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The Roma and the Radicals: Bulgaria’s Alleged ISIS Support Base

Accusations that a charismatic imam and his followers have spread ISIS propaganda and assisted jihadists reveal a deeper story about a marginalised community.

Zornitsa Stoilova Sofia, Pazardjik, Plovdiv and Cologne
A man stands at the gate of the Ebu Bekir mosque in the Iztok neighbourhood of Pazardjik. Photo: Georgi Kozhuharov

On the crisp morning of November 25, 2014, the Roma neighbourhood in the southern Bulgarian town of Pazardjik got an unusual wake up-call. At about 6 a.m., paramilitary police in armoured cars rolled through the muddy streets and heavily armed, masked agents raided various buildings including the Ebu Bekir mosque.

A local imam, Ahmed Moussa, was first to be taken into custody. By the end of the day, 26 people had been arrested in a joint operation by the State Agency for National Security (SANS) and prosecutors investigating the distribution of Islamist militant propaganda. Police searched more than 40 houses in the Iztok neighbourhood and other locations for material supporting ISIS, the violent Islamist group that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A group of bearded men in the yard of the mosque expressed anger to reporters. "We don’t have anything to do with ISIS. I know them as much as I know you," snapped a large man. A piece of paper was taped onto his cap, bearing an Arabic inscription: "There is no other God but Allah" — a phrase used on the black flags of ISIS militants but also a pillar of the Islamic creed.

Security agents raid properties in southern Bulgaria on November 25, 2014 as part of an investigation into the spread of ISIS propaganda. Source: State Agency for National Security

Seven months later, in July 2015, prosecutors submitted charges against 14 Muslims — including Moussa — from Pazardjik and nearby Plovdiv, Asenovgrad and Startsevo, accusing them of inciting religious hatred through their own preaching and of promoting war by spreading ISIS propaganda.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, has obtained the indictment and can reveal details of the allegations against the group, including claims that Moussa and two others provided support to foreign jihadists who travelled to Syria.

But the story of Moussa and his associates is also a broader story — about how Salafism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam that adheres strictly to traditions and practices from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, gained a foothold among the community in Iztok, where it previously had no presence at all.

Decades of neglect by Bulgarian society and institutions left many Roma feeling marginalised and created fertile ground for religious fundamentalists, according to local people and experts in Roma communities and in radicalisation.

For two years, Bulgaria has been devoting considerable attention and resources to building a border fence to keep out refugees and migrants from the Middle East. But for much longer, it has also been building walls between its own communities.

The defendants, meanwhile, are still waiting for their day in court. A judge ruled on December 2, 2015 that the trial should not go ahead as the original indictment was unclear and revealed procedural violations. The prosecutor promptly submitted an amended indictment to address the court's concerns, setting the stage for a trial to get under way in 2016.

Three of the defendants in the case have accepted the allegations against them. One made no statement about the charges. All the others, including Moussa and the other suspects named in this story, have pleaded not guilty.

Ahmed Moussa in court in Pazardjik on March 19, 2014, when he was convicted of charges including spreading anti-democratic ideology and religious hatred. Photo: Georgi Kozhuharov

The preacher and his patch

Moussa is a 40-year-old charismatic Salafist preacher with two previous convictions for spreading religious hatred (see timeline).

The other 13 people charged by prosecutors following the 2014 raid are alleged members of Moussa’s inner circle. Most, like Moussa himself, do not have any paid employment, received only primary education and organise religious activities in their own communities.

"He lacks rationality, but paradoxically that’s what makes him a leader."

 – lawyer Harry Haralampiev on Ahmed Moussa

Moussa's neighbourhood, Iztok, lies in the heart of Pazardjik yet feels separate from the rest of the town. The infrastructure is poor and no public transport goes there. The majority of its 20,000 people speak Turkish as their mother tongue. Bulgarian society generally regards them as Roma, although they often identify themselves as Turks or simply as Muslims. In the past they were not devout believers, partly because religion was suppressed under communism. They practised an idiosyncratic form of Islam that also incorporated elements of Christianity and paganism.

"When we heard the cuckoo call, we believed that somebody would die. Those were the kind of beliefs we had," one man from the community says. "That’s not Islam."

As Abdullah Salih, the head mufti of the Pazardjik region, puts it: "They were born as Muslims. They would say they are Muslims but they didn’t act as Muslims in their everyday lives. They started learning since then."

Abdullah Salih, the head mufti of the Pazardjik region, in his office in the town of Velingrad, on June 11, 2015. Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

After communism fell in 1989, different religious groups found a responsive audience among the Roma. Some Bulgarian Muslims travelled to Turkey and the Middle East to deepen their religious knowledge. They brought back unfamiliar customs and rituals that caused conflict between new and old imams.

