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Bosnia: Mujahedin Revival Fears

Terrorist attacks in the USA have triggered a witch-hunt against mujahedin in Bosnia.
By Sead Numanovic

Bosnia's "most notorious" Islamic fighter appeared live on Bosnian state television last week to condemn the atrocities in New York City and Washington as an act of terrorism. He then pleaded to be left alone. "Every time so much as a firecracker explodes anywhere in Bosnia, the police come knocking on my door," said Abu Hamza.


Hamza is a mujahedin - as all foreign Islamic fighters in Bosnia are known regardless of their particular origin or creed. He is a former leader of some 300 mujahedin families who settled in Bocinja, an abandoned Serb village in central Bosnia, and a veteran of the El-Mudzahid unit of the Bosnian army. Active throughout the war, the unit was made up entirely of foreign Islamic fighters and their local followers.


Post-Dayton it was disbanded, but September 11 has spawned anxiety about those mujahedin who remained in the country after the Bosnian war, in which an estimated 3,000 Islamic militants took part. Some have likened the growing panic over Muslim radicals to a witch-hunt.


In recent days, SFOR peacekeepers have detained six people,


including one Jordanian and one Egyptian, on suspicion of preparing terrorist attacks.


SFOR spokesman, Daryl Morrell, declined to give any details about the operation, but said four of the suspects still in detention may be handed over to the Bosnian authorities once SFOR has concluded its own investigations.


The arrests marked a watershed, as before now SFOR troops have only arrested civilians suspected of war crimes.


Since the attacks in New York and Washington, the Bosnian government has been conducting an urgent investigation of all passports and citizenships issued to foreigners since 1992. Federal police have been checking and double-checking on the whereabouts of all remaining mujahedin.


Speculative reports in the Croatian, Serb and even Bosniak media have stoked the worldwide terrorist scare. Rumours that Osama Bin Laden himself obtained a Bosnian passport during the war were officially denied. They seemed unlikely, anyway, since a Bosnian passport would be of little use to a fugitive as most of the world - except Croatia, Yugoslavia and a few others - require Bosnians to apply for visas.


A claim by one German journalist that she had met Bin Laden in Sarajevo during 1993 was greeted with derision - both by local residents and the scores of Western journalists who visited the Bosnian capital during the war.


Then came reports that Bosnia appears on the list of countries where Bin Laden's Al-Qaida terrorist organisation are thought to have a cell. That may be so, but the observant reader would have spotted that Great Britain and the United States also feature on the list.


A report in the Croatian magazine Nacional in which anonymous sources claim that the FBI believes that one of hijackers who targeted the World Trade Centre possessed a Bosnian passport has not been confirmed.


An announcement that Interpol has sent lists of 19 suspected terrorists to all member countries - including Bosnia - appeared in some media as a report that local police were frantically scouring Bosnia for the suspects, with no mention that the list had been sent elsewhere.


The often conflicting news and rumours make it difficult for Bosnians and Westerners alike to gauge quite how serious a threat - if any - Bosnia's mujahedin really pose.


Certainly, Bosnia's still porous borders, complex bureaucracy, lack of coordination between the two entities and the continued division of police, army and intelligence agencies along ethnic lines are all cause for concern.


"We are aware of the problem," Zlatko Lagumdzija, who is both premier and foreign minister in the Bosnian state government, said recently. However, he stressed that while the problem should not be underestimated, nor should it be overstated.


Mujahedin arrived in Bosnia in the early stage of the war, most of them wanting to assist the Muslim-dominated government. From the moment of their arrival, they provoked fear among the Bosnian Serbs and Croats and mixed feelings from the Bosniak population.


While some Bosniak soldiers valued them as capable fighters and good comrades-in-arms, others feared and hated them, believing they had arrived to establish terrorist camps, spy, or trade in drugs and weapons. Others were intimidated by their strict religious practices and suspected them of wanting to slaughter Serbs, Croats and Bosniak "non-believers".


