Terrorist Cells Find Foothold in Balkans
Thursday, December 1, 2005
SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- The raid netted explosives, rifles, other arms and a videotape pledging vengeance for the "brothers" killed fighting Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. Police found the cache in an apartment occupied by an underground group that was aiming to blow up the British Embassy in Sarajevo, Western intelligence officials said.
The Oct. 19 bust in Sarajevo confirmed a suspicion among several intelligence agents that Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans are becoming a launching pad for terrorist attacks in Europe.
In particular, Islamic radicals are looking to create cells of so-called white al Qaeda, non-Arab members who can evade racial profiling used by police forces to watch for potential terrorists. "They want to look European to carry out operations in Europe," said a Western intelligence agent in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, adjacent to Bosnia. "It's yet another evolution in the tools used by terrorists."
Parts of the Balkans, stuck in lawless limbo after years of war in the 1990s, are ripe recruitment territory for Middle East radicals, intelligence officials say. Bosnia is still divided among Muslim, Croat and Serb population areas, even if nominally united under the 10-year-old Dayton peace agreement that ended ethnic warfare.
Muslim enclaves in Serbia are restive, and Muslim-majority Kosovo remains an estranged province campaigning for independence six years after NATO bombing forced out Serb-dominated Yugoslav troops.
The Balkans have long been a freeway for smugglers of cigarettes, drugs, weapons and prostitutes. "All the conditions are present. Embittered Muslims, arms, corruption -- everything underground operators need to get established," said the Western intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The raid on the Sarajevo group, which was said to have had contacts with cells in Denmark and Britain, was not the only event that raised concern. During the summer, Italian and Croatian police arrested five people who allegedly plotted to bomb the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City in April.
In addition, Serbian police accidentally came across a key suspect in the March 2004 bombings of Madrid commuter trains while he was traveling through the country by train. He arrived in the Balkans in July, and Serbian police investigators conjecture that he was seeking haven either in Bosnia or Kosovo and perhaps safe passage to the Middle East. They quickly extradited the man, Abdelmajid Bouchar, a Moroccan citizen, to Spain.
U.S. and allied intelligence officers have long worked together in Sarajevo to keep an eye on Islamic radicals in Bosnia. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the CIA and other foreign agencies set up a joint, fortified headquarters to keep tabs on terrorism suspects in Bosnia, a Western intelligence source in Sarajevo said.
The spy teams operate separately from the chief international overseers of Bosnia, the Office of the High Representative, according to the official.
During the three-sided war in Bosnia, hundreds of fighters from Arab and other Middle Eastern countries flocked to Bosnia to fight on behalf of the Muslim faction against Croats and Serbs. Many of the foreign mujaheddin , or holy warriors, were expelled after the war, according to the Bosnian government, but others remained and received passports.
Today, parts of Bosnia framed by the cities of Zenica, Tuzla, Sarajevo and Travnik are home to these immigrants and compose the core regions for Islamic militancy, Bosnian police and Western intelligence officials say.
Until recently, the immigrants tried to keep a low profile. Western intelligence officials here and in Belgrade surmised that they wanted to exploit Bosnia as a logistics and transit point and not invite a crackdown from local police or European Union peacekeepers.
The Sarajevo arrests changed that perception. A Bosnian Interior Ministry official, Robert Cvrtak, released the names of four detainees from the raid: Cesur Abdulkadir, who is of Turkish heritage; Mirsad Bektasevic, a Swedish citizen of Bosnian origin; and Bajro Ikanovic and Almir Bajric, both Bosnian citizens. Among their activities, Bosnian police said, were hiding explosives inside lemons and tennis balls and trying to set up training camps in the hills near Sarajevo.
Last Thursday night, Bosnian police arrested a fifth suspect in the town of Hadzici, near Sarajevo. The police found about 20 pounds of explosives hidden in woods near his home. The man, whose name has not been made public, is suspected of being in charge of providing explosives to the rest of group.
Police officials here say Bektasevic, 19, also ran a Web site on behalf of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who heads the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq. He had pictures of the White House in his computer, they added.
Bektasevic operated under the code name Maximus and kept in touch with a group of at least three men in Britain. British police arrested them in early November, according to press reports.
A week after the original Sarajevo arrests, police in Copenhagen detained four men ages 16 to 20 and said they had planned suicide bombings somewhere in Europe. "We had a very short period to investigate, but our information indicated that their action was imminent," said a police spokesman, Joern Bro. The Danes believed that the Copenhagen suspects had been in contact by phone and e-mail with Bektasevic.
In August, police in Croatia arrested five Bosnians whom Italian military intelligence had fingered for involvement in a plot to bomb the papal funeral. The group originated in Gornja Maoca, a town in northeastern Bosnia, and had planned to smuggle rocket launchers, explosives and detonators into Italy. The plot fell apart, Western intelligence officials said, when a suspect was arrested in Rome in April. The Croatian police, acting on a tip from the Italians, found the others in Croatia.
The capture of Bouchar, suspected in the Madrid train bombings, in Serbia in July surprised police there. They had thought he was just another Middle Easterner traveling illegally through the country until an Interpol fingerprint check revealed his identity.
Authorities say Bouchar had narrowly escaped death or capture shortly after the Madrid attacks, when police there sealed off an apartment where suspects were hiding. Seven men died in the residence by detonating explosives. Bouchar, however, was taking out garbage at the time and fled, Serbian and Spanish officials say.
He traveled to Brussels, where he expected to obtain forged documents, authorities said. However, his contacts there were either under arrest or fleeing police. He moved on and spent time in Austrian and Hungarian jails, but was freed. No one in either country checked his fingerprints.
When picked up heading toward Belgrade, he was wearing a new business suit. Western intelligence officials in Belgrade note that Serbia, although predominantly non-Muslim, has pockets of Muslims in the Sanjak region near Montenegro as well as Kosovo and other areas along the province's border.
Williams reported from Belgrade.