Ghosts of Bosnian War Still Plague Much of the Balkans

Der Speigel reports that the Islamic State (IS) is establishing of support base in Bosnia and Herzegovina.Northern towns have openly flown the IS flag, and dozens of communities are reportedly being ruled under Islamic law instead of Bosnia’s secular law.

Breitbart News reports that there are at least a dozen places where Salafists can train jihadists in the region without interference from Bosnian authorities. Federal Prosecutors admit there are a few IS supporters in northern Bosnia.  The Bosnian Ministry of Security and SIPA special police force deny any “Sharia villages” exist, despite reports to the contrary.

Bosnia’s Ministry of Security did admit that weapons used during the Charlie Hebdo attacks and possibly the November 13 Paris attacks originated from Bosnia.

200-300 young men have reportedly left the region to fight for IS, a total which rises to 877 fighters when adding other Balkan nations. Bosnia and Herzegovina are second in Europe for supplying Islamic State fighters, behind only Belgium.

The influx of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) from the Balkans reached its peak in the 2012-2013 period, before tapering off following law reforms that made traveling abroad to fight for Islamic State illegal.

The origins of Balkan Jihadism can be traced back to the early 1990’s and the outbreak of the Bosnian War. A three-way conflict emerged between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) fighting against Christian Croatians (Croats) and Orthodox Serbians (Serbs). In 1992, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations supported networks for send foreign jihadist fighters to Bosnia to fight the Croats and Serbs. At the same time a number of Salafist clerics from North Africa and the Middle East began moving into the region.

Arab nations feeding into Bosnia formed what would be called the “Mujahedeen Battalion” a small group of foreign fighters who travelled to reinforce Bosnian Muslims. By 1993, the group had grown to hundreds of volunteers and began hunting the so-called “non-believers.” In April 1993, Croats killed 130 Bosnians in Ahmici, the Muhajideen responded in kind by forcing out 200 Croats at the Goca Gura Montasery two months later, and had to be rescued by British UN troops.

Bosnia’s President at the time Ijia Izetbegovic had strong Islamist sympathies. Izetbegovic joined and later led the “Young Muslim” movement, a Bosnian Islamist movement which helped fill the ranks of the Nazi Waffen SS Handschar Division, and which maintained  close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Izetbegovic held a strong disdain for secular and moderate Muslims and wanted to develop an independent Bosnia into an Islamic state. Izetbegovic was suspected of presenting a Bosnian passport to Mujahedeen financier Osama Bin Laden who reportedly visited Bosnia and Kosovo numerous times in the early 1990s despite being listed as a terrorist.

The US initially supported the Bosnian Mujahedeen believing they were supporting the freedom fighters protecting Bosnians from being victims of genocide, especially following the Srebrenica incident, where Serbian forces massacred thousands of Bosnian males and expelled many more. Less reported at the time was the role-played by the Bosnian Mujahedeen in war crimes, including ritually torturing and beheading prisoners.

The terms of the Dayton Peace Accords stating all foreign fighters had to leave Bosnia were largely ignored. While hundreds of the Mujahedeen would travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chechnya, many settled in Bosnia. Mujahedeen alumni of the Bosnian campaign included two 9/11 hijackers Khalid al Mindhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, as well as Omar Saed Sheikh, who took part in the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

In 2001 reports surfaced that at least 30 Mujahedeen remained in Bosnia and had connections to violent jihadist groups throughout the world. Given its history, Bosnia’s role as a significant provider of jihadist fighters for the Islamic State should come as no surprise for analysts. Bosnia serves as a reminder of the long term effects, and resilient networks of the global jihad.