Thursday, March 20, 2014

Balkan worries of the Syrian aftermath, by Ioannis Michaletos

The recent arrests of Jihadist recruiters in Albanian and Serbia relating to the Syrian conflict and the revelation of the involvement of the Furqan NGO and its two coordinators, "IC and SP", is a short glance of the networking involved between a substantial and radicalized Wahhabi/Salafi base centered in Bosnia-Herzegovina and their "brethren" in Syria. It is estimated that around 1,000 Balkan Islamists have fought or are currently engaged in battles in Syria.

In various occasions media reports and assessments by international security organizations point out of around 5,000-6,000 radicalized Wahhabis at any given moment in Bosnia. Significant groups are also based in the Raska-Sanjak region in Serbia and in Eastern Montenegro, Kosovo, FYROM, Albania and Southern Bulgaria. 

Moreover cells are to be found in Greece composed by newly established immigrants and in Istanbul from where the main coordinating center for Jihadists from Europe entering Syria is based. Furthermore separate groups are located in Croatia, in Milano and in Vienna, thus encompassing almost the whole of Southeastern Europe. 

The Wahhabi movement described is the main network through which foreign fighters to Syria are recruited. From the aforementioned regions such as Bosnia, every week for the past few months a new death of a "martyr" is announced in the media signaling casualties from the ongoing war and the strong interaction between Balkans and the Middle East in the realm of religious fanaticism.

Due to the security issues involved, Bosnia and Herzegovina has recently passed a law that prohibits the Wahhabis to recruit people for the war abroad. A similar measure is pending in the southern Serbian province of Raska-Sanjak. According to Deputy Prime Minister of the country Rasim Ljajic, Serbia is preparing amendments to the Criminal Code that would classify the specific Wahhabi recruitment for the war in the country punishable by imprisonment.

The current law does not provide for any penalties for those who go to war campaigns, or for those who organize them. The activity of the Jihadi propagators and instigators is mainly concentrated in rural areas and a large number of Wahhabi is particularly active in the border areas with Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Wahhabis in Novi Pazar, Sandzak and other cities came into play in the hectic war in Syria when their leaders under the direction and with the money obtained outside of Serbia, began to recruit volunteers for the army of the Islamic State of Iraq itself (ISIS), linked to Al-Qaeda war against Bashar al-Assad.

According to all available information, during the course of the current war in Syria, 35 Jihadists from Raska-Sanjak alone have been killed. While the Jihadists from the battle field send pictures with AK-47 and dismembered Syrian civilians in their internet forums, a debate has already emerged in the local Islamic communities if this behavior is actually counterproductive or sinful, a process that will be elevated due to the recent decision by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates to classify both Al Nusra and ISIS as terrorist groups, along with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is assessed that a massive return of Balkan Jihadists will occur over the coming weeks, culminating by early summer 2014. 

In a wider level, according to a past research by Steven Oluic Assistant Professor of the US Military Academy: " Although several community leaders, journalists and NGO representatives lament that this region is an economic disaster, the modern and impressive facilities of the Islamic Community and International University of Novi Pazar suggests that significant funding is coming from some unknown donor(s)....journalists based in Belgrade and Novi Pazar, many NGO representatives and Serbian security officials contend that money is being funneled into the Sandzak from wealthy Mideast donors via Austria, Bosnia and even Hungary....The magazine “SAFF,” the flagship journal of the radical Sarajevo-based Aktivna Islamska Omladina (Active Islamic Youth) or AIO, can be found in bookshops and kiosks. The AIO is a vocal critic of US policies in the Middle East and has been tied to Al Qaeda....Syria was mentioned several times as a location where many Bosniaks receive their cost-free religious education in what was termed the “Sheriat Faculty” whereupon they return as hodzas (Islamic instructors) to Europe. A brother of one of these students stated that “there are many of us there (Syria).”  

At this point it should be noted that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's links with the Balkans were strong even since the late 80's and before the dissolution of the then Yugoslavia. The infamous Abu Hamza Syrian national has been- along with others- preparing a full scale infiltration of the region which then evolved into the introduction of 15,000 "Mujahedeen" into the Western Balkans in the early 90's. 

Nowadays a return of Jihadist from Syria, coupled with an expanded Schengen travel zone across the EU and the implosion of the worldwide Islamic radical scene into countless small segments with no distinct hierarchy and leadership poses a significant difficulty in the international security authorities to pin-point future probable actions, whilst it seems that Jihadism is relying more and more of the "lone wolf" modus opperandi, whereby propagators instigate attacks on a "spontaneous level" by "wannabe" Jihadists, such as was the case over the past few years in Lyon, Brussels, London and Boston.  

The case of Muamer Effendi Zukorlić

Muamer Zukorlic born February 15, 1970 in Orlje, Tutin, SR Serbia, then Yugoslavia) is the Grand Mufti of Sandzak, who now operates as a grand Mufti at the top, in the 2007 formed Islamska zajednica u Srbiji (“ Islamic Community in Serbia " ), headquartered in Novi Pazar. 

He graduated from the Gazi Husrev - Medresa in Sarajevo and from the Department of Islamic Sharia Faculty in Constantine, Algeria. Further studies led him to Lebanon. He is the founder and Rector of the International University in Novi Pazar and the first Dean of the Faculty of Islamic studies.

In 2004, he protested vigorously against the introduction of a Remembrance Day for the Saint Sava of Serbia to the local state schools. In 2006, Zukorlic signed to an open letter of Islamic scholars to Pope Benedict XVI after his "Regensburg speech". He was one of the 138 signatories of the open letter A Common Word between Us and You, the personalities of Islam to "leaders of Christian churches everywhere ".

Zukorlic since 2012 has showed that he wants to play an active role into the Serbian politics and he was even a Presidential candidate, while he is often accused as an instigator of the "Green corridor" axis based between Kosovo-Sanjak and Bosnia a sort of an autonomous Islamic state in the heart of the Balkans. 

In an interview in 2011 to a Bosnian paper Dnevni avaz, Zukorlic publicly claimed that he wants an autonomy for the region and specifically added that ""Sandzak's autonomy needs to be carried out in our minds and with our organizational capacities....We decided to open Sandzak representative offices in Brussels, Washington, Istanbul, and Sarajevo". Zukorlic has a Twitter account "", where interesting, rather populist and certainly out of the ordinary for an Imam tweets are beamed on a regular basis, suggesting aims for continuing on a political consolidation of his persona in the region, a fact that has little been researched concerning his overall motives. The changes that were caused in the entire Islamic world due to the Syrian unfolding crisis will soon rather than latter reach Novi Pazar and play a role in the domestic religious and political scene. 

In overall political trembles should be expected once the returnees from the "Syrian front" arrive in Sarajevo and Novi Pazar, as well as in Priznen and in Tetovo, with a fresh defeat and accusations of treason towards their "brethren" both in the Balkans and in the Middle East. The role of Turkey would be crucial and few researchers realize around the explosive situation nowadays in Istanbul and Ankara where a full blown psychological war is being waged against Erdogan that will culminate no later than in the 1st anniversary of the 2013 revolt in the Gezi Park in Istanbul. 

In such a case further issues are to be assessed for, both by local Balkan states and by EU ones, due to credible fears that literally thousands of uncontrollable Jihadists may set foot in the Balkans for the second time in 20 years.