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The Black Flag in the Balkans: The Islamic State's Links to Bosnia

As many as 300 Bosnians have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and security officials fear that few opportunities for Bosnia's young men could lead even more to join violent radical jihadist groups.
La polizia controllo l'ingresso al villaggio bosniaco di Gronja Maoca, ornato da una bandiera dello Stato Islamico. (Foto di Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

The German magazine Der Spiegel recently reported that the Islamic State is finding fertile ground for its ideology in rural Bosnia.

Der Spiegel reports that in some tiny, remote villages in the country's north, residents practice Sharia law and fly the militant group's black flag.

'In some remote villages, the black flag of IS is flown…" the article says. "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."


Although photos on the Internet allegedly show Islamic State graffiti in Bosnia, there is no evidence of any Bosnian village flying an Islamic State flag or requiring that resident abide by sharia law, nor does the author of the Der Spiegel provide evidence to back up either of these claims.

The article says that both Bosnia's Ministry of Security and the SIPA special police force deny reports of remote "Sharia villages."

Der Spiegel also alleges that "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."

Related: In Photos: Laying to Rest Srebrenica Victims Two Decades After the Massacre

The article does not provide evidence for this allegation either, nor does it differentiate between Islamic State and other jihadists who espouse violence, and Salafism, a conservative Islamic ideology that is based on imitating the example of the Prophet Mohammad and his early followers. Salafism has a variety of sub-schools and millions of adherents, the vast majority of whom do not espouse violence.

Bosnia does clearly have a problem with violent radical jihadists — more than 300 Bosnians have joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria — accounting for one of the highest proportions of jihadists from Europe, reports Der Spiegel.

Der Spiegel points out that many of the Bosniaks who have traveled to Syria to fight with Islamic State or other jihadists groups hail from small, rural hamlets with high unemployment and few opportunities for young men to get ahead.


Authorities arrested a number of suspected Bosniak jihadists in the past year, and last year convicted Bosnian imam Husein "Bilal" Bosnic, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for recruiting for IS and inciting terrorism under a new law that toughened penalties for those crimes.

At the time, Bosnian authorities hailed Bosnic's sentencing as a sign of their contribution to the war on terror. But Der Spiegel's report, which described the area around Velika Kladusa near the Croatian border as a "hotspot for jihadist fighters," suggests the authorities have work to do.

The Bosnian government also discovered that Bosnian weapons were used in the IS-inspired attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo attacks, and ex-Yugoslav-manufactured weapons were used in the Bataclan music hall massacre in Paris, Der Spiegel reported.

It's not clear when those weapons left Bosnia — weapons from the former Yugoslavia are not uncommon in Europe's black market, due to the country's chaotic breakup and years of war. German and Bulgarian weapons were also used in the attack.

Islamists with a penchant for fighting have been present in Bosnia since the Balkan wars. Then, Arab militants — many of whom fought with American support against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s — journeyed to Bosnia. There, they formed the "Mujahideen Battalion" to fight against the Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats fighting the Muslim Bosniaks, who comprise around 40 percent of the country's population of 3.86 million.


"Bosnia has had this issue going on for a while," Dan Byman, a senior fellow and counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, told VICE News. "Way back when in early 1990s, for a little while, it was a cause célèbre for jihadists."

Some of the mujahideen stayed. But other Bosnian extremists are natives. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries funded mosques and other Islamic institutions that in some cases espoused the puritanical Wahabi interpretation of Islam.

Watch the VICE News documentary After the Flood: Mines and Mass Graves in Bosnia:

The Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995 divvied the country up into a political hodgepodge — a presidency that rotates between a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb; the ethnically Serbian-controlled Republika Srpska; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is further divided into 10 cantons; and the the autonomous Brcko District in the north. An entity created to monitor the Dayton Accords, the Office of the High Representative, as well as the United Nations help run the place, too.

Like in decentralized Belgium, where Flemish, Walloon and federal officials have struggled to unravel homegrown terror networks, the Bosnian political structure has struggled to keep tabs on those it suspects of providing support to the Islamic State.

The political structure is bad for governance in general, too, experts said.


In 2014, Bosniaks rioted and set fire to government buildings to protest not only their leaders' corruption and mismanagement, but their screwed up political system where nobody is responsible for getting things done. Today, unemployment stands at more than 40 percent, with youth suffering higher jobless rates.

"People are very frustrated with the quality of their leaders," said University of Nebraska Political Scientists Patrice McMahon, who has worked extensively in Bosnia, in an interview with VICE News. "These clowns, these people who are in charge are super corrupt. They are not helping the people. The money is going into their pockets."

Many of Bosnia's problems are the same that bedevil other Balkan and Eastern European countries, like elites who learned politics under communism, she added.

Related: Rebels Ignored the Islamic State in South Syria, and It's Come Back to Haunt Them

"It's some Bosnians themselves and people in the Balkans who see ethnic manipulation and corruption as the way to the future instead of jumping of the bandwagon of democracy," McMahon said. "The only hope is for young people to get educated differently. People whom I would say are over 35 are maybe not corrupt, but I just don't see them having the will to turn things around in Bosnia."

The United States and Europe share the blame for the dysfunction, McMahon added. NATO helped end the Bosnian War after the Srebrenica massacres — when Bosnian Serb forces killed 8,000 Bosniaks — but the West hasn't really helped Bosnia get on its own two feet. Sarajevo is a pleasant city, she said, but the billions of dollars' worth of aid that's poured into the country hasn't resulted in positive systemic change.


"We promise so much. We deliver so little," she said. "Sometimes I think we are doing more harm than good. They don't really have a self-sustaining state."

It makes sense that IS is exploiting the situation, she continued.

"After Bosnia, there was Afghanistan and Iraq. People were moving on and moving from nation building and wanted to say Bosnia was a success story," she said. "Because of distractions, we've allowed this door to be opened, just like in Iraq."

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr

Editors Note: This article has been updated.