NEW INFORMATION AND KEY TRENDS REGARDING ISLAMIC EXTREMIST GROUPS IN THE BALKANS
(Author of the Book: “The Coming Balkan Caliphate”)
The following adapted speech, presenting findings from the author’s new book, The Coming Balkan Caliphate, was given on October 5, 2007 in Athens, Greece, at the cultural center at the University of Indianapolis (Athens campus). It was sponsored by that university and the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS).
As everyone here is aware, the threat of instability in the Balkans remains, even though the Wars of Yugoslav Secession are long behind us. The issue today is to understand the precise nature of present and future threats. Over the past 6 years, I have conducted significant research which has been published in newspapers, private security journals and websites, including antiwar.com and my website, balkanalysis.com, which has a large archive of articles on these subjects.
Part of the difficulty of presenting this information in the form of a book was to write a book that would be useful both for general readers and for experts. It was thus necessary to provide some context first about the last 17 years of Western interventions and events in the Balkans, for those readers who might have little or no prior knowledge of the region. At the same time, I sought to present information, both little-known key details and analyses of broader trends, which professionals specializing in Balkan security issues would find useful. I believe that I was by and large successful in achieving this goal.
So what I’d like to do first is to present a brief introduction to the chapters, there are eight, and then continue by elaborating further on the recurring themes that emerged in my research and to discuss the nature of future threats from Islamic extremists in the region. Finally, since this is a mostly Greek audience, I would also like to present some thoughts regarding what kind of constructive role Greece could play in the future in dealing with these threats, and how Greece’s international stature could in fact be enhanced by this role.
But first, about the title. The ‘Coming Balkan Caliphate’ is a good title, marketing-wise, in that gets people curious to open the book. Of course, I’m not arguing that there will be some sort of a geographical spread ruled by Islamic law, a caliphate as is traditionally known, in the Balkans someday. Although some small pockets do seem to be heading in that direction. Actually, with the role of technology today, distances and geographical contiguity are not really relevant for terrorist groups.
Chapter 1 examines the role of Bosnia in international terrorism, both the recent history and some of the warning signs now occurring, which indicate the significant threat from this country for the future. To some extent this is an old story, one which has received tremendous media attention ever since the Bosnian War in the 1990’s. It is certainly the single most important event for the arrival of foreign Islamic mujahedin, and Arab-style Islam, neither of which had any previous place in the country. What happened was in 1991, 1992 and later the Clinton administration was determined to support the side of the Bosnian Muslim government against the Bosnian Serbs, thus picking one side in a very complex civil war.
To do so, they had to go around the UN arms embargo on the various parties, however, and so Clinton decided to allow Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, which was then hosting Osama bin Laden, to import and arm thousands of mujahedin fighters, many of them veterans from the jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan, which the US had of course supported also. According to the sources I cite, the decision to allow the mujahedin in was made at the highest levels, the idea being hatched between Bill Clinton and then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake. The CIA, Pentagon and others allegedly didn’t even know about it in the beginning. Key players in facilitating the movement and equipping of the mujahedin were the intelligence services of allies like Croatia, Germany and Austria.
The American decision to use the mujahedin to surreptitiously fight the Serbs was a classic case of short-sighted policy planning. These fighters were all supposed to have left with the signing of the Dayton Agreement peace treaty in 1995, and the Iranian terrorist training camps shut down. Many did leave. However, many others didn’t, marrying local women and setting up shop in villages that became extremely conservative Muslim. You may have heard in the past year about the attempts of the Bush Administration to pressure the Bosnian Muslim government to get rid of the last of these people, and the resistance they have faced. One of the interesting things that has happened in this time has been the disappearance of former mujahedin who have gone ‘underground’ in the Balkans, according to regional intelligence sources to places like Sandzak in Serbia, Albania and Kosovo, or even further to Turkey and Chechnya. What is interesting to note is that the spread of radical Islamist groups in the Balkans has created a network of ‘safe houses’ and underground channels by which wanted terrorists or extremists are being circulated.