Moussa was a Christian until the age of 20, attending the local evangelical church, but he later became a standard-bearer of the new Islam in Iztok. Court documents from his previous convictions sketch out a brief version of his transformation. During a visit to Austria in the mid 1990’s, he converted to Islam and later attended a one-year course for imams in the Bulgarian village of Surnitsa. He was introduced to Salafist ideas by his teacher there, who had a religious degree from Saudi Arabia.

Who are the Roma?
Roma are a diverse ethnic group with origins in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent who have traditionally led a nomadic way of life. Roma subgroups can differ in their culture, religion and mother tongue.

According to the European Commission, the Roma people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. Of an estimated 10-12 million Roma in the whole of Europe, some six million live in the EU, most of them EU citizens. Bulgaria is among the three EU countries with the biggest Roma populations, the Council of Europe says.

Academics say many people who belong to a Roma group choose not to identify themselves this way as Roma have frequently faced discrimination and marginalisation. In Bulgaria, Roma often call themselves Bulgarians, Turks or Vlachs. Estimates of their number vary between 400,000 and 800,000. (Bulgaria’s total population was estimated at 7.36 million in the 2011 census.)

The Roma are the youngest ethnic group in Bulgaria. Nearly 57 per cent of the Roma population is aged under 30, compared to only 28 per cent of ethnic Bulgarians. Only nine per cent of Roma completed secondary education and just 0.5 per cent completed higher education, according to the 2011 census. Only 38.8 per cent of Roma people are economically active.

Sources: European Commission, National Statistical Institute

Diagnosed with a combination of depression and schizophrenia in his youth, Moussa does not have a licence to be an imam from the official Muslim authority in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, he turned his own home into a place of worship and started preaching. He later joined the Ebu Bekir mosque, which was built in 2002, partially with money from a Saudi foundation. He used to preach everywhere — in cafés and on the streets, at weddings and at funerals. His ideas travelled through Skype and YouTube to neighbouring towns and migrant communities in western Europe.

Moussa quickly became an authority for some people in the neighbourhood, who say he is a good man. One woman says he would "scatter his heart to give it to the poor". Under his leadership over the past decade, his followers gradually changed their appearance, customs and habits. They abandoned their Bulgarian names for Arabic ones. (Moussa himself was previously named Angel Stoyanov.) They began celebrating only Muslim festivals, not national holidays — or even birthdays. Men grew long beards, and started keeping their hair short and wearing long robes. Women began to cover their faces behind burqas.

Spreading propaganda and supporting jihadists?

Now Moussa stands accused of promoting war through his sermons, both online and offline, with the ISIS flag in the background. He repeatedly told his followers that it was every Muslim's duty to join the caliphate proclaimed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including its army, according to witness testimony cited in the indictment.

An anonymous witness quoted in the document claims that Moussa required his followers to collect money for ISIS fighters during Ramadan. He is also accused of spreading religious hatred through a book containing concepts from the Wahhabi tradition, which is widely seen as a hard-line and intolerant strain of Islam.

The prosecution charges all the other defendants with spreading religious hatred by using social media to share photos and videos of ISIS fighters, videos of ISIS executions and religious chants calling for military jihad. Investigators found photos of the defendants posing with flags and merchandise such as hats, T-shirts and key rings associated with the militant group. The indictment says their Facebook profiles featured them pointing with an index finger to the sky, a sign used widely by ISIS supporters.

Moussa and two of his closest followers from Pazardjik, Stefan Alexandrov (known as Suleiman) and Angel Simov (known as Airi), are also accused of giving logistical support to three travelling jihadists who went on to fight in Syria.

The three fighters are named as Said Husejinovic, a 33-year-old French citizen of Bosnian origin, Murat Ayyildiz, a 38-year-old Turkish citizen with a German residence permit, and Izudin Crnovrsanin, a Serbian citizen aged 26. All are said to have taken part in military action in Syria.

Husejinovic and Ayyildiz are still fighting for ISIS while Crnovrsanin was arrested in Serbia in March 2014 to face charges related to taking part in the war in Syria, according to a statement SANS provided in response to questions from BIRN.

The indictment states that two of these men visited Pazardjik on their way to Syria in November 2013. Both Husejinovic and Crnovrsanin stayed in Moussa’s house and their visits overlapped. Ayyildiz visited Alexandrov’s home in the summer of 2014.

At least 332 foreign fighters from western Europe and the western Balkans passed through Bulgaria en route to Syria and Iraq between the start of 2013 and June 2015, although not all made it to the battlefields, SANS said in its statement.

