Militant Islamism in the Balkans

Mother Teresa in Hell

A recent online music video featuring Macedonians praising Osama bin Laden has fuelled fears that South-eastern Europe could be emerging as the latest breeding ground for home-grown Islamist militants. James M. Dorsey reports

Isa Beg Mosque in Skopje, Macedonia (photo: AP)
Saudi Arabia's religious export hit: Many charities in the Balkans propagate Wahhabism, the kingdom's austere and puritan interpretation of Islam

​​ The ominous music video propagating support for Osama bin Laden has focused attention on Muslim charities active in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and European Union member Bulgaria since the wars in former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Many of those charities are funded by oil-rich Saudi Arabia and propagate Wahhabism – the kingdom's austere and puritan interpretation of Islam.

A majority of Wahhabis favour peaceful proselytizing of Islam while Saudi King Abdullah has been seeking to soften Wahhabi practices as part of his reforms in the kingdom. Militant groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, the Taliban and jihadists in Somalia have however embraced significant elements of Wahhabism as part of their ideology.

Songs calling for jihad

Jasmin Merdan, a young Bosnian who wrote a book after disassociating himself from Wahhabis groups in Bosnia, warned that "they express their convictions with violence, introduce anarchy in mosques and preach intolerance." Women in the Albanian city of Skadar have reportedly started covering their heads or wearing the niqab, a full body covering that hides everything but the eyes, in newly found religiosity.

photo: AP
Europe's Islamic heritage: Most Bulgarian Muslims are descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule. Pictured: Bulgarian Muslims during a wedding ceremony in the Rhodope Mountain village of Ribnovo

​​ The video posted on YouTube is one of several produced by home-grown jihadists in the Balkans and circulating in the region. "Oh Osama, annihilate the American army. Oh Osama, raise the Muslims' honour," a group of Macedonian men chant in Albanian on the video. "In September 2001 you conquered a power. We all pray for you." Similar songs calling on South-eastern European Muslims to join the jihad have been produced in Bosnian.

Governments and security forces fear that that increased Wahhabi activity will produce committed jihadis that could destabilize already fragile nations in south-eastern Europe and, in the case of Bulgaria – where one sixth of the country's 7.6 million people is Muslim – produce a pool of jihadists whose EU passports would grant them easy access to Western Europe and allow them to blend into society.

Bulgaria seen as potential breeding ground

Bulgaria is the only EU member whose Muslim population are not recent immigrants. Most Bulgarian Muslims are descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Three ethnic Albanian brothers from Macedonia were convicted to life in prison in 2008 on charges of plotting to attack the US Army's Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. A fourth member of the group from Kosovo was sentenced to five years in jail.

photo: Aida Cama
Islam came to Albania through the Ottoman rule in the 14th century. A recent Pew Research Center demographic study put the percentage of Muslims at 79.9%. Pictured: a mosque in the town of Berati

​​ Across the Balkans, minority Wahhabi groups seek to convert mainstream Islam to their more militant interpretation through the operation of cultural centres, mosques, schools and at times by battling for control of majority Muslim organizations and community-owned property. However, the majority of the region's Muslims are secular and analysts caution against overstating the Wahhabi threat.

"It should not be ignored, but neither should it be exaggerated," said Hajrudin Somun a former Bosnian ambassador to Turkey and history professor at Sarajevo's Philip Noel-Baker International University.

The analyst says militant Islam is gaining ground on the fringe of a more general return of religion to the Balkans. Several thousand Orthodox Christian Bulgarians demonstrated in Sofia recently demanding that religious instruction be made compulsory in schools – a demand supported by mainstream Muslim organizations.

Muslim organizations are believed to have spent large amounts of money over the last decade to build some 150 new mosques and educational centres in predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria. A minority are believed to promote Wahhabism.

According to former Bulgarian chief mufti Nedim Gendzhev, militant Islamists in southern and north-eastern Bulgaria are seeking to create a "fundamentalist triangle" in areas of Bosnia, Macedonia and Bulgaria's Western Rhodope mountains.