Of course the motives which brought Islamic fighters to Bosnia were as many and varied as the feelings they provoked in the local population - a fact which many Westerners and locals alike


fail to understand.


During the war, various intelligence and military sources claimed that some Western countries - notably France - deployed Islamic fighters to gather intelligence. International and local agencies have also produced evidence that some mujahedin had previous involvement in terrorist training camps, as well as drugs and weapon-trafficking in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.


A member of the Bosnian army third corps, which was in charge of the El-Mudzahid unit, estimates that around 3,000 Islamic fighters passed through Bosnia during the course of the war. "About 100 of them were killed honourably, in active service," he said. "However, there were also those who became criminals or engaged in intelligence work."


When the war ended, one condition for Western - particularly US - political and financial support was that mujahedin units be dissolved. As a result, the El-Mudzahid unit was broken up and most of the foreign Islamic fighters left the country.


But rumours of organised mujahedin activities in Bosnia persist, though. The local press recently revived stories of a Muslim terrorist camp 45 minutes drive south of Sarajevo, on the banks of Lake Jablanicko. There, fighters are allegedly trained for action in Chechnya, Afghanistan or anywhere Islam is "threatened".


The cantonal authorities regularly deny the existence of such a camp. A visit by this reporter a month ago revealed only ten white dome-shaped tents which form a summer camp for children who lost parents during the war. It is funded and run by the "Furkan" organisation, which insists its only function is to help the 140 children on its books.


The Active Islamic Youth is a group also often rumoured to be involved in terrorism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Founder member Muris Cupic, a 30-year-old economics student and former member of the El-Mudzahid unit, laughs at such claims. "There is no danger of militant Islam," he said, insisting that his group only want to preach and express their religious identity.


While reports of organised mujahedin activity in Bosnia may be exaggerated, it is certainly true that many Islamic fighters did stay on after the war.


Abu Hamza stresses that he obtained his Bosnian citizenship quite legally and his warrior days are long over. Most of the 300 mujahedin families who had settled in the deserted village of Bocinja have had to vacate their houses in the past year as Bosnian Serbs returned to their pre-war homes. Hamza and a few others bought their houses from their Serb owners and remain there.


Abu Ahmad, a 35-year-old Jordanian who now lives in central Bosnia with his wife and child, has been a mujahedin since the age of 16. His mother handed over her savings to enable him to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. "With her permission I went to a Pakistani town for training, then I fought in an Arab unit in Afghanistan for two and a half years, " he said. " Around a hundred of us came here at the end of 1992 when we realised the dangers facing the Bosnian Muslims."


It has to be said, though, that most mujahedin live peacefully. Some have been known to assault people drinking alcohol or women they consider improperly dressed. Such incidents form the main point of conflict with the local population.


Others stayed on in Bosnia because they were wanted for paramilitary or terrorist activities at home and some have since become involved in looting and other criminal activities.


The federal interior minister of police Muhamed Besic confirms that in the months before the recent SFOR arrests, his own police arrested five foreigners, four of whom are suspected of terrorism. "Two have been extradited to France and a Turkish citizen was handed over to the German authorities on a drug-related charge," he said. "Two Egyptians are being held in prison and will be extradited. Both were carrying Bosnian passports with false names."


Last week, federal deputy interior minister Tomislav Limov stressed that the most serious threat came not from mujahedin who have settled in Bosnia, but from "sleeping agents" or possible incursions by new Islamic fighters or terrorists taking advantage of Bosnia's porous borders and uncoordinated police network.


This concern was borne out when Besic announced that intelligence reports from "unnamed but reliable sources" warned that a group of up to 70 Islamic terrorists may be en route to Bosnia from Afghanistan.


"Bosnia...is a fairly safe country," Besic stressed. "But individuals capable of all sorts of things could now be on their way here for ideological, political, religious and who knows what reasons.


"I would like to say to all those linked with terrorism who think they will find a safe haven or paradise on earth (in Bosnia) that they face real hell. There is simply no place for them here."


Sead Numanovic is a reporter and editor at the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz and weekly Express.