – the latter typically referred to in global media as “Muslim militia” – it also left the contending parties in control of ethnically purged and, therefore, essentially homogeneous territories. The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, although comprising up to 50 percent of its population, control no more than 28 percent of its former territory.

Under Dayton, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been governed by the so-called “international community,” under the main command of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which acts on behalf of the European Community. The current High Representative is the British Liberal Democrat politician Paddy Ashdown, who succeeded Wolfgang Petritsch in the post in 2002.

Other pillars of the international regime in Bosnia-Herzegovina are the NATO Stabilization Forces (SFOR) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Day-to-day affairs at the lowest level remain in the hands of ethnic politicians in the so-called Republika Srpska or “Republic of Serbs,” with its capital in Banja Luka, and the Croat-Muslim Federation, which is governed from Sarajevo. Combined institutions exist but have little real authority.

Bosnian Islam is pluralistic and secular, following the Hanafi legal tradition common among Sunnis throughout the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, and much of the Indian Subcontinent. Sufism is no longer a major organized factor in the country’s life, but remains an important element in cultural memory. In addition, Bosnian Muslims inherited a legacy of civility with the Sephardic Jewish population who were encouraged to settle in the mountainous region under the Ottomans. Relations with Christians have often been complicated by the competing claims of the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, both of which had varying status as “millet” communities in the former empire.

Saudi-backed Wahhabism first made itself visible in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, when up to 6,000 “Arab Afghan” volunteers arrived in the country and enlisted in combat. While bin Ladenite propagandists, as well as Western journalists, have expended a vast quantity of ink on the topic of the Bosnian “mujahideen,” in reality they played almost no perceptible role in the war. The Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which undertook the defense of Bosnian independence against the Serbs and, secondarily, the Croats, was a regular army of hundreds of thousands organized in the multicultural image of the Tito Partisans. Although Muslim Brigades and mujahid units existed, the latter did not determine the course of any major battles.

Nevertheless, accusations of war crimes by Arab fighters led to an indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), at The Hague, in the current case against two Bosnian officers Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kuruba. [1] Up to 400 Arab mujahideen had settled in Bosnia and acquired local citizenship, many of them marrying local women. Still, they have not been highly visible in the urban environment.

Iranian military personnel played a limited role in the Bosnian war, as technicians and advisors pursuant to the covert U.S. operation that supplied the Bosnian forces with weapons. This involvement has led to claims of Iranian-sponsored terrorist training at a camp in Pogorelica, near the town of Fojnica. However, the “Pogorelica affair,” in which high officials of the Bosnian government have been accused in media and by some judicial authorities, has a long history and has yet to come to trial. The camp at Pogorelica was raided by NATO troops in 1996, but Bosnian authorities argued that it was nothing more than an intelligence training center. Leading Bosnian intellectuals have denounced the Pogorelica case as a hoax. Although Iran maintains a cultural center in downtown Sarajevo, a mile or so from its embassy, Iranian personnel were apparently withdrawn from Bosnia-Herzegovina after Dayton, and play no substantial role in public or religious life. There are no reported Bosnian Shi’a Muslims.

However, a low-profile policy cannot be ascribed to the Saudis and Wahhabis, who flooded into Sarajevo after Dayton. The Saudi High Commission for Relief to Bosnia-Herzegovina long occupied a major structure in the town (now used by local authorities), and Wahhabi missionaries spread throughout the Muslim zone. In addition, Saudi Arabia has built new Wahhabi-style mosques in Bosnia, utilizing the garish, overbearing style that many Bosnian Muslims have said conflicts with their own Ottoman architectural traditions.

In the aftermath of September 11, two major events occurred in Sarajevo. Almost immediately, local officers raided the offices of the Saudi High Commission for Relief to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Documents seized by the Sarajevo authorities provided a fascinating insight into the scope and actions of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi jihad in the Balkans during the previous decade; the materials included the “Golden Chain” roster of original financiers of bin Laden’s operations. Then, early in 2002 a group of six Algerians were arrested and deported to Guantanamo at the instance of the U.S. Embassy. Most of them had held Bosnian citizenship, which the Sarajevo government had revoked late in 2001.

While the raid on the Saudi High Commission was met with little comment among Bosnians themselves, the deportation of the Algerians provoked uproar, as it seemed an expression of defiance of the Bosnian courts, which had exonerated them. The “Algerian affair” became a permanent source of discontent among Bosnians who are already disillusioned with economic stagnation and the failure of the international community to reunite the country under a single regime, and to facilitate the return of Muslim refugees to their homes in the “R.S.” Some Bosnians also express anger at the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.

