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BALKANS: Arrest of Wahhabis Highlights Extremist Threat

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Feb 11 2010 (IPS) - The arrest of seven Wahhabis, following a police crackdown on the remote Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca, has raised concerns over the continued presence of Islamist fundamentalists who first arrived in the country during the bloody 1992-1995 Balkans war.

Alarmingly, the police action on Feb. 2, codenamed ‘Operation Light,’ showed up the possibility that extremist activity in the village was being funded from outside.

“It’s hard to say how much influence these people can really have here [in Bosnia-Herzegovina], but it is obvious that the security forces do have significant information and have acted against them,” Srdjan Dizdarevic, head of the Sarajevo-based Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, told IPS over the phone.

“There also has to be financial help for the group from the outside, as no one can survive without jobs and work, which the [arrested] Wahhabis did not have,” Dizdarevic said.

Tensions continue to run high among Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three main constitutional groups – Muslims who constitute 45 percent of the population, Serb Orthodox, 36 percent, and Roman Catholics who form another 15 percent.

Dizdarevic pointed out that the prosecution officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina had said that the operation was being mounted ‘’against people who set up criminal organisation, aiming to destabilise the country and its constitutional order, incite inter-ethnic, racial and religious hatred and intolerance”.

According to Dizdarevic, while Wahhabis are spread across the country and have a visible presence, the main problem is that ‘’they want to introduce their strict version of Islam with force and do not refrain from violence, targeting both Muslims and non-Muslims’’.

Wahhabism is an austere form of Islam that insists on the literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who do not practice their version of Islam are heathens and enemies.

Critics say that Wahhabism’s rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. It is the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabism arrived in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war,when up to 15,000 fighters from Algiers, Afghanistan, Caucasus and the Middle East arrived to help Bosniak Muslims in a violent war against Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs that resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people.

Apart from waging war the fighters introduced strict Islam to their hosts, who were prevailingly secular Sunni Muslims.

Most of the Mujahideen (religious fighters) left after the war ended with the United States mediated Dayton Peace Accords, but up to 1,500 remained, marrying local women and blending into Bosniak society.

The villagers of Gornja Maoca lived by strict Shariah laws, organising schooling for their children in Arabic, outside the state system, and opposing the primacy of the Islamic Community concentrated in Sarajevo.

During the war and shortly afterwards more than 50 Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were engaged in supposed humanitarian activities.

The most prominent of these groups, according to the book ‘Garibs (foreigners) – the Mujahideen in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1999’ by Sarajevo-based author Esad Hecimovic, were the Sudanese-founded and Saudi financed Third World Relief Agency (TWRA) and the Benevolence International Foundation.

Both organisations, and many other as well, were shut down under pressure from the U.S., but Saudi money continued to pour into Sarajevo, including for the grandiose 29 million US dollar King Fahd mosque in the Bosnian capital.

In an interview to the prominent Belgrade daily ‘Politika’ Hecimovic said, last week, that “the very presence of ideas that have led to mass criminal acts abroad represents danger for the security of Bosnia and its surroundings”.

“Police and prosecutors should not be passive when someone instructs his followers on how often to make suicide attacks,” he added alluding to comments by Nusret Imamovic in the website run by the Gornja Maoca Wahhabi group, (road of believers).

The Bosniak language site carries statements by the al-Qaeda and Islamic groups fighting in the Caucasus. It commemorates suicide bombers as the most joyful people among Muslims and displays dozens of photos of young ‘martyrs’ with smiles on their faces after carrying out missions against the ‘infidel’.

Dizdarevic, however, believes that the influence of the Wahhabis is limited. ‘’There would have been many of them had they been able to take roots among Bosniaks, after they entered the country as far back as in 1992,” he said.

For Dzevad Galijasevic, member of a Sarajevo counter terrorism team, “the village [of Gornja Maoca] is only one of the arms of the octopus that is spreading everywhere in the region.”

In an interview with the Federal Sarajevo TV, Galijasevic said that the presence of the Wahhabi group in Gornja Maoca only “distracts attention from activities in Sarajevo.”

“The head of the octopus is in the King Fahd Mosque, where the Wahhabis and other extremists carry out their business unimpeded and even meet the members of international criminal groups,” he said.

Galijasevic was referring to the November 2009 arrest of three radical Muslims charged with terrorism offences and weapons trafficking by a Bosnian court. This was preceded by an intense investigation which, prosecutors said, involved interviews with nearly 70 witnesses and the collection of over 1,000 items of evidence in Bosnia, Germany and Austria.

One arm of the octopus was cut in the Serbian town of Novi Pazar in the Sandzak region bordering Bosnia and populated by Bosniak Muslims. In July, last year, a court in Belgrade sentenced two Wahhabis from Sandzak, Senad Ramovic and Adnan Hot, to 13 and eight years imprisonment respectively, after they were charged with possession of arms and ammunition and planning terrorist activities.

“The groups of Wahhabis in Gornja Maoca and Novi Pazar are connected,” Serbian minister of employment and social policy Rasim Ljajic told the Belgrade B92 TV channel. Ljajic is himself a Muslim from Sandzak.

“Wahhabism is not the characteristic of Muslims in the Balkans and Europe, but emissaries who came during the 1992-95 war had the aim of putting its roots here,’’ he added.

During the trial before the Belgrade Special Court, Adnan Hot said that Wahhabis in Novi Pazar “follow only three people – Nusret Imamovic, Ebu Muhamed and the late Jusuf Barcic”.

The names did not mean much to Serbian press at the time, but with the arrest in Gornja Maoca of Imamovic, the alleged leader of the Bosnian Wahhabi group, a pattern is discernible, observers said.

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