Since the Clinton administration, and a good section of the media that supported it, was so heavily in favor of the Muslim side during the fighting in Bosnia, it’s no surprise that the direct connections between Bosnia and major terrorist attacks, including 9/11, has been underreported. The arrival of mujahedin fighters in Bosnia in the early 1990’s involved the installment of various networks – financial, charities and other NGOs – in Western European countries as well as in Bosnia itself. These organizations, some of which were destroyed after 2001, but not all, allowed terrorists more options for ‘cover’ and have provided sources of religious propaganda and publishing that are currently a major source for Wahhabi organizations’ propaganda material in the Balkans.
You may have heard of the arrest, a few days ago, of two Bosnians planning to bomb the US Embassy in Vienna. There have been other plots involving Bosnians thwarted in the last couple years as well. These sort of things could not have happened without, first and foremost, the Clinton administration’s giving the green light for the Saudi-Iranian mujahedin importing adventure in Bosnia.
So enough of that for now. Chapter 2 discusses the recent past of Albania, mainly the exploits of various Islamic radicals and groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s. However, I also argue that while those actors have left the stage, the danger in Albania is by no means over- actually, it has changed shape, as I explain in my book.
Basically, what happened? In 1990, Albania was emerging from Communism after the death of dictator Enver Hoxha five years before. The US was naturally very eager to bring it out of Communism and nurture the ‘pro-democratic’ political elements. This involved supporting the campaign of Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party, and even parading him around America at events with William Ryerson, who would become the first American ambassador to Albania since the Communists took over after Berisha won, and who is now an Albanian lobbyist.
Berisha, who is again in power right now, was a classic opportunist, presiding over a very poor country that obviously needed all the help it could get. He got aid from the West, the US, the EU and NATO, but also from the Islamic world. In fact, under his initiative Albania even joined the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC), the only country in Europe to have done so, and without parliamentary approval. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries started making major investments, setting up banks, etc, but also building hundreds of mosques and inviting Albanian students to study Islamic theology in their countries.
At the same time, the US was training the Albanian secret service, the SHIK, which was headed by a hardcore Islamist, Bashkim Gazidede, who had been the president of an Islamic group in Tirana previously. Gazidede was very sympathetic to the Islamist cause and under his tenure extremist and terrorist groups related to bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were allowed to enter Albania and flourish. So at the same time the CIA was training its Albanian colleagues and modernizing their service, it was also allowing anti-American forces to set up shop. Because of Albania’s lawlessness and poverty, the jihadists, many of whom were on the run from authorities in countries like Egypt, considered the country a ‘safe hotel’ where they could plot undisturbed. The CIA actually ordered various operations against these characters, but it was somewhat self-defeating, since important figures in the Albanian leadership were supporting the same people the US was trying to take action against.
On this note it’s interesting to point out that, though the Bush administration is frequently accused of being the creator of the ‘rendition’ program by which terrorists suspects are kidnapped and flown off to undisclosed locations where they are interrogated and sometimes tortured, this program was actually pioneered in Albania in the mid-1990’s. And maybe you recall Abu Omar, the unfortunate Muslim cleric kidnapped by the CIA off of a Milan street in 2004. He had actually been part of these Islamic groups in Albania during the period when that program was being set up.
Chapter 3 takes a look at the unfolding situation in Kosovo, especially since the UN began its peacekeeping mission there in July 1999. This is a long and sordid story of incompetence, corruption and a blind policy where nobody from the side of the UN officials wanted to ‘rock the boat’ by speaking about terrorist groups in the province, as this was not in the interest of people there solely to benefit their diplomatic careers and get promoted to nicer places than Kosovo.
Although the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) tried to distance itself from them, foreign mujahedin did manage to join their fight against the Serbs, as numerous eyewitness sources from the time attest. But the more serious problem was after the war, when Arab charities arrived and starting establishing the ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabi form of Islam, which was very much against the traditional style of more moderate Islam inherited from the Ottoman Turks. Although a majority of local Albanians were not interested in them, the Saudis flooded the province with cash, to build mosques and to subsidize the building of Wahhabi mosques. In this pursuit, they destroyed centuries-old Ottoman structures and cemeteries because they supposedly represented idolatry and generally a non-correct interpretation of Islam.
