European Salafism in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Dževad Galijašević Bosnian political analyst

On May 24, 2022 a federal jury in New York issued a guilty verdict against Mursad Kandic after a three-week trial. Kandic was 2017 arrested in Bosnia and Herzegovina on charges of providing material to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in addition to five other charges related to his connection with the terrorist organization. Kandic is currently facing a life, plus 20 years prison sentence on six counts.

His story is a vivid example of transnational terrorism and a practical application of what a person who espouses extremist ideology can do for the sake of his “cause”. This story also sheds light on the issue of jihadists in the Balkans, a region that is often referred to as an oasis of peace and tolerance, perhaps to turn the page on the bloody past that I experienced during the nineties of the last century.

The story behind Kandic

Kandic, 41 years old, originally from Pec in Kosovo, had a permanent residence permit in the United States, where he lived before joining the “Islamic State”. He was arrested in Sarajevo in August 2017 under the pseudonym Edin Radunzic, after entering Bosnia and Herzegovina by plane with a Ukrainian passport bearing the name Ivan Popovich and lived in the city of Sarajevo in Grbavica for six months, according to the Security Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

When, after several months of searching, members of the Bosnian State Agency for Investigation and Protection located him in a rented apartment, Kandic had two fake Kosovar passports, one issued in the name of Eden Radoncic, three bank cards with different names, as well as SIM cards he used to communicate with his group.

US authorities have been searching for him for years. Since 2014, he has been on the wanted list of Sarajevo. Two years later, an Interpol red order was issued against him. In the fall of 2017, he was handed over to US authorities, proving that he is an important person of interest for the US justice.

The US Attorney for the New York District said Kandic was a high-ranking member of ISIS, recruited other fighters and provided weapons, logistical equipment and intelligence to the group. Evidence was also presented to the court about Kandic’s participation in ISIS operations on six continents, based on documents and testimonies of 36 people in court.

Prosecutors asserted, and the verdict has now confirmed, that Kandic traveled to Turkey in December 2013 for joining the Islamic State and to recruit jihadists. He reached out to potential recruits through more than a hundred Twitter accounts.

One of Kandic’s targets was Jake Bilardi, an Australian teenager nicknamed “Jihadi Jake” who carried out a suicide attack in Iraq in March 2015.

Kandic helped Bilardi to travel from Melbourne to Istanbul in 2014 and personally gave the order for his mission. He also helped other people to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS.

In Syria, the Bosnian jihadist joinedISIS stronghold on the outskirts of Aleppo and organized tunnels digging under the Turkish-Syrian border with the aim of transporting 800 to 1,000 ISIS fighters. He also managed money flows for fighters in Syria, including fighters who gave Kandic their bank cards for transactions totaling more than $40,000.

According to the documents, Kandic was also in charge of a group called “The Caliphate Market”, which sold and traded mortars, explosive belts, rifles and other weapons. One of the group’s members was Abu Luqman, then the wali of ISIS in Raqqa.

Back to Start

The phenomenon of jihadists in the Balkan region, to which Kandic belongs, dates back to the armed conflict raged in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, as a result of a series of turmoil and conflicts in which several parties participated, with Serbia and Croatia directly involved.

During that bloody era of national and religious character, Abu Abdulaziz , one of Afghanistan’s Saudi “mujahideen”, began in April 1992 to relocate fighters from Peshawar to Bosnia to form what is known as the “Mujahideen Battalion”. Its members were known for dyeing their hair with Henna, so they were also called the “red beard.”

Most of these were motivated by the idea that Bosniak Muslims were helpless in counter the aggressor forces. It is a narrative that former US President Bill Clinton has somehow confirmed in his memoir when he spoke about the wrong strategy of the UN, since imposing arms embargo has denied the Bosnian government parity with the Serbs.

Later, in August of 1992, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, sent Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl from Khartoum to Zagreb, Croatia, via the Hungarian capital, Budapest. During that period, he made contacts with Islamic fundamentalists in the region, among whom was Abu Abdel Aziz.

According to a report in the „Huffington Post“ newspaper in 2011, the Bosnia and Herzegovina embassy in Vienna issued passports to both bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who traveled to Bosnian territory to form a unit of mujahideen in the town of Zenica with the mission of attacking nearby villages where the majority of Serbs lived.