The prosecutor in charge of the case declined a request from BIRN to interview Moussa, who remains in custody awaiting trial.

It is not yet clear who will be Moussa's legal representative if a trial eventually goes ahead but Harry Haralampiev, a lawyer who acted for him in his two previous trials, expresses some scepticism about the claims that the preacher harboured jihadists.

"If this is true, then I ask the rhetorical question: why didn't the authorities arrest these people who were travelling through Bulgaria? Why didn't they arrest and extradite them immediately?" he says.

Haralampiev describes Moussa as a complex man. "He has a magnetic influence over his community," he says. "He lacks rationality, but paradoxically that’s what makes him a leader."

Setting themselves apart

People in Iztok say that Moussa’s followers, estimated to number between 300 and 500, keep themselves apart from others in the neighbourhood.

Zoya Simeonova, who manages a local council-run community centre, recalls a group of children showing up at the door one day. "They told me that they wouldn't come to the community centre any more because they're Muslims," she says. "That's when I realised that kids are being kept away from public institutions."

Zoya Simeonova at the community centre she manages in Iztok on June 10, 2015. Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

Sasho, a 50-year-old man, offers another example as he sits on a warm day outside the kebab shop and café he owns in the centre of Iztok. "You see," he blurts out, pointing a finger at patrons of a neighbouring café. "Those with the beards won’t come and sit at my place." He says people from Moussa’s community will only visit his competitor, because he is a Muslim man: "They don’t communicate with others any more."

Other Muslims in Iztok share his opinion and reject Moussa’s interpretation of Islam. "I can’t live like they used to live a thousand years ago. I prefer that stream of Islam that corresponds with contemporary life," says Yashar Angelov, a 55-year-old clerk who works at the town hall in Pazardjik.

He says Moussa has had some positive impact — some people have given up drinking and taking drugs, for example — but Angelov has lost many friends who have cut themselves off from the rest of the community.

"Yes, my wife wears a burqa but how does that make her a terrorist?"

 - Rujdi Zakir, member of Moussa's congregation

Relations between the small Christian congregation in Iztok and Moussa’s followers are even more strained. In a fast food place filled with the noisy conversation of construction workers at lunch, Yanko Angelov, the son of a local evangelical pastor, lifts his T-shirt to show a pistol in his waistband. He says he has carried the gun for protection ever since he and his father were attacked back in 2005. Four years ago, he also claims, a group of Muslim men from Iztok gave another pastor and his friend a severe beating with bats and iron pipes.

Angelov is convinced these attacks had a religious background, although they appear in police records just as "crimes against public order and peace". He says
conflicts between evangelicals and the "Talibans", as he calls them, are common in Iztok.

"Economic genocide"

Some people suggest the reasons Moussa's followers have embraced Salafism are not primarily religious.

"The main problems in this neighbourhood are social and economic ones," says Yashar Sali, the face of 'official Islam' in Pazardjik as the imam at the town's central mosque. "If they lived a normal life, they wouldn’t care about those different streams," he says, claiming people from Iztok have been abandoned by the state and subjected to "economic genocide".

Stolipinovo, the largest Roma neighbourhood in the city of Plovdiv. Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

As Bulgaria switched to a market economy in the 1990s, Roma were among the hardest hit. Many had been employed in state-run factories that closed and agricultural cooperatives that were broken up. Cutbacks in health and education spending had particularly damaging effects in the rural and isolated communities in which many Roma live.

They were left with limited access to hospitals, schools, kindergartens, social services and public transport. According to the 2011 census, 60 per cent of Roma over 15 years old are economically inactive. At least two generations of Roma have grown up practically illiterate and in deepening poverty.

Antonina Jeliazkova, an anthropologist and head of a Sofia-based non-governmental organisation that works with minority communities, says it is no surprise people in Iztok seek a new identity. "The want to feel a part of something bigger, something that breaks down the walls of their ghettoization," she says.

Yanko Mishev, head of the trustees of Iztok's Ebu Bekir mosque, says employers are prejudiced against people from the community and will not give them jobs. "Pazardjik is the most racist town," he says over Turkish coffee after Friday prayers.

Mishev is speaking a few days before the start of the holy month of Ramadan and Iztok is waiting for the Gastarbeiter — those who work in Germany and other western European countries — to return for the holiday.

He estimates that more than half the neighbourhood's inhabitants work abroad. "If you meet any young men on the streets, they'll be gone in a month," he says.

The German connection

Work in Germany offers the Roma an economic lifeline but the official investigation into Moussa and his group suggests it can also create dangerous connections. A witness told prosecutors that one of the defendants, Angel Simov, got to know the Turkish man he allegedly helped travel to Syria while they were working together in Germany.

