Bosnia: Agent to Stand Trial

A former intelligence operative is charged with leaking information to the extremists he was supposed to be keeping under surveillance.

Bosnia: Agent to Stand Trial

A former intelligence operative is charged with leaking information to the extremists he was supposed to be keeping under surveillance.

Wednesday, 28 August, 2002

The trial of Munib Zahiragic, an intelligence agent accused of tipping off suspected extremists, is expected to shed new light on the activities of Islamic agents within Bosnia.


The hearing, to be held in the Sarajevo cantonal court next month, should also provide key information for the US authorities in their prosecution of Enaam Arnaout, who was arrested in Chicago earlier this year and labelled as a major aide of Osama bin Laden.


The Sarajevo indictment claims that Zahiragic stole hundreds of highly classified documents between 1996 and 2000 when employed by the Bosnian intelligence Agency for Documentation and Investigation, AID.


The documents concerned investigation and surveillance operations against Islamic volunteers, or mujahedeen, who settled in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the war.


The indictment claimed that Zahiragic passed this classified information to the director of the Benevolence International Foundation, BIF, an aid agency that was listed by the US State Department in late 2001 as a sponsor of terrorism.


Born in 1953, Zahiragic graduated from a religious seminary and became an imam at a mosque in Split. He was arrested by the old Bosnia-Herzegovina socialist regime in 1987 on suspicion of helping to plot attacks on major targets.


He was sentenced to five years in jail but was released before the Bosnian war broke out, and joined the main Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA.


At first Zahiragic served in one of the Bosnian army's rag-tag military units in Sarajevo but soon became a bodyguard to the then-Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic.


On December 26, 1993, President Izetbegovic appointed Zahiragic as a security officer at the Bosnian embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Later, Zahiragic was transferred to similar duties in Kuwait where he was openly critical of his host country, claiming it had adopted a "too liberal" view of Islam. These observations brought Zahiragic into serious conflict with the then-Bosnian ambassador to Kuwait, Naim Kadic, who demanded his recall to Sarajevo.


Once back in the Bosnian capital, Zahiragic joined AID in September 1996 and was assigned to observe and analyse the so-called "AA Factor". This is a term for Afro-Asian Islamic volunteers who fought alongside the Bosniaks and remained in the country after the war.


In June 2000 he terminated his contract with AID to become head of BIF's Bosnian branch. According to local police, Zahiragic and BIF director Enaam Arnaout had travelled to the Caucasus to take humanitarian aid to Chechen fighters earlier that year.


The BIF was listed as a sponsor of terrorism by the US state department in late 2001, and its bank accounts were frozen. In January 2002 Arnaout sued the FBI in an effort to unfreeze the assests. However, Bosnian police searched apartments and offices belonging to the organisation's leading figures two months later.


The police found a computer disc containing classified AID documents in Zahiragic's apartment. Copies of further papers marked as classified, highly classified, or state secret were found in his garage. A photograph of Arnaout with Osama bin Laden was also reportedly discovered in the swoop. Zahiragic was arrested in Sarajevo on March 21 and Arnaout in Chicago on April 30 this year.


The FBI claimed Arnaout - who is now facing trial for perjury - used to have close links with al-Qaeda and enjoyed the favour of bin Laden.


According to the office of the Sarajevo Cantonal Prosecutor, Zahiragic conveyed key AID reports, documents and other information to Arnaout, who would then warn suspects that the Bosnian police were on their trail.


The charge sheet claimed these activities seriously damaged the work of AID, revealed its operational methods, endangered the security of its agents and undermined its cooperation with foreign intelligence services.


As a result of these leaks, several suspects are believed to have fled the country before police caught up with them. The indictment names only the two most notorious ones - Abu Ma'ali and Mamdouh Salim.


Ma'ali was one of the last and most radical commanders of El Mujaheed, a unit of mainly Afro-Asian Islamic volunteers that was active in central Bosnia and fought alongside the Bosnia-Herzegovina army.


According to local police sources, Ma'ali occasionally returned to Bosnia after the war, using travel documents under several different names of persons from Algeria and Kuwait.


The last time he was known to have visited Bosnia-Herzegovina was in Spring 2001. According to information forwarded from foreign intelligence agencies to Bosnian police, Ma'ali is one of the al-Qaeda network's key players and is currently in hiding alongside bin Laden.


Mamdouh Salim is an electrical engineer from Iraq who, according to FBI documents released before the charges against Arnaout were filed in Chicago, tried to procure nuclear weapons for al-Qaeda.


In the summer of 1998, Salim was in Bosnia carrying documents that identified him as a BIF director. He was arrested in Germany in September 1998 and transferred to a US prison to await trial.


Aside from these two famous names, it is still not known how many Islamic fighters escaped from Bosnia thanks to Zahiragic's spying activities.


Ena Latin is a pseudonym of a Sarajevo based journalist.


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