Fears of increasing radicalism

Bulgarian authorities last year arrested a mayor and a village teacher in the south of the country on charges of preaching radical Islam. In 2003, authorities shut down several Islamic centres because they were financed by Saudi-funded Muslim groups believed to have links to militant Islamic organizations and "to prevent terrorists getting a foothold in Bulgaria".

photo: AP
Banya Bashi mosque, built in 1576 by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, is the only functioning mosque that remains of 500 years of Ottoman domination in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria

​​ The threat posed by the Wahhabis is a major bone of contention in tense relations between Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia, which so far has successfully neutralized Wahhabi influence by controlling the appointment of imams in mosques and teachers at Islamic educational institutions and employing law enforcement.

Some Bosnian Wahhabis, estimated to number 3,000, are former foreign fighters who married Bosnian women and stayed in the country after the Bosnian war that ended in 1995. Bosnia recently stepped up its fight against militancy and organized crime to meet an EU requirement for visa-free travel for Bosnians and closer ties with the bloc.

In early September, Bosnian police uncovered a cache of weapons and detained a third suspect as part of their inquiry into a June bomb attack that killed one policeman and injured six others. The attack on a police station in the town of Bugojno was one of the most serious security incidents in Bosnia. Police arrested the suspected mastermind and an aide shortly after the blast.

Bosnia tries to crackdown on militants

Boris Grubesic, a spokesman for the Bosnian prosecutor's office, told reporters in mid-September that prosecutors were investigating several people from Bugojno and Gornja Maoca on suspicion of Wahhabi ties, terrorism and human trafficking.

In February, Bosnian and EU police raided Gornja Maoca and arrested seven men described as Wahhabis because of their beards and shortened trousers. Police said they were detained for suspected illegal possession of arms and threatening the country's "territorial integrity, constitutional order and provoking inter-ethnic and religious hatred".

Muslims during prayer (photo: DW)
National safety under threat: Bosnia so far has successfully neutralized Wahhabi influence by controlling the appointment of imams in mosques and teachers at Islamic educational institutions and employing law enforcement

​​ Gornja Maoca was home to some 30 families who lived by strict Shariah laws, organized schooling in Arabic for their children outside the state system and opposed the primacy of Bosnia's mainstream Islamic Community. Nusret Imamovic, the town's self-proclaimed Wahhabi leader, endorsed suicide attacks on the group's Bosnian language website, saying they should be launched only in "exceptional circumstances". The site features statements by al-Qaeda and Islamic groups fighting in the Caucasus and celebrates suicide bombers as joyful Muslims.

Serbian officials say 12 alleged Wahhabis convicted last year to prison terms of up to 13 years for planning terrorist attacks, including on the US Embassy in Belgrade, had close ties to their brethren in Gornja Maoca. One of the convicted, Adnan Hot, said during the trial that Imamovic was one of only three Muslim leaders that he followed. Four other Wahhabis were sentenced in a separate case to jail terms of up to eight years on charges of planning to bomb a football stadium in the southern Serbian town of Novi Pazar.

A rift in Macedonia's Muslim community

In Macedonia, Suleyman Rexhepim Rexhepi, head of the official Islamic Religious Community (IVZ), recently called on the government and the international community to crack down on increasingly influential Wahabbi groups. Rexhepi is locked into a bitter battle with Ramadan Ramadani, the imam of the Isa Beg mosque in Skopje, that has caused a rift in the country's Muslim community.

Imam Ramadan Ramadani at the Old Bazaar in Skopje, Macedonia (photo: AP)
Clean slate? Imam Ramadan Ramadani, imam of the Isa Beg mosque in Skopje, denies that Wahhabis are active among Macedonian Muslims

​​ Ramadani accuses Rexhep of financial mismanagement and is seeking his ouster. He organized a petition signed by thousands of his followers supporting his bid for leadership of the community after Rexhep banned him from organizing prayers. Ramadani denies that Wahhabis are active among Macedonian Muslims who account for roughly one quarter of the population as well as allegations that the pro-bin Laden music video was played in mosques he controls.

A Ramadani associate, radical Kosovo imam Sefket Krasnici, shocked Macedonians, when he recently denounced Mother Teresa, a native of Skopje whom many consider a saint, during a sermon in the Macedonian capital. "She belongs in the middle of Hell because she did not believe in Allah, the prophet and the Koran. Even if she believed in God, her belief was incomplete, with deficiencies. God does not accept such worship," Krasnici said.

James M. Dorsey

© Deutsche Welle 2010

Editors: Rob Mudge, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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