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Bosnia-Herzegovina: New Book Investigates Presence Of Al-Qaeda

June 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Six men -- all foreign-born Muslims -- were arrested in May in the United States, accused of involvement in a terrorist plot to attack soldiers at Fort Dix, a U.S. Army training center in New Jersey. Four of the suspects are ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, while one is from Jordan and one is from Turkey.

The arrests served again to focus attention on the issue of Islamic terrorists allegedly using the former Yugoslavia as a base of operations, as well as the impact of their radical views on the region's historically moderate form of Islam.

Vlado Azinovic is a senior editor with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. Azinovic explores these issues in his new book, "Al-Qaeda In Bosnia-Herzegovina: Myth Or Present Danger?"

"The research for this book was prompted by a series of media reports and research papers that in recent years claimed that Bosnia was, and still is, a staging area and safe haven for Islamic terrorists traveling between the Middle East and Europe," says Azinovic. "My book arose out of a desire to investigate the validity of these claims."

Azinovic says he decided to focus on several key questions:

  • What is Al-Qaeda and the ideology behind it?
  • Does Al-Qaeda enjoy any support in Bosnia?
  • If so, how did it get there?
  • Are Bosnian Muslims being recruited to fight its cause?

He says his research established that, as of 1992, Bosnia had, indeed, become a meeting point for members of militant groups who had arrived either from training camps in Afghanistan or from Western Europe, where they had been recruited in mosques and Islamic centers. These militants felt that genocide was taking place in Bosnia and that a new jihad was required. Once they reached Bosnia, they became mujahedin and adopted new identities.

Mujahedin Remain

Azinovic says the number of mujahedin who fought in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995 is estimated at 3,000 to 4,000. Initially, they were not under the control of the Bosnian military but fought beside Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks. In September 1993, however, the mujahedin were integrated into the Bosnian Army’s Third Corps under the name El-Mujahedin Unit.

A few hundred mujahedin remained in Bosnia after the war, Azinovic says. A few dozen still remain. He says they have enjoyed protection and support from the highest ranks of the Bosniak political and intelligence establishment. Some of them are believed to have links to Al-Qaeda.

The arrival of the mujahedin, he says, introduced two important factors into Bosnia's security and social landscape.

One was short-term: the physical presence of people trained to commit terrorist acts.

The other factor was long-term. Along with the mujahedin came a rather narrow, puritanical, and confrontational interpretation of Islam, commonly known as Wahhabism.

From the outset, Wahhabism caused tensions in traditional Bosnian-Muslim society, which has always been religiously moderate. These tensions have escalated in recent months, Azinovic says, and have led to a struggle between "traditionalists" and Wahhabis for the control of mosques and Islamic centers.

Source Of Instability

"My book maintains that the presence of Wahhabism and of the remaining mujahedin do not qualify Bosnia as a particular threat to international security," Azinovic says. "More of a threat, I believe, is the fact that Bosnia is becoming a failed state. The Dayton peace agreement may have ended the armed conflict, but through the establishment of the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), it incorporated, rather than resolved, the fundamental dispute over which the war was originally fought -- namely, whether Bosnia is a united or divided country."

He says this dichotomy provides a permanent source of instability. It prevents the establishment of a viable state structure and a self-sustaining economy. It destabilizes democratic institutions and creates internal frictions, hindering the reconciliation process. As a result, he says, the state's borders are porous and susceptible to human and drug trafficking, while weapons and ammunition are still readily available.

"In short, the country is an ideal breeding ground for militant ideologies," Azinovic says, "while Wahhabism provides extreme, yet simple, answers to almost every challenge that arises from Bosnia's postwar reality."
In addition, since 2002, the West -- and in particular the United States -- has been shifting resources and political energy from Bosnia to other regions in the world where security threats appear more imminent.

While discussing the alleged propensity of Bosniaks to join the global jihadist movement, Azinovic says, "we should look not just at whether there are individuals in Bosnia ready to put on suicide vests, but also at the factors that inspire people to embrace extremist ideologies."

Ideology Gaining Ground

While Al-Qaeda-linked groups and individuals in Bosnia remain elusive, he says, overwhelming evidence indicates that the ideology behind the movement is gaining ground rapidly.

"But Bosnian society does not seem capable of dealing with this problem decisively," says Azinovic, "while international involvement is often more  of a hindrance than a help, for it typically deals with the consequences, instead of the root causes, of the problem."

The "war on terror," he says, cannot be successful if fought solely against those already indoctrinated with jihadist ideology.

"No one is born a terrorist; terrorists are bred. The social, economic, and political origins of terrorism must be addressed with equal resolve," Azinovic concludes. "My book argues that by helping accelerate its transformation into a nation of entrepreneurship, political responsibility, and popular sovereignty, Bosnia could be used by the West to promote a vision of modern and moderate Islam."

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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