Feature 13 May 15

Bosnia’s Wartime Legacy Fuels Radical Islam

Islamist militancy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was behind a recent deadly attack on a police station in Zvornik, was first nurtured by foreign Mujahideen fighters in the 1990s conflict, experts believe.

Denis Dzidic

The El Mujahid unit with wartime Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. Source: YouTube video.

Radical Islam has become an increasing cause of concern in Bosnia and Herzegovina in recent weeks after a member of the hardline conservative Wahhabi movement, Nerdin Ibric, killed a Bosnian Serb police officer in an attack in Zvornik on April 27.

Police in the country’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity responded by arresting several Bosniaks amid raids on 32 locations. Among those arrested were Bosniak post-war returnees to the Srebrenica region, which sparked condemnation from Bosniak leaders and ordinary Muslims in the country, the overwhelming majority of whom are moderates.

Husein, a 32-year-old Sarajevo resident who practices what he calls the ‘original’, more conservative interpretation of Islam, but denies being a Wahhabi, said he believes that all Bosnia’s Muslims were being targeted because of the radical leanings of a few fanatics.

“Out of all the Muslims, we hear about the few per cent who are radical, but what about the 90 per cent that live quietly, privately, respectfully in their faith - as they should,” he said.

Ibric’s attack on the Zvornik police station was the third outbreak of Islamist violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It followed another attack on a police station in Bugojno in 2010, in which a police officer was killed, and a shooting incident at the US embassy building in Sarajevo a year later.

In all three attacks, the perpetrators were members of the Wahhabi movement.

Hardline Islamists first came to the country in significant numbers during the 1992-95 war, to fight on the Bosniak side against Serb and Croat forces.

Estimates of how many Muslim volunteers came to fight vary from several hundred to several thousand; what is certain is that the Bosnian Army incorporated them into a detachment called El Mujahid in August 1993.

They became notorious for being fierce soldiers, unafraid of even the most dangerous operations - but also for serious crimes against the Serb and Croat population.

Their crimes in the central Bosnia region have been the focus of two trials at the Hague Tribunal, in which three high-ranking Bosnian Army officials were found guilty of war crimes for failure to stop or prosecute murders and torture committed by the Mujahedin.

Balkans security expert Aleksandar Maric told BIRN that the Mujahideen fighters also brought with them “a new, radical view of Islam which found fertile ground to grow in Bosnia during wartime”.

The growth of the Wahhabi movement in the country is a direct consequence of their preaching, Maric believes.

“The Wahhabis continued to propagate this radical Islamic learning and they are very active today - which is why they are a potential threat to the security of the country and the region,” he said.

Bosnian security expert Vlado Azinovic also believes that the roots of Islamic militancy in the country and the fact that around 200 young men have recently gone to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria is a result of the ideology brought by Mujahideen fighters during the 1992-95 war.

“Until the war, we didn't have movements like that. Those people came and they stayed after the war. Some citizens are now leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq and in fact what we are seeing is a form of ideological heritage left over from the war, through the actions of the El Mujahid military formation and the ideological matrix it worked on,” Azinovic told local media recently.

Who were the Mujahideen?

According to the findings of the Hague Tribunal, the first Mujahideen arrived in the summer of 1992 to the Travnik and Zenica areas, entering mostly through Croatia. Their arrival was mostly endorsed by the leadership of the Bosnian Army, as they also brought humanitarian aid from Islamic countries.

Some of them also had another goal, however.

Ali Hamad, a witness at the trial of Rasim Delic, a former Bosnian Army commander who was found guilty of some of the crimes committed by the Mujahideen, testified during his trial that he came from Bahrain in 1992.

Hamad said that the Mujahideen were ready to wage jihad or holy war against the Serbs and Croats.

“Some of the fighters were members of al-Qaeda and their objective was to create a base that would allow them to increase their base of operations,” he told the Hague court’s judges.

The president of an victims’ association called the Families of the Captured, Killed Fighters and Missing Civilians of Republika Srpska, Nedeljko Mitrovic, told BIRN that the crimes they committed against Serb prisoners on mount Ozren were “unspeakable”.

“In [the village of] Gostovici we had 51 fighters and more than a dozen civilians killed... While in [the village of] Stog, we discovered a mass grave with 21 bodies and 17 of them were decapitated. That is just on Ozren,” he said.

The Mujahideen fighters scared some of the Bosniak soldiers as well, some eyewitnesses said.

A 52-year-old Bosnian Army veteran, who asked to remain anonymous, told BIRN that during the war, after being released from a Serb prison camp in Prijedor, he arrived in Travnik and joined the military.