In Kosovo no one knew what was going on with these groups, charities and cultural organizations mostly. The Saudi and other Arab charities did not communicate, or attend the regular meetings of international organizations that were held every week or month in this very multinational mission. In fact, not even the ‘pro-American’ Arab goverments knew what was going on. They were the ones whom the US was at first relying on to get information. For example, in 2003, staunch us ally Jordan had to resort to intimidating its own citizens to get agents who could provide information on the Wahhabis to pass on to their American friends, however, these attempts were by and large not successful and resulted in the passage of disinformation purported to be intelligence, because the Wahhabi groups were so secretive. It was just too hard. This shows the extent of the inability to penetrate these cautious and well funded Saudi groups. Worst of all, as we will discuss later, when there were leads or investigations into radical groups by committed international officials, they were routinely quashed by higher-ups for political reasons.
Today, while it’s by no means appealing to a majority of Albanians, Wahhabi Islam is increasing its grip on Kosovo, especially in the rural areas that have been by and large neglected by international donors, where the Islamic banking system and loans from Arab countries to local businessmen have been pioneered. Some of these areas were also hotbeds of nationalism and centers of the KLA uprising in 1999. Cleverly, the Saudis foresee that nationalist extremism can be re-channelled into religious extremism eventually, and certainly the resolution of the ‘Albanian question’ with the independence of Kosovo will diminish ethnic nationalism. There have already been warning signs, in the form of sectarian threats and even murders, that point to a coming clash between Albanian Muslims and Catholics in Kosovo, just as in Albania.
Part of what I do in The Coming Balkan Caliphate is to bring previously unknown details to the surface. One of the most explosive and mysterious of these relates to Kosovo, where in August of 2001 several Albanian-American radical imams were touring the villages, preaching against America and stating that America would soon be attacked. My book cites a security official present at the meeting discussing this in mid-September of that year. Apparently the men were connected to a wealthy mafia figure in Albanian-populated South Mitrovica. They were detained by UN police, however, they were soon inexplicably released. This detail revealing the apparent foreknowledge of several Albanian American radicals about the 9/11 attacks is something which has never been reported before.
Chapter 4 discusses the curious case of Wahhabi Islam in the (former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia, and the existence of several groups there that were of interest to the military intelligence services of Italy and France, among others, but have never before been reported in the media. This is a very interesting case because it is so unknown. The existence of a small number of radicals, and groups such as the Pakistani Tablighi Jamaat, among the minority Slavic Torbeshi Muslims comes as a surprise to not only foreigners but also locals. Such groups and their connections between diaspora Muslims from the country and Wahhabi groups in places like Italy and Austria, where they work, was closely watched by the foreign services and even manifested in a few detentions in the Trieste area last year, during an investigation of al Qaeda-linked networks in northern Italy.
What has been more in the news here were the goings-on within the Islamic Community in Skopje, which passed through a turbulent period from about 1999-2005, when the leadership of the community was taken over by violent Wahhabi sympathizers. Although the unrest seems to be over, and the ‘moderates’ restored to power, the Wahhabis remain and in fact have their people inserted at various levels in the IC administration and in the mosques. Western counterterrorism officials also have played close attention to the growth of Wahhabi groups in Skopje and other cities with Albanian population such as Tetovo.
Chapter 5 talks about the Ottoman Turkish legacy in the Balkans, with a bit of info on radical Islamic trends in the Slavic Muslim Pomak and Turkish communities in Bulgaria. Most of this chapter is devoted, however, to the considerable role of the Turkish government in the international heroin trade from Afghanistan and the Turkish government’s creation of an Islamic group, the Turkish Hezbollah, as a proxy army against the Kurdish PKK, according to the model of America’s brilliant idea to create bin Laden and the Afghan mujahedin to fight the Russians. Eventually, the Turkish Hezbollah grew out of control and threatened state interests, and so had to be liquidated. Ironically, today some of these former fighters who left when the group was destroyed are today in Iran and Iraq, fighting American soldiers there.
