Has ISIS arrived to Bosnia and Herzegovina? A new report from German magazine Der Spiegel indicates that the Islamic State has established a large following in the country. In some remote northern villages, there are even reports of the ISIS flag being flown, and there may be as many as 64 communities illegally following sharia law in the country.
While a growing ISIS stronghold is no doubt feared by locals in Bosnia and Herzegovina, perhaps the biggest international threat comes from what the Balkan nation is exporting. Experts believe that as many as 200 to 300 young Bosnian men have left their country to join ISIS’ fight in the Middle East. That’s the second highest number of recruits from any European country outside of Belgium.
Among those Bosnian ISIS members are two of the organization’s biggest names: Bajro Ikanovic, commander of the Islamic State’s largest training camp in northern Syria, and Nusret Imamovic, a major figure in the Nusra Front. Despite that, Bosnia is still not considered one of Daesh’s major strongholds, reported Der Spiegel.
“Bosnia, says the American Balkan expert and former NSA employee John Schindler, ‘is considered something of a ‘safehouse’ for radicals,’ and now harbors a stable terrorist infrastructure. It is one that is not strictly hierarchical and is thus considered ‘off-message’ within IS, but it nonetheless represents an existential threat to the fragmented republic.”
Bosniaks, the name for Bosnia’s Muslim community, are terrified by the association ISIS is drawing between their country and Islamic extremism. Husein Kavazovic, the nation’s highest-ranking Muslim authority, wrote an open letter distancing Bosniaks from the growing presence of ISIS in the country. Soon afterward, an ISIS video called for Kavazovic’s throat to be slashed.
“We condemn every call for hate and violence.”
While there is substantial fear that ISIS recruits in Bosnia may move into Europe and the Middle East to carry out terrorist activities, another non-human element is also quite well-documented. Bosnia’s Ministry of Security found that weapons and ammunition that passed through the nation were used in 2015’s deadly Charlie Hebdo attacks, and likely the November 13 violence in the city as well.
To understand how ISIS’ brand of extremism arrived in Bosnia, one must go back two decades to when the region was torn apart by the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s. Wahhabism, the branch of Sunni Islam many say is responsible for ISIS, gained traction in the region at the time as ultra-conservative Salafists flooded in from North Africa and the Middle East. Bosniaks hesitantly formed an alliance with them to fight against Serbs and Croats.
One of those lingering Salafists, Husein “Bilal” Bosnic, is considered the primary force behind Bosnia’s ISIS recruitment. Sefik Cufurovic is one of several local fathers who blames Bosnic for radicalizing his son. Ibro left to join the Islamic State in 2014 and has since then only made contact with his family to demand that his mother leave his father to marry a true Muslim.
“Ibro got to know Bosnic and moved in with him a short time later. In summer 2014, he received military training and then he was gone, to Syria. To a certain extent, he was sold.”
Part of that instability may be due to NATO’s failure to assist the country after ending the Bosnian War with massive airstrikes. University of Nebraska political scientist Patrice McMahon, who specializes in Bosnia, told VICE News that she believes not carrying the restructuring of the country to completion may be the reason for its current state.
“We promise so much. We deliver so little. Sometimes I think we are doing more harm than good. They don’t really have a self-sustaining state. After Bosnia, there was Afghanistan and Iraq. People were moving on and moving from nation building and wanted to say Bosnia was a success story. Because of distractions, we’ve allowed this door to be opened, just like in Iraq.”
ISIS doesn’t just have a presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Muslims from other Balkan states like Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia have also joined the cause, largely due to instability in the region. If Croatia opens up to Bosnia under Schengen border-free travel, some fear it its reach could spread even further.
[Image via File/AP Photo]