“I remember the Mujahideen were there but we all kept very far away [from them]... It was unnatural, they prayed before an attack that they would die... They wanted death for Allah. We were scared. None of us wanted death and none of us wanted anything to do with those fanatics,” he recalled.

The Mujahideen and the Wahhabis

Mitrovic said he believes that the wartime militancy of the Mujahideen lives on in today’s Wahhabis and Islamic radicals.

“The Mujahideen were installed here. It was an unfair move by the Bosnian leadership, and we see that their ideology is alive today. These terrorists and Wahhabis, they are doing the same thing with these terrorist attacks,” he suggested.

After the war, the El Mujahid unit was disarmed, but many of the former fighters stayed behind, taking citizenship based on certificates stating that they were part of the Bosnian Army.

According to media reports, more than 741 people connected to the Mujahideen received citizenship after the war. They formed communities, usually in rural areas, where their teachings of Islam spread.

American scholar Leslie Lebl, who researched Islamism and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina, believes that the sole reason for the arrival of the Mujahideen during the war was to spread Wahhabi Islam in Europe.

“Saudis wanted to spread Wahhabism and that is why they funded the Mujahideen and that continued after the war. You could see all of a sudden, mosques were being built which were huge and they had no relation in size and style to the ones you normally see in Bosnia; this is all intentional and deliberate,” Lebl said.

Lebl believes that the problem is that some Bosniak leaders and clerics have Islamist connections and are supportive of the Wahhabis.

But the Islamic Community, the body that represents the country’s Muslims, was quick to distance itself from the recent Zvornik attack, which it described as “criminal” in a written statement to BIRN.

“This brutal attack obliges us to work to find the reasons for such actions, to heal war traumas, remove discrimination, unemployment and the marginalisation of returnees in Republika Srpska. The fact that war crimes were committed in Zvornik against Bosniaks, and returnees were discriminated against, should never be used [as the justification] for new crimes,” the Islamic Community said.

A question of security?

Security expert Aleksandar Maric claimed that Bosnian security reports suggest that there are a number of camps in the country used to train men to fight abroad.

“There are camps in Bocinja, Mehurici near Travnik, Gluha Bukovica and in Pogorelica. We believe there are others which are more difficult to locate and they are run by sleeper cells. The fact so many fighters from Bosnia go abroad to fight, the Wahhabi threats, the terrorist attacks, all are indicators that an organised terrorist system exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina because security operations are not coordinated and data is not shared within the country and the region,” he said.

He said that it was alarming that the Wahhabi movement was not under proper surveillance by the Bosnian security services.

“We do not even know the exact number of these radicals, but on top of the Wahhabi movement there are individual, smaller terrorist cells which are not exposed and which only recruit and train operatives and serve as a connection to send fighters abroad, but these structures can also be used for domestic terrorist attacks,” he said.

He said it was time for the security services in the various parts of the politically and ethnically divided country to work together.

“The security system is flawed and it needs to do much more to prevent and respond quickly. Security agencies should share data, identify potential perpetrators from that group and check reliably and act to thwart new terrorist actions,” he proposed.

Bosnian sociologist Ivan Sijakovic disagreed, however, insisting that simply leaving the security services and police to deal with Islamist militancy will not work and that society must undergo significant reform to avoid being trapped in religious divisions.

“The responsibility falls on religious, political and national [ethnic] leaders. They are always pushing for religious homogeneity. People should be told that in societies where religious identities are so dominant, they are socially and economically flawed societies,” said Sijakovic.

However he said he was not very hopeful that this would happen any time soon.

“I do not see it happening in the next two decades. We are late, late, so late. We should have started right after the war,” he said.

Security expert Azinovic said that the deep social and economic problems in contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina create fertile ground for militancy to thrive.

“We are the number one country in the world when we look at youth without jobs, which is a big problem. Young people leave to fight since there are so few opportunities to achieve something,” he said.

Lebl said that the threat of radical Islam was also holding back reconciliation and progress in the country.

“I can see that having radical Islam makes it hard for Serbs and Croats to take steps toward reconciliation. When you see what is happening with ISIS to Christians, I think it will be tough for them to reconcile. I think this is why in Bosnia the solution is talking about things, saying the truth about crimes,” Lebl said.

Young believer Husein from Sarajevo said meanwhile that he was disgusted that Islam was being linked to radicalism and violence in the country because the vast majority of Bosnians Muslims are moderates.

“Islam is a religion of peace and so is any other religion. Anyone who has studied it and tried to learn more than what he is told in a mosque at Friday prayers knows this is a pure religion - a religion which knows no violence, humiliation, insults, let alone murder, whatever the reasons,” he said.

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