An interesting dimension of this chapter is the implications of the Turkish Ottoman legacy for the future of the Balkans- a very big question. For some Muslims among the Albanian, Turkish Bosnian and other Slavic Muslim communities, the Ottoman days represent some sort of golden age, the natural order of civilization in the Balkans. For the majority Balkan Christians, however, the Ottoman occupation was a very unfortunate and socially retarding aberration from prior Byzantine Christian civilization. The ramifications of this differing view can be seen today in things like the denationalization process. After Communism, the various Balkan governments are supposed to give property back to prior owners, and a lot of properties were owned by the church or the Islamic authorities. Under the Ottomans, many churches were turned into mosques. Different claimants hold up different property documents, decrees from different historical rulers and justifications for why the property is ‘really’ theirs. The Islamic Community in Skopje, for example, considers itself entitled to half a billion dollars in property reparations.
This is clearly a big issue, and with the addition into the mix of Wahhabi groups, we have a fascinating situation going on. For example, in Struga, on Lake Ohrid, a large Wahhabi mosque has been built over a former Ottoman one, which itself was built over a Byzantine church. Which, if any, is ‘appropriate’ for the country? The answer to questions like this will be increasingly contentious in the future.
Chapter 6 of The Coming Balkan Caliphate is perhaps my favorite. It describes, based on numerous interviews on and off the record with various security officials from the UN mission, OSCE, European intelligence experts, the CIA, MI6, etc, the reason for the intelligence failures that have led to the present poor situation, especially in Kosovo. This chapter indicates both the lack of intelligence sharing and the outcomes of the failed execution of counterterrorism work in Kosovo, and how this has aided the rise of fundamentalist Islam there. It has been a classic case of ‘don’t rock the boat, nothing to see here.’ People motivated more by career aspirations than by a search for terrorists. We will talk about this more soon.
Chapter 7 is in some respects the most searching of chapters. It talks about the complex and weighty issues of the nexus between high political figures and decision-making, high-level corruption and the economics of terrorism. With testimony from individuals like former FBI translator and whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, it reveals, in more detail than previously known, how the US government has been infiltrated with foreign spies, especially in the State Department, the Pentagon, the nuclear laboratories, in the process compromising the security of the US and the world. It is a sordid story of how everything is for sale to the highest bidder, from military technology to nuclear secrets.
Finally, chapter 8 discusses emerging threats- the changing shape of jihad and jihadist groups, and the role of technology in future terrorist attacks. Maybe some of you saw the recent CNN special on how a hacking attack could shut down power supply stations with devastating and chaotic effects. Through testimony from technology industry experts I describe the precise scenarios by which such attacks could be carried out.
Most specifically, along these lines in the Balkans, the chapter provides an assessment of uses of technology by existing Islamist groups in the Balkans, both as a means of communication, information dissemination and contact with foreign Islamists, and as an organizing tool for attacks that have so far luckily been stopped in time. I lay out specific scenarios by which terrorists in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia or in fact anywhere could disrupt global transport, communication and financial services virtually, from afar. I also discuss the growing role of the so-called ‘white devils,’ European converts and white-skinned Balkan Muslims, who can evade more easily the Western countries’ policy of racial profiling, which sad to say is the system they tend to follow.
So those are the chapters and what they cover. Now, most fundamentally, let’s ask, what have the problems in counterterrorism efforts been? I argue that these are flaws of both policy and execution. First, the flawed policy of the Clinton administration allowed thousands of mujahedin into Bosnia and thus Western Europe. This is to some extent ancient history, though the links between Bosnia-based terrorists and the 9/11 attacks, the attacks in Madrid and the failed attack on the funeral of Pope John Paul II indicate the folly of this policy. And in places like Albania during the first Berisha government, the US was supporting the very people flooding the country with suspected terrorists. In the Kosovo war, Britain encouraged jihadis from its own Muslim population to join the fight on the Albanian side. So clearly this short-sighted policy is to blame first and foremost, because without it the non-traditional foreign Islamists would not have been able to entrench themselves.
