Early this month, Bosnian police and military forces conducted their first major operation since war ended in the country in 1995. On February 2, some 400-600 agents raided a major center of radical Islamist activity. Officers were sent to the notorious “Wahhabi village” of Gornja Maoca from Sarajevo, capital of the Muslim-Croat federation that makes up about half of the country, since partition was imposed by the Dayton Accords fifteen years ago.
Gornja Maoca is a small settlement in rural Bosnia, too small to appear on most maps, surrounded by mountains and distant from main roads. It is therefore a perfect location for al Qaeda infiltration into the Balkans – literally, the middle of nowhere. A Bosnian-language website run by its controllers, www.putvjernika.com – its name means “path of believers” – features al Qaeda’s flag among its jihadist appeals.
Designated “Operation Light,” the official action resulted in the arrest of eight radicals and seizure of firearms and bomb materials. Best known among the detained was Nusret Imamovic, “sheikh” of the Wahhabi underground in Bosnia, according to Islamist sources. Imamovic was involved in a clash between 10 Wahhabis and some Bosnian Serbs in the north Bosnian hamlet of Bukvik in mid-2006, not far from Gornja Maoca. At that time, gunfire erupted and one Serb was wounded. Imamovic is a disciple of Muhamed Porca, a Bosnian cleric in Vienna considered to be the outstanding advocate of Wahhabism in the Bosnian Muslim milieu, both domestically and in its widespread diaspora. Imamovic is not a major figure in Bosnian public life, but looms large in local jihadism. Imamovic succeeded to his position as an ideological leader in 2007 when a flamboyant and aggressive extremist, Jusuf Barcic, was killed in an auto accident. Barcic affected a long beard and Saudi garments, but was run out of a small town named for his family, Barcici, a week before he died.
Demonstrating that family prestige may play little in gaining support for jihad, the ordinary Muslims of Barcici decided they had enough of imported and hateful interpretations of Islam, and some 100 locals expelled 15 Wahhabis, who had taken over a local religious primary school, or mekteb. The villagers proceeded to remove a stove, generator, and Wahhabi literature from the building. An Islamic official in the region announced that it would be permanently closed rather than allow it to fall into radical hands again. A resident of Barcici put the case against the penetration of Bosnia by Wahhabism eloquently. Semsa Barcic told a Bosnian television interviewer, “They should shave their beards and use deodorant instead of coming here like dogs. For me, they are wolf-dogs, they will attack our children. I have female children and do not dare to send them [to the mekteb] at all. They are capable of anything. I do not trust them.”
The arrested Wahhabis from Gornja Maoca are expected to remain in custody at least a month, charged with maintaining a criminal organization, attacking the Bosnian constitutional order, endangering national unity, fomenting racial and religious hatred, discord and intolerance, and unauthorized possession of weapons and explosive materials. All were Bosnian Muslims except for an apparent ethnic Albanian of Croatian nationality, who was held for deportation.
The remaining Wahhabi supporters in the village, including some local clerics, complained to the head of Bosnia’s Islamic community, Mustafa Ceric. The latter, a former imam in Chicago, which hosted the largest Bosnian-American community before the Balkan Wars and refugee exodus of the 1990s, presents himself to Westerners as a stainless moderate Muslim. But Ceric is a close associate of the hate-mongering fundamentalist cleric based in Qatar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The clerics from Gornja Maoca alleged to Ceric that everybody in their community supported the Wahhabis and that the official cleanup in the place was an attack on Islam – the same gambit with which Ceric repudiates any inquiry into Wahhabism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Ceric has lately taken to sending teams of disingenuous young Bosnian Muslims to Western countries, to sell his claim that his country has no Wahhabi problem.)
Bosnian, Kosovar Albanian, and other Islamist extremists have recently turned up with unexpected frequency in jihadist conspiracies, even in the U.S., and represent a growing cause of concern for American military and law-enforcement agencies. Although Bosnia may appear divided by Wahhabi radicals and their opponents, the weight of Bosnian Muslim opinion remains against the interlopers. The widely-respected journalist Zija Dizdarevic, a prominent advocate for the Bosnian side in the Balkan fighting of the 1990s, reminded readers of Sarajevo’s most respected daily, Oslobodjenje (Liberation), that the Wahhabis had first appeared in the country during the war, and that their influence persisted thereafter at the highest level of the Muslim political elite. These so-called mujahidin, numbering in the low thousands, who journeyed from Afghanistan and elsewhere to Bosnia, did not determine the outcome of any battles and caused much more harm than benefit for the Bosnian cause. They refused to accept the common military discipline of the Bosnian army, and insisted in acting on their own – by committing atrocities against non-Muslim civilians. After the war, their exploits resulted in, among other crimes, the murder of three members of a Bosnian Catholic family named Andjelic in 2003. Dizdarevic identified two later phases in the attempted Wahhabization of Bosnia: Widespread construction of mosques with money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and establishment of Wahhabi enclaves, exemplified by the effort in Gornja Maoca.
The consequential action of the Bosnian authorities is overdue, and has been previously obstructed by fundamentalist accomplices among the top religious officials. But it comes at a moment when Bosnia-Herzegovina faces many risks to its continued sovereignty. Serbia and its patron, Russia, continue to look at the Balkan republics as an attractive region for intrigue. Bosnian Serbs responded to the Kosovo declaration of independence, two years ago this week, by threatening to make the division of Bosnia, as created by Dayton, permanent. A prominent Serbian human rights advocate, Sonja Biserko, has declared that a close alliance between Serb politicians inside Bosnia and those in Serbia is “the most serious obstacle to stability in the region.”
Serbia, for its part, is caught between its chosen field of opportunity and its patron. The Belgrade government has been treated with sympathy by NATO, but Russian Konstantin Kosachev has warned of a “negative effect” on relations between the giant Slav power and its ex-Yugoslav client if Serbia enters the Western military alliance.
Wahhabi agitators, openly supporting al Qaeda, continue to appear in those Balkan locations that are most vulnerable to renewed conflict: Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sandzhak region bordering Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo, as well as Macedonia and Kosovo proper. If Bosnia is to survive, it must first rid itself of the Wahhabi menace before it tackles the problems of international diplomacy and, especially, Russian meddling.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.