Bosnia and Herzegovina as a Springboard for Jihadists

Translated by Ollie Richardson


The loss of territories in Syria and Iraq pushes terrorists to capture a springboard in Europe – first of all in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such a warning was made by the president of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman. In his opinion, it is precisely in this former Yugoslavian Republic that Islamists have many supporters, including supporters of the ISIS terrorist organization.

The danger shouldn’t be underestimated: in terms of the terrorist threat for Europe, the development of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina looks worse than, for example, in Albania, Macedonia, or Kosovo.

Firstly, unlike Albanians in Kosovo and Albania, for which a consolidating factor historically is blood-related and ethnic, and not religious ties, Bosnian-Muslim society lends itself to a much stronger religious influence from outside, including radical and terrorist characteristics. Radical Islamism in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BaH) is more demanded than in other regions of the Balkans also because local Muslim communities in the 1980’s-90’s created their own structures and institutes in BaH. The muftiate heading them played a key role in the establishment of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina during the ethno-civil war in this former Yugoslavian republic in the first half of the 1990’s.

It is possible to remember the “Islamic declaration” developed at the time of the unified Yugoslavia by the future leader of Bosnian Muslims Alija Izetbegović, an analog of which there wasn’t in the Balkans, and which played a significant role in the mobilization of Bosnian Muslims during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Thus, the leading role of Alija Izetbegović in the bloody events in BaH in the first half of the 1990’s was derived from the equation by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), although the fault of this person in the outbreak of civil war is obvious.

Secondly, the growth of Islamic radicalism in BaH has military-political roots, connecting local radicals with militants arriving to the Bosnian fronts in the 1990’s. The exact number of these militants is unknown, but it is supposed that no less than 10,000 jihadists from the countries of the Middle East and North Africa came to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and at least 3,000 of them after the war settled in the former Yugoslavian republic. In many cases they used for this purpose the opportunities given to them by western representations like, first of all, the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At their disposal there are military camps, training centers (the most known – near the city of Travnik), and other infrastructure elements.

Thirdly, Bosnia and Herzegovina appeared on the edge of the influence of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Rigidly competing for influence in the Balkans, Ankara and Riyadh have made considerable efforts to strengthen their positions in this region. In 2009, the founder of the concept “Strategic Depth” Ahmet Davutoglu characterized the value of BaH in the system of Turkish foreign policy priorities: “For diplomats from other parts of the world the Bosnian issue is a technical one. For us it is a matter of life and death. This is precisely why it’s so important. The territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina is as important for us as the territorial integrity of Turkey. The security of Sarajevo is as important for Turkey as the security and prosperity of Istanbul”.

Fourthly, radical Islamists in BaH skillfully used the weakness of local State institutes affected by inter-ethnic and inter-faith strife. However, in other Balkan countries the situation isn’t any better. As a result, writes the Polish New Eastern Europe publication, “out of a total of 4,000 Europeans who have joined the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, 900 (approximately one-quarter) originate from the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia)”. The publication draws the conclusion that “this fact brought the four nations to the top of the list in the ranking of the number of foreign fighters per capita. Torn by sharp ethnic conflicts until recently, the Western Balkans today face another enemy – jihadism”.

“We should not overlook the fact that locals buy real estate in remote areas, seldom visited by outsiders, with the support of Islamic charity organisations. There is suspicion that it is at such locations where illegal activities are conducted in support of the jihadist movement, such as stockpiling of arms, military training and preparation for crossing Schengen zone borders. The exercise of police control over such ‘property closed to outsiders’ is hindered by Bosnia’s administrative structure, consisting of many autonomous units requiring specific police procedures,” emphasizes New Eastern Europe.

Finally, one more important factor is the geographical position of Bosnia and Herzegovina, turning it into an ideal springboard for the subsequent penetration of Islamists on the territory of the European Union through the countries of Central Europe. And here, also, a special role is played by Turkey, which is capable of using the “Bosnian route” to render pressure on the EU and to destabilise the situation in Europe. In the current configuration of migratory flows Bosnia and Herzegovina is “the weak link” because of the uncertainty of its international legal status in the context of accession to the EU. The country received the status of a “potential candidate” for accession to the EU in 2003, and in February, 2016, sent to Brussels an official demand for membership in the European Union.

In these circumstances international terrorists, supported by external forces, indeed can use Bosnia and Herzegovina for purposes far from the plans of Brussels.

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