As for the second problem, execution, the best example here that we can single out has been the UN mission in Kosovo. Interviews with numerous security officials keep coming back to the same problem: there was little or no action against extremist groups for political reasons. All the international officials wanted to say everything was OK, to sweep any bad news under the rug, so that they could get positive reports from higher-ups and move onwards and upwards with their careers in places better than Kosovo. Even when presented with concrete information, such as photos and police reports indicating the presence of groups like the Kuwaiti RIHS, Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, the international security bosses were not very interested. This is a group that has been blacklisted by the Bush administration in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan for links with al Qaeda, a group involved with 500 simultaneous bombings in Bangladesh on August 18, 2005. Yet they were allowed to flourish in Kosovo.
Besides sluggishness and careerism, another problem with execution is structural. By this I mean the proliferation of so many different security agencies within countries- say in Germany, you have the intelligence, the military intelligence, the police, justice and so on. And each country in Europe has a similar number, all with their own rivalries and agendas, and all withholding information from one another out of competitiveness.
Compounding this confusion, there are the EU agencies, and then those within the UN in Kosovo, within NATO, the OSCE, the Americans and so on. There are simply too many people involved and to many rivals withholding intelligence. The lack of ‘intelligence sharing’ has become sort of a cliché in official explanations in America of why 9/11 happened. It can’t be used to explain everything, but in a place like Kosovo, run by an unaccountable and amorphous international administration, the problem becomes really acute, as in the March 2004 riots, when the German BND intelligence service withheld vital information from the German military peacekeepers. In short, they knew from their surveillance that the riots would happen, and they didn’t share this information, meaning the military was taken by surprise and couldn’t protect the Serbs from the rioting Albanians.
Of course, the US has taken steps to ameliorate the problem in general with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and I suspect Greece is going to go the same way. However, despite this recent experiment, the same problems still remain and it is unclear whether it will ever improve. The terrorists, on the other hand, have no institutional limitations, greater secrecy, a lighter and more flexibility organization structure, and so on. The current situation is like trying to break water with a rock. It is a very difficult situation.
Unfortunately, it seems that the disastrous policy inherited from the Clinton administration has not changed. The US seeks to make an independent Kosovo for the Albanians, something which is rightly perceived by several European countries, including Greece, as a threat to Balkan stability. One of the problems in uniting a country and preparing it for independence has been the factionalism of Albanian clan chiefs and rival political leaders, all of whom have their own individual intelligence services. The quest to unify these mutually mistrustful intelligence bodies by the US and Britain was reported a couple of years ago, I think, by Jane’s Intelligence Digest. Most recently, and this was not reported, one month ago in Tirana, the CIA held special meetings with the Kosovo Albanian leaders in an attempt to unify their services, as is seen as a prerequisite to having a modern state.
This brings us to an interesting point in terms of execution. The US has ended up having to rely for information on Islamist groups from these mafia-connected and paramilitary controlling Albanian clan leaders. The latter promise hot information and use this as a point of leverage and to win favor with the Americans, however most of the time it is just disinformation that they’re providing, as testimony from international security officials in Kosovo reveals.
The reason the US has found itself in this unenviable position, according to currently serving counter-terrorism officials and military personnel, is because due to shipping out its best assets to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it has essentially ‘farmed out’ its intelligence-gathering operations in Kosovo to Romanian and Ukrainian underlings in the NATO mission there. As all of you know, these Christian countries are perceived as sympathetic to the Serbs, and so are disliked by the Albanians. Thus they are in no position to get useful information. Worse, on February 10, 2007, two Albanian protestors were shot dead by UN police firing rubber bullets at a crowd of demonstrators. The police were Romanian, and this effectively ended whatever effect these people could have had for US efforts. Indeed, as a Kosovo Serbian resident added afterwards, ‘now, you can’t find a Romanian living outside of Gracanica’, the main Serbian enclave in central Kosovo.
