POLITICS-SERBIA: Traces of al Qaeda Network in the Balkans

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Oct 16 2001 (IPS) - Traces of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network can be found in the Balkans too, where the wars of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia raged in the 1990s.

Last week the authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina arrested several persons allegedly belonging to al Qaeda network, following tips from the United States that they had telephone conversations with a senior military aide of bin Laden.

Bosnian Interior Minister Muhamed Besic named one of the suspects as “a certain Bensayah Belkacem, who was handed over to a local court”.

According to the minister, two sets of documents were found in Belkacem’s possession, one identifying him as Yemeni and one as Algerian. Belkacem is also a Bosnian citizen.

Al Qaeda was active in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 when it financed and trained special units from Islamic countries that fought side by side with Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Croats and Serbs.

After the war ended in 1995 — following the Dayton Peace Accords — many stayed behind and obtained Bosnian citizenship through marriage with local Muslim women. They openly called themselves “mujahedin” or Islamic fighters.

Investigations are underway to establish the exact number of the former Mujahedin in Bosnia. So far, the Bosnian Interior Ministry says not more than 400 of them reside in the country.

The NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia, that has been monitoring peace in the republic since 1995, said there were still some 30 Islamic extremists in the country with direct links to terrorist networks related to al Qaeda, a Bosnian newspaper reported.

Following the Sep 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, Bosnian government established a special team to coordinate anti- terror efforts. The team is made up of local and international officials, including representatives of Western embassies, NATO peacekeepers and officials from Bosnia’s foreign and interior ministries. It meets almost daily, developing plans and exchanging intelligence information.

“The readiness of the authorities to join the anti-terror coalition and the number of police operations undertaken since Sep 11 cannot wipe out the fact that Bosnia has been described as a country which hosts supporters of Osama bin Laden,” Bosnian analyst Emir Habul wrote in the daily “Oslobodjenje” recently.

Bosnian Prime Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija said the presence of Bosnian Muslims “originally from elsewhere, suspected of terrorism, could not be denied”.

Wartime Bosnia-Herzegovina President Alija Izetbegovic is often blamed for allowing Islamic extremists to join his army between 1992 and 1995 and for giving them Bosnian citizenship too readily.

“The mujahedin are not terrorists. There are two million Muslims in Bosnia and it seems that all of them are now under suspicion,” Izetbegovic was quoted as saying by a local newspaper.

Traces of al Qaeda can also be found in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo that has been under the UN administration since 1999.

“The situation in Kosovo is much more complicated,” says Miroljub Jevic, professor of Islamic Studies at Belgrade University. “The United States was aware of the presence of bin Laden’s network in the region but cannot admit it publicly now, after carrying air raids on Serbia in the past”.

Serbia went through 11 weeks of NATO air strikes from March 1999 to June 1999. The raids were carried out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to punish Belgrade for its policies against ethnic Albanian minority in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians, with a population of two million, are Muslims.

The rebellion by ethnic Albanians against Belgrade between 1998 and 1999 was dubbed “terrorism” by the regime of former President Slobodan Milosevic, while the intelligence reports of Islamic networks supporting the Albanian Liberation Army of Kosovo (KLA) were dismissed by the West as mere propaganda.

“This was not propaganda,” a well-placed source confirmed to IPS. “The reports are clear. Those guys (KLA) were far from freedom fighters.”

Intelligence reports show that bin Laden’s network has been active in Kosovo since 1997, financing KLA and transferring former Islamic fighters from Bosnia into the southern Serbian province.

Egyptian Muhammad al Zawahiri, brother of bin Laden’s aide Ayman al Zawahiri, visited Kosovo several times between 1997 and 1999, according to intelligence reports.

The reports also said some KLA fighters were trained in Tropoja, Northern Albania, sponsored by bin Laden’s network.

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