Islamic fundamentalists have attacked a Bosnian Muslim preacher who used his pulpit to rally against extremism three times in recent weeks, fueling concerns that a Gulf-financed Wahhabi movement active in the troubled country could be gaining ground.
Extremists repeatedly targeted Selvedin Beganovic, an imam in the small village of Trnovi in north-west Bosnia, after he wrote an open letter stating his opposition to the recruitment of young Muslim men to fight in Syria and Iraq. The cleric has also angered religious hardliners by saying that Muslim jihad should "focus on opening new jobs, not going to frontlines abroad" and warning that the Islamic State is spreading a "perverted form of Islam."
On December 9 a masked assailant reportedly ambushed the cleric, hitting him with a blunt instrument before stabbing him three times in the chest and shoulder while shouting: "Now I will slaughter you." Beganovic's car was previously firebombed, and his family has received multiple death threats.
Radical Islam was virtually unknown in Bosnia until the bloody ethnic wars of the 1990s, when a US-backed operation enabled foreign fighters and shipments of arms to pour into the country from Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
At the end of the conflict up to 1,500 foreign mujahedeen were granted Bosnian citizenship, and although the country's government later revoked as many as 600 of these passports under international pressure, it is not clear how many deportations were ever enforced.
One of the most troubled countries in Europe, Bosnia is in many respects a fertile ground for cultivating radicals. Unemployment stands at a staggering 43 percent and while the Dayton Agreement — a peace deal signed in 1995 — signaled a final end to years of bitter fighting, it also established the convoluted political framework that has served to maintain ethnic divisions in the country to this day.
In the two decades since the war ended, foreign preachers — mainly from Saudi Arabia — have continued to arrive in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country to preach extremist Islam. Gulf investors have pumped millions of dollars into building mosques and madrassas in Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and other western Balkan countries.
"Financing for these projects in Bosnia is coming from the Saudis and Kuwait — it's no secret," Anes Alic, a Sarajevo-based political analyst and expert on Wahhabism, told VICE News. "They are trying to spread radical Islam to Bosnia and to create a radical community to oppose the moderates.
According to the Bosnian police, in the last three years up to 180 Bosnian citizens, including women and children, have traveled to Syria — presumably to join radical groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State fighting in the region.
Bosnian authorities have taken strong steps to crack down on the extremists. In September, Bilal Bosnic, an Islamic State supporter and the leader of the country's Wahhabi movement, was arrested with 17 of his followers. The extremist leader is now awaiting trial for "financing terrorist activities and recruiting and fighting abroad" — a crime punishable by ten years in jail in Bosnia under a new law introduced in April.
But Alic warns that a strong diaspora means the threat is not contained to Bosnia borders. Tens of thousands of Muslims fled the fighting in the country during the 1990s for other parts of Europe, mainly Austria and Germany. Meanwhile pressure from the Bosnian authorities is now forcing many radicals to base their operations in the West.
In a painstaking investigation into the country's radical Islamist movement, Alic shows a financial paper trail that links Saudi-connected Bosnian and Serbian clerics based in Vienna, Austria, to a 2007 bid to destabilize Bosnia through a wave of mosque seizures.
This same group of radicals is also attempting to recruit jihadi fighters from Western countries, Alic says. "Most of the 'Bosnians' now in Syria and Iraq were not living in Bosnia before they went to fight… Most of them are young and have strong connections with the West," he tells VICE News.
In a recent case, two young girls born to Bosnian refugees in Austria — 16-year-old Samra Kesinovic and 15-year-old Sabina Selimovic — joined the Islamic State and married fighters in Syria after allegedly being radicalized by Mirsad Omerovic, also known as Ebu Tejma.
Omerovic, a Serbian-born self-proclaimed imam living in Vienna, has since reportedly been arrested by the Austrian authorities. However neither of the teenagers have returned.
"It's a psychological question," says Alic. "Many of them haven't experienced the war here at all, it was twenty years ago, the problem is they can't fit into the western world."
So far the radicalization movement in Bosnia has met with only limited success. According to a 2013 survey by the European Parliament there are only 3,000 Wahhabi followers out of Bosnia's 1.4 million Muslims, with most living in rural areas in the north-west. However a recent Pew Research Center survey found many more were sympathetic to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, with 15 percent supporting the introduction of sharia law in the country.
Alic warns that recent geopolitical events could play into the hands of radicals. "In general nobody likes them (Wahhabis) here but when certain events happen, for example if Israel attacks Palestine, people start to like them," he told VICE News.
After suffering seven attacks inside a year, the imam Beganovic has decided to retreat from what is becoming an increasingly politicized issue. "I am withdrawing from all debates on social networks," the cleric told local media outlet Balkan Insight recently. "I simply have no strength to debate and explain myself to anyone anymore."
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