The Bosnian ulema, or Muslim scholars, are led by the pro-American reis-ul-ulema or chief scholar, Mustafa Ceric, formerly the imam of the Bosnian Muslims in Chicago, Ill., and a graduate of the University of Chicago. Ceric has repeatedly affirmed that Bosnian Islam is profoundly oriented toward Western civilization and grateful to the United States for rescuing the country. However, visitors who speak Bosnian and spend time in Sarajevo cannot help noticing that on the street level, Wahhabis remain active.

A young Bosnian intellectual who declined to be fully identified commented: “Wahhabi missionaries denounce the traditional customs of Bosnian believers, such as celebrating the birthday of the Prophet (mevlud), visiting and praying at graves and tombs, and observing a 40 day period of mourning for the dead. This sets them apart from Bosnians. But at the same time it is observed that they have turned around some young people who were previously involved in drugs or otherwise wasted their lives or engaged in vices. It is therefore difficult for young people to see Wahhabis as a threat.”

The most prominent Wahhabi organization in Bosnia is the Active Islamic Youth (Aktivna Islamska Omladina or AIO). Early in 2003, the Sarajevo weekly magazine Slobodna Bosna (Free Bosnia), which has an aggressively secularist and sensationalist tone, described the AIO as a front for the Saudi High Commission for Relief and the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. [2] The Bosnian branch of al-Haramain was shut down after it was designated an al-Qaeda affiliate by the U.S. Treasury and the Saudi government.

Slobodna Bosna also interviewed Senad Agic, current imam of the Bosnian Muslims in the U.S. and a prominent Naqshbandi Sufi, who declared, “Certain (Wahhabi) groups are already established in Bosnia. They are increasing in strength, publishing magazines, and have their own radio stations. If that is not monitored and controlled, there is a possibility that traditional Islam in Bosnia-Herzegovina will change … Already, we see different practices in different mosques.”

Alongside Slobodna Bosna and other periodicals in Sarajevo, one also finds the unmistakable Wahhabi journal SAFF, which describes itself as an “Islamic Youth Review.” The August 15 issue of SAFF includes, on its slick cover, a box with the arresting heading “Exclusive from Iraq: Suicide Actions as a Defensive Strategy.” SAFF also includes, along with criticism of Mustafa Ceric, an article describing the Algerians in Guantanamo as Bosnians, which they no longer are, and a report that the Shia rebel Moqtada al-Sadr, in Iraq, has called for the execution of Wahhabi infiltrators in that country. [3]

But most interesting is the inclusion of theological commentary by a Saudi subject, Shaykh Salman Ibn Fahd Al-Awda, a professor at the kingdom’s “Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud” University in Riyadh. Al-Awda is known as a sympathizer of bin Laden, and was arrested after the assaults of September 11, 2001, which he was forced to denounce. However, at the end of September the Milan Corriere della Sera and Madrid El Mundo reported on the wiretapped conversations of a man in custody in Italy while awaiting extradition to Spain, Rabei Osman el-Sayed, also known as “Muhammad the Egyptian.” [4] The prisoner is believed to have played a major role in the Madrid metro bombing of March 11, in which 191 people were killed.

In his recorded discussion with a follower, Rabei Osman allegedly described al-Awda as his financier while he operated in Western Europe. He referred to Al-Awda as “everything, everything… he does everything from Mali to Thailand.” Clearly, as shown in the pages of SAFF, the influence of Al-Awda also extends into the heart of Balkan Islam.

The central question is whether al-Qaeda can co-opt Saudi sponsored Wahabbis in Bosnia to consolidate its position in the region. Given the current terror threat in Western Europe and specifically al-Qaeda’s stated aims vis-à-vis an assault on Italy, such a prospect is a sobering thought for all West European governments.

Notes:

1. http://www.un.org/icty/indictment/english/had-3ai030926e.htm

2. Ahmetasevic, Nidzara, Buturovic, Adnan, and Fazlic, Mirsad, “Fishers Of Children’s Souls: Third Offensive Of Young Muslims,” Slobodna Bosna, Sarajevo, January 30, 2003.

3. SAFF, Sarajevo, August 15, 2004, issue number 128.

4. Cerdan, Manuel, Biondani, Paolo, “Un imam saudí, amigo de Bin Laden, financió en España a ‘Mohamed el Egipcio’, artífice del 11-M,” El Mundo (Madrid), Corriere della Sera (Milan), September 30, 2004.