Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jun. 20, 2016, 3:08pm

The Balkan countries have recently come under scrutiny for the increased activity in the region regarding the flow of recruits and weapons for terrorist organizations in the Middle East, specifically the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Effects from the Yugoslav wars and strategic location have allowed the Balkans to become a fertile environment for extremists. This has been especially exemplified in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s civil war, where Saudi Arabian funded reconstruction efforts in the region became instrumental to win new areas of influence and to expand the Wahhabist agenda.

A West Point report estimates that between 218 and 654 foreign fighters have traveled from the Western Balkans region to fight in Syria between the years 2012 and 2014. Of these fighters, initially 83% have joined Jabhat al-Nusra, while 10% have joined ISIL. However, recent analyses have indicated that foreign fighters from the Balkans are choosing more and more to fight with ISIL over other groups. Based on available data, it is believed that the number of fighters for such groups from the Balkans has at least doubled since 2014, with even a Balkan battalion for ISIL.

The majority of the Muslim population within the Balkans has historically and presently embraced the more liberal Hanafi tradition. This has allowed for some surprise when recent trends of conservative interpretations, such as Wahhabism, have popped up in the region.

Arguably, the connection for such radical trends stems from two main sources. The first is the import of Arab militant fighters, mujahedeen, to the Balkans during the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990’s to assist specifically the Bosnian Muslims during their civil war. It is estimated that around 2,000 Arab fighters arrived at that time. Despite the requirement of foreign fighters to leave the region from the Dayton Peace Accords, 600 of these men were granted citizenship. Similar movements occurred during the late 90’s in Kosovo and 2001 in Macedonia.  

An entrance to Gornja Maoca, a Bosnian village, is decorated with ISIS signs.
An entrance to Gornja Maoca, a Bosnian village, is decorated with ISIS signs. | REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Additionally, the severely weakened economic condition required a significant amount of foreign aid and support to the region. Many Wahhabi missionaries, largely sponsored by Saudi Arabian funds, played a large role in assisting the war torn region with aid in different forms. The significant impact on Muslim communities was evident not only in the loss of human capital, as exemplified by the genocide which occurred to the Muslim communities in Bosnia’s Srebrenica, but also in the destruction of buildings, mosques, and community centers alike.

Targeting young poverty stricken populations who have suffered from extremely high rates of unemployment and are surrounded by corruption and a difficult history, Wahhabi missionaries were able to spread their conservative and radical ideas throughout the region. In creating a sphere of influence through relief efforts, funds and charities were used to assist Muslim communities by reconstructing and building new mosques, setting up Islamic charities, and offering to pay for local imams to receive Islamic education abroad in Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries. In exchange, they established Wahhabi based religious centers where they could enforce conservative ideals and interpretations of Islam.

Taking the example of Bosnia, a report by SEERECON, a strategic advisory firm specializing in southeastern Europe, estimates that $800 million in Saudi money entered Bosnia since the Dayton Peace accords, but of that total $100 million is unaccounted for. Authorities involved in multiple raids of Saudi-backed Bosnian charities both in Illinois and in Sarajevo have argued that those funds may have been used to sponsor Islamic extremism.

There is also evidence of links between of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the financing and facilitating of al Qaeda attacks during his tenure as the supervisor of the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia Herzegovina (SHC), a charity established in 1992 to support Bosnians in the war. In this position, Salman gathered donations from the royal family to be used for relief in Bosnia-Herzegovina. By 2001, the commission had raised nearly $600 million, meant to be used for aid and religious purposes, but was also used to send fighters and purchase arms during the war, opposing the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia from 1991 to 1996.

A NATO raid of the SHC’s office in Sarajevo during 2001 uncovered large amounts of terrorist materials, showing evidence that Saudi-backed charities have been used as a front for al Qaeda operatives. These materials included documents specifying instructions on the use of crop duster aircraft, ways to fake U.S. state department ID’s, as well as photographs and maps highlighting U.S. government buildings in Washington D.C., before and after photos of al Qaeda destructed buildings, and anti-Semitic and anti-American propaganda for children. Additionally, $120 million in the form of donations was tracked from Salman’s personal bank accounts and from SHC to the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), a Bosnian relief organization based in Vienna. TRWA was shown by Western intelligence sources to have spent a majority of its funds arming Bosnian fighters. In a testimony for the United Nations, a defector from al Qaeda stated that this charity provided essential support to al Qaeda operations in Bosna, largely financed and supported by SHC.

Furthermore, throughout the Balkans, Salafist-led mosques continue to serve as a home base for militant Islamists. In Bosnia, the Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque and Cultural Center in Sarajevo has been referred to as “the epicenter of the spreading of radical ideas”. Also in Sarajevo is the White Mosque, which is used as the headquarters of Kosovar-Albanian imam, Sulejman Bugari, who has been recognized as mediator between Albanian and Bosnian extremists and training camp operator. In Kosovo, both the Makowitz mosque and the Mitrovica mosque near Pristina are recruiting militants to fight in Syria. In Macedonia, there has been a struggle between the local Islamic community and extremists for control of Skopje’s Yahya Pasha, Sultan Murat, Hudaverdi, and Kjosekadi mosques. These centers have seen increasing activity for recruitment and the spread of extremism in the Balkans.

Additionally, these Saudi financed charities have paid for not only the costs of religion courses and the salaries of Middle East trained imams, but also for computer classes and donations to local families, conditioned that they attend sermons at these mosques and follow in conservative practices.

The Balkans have also served as a source of weaponry for terrorist attacks. For example, in Europe, the firearms used in last two terrorist attacks in Paris have been traced back to the Balkans. This is largely due to the vast supply of small arms left in the region since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990’s. It has been estimated that there are over 6 million unregistered firearms in the hands of private citizens in the Balkans. In addition to the flow of weapons, the Islamic State attempts to take advantage of the extremist networks in the region to provide assistance in transiting the flow of fighters between their respective countries and the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq. Islamist foreigners flocking from regions such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Europe go through the Balkans to fight in Syria and Iraq. In the example of Morocco, authorities claim that the majority of the over 2,000 nationals fighting for ISIL have passed through the Balkans.

The Balkans are growing increasingly relevant to the fight against extremist networks. Their tumultuous recent history, ethnic background, political instability, weak institutions, and increased levels of poverty and unemployment have paved the way for the region to play a part in the flow of recruits and weapons for terrorist organizations. More than elsewhere, Saudi petrodollars should be held accountable for their role in establishing a hotbed of extremism in the Balkan war-torn countries.

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