Sharia Villages: Bosnia’s Islamic State Problem

Radical Islamists have found a new refuge in Bosnia. They recruit fighters, promote jihad and preach a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — just across the border from the European Union.

Almost nothing remains of Ibro. There is just a single childhood photo remaining, an image of a flaxen-haired five-year-old that Ibro’s father scanned so he could always carry it with him on his mobile phone. But no recent pictures are available. Before Ibro left Bosnia to join Islamic State (IS) in 2014, he tore up all the images of himself he could find. His interpretation of Sharia included the belief that images of people were haram — forbidden.

Ibro’s father Sefik, a 58-year-old casual laborer, regularly visits friends to recharge his phone. Sefik lives in a hovel he built himself on the edge of the village of Donja Slapnica. His home has a wood stove and an outhouse but no electricity. When it gets cold, he wears his jacket and a stocking cap indoors.

The emotions Sefik has been carrying around with him since the day when Ibro disappeared are not immediately apparent from the outside. “When you’re dead, I won’t pray for you because you are an infidel.” That’s the last thing that Sefik, a slender man with a moustache, heard from Ibro. From his own son.

Ibro Cufurovic, born in 1995, is one of 200 to 300 Islamist radicals who have left Bosnia-Herzegovina to join IS or al-Qaida in Syria or Iraq. Two of the most wanted terrorists in the world are among them: Bajro Ikanovic, for many years the commander of the largest IS training camp in northern Syria; and Nusret Imamovic, a leading member of the Nusra Front in Syria, a group tied to al-Qaida. 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.

According to findings by the Bosnian Ministry of Security, not only were munitions from Bosnia used in the January 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but some of the weapons used in the November 13 Islamic State attack on Paris were also from former Yugoslav production.

It increasingly looks as though a new sanctuary for IS fighters, planners and recruiters has been established right in the middle of Europe. In some remote villages, the black flag of IS is flown and, as a share of the population, more fighters from Bosnia-Herzegovina have joined IS than from any other country in Europe, except for Belgium. Around 30 Bosnians have lost their lives in the Middle Eastern battlefields, with some 50 having returned home.

Intense Suspicion

They are of particular interest to the terrorism investigators. Those who fought at the front and who are suddenly allowed to return home are under intense suspicion of having received orders to carry out a deadly assignment. Indeed, there are not many other reasons to return home. Bosnia-Herzegovina has responded by tightening its criminal law such that mercenaries returning from the Middle East and their supporters now face up to 10 years in prison.

In November, shortly before the attacks in Paris, an Islamist shot and killed two soldiers in a Sarajevo suburb. In early December, 37 high-ranking Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians), in a rare show of unity, demanded public resistance to terror: “We condemn every call for hate and violence,” read the appeal, which was signed by the senior-most Muslim in the country, the grand mufti Husein Kavazovic.

Just two months later, the moderate cleric became a target himself. In a video, a Bosnian IS fighter threatened to “cut the throat” of Kavazovic. Since then, the grand mufti has been under police protection.

Without specifying Bosnia, the European law enforcement agency Europol reported at the beginning of the year about IS training camps that have been established at the periphery of the EU and “in Balkan countries.” The report notes that IS recruits are “trained in specific killing techniques, which include beheading.”

German investigators believe there are around a dozen places in Bosnia where Salafists — followers of a hardline Sunni interpretation of Islam — have assembled radicals undisturbed by the authorities. Reports of remote “Sharia villages,” however, are denied by the Ministry of Security and the special police force SIPA. But the Sarajevo public prosecutor responsible for terrorism investigations admits that there are places in the northern part of the country where up to 40 Islamist families live in accordance with Sharia law and where IS symbols have been discovered.

A Hotspot for Jihadists

One of the suspicious places is thought to be in the far northwest of Bosnia: in a village called Bosanska Bojna. Sefik, the father of the Syrian fighter Ibro, knows the area well. The search for clues about his lost son takes us by car through the region surrounding the village of Velika Kladuša, an area of rolling hills where older places of worship with their delicate minarets seem to almost disappear in the shadow of pretentious new mosques.

The area around Velika Kladusa, located directly across the border from EU-member state Croatia, is considered a hotspot for jihadist fighters, not least because of its economic struggles. Even now, 20 years after the end of the war, unemployment among young Bosnians stands at 60 percent.

We are dealing with “a failing and highly dysfunctional state,” says political scientist Vlado Azinovic, co-author of the study, “The Lure of the Syrian War,” which focuses on Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Velika Kladuša area — not even 100 kilometers from the beaches of Croatia — threatens to develop into a bridgehead for Islamist terrorists heading north, particularly with the help of guest workers radicalized in Austria, Germany or Italy.

A Salafist community existed in the surroundings of Velika Kladuša as early as the beginning of the Yugoslavian wars in the early 1990s — a community that was funded with money from Saudi Arabia and Sudan. “The West should forget about the dangers from the East; the true danger is from the green color of Islam,” said the regional radical leader at the time — when several thousand mujahedeen from Arab and North African countries had already joined the Bosnian Muslims in their fight against the Serbs and, later on, also the Croats.

It was this aspect that led the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke to refer to a “deal with the devil” when talking about the pact formed out of military necessity. The foreign fighters, after all, didn’t just bring weapons into the fight. They also brought along an interpretation of Islam that was foreign to the vivacious Bosniaks: the strict Saudi Arabian approach known as Wahhabism.

Well Networked

The ultra-devout, with their long beards and veiled women, are a small minority among the 3.8 million residents of Bosnia, almost half of whom identify themselves as Muslims. But they exist, and the most zealous among them are becoming increasingly apparent — in Sefik’s village as well. One of the four wives of hate-preacher Husein “Bilal” Bosnic is from one of the houses at the edge of the village.