In Cologne back in 2001, Moussa himself got in touch with the Germany-based Turkish radical Islamist organisation Kalifatsstaat ('Caliphate state') and agreed to spread their ideas, according to court documents. German authorities banned the group in December of that year.

A representative of a German security agency told BIRN it was aware of Moussa, his group and their ties to Germany but could not provide any more information.

Bulgarian workers from Pazardjik gather on Hansemann street in the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne. Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

Cologne has more than 5,000 Bulgarian residents, including many migrant workers from Pazardjik. Groups of them hang around the corner of Hansemann Street and the tree-lined Venloer Street in the Ehrenfeld district. They are there at 6 a.m., when trucks collect them for construction work, and again in the evening, smoking cigarettes, the working day etched on their faces.

Standing on this corner is Rujdi Zakir, a small and talkative man from Pazardjik who works at a coal plant in Cologne. A member of Ahmed Moussa’s congregation, he angrily denounces politicians and the media in Bulgaria, accusing them of stirring up conflict by demonising the imam and his followers. "They say we’re from the Islamic State. Yes, my wife wears a burqa but how does that make her a terrorist?" he asks.

He contrasts Bulgaria with Germany, where he says no one is trying to divide people by ethnicity or religion.

Eliza Aleksandrova, a Bulgarian who runs centre for Muslim women in Cologne, expresses a similar view. Aleksandrova helps families from the Pazardjik community find jobs and start German language courses. "German society is open to differences and that's why they have a shot at starting a normal life here," she says.

She has been following the news about the investigation into Moussa and his followers with dismay. She is convinced the Bulgarian authorities are overstating the problem because they know and understand little about religion, especially Islam.

Prevention not convictions

Back in Bulgaria, Ivelina Karabashlieva, an expert in the prevention of radicalisation, also has concerns about the implications of putting Moussa and his followers on trial. She used to work in the same field in the Netherlands and thinks Bulgaria lacks a comprehensive approach. "Bulgaria should invest in prevention. You can’t change mind-sets with convictions," Karabashlieva says.

The state should offer an alternative to ISIS propaganda, she says. This means teachers must be prepared to discuss the issue with their pupils and know how to spot signs of radicalisation. Social workers and local council officials should be trained in the basics of Islam and Salafism to understand what is dangerous and what is not, Karabashlieva says.

Health mediator Asen Kolev, right, talks to people in the Stolipinovo neighbourhood of Plovdiv on June 9, 2015. Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova.

Wandering through the dirty streets of the Roma neighbourhoods in Pazardjik and Plovdiv, Asen Kolev stops frequently to chat. As a health mediator, his job is to connect local people with state medical services. It gives him a good sense of the public mood.

Ever since the arrests of Moussa and his followers, he says, a gesture of some kind from the authorities has been desperately needed to calm anger in the community. Maybe a few new streetlights. Or a small festival for the kids. A sign that someone from the local leadership cares about these people. But there has been nothing.

Timeline: Key facts about Ahmed Moussa

1995 Moussa goes to Vienna, Austria, to work in construction and converts to Islam. 1999 He attends a one-year course for imams in the Bulgarian village of Surnitsa.

2001 While working in Cologne, he makes contact with representatives of the
Turkish radical Islamist organisation Kalifatsstaat ("Caliphate state").

2004 Moussa is convicted by the Pazardjik regional court of spreading anti-democratic ideology and religious hatred, provoking national hostility and hatred against the Bulgarian nationality, and for desecrating the Bulgarian flag. He is given a five-year suspended prison term and ordered to pay a fine of around €500.

2012 A series of raids by the State Agency for National Security leads to the trial of 13 Muslim religious leaders including Moussa. Charges include spreading religious hatred and belonging to an unregistered organisation.

19 March 2014 All 13 people are found guilty of being members of the organisation “Al Waqf al Islami”, which was not registered in Bulgaria. Moussa is also found guilty of preaching anti-democratic ideology and hatred. He is sentenced to one year in prison but does not go to jail pending an appeal, which has not yet been decided.

25 November 2014 Moussa is arrested at the Ebu Bekir mosque in Pazardjik. He and 13 of his followers are accused of inciting religious hatred through their own preaching and of promoting war by spreading ISIS propaganda.

2 July 2015 Prosecutors complete their investigation. Moussa and his followers are committed for trial.

2 December 2015 The Court of Appeal in Plovdiv terminates proceedings before the trial has even got under way, saying some of the allegations are unclear and that the indictment suggests the procedural rights of 11 of the 14 defendants have been infringed. The following week, the prosecutor submits a new indictment, with changes aimed at addressing the court's concerns.

Sources: Court decisions in Ahmed Moussa's first two trials, court press releases.


This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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