The presence of bin Laden was with the approved by the then Bosnian President Ali Izetbegovic. As a proof of that, Renate Flottau, correspondent of the German magazine „Der Spiegel“, confirmed that in 1993 she had seen Osama bin Laden twice in the waiting room, in preparation for meeting Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.

Some sources indicate that since 1992, nearly four thousand foreigners from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe have moved to Bosnia to engage in the war. These fighters were welcomed by the Bosnian government, which in turn received generous donations from some Arab countries.

After the war ended, the peace agreements stipulated the dismantling of the Mujahideen Brigades and the return of foreign members to their countries. Despite this, about 400 of them remained in Bosnia. In the face of American pressure, Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State in the administration of former US President Bill Clinton, asked President Izetbegovic to expel terrorism suspects from Bosnia or at least withdraw Bosnian passports from them, Izetbegovic’s response was likely negative, and the man claimed that many of the Mujahideen got married in his country, which gives them the right to full citizenship.

Although Alija Izetbegovic stepped down from the presidency in 2000, the would-be terrorists continued to operate their own networks above law. These networks focused on protecting jihadists and providing them with financial and logistical support, not to mention expanding their recruitment and attraction activities for their cross-border agendas.

Ample Evidence

The extent to which the jihadist movement in the Balkans influenced and trended universality was found in the report of the US Congressional Committee tasked with investigating the attacks of 9/11.

The report indicated that two of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight No. 77, which struck the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, “Pentagon”, had previously travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 where they participated in combat operations.

Bosnian Addis Mudunginen and Najibullah Zazi were also accused of plotting to attack the New York subway in September 2009, at the behest of al-Qaeda officials in Afghanistan. In February 2007, Suleiman Talovic, a Bosnian jihadist, entered the Union Station shopping center in the western US state of Utah and opened fire killing five people before being arrested.

Later, the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Levant revived the jihadist phenomenon in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 220-330 Bosnians joined the organization, the second largest number of foreign fighters per capita for European countries after Belgium.

In November 2016, the ISIS propaganda machine, through Al-Hayat Media, launched the Bosnian version of its magazine Rumiya (Rome), which was released in several languages in September of the same year, focusing on Bosnia and Herzegovina jihadists’ call for their citizens to “migrate” to the “land of the caliphate” or carry out operations against the Bosnian government.

In addition, in more than a record, it threatened the Serbs and Croats who fought against Bosnian Muslims, threats that spread to all “traitors of the Islamic faith” in Bosnia and the Serbian region of Sanjak, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Goran Kovacevich, a professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Criminology and Security Studies, believes that ISIS’ interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina is primarily due to the fact that it is a Muslim-majority country located in Europe, although the number of Muslims becomes less when compared to Kosovo or Albania.

Also, one of the “advantages” that ISIS would have seen in potential Bosnian candidates is military training, especially those previously involved in the armed conflict between 1992 and 1995.

Individuals who have combat experience and do not have a source of income may think their involvement with the terrorist organization will guarantee them an improvement in their personal situation. Moreover, young people who suffer from high unemployment rates should not be overlooked, which facilitates their exposure to ISIS propaganda.

Remnants of Bosnian Jihadists in Syria

After eliminating ISIS last pockets in Baghouz, Deir Ezzor, in 2019, Sarajevo quickly returned a total of 25 people from two camps and two prisons in Syria on December 19, 2019. This was the first and last operation of the Bosnian authorities, as many of European countries refused to take back women and children of ISIS members holding their nationalities, who were gathered in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps in Al-Hasakah countryside. According to the Ministry of Security, there are still about 100 women and children from Bosnia and Herzegovina being held in Syria.

Upon returning from Syria, nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina are often charged with criminal terrorism-related offenses, while women have not yet been prosecuted, except for one case accused of terrorist financing. So far 46 people have been convicted. There are currently 13 people serving prison sentences for terrorism, and two people for forming and joining foreign paramilitary formations.

Bosnian authorities say that they attach special importance to the case of their citizens in the Syrian and Iraqi camps. A plan was prepared for the safe and humane return of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Syria and Iraq, in addition to a program for their reintegration into society. This document was submitted to the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina last February and is awaiting adoption.

While Kandic will spend the rest of his life in a US prison, another Bosnian child is born in al-Hol camp, thousands of kilometers from the country from which his father came, and may turn into another Kandic if he is not treated as a victim of an extremist ideology embraced by his father.

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