Prosecutors believe Bosnic is the central figure for Bosnian radicals, and he is extremely well networked abroad. In November, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for recruiting IS volunteers and for inciting terrorism. Sefik was one of the witnesses in the trial. He blames the preacher for his son’s disappearance: “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.”

The house from which Ibro left for Syria still provides a home to the preacher’s four wives and 18 children. The loudspeaker on the roof could be heard through half the valley at prayer times and his wives, should they allow themselves to be seen in the courtyard, wear the floor-length, black abaya and a veil that only leaves slits for the eyes.

Bosnic, who was once a fighter in the 7th Mujahedeen Brigade, became a traveling preacher after the war ended. He appeared in the Al-Baraka Mosque in Pforzheim, Germany, as well as in houses of prayer in Italy and Switzerland. There are videos of him singing, “With explosives on our chests we pave the way to paradise,” to his followers.

Bosnians are not the only ones in the Balkans to follow such calls. Muslims from Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia are also among the 22,000 names of IS fighters that were revealed in early March. Poverty and a lack of state order ensure plenty of recruits.

The liberal ex-imam from the village where Ibro Cufurovic grew up speaks of the mysterious art of “completely transforming young people in just a few days.” He says the boy was long a model pupil and later a mosque assistant and muezzin. The faithful even collected donations for Ibro and his attendance at an Islamic university was under consideration. But then things turned out differently.

Ibro began insulting his father and telling older Muslims in the village how to pray properly. He also began leaving the mosque early, prior to the closing prayers that are standard in Bosnia but which are not normal in Saudi Arabia. In farewell, he told the village imam — a man who had supported him like his own son: “You don’t have a clue about Islam.”

‘They Confiscated Everything We Had’

Ibro was 19 at the time, Sefik, his father, recalls. “He didn’t even have a thick enough beard to look like a Salafist. But not long later, he was gone.” The first sign of life from Syria came by telephone: Ibro demanded that his mother leave her husband and come to Syria to find a new mate from among the IS fighters — the “brothers” — there.

On the way into the border village of Bosanska Bojna, Sefik stops in front of a gray-painted house. It is the home of Rifet, his companion in suffering. Together, they took the eight-hour overnight bus to Sarajevo to testify in the trial against Husein Bosnic. Together, they watched as the preacher flatly denied all the charges against him. Rifet’s son was named Suad until he joined the war in Syria. Now, he is celebrated as a martyr in Internet videos under his nom de guerre “Abu Furqan al-Bosni.” He fell in Syria at the beginning of 2015.

On this morning, the brother of the martyr shows himself: black beard, black crocheted cap and a mistrustful expression on his face. He is free for the time being, despite the fact that he and his comrades-in-arms were found in possession of an arsenal including hand grenades, land mines, carbines and pistols in addition to an IS flag. Were they preparing for an attack near the Croat border? He is not in the mood to talk: “Leave me alone. They confiscated everything we had.”

The external EU border runs along the outskirts of Bosanska Bojna. A gravel road leads past a rusty border barrier directly into Croatia. Those looking to smuggle people, weapons and money into the EU could hardly find a better place to do so. Should Croatia soon become a part of the Schengen border-free travel area, this remote border region east of Krajina would represent a largely open southern flank.

The public prosecutor in Sarajevo believes that the Salafists purchased eight hectares (20 acres) of land from Serbs who used to live here, using a $200,000 donation from the emirate of Qatar. As a rule, fundamentalists in Bosnia buy property where it is cheap, remote and unlikely to receive unwanted visitors.

Difficult to Penetrate

Since the end of the war in 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a political wasteland where it is easy to hide. It is divided into two distinct entities along with the the Brčko District, a self-governing administrative unit. There are 10 cantons. In order to reach the Salafist stronghold of Gornja Maoča, for example, federal police must enter the autonomous region and report to their counterparts there. “Plenty of time,” says an investigator, “for the radicals to pull in their IS flags.”

Units of the Bosnian special force SIPA, which comb through villages searching for those who might be preparing to travel to Serbia, are measured in their response to queries: “There are a number of places where people live who are of interest from the perspective of security. But they are under constant surveillance by security officials.”

Igor Golijanin, a man with the stature of a basketball player at the Ministry for Security in Sarajevo, is a bit more skeptical. The head of the minister’s cabinet, Golijanin says that Islamist communities are attracting “increasing numbers of followers” and that their hermetic networks are difficult to penetrate.

“We’re talking about villages where children no longer go to the public schools, opting instead for private schooling in accordance with a Jordanian curriculum. We’re talking about violence prone people who communicate using secret codes in video games. We’re talking about concealment: What used to perhaps be recognizable as a training camp disappears today under the cover of a non-governmental organization.”

Those are remarkable admissions of impotence — from a representative of a country which received €90 billion in postwar funding from the international community in order to establish stability.

Hardliners of All Stripes

Already three years ago, the International Crisis Group said that Islamism and nationalism were dancing a “dangerous tango” in Bosnia. And the beneficiaries of the dispute between the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats have always been and still are hardliners of all stripes.

Most recently, 64 illegal Muslim communities suspected of radicalism have been counted. Since March 1, security forces are empowered to take action against the renegades. Otherwise, chaos could ensue, warns Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For many, though, this warning comes too late. Ibro Cufurovic is one of them. Recently, a new photo has appeared in the Internet, showing a young man with sparse blonde hair and blue eyes: Ibro. Anybody, including his father Sefik, can take a look — the wanted photo for the arrest of Ibro Cufurovic has been posted in the Interpol website since Feb. 26, 2016.

The charges against the young Bosnian read as follows: “Organizing a terrorist group related to the criminal offense of terrorism.” (DER SPIEGEL)