So it seems the disastrous policies that led us to this stage remain, and will continue to remain. Now I don’t want to dwell on politics too much, but considering that the Balkan interventions were undertaken aggressively by the previous Clinton administration, I fear that it will only get worse if Hilary Clinton is elected president. Most of the people around her who are likely to crawl out of the woodwork and take up positions of power, like Richard Holbrooke, Wesley Clark, Madeleine Albright and their assistants have direct responsibility for the failed policies that have created such a dangerous situation today. They are certainly not going to acknowledge or apologize for this, of course.
This brings us to an interesting dilemma: that is, the role of Greece in foreign policy in the Balkans and the ‘war on terror.’ I believe it is correct to say that most Greeks do not agree with the Western policy that has been unfolding in the Balkans since 1991. Most Greeks did not agree with the importing of mujahedin into Bosnia, or with the war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. Nor do they agree with the Western goal of making Kosovo independent. Yet all too often, the Greek government has either gone along with the plan, not wishing to upset their American allies, or concentrated on more minute political issues, such as the “Macedonia name issue”, obsessions which have so far not brought any perceivable strategic benefits for the Hellenic Republic.
I am not interested in discussing this issue now, but incidentally it does open a window for understanding the entire complexity of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism in the Balkans. The Turkish government has been able to create a very favorable position in the (former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia due to the Greek name dispute with Skopje, to the extent that it has since the 1990s been funding municipalities where live minority Turks – or alleged Turks – Slavic Muslims who do not speak the Turkish language, but who are happy to take money and fly the Turkish flag since they have been neglected by the government, not being Orthodox Christians or Albanian. So, with antagonisms continuing to exist with Greece, Turkey has found its strategic advantage here.
The upshot of this is that, though it was definitely not the Turkish intention, some of these villages in the western area of the country, in the Debar-Kicevo area, have become among the most radical Islamist villages in the Balkans. This information is very new and comes from international security officials who’ve undertaken research in these villages.
Greece faces numerous challenges in its intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Balkans, and this has on occasion allowed other, rival powers to take the lead. In Kosovo, the perceived favoritism of Greeks towards the Serbs means the Albanians mistrust the Greeks, making it very difficult for Greeks to get proper information. This is even deadly, as was attested by the assassination of the Greek intelligence station chief in Pristina a couple of years ago. It is clearly a very difficult task for Greece to get valuable intelligence in a place like Kosovo, where Greek troops are essentially relegated to guarding Serbian shrines from vandals or attackers.
However, despite the challenges, Greece can enhance its political stature vis-a-vis its Western allies, and especially the US, and this has some relation with the ‘war on terror.’ By enhancing its on-the-ground intelligence gathering role, Greece can become a more valued partner for the US in identifying Balkan extremist groups and preventing terrorist attacks. As you all know, this can confer political benefits in the long run. However, it does require considerable investments in time, money, personnel and analysis.
Now, I don’t wish to ruffle any feathers among the professionals seated here today, but I do need to add that in my research the testimony of American counter-terrorism officials has indicated that the United States views Turkey as a much more valuable ally than Greece in the fight against terrorist groups. Naturally, the Turks because of their Islamic religion, geographic location bordering on the Middle East and knowledge are always going to have some advantage here. However, in the Balkans Greece can do more to enhance its strategic capacities.
On a positive note, Greece has avoided the kind of problems neighboring countries have faced because it has not allowed wealthy Arab funders to subsidize extremist groups and charities in Greece- due mostly to the strong and positive role of the Greek Orthodox Church, which has helped influence government policy to prevent such groups from getting established and trying to ‘convert’ local Muslims. This has been a very important and successful factor.
We frequently hear from Greek officials that Greece is the leader in the Balkans, but most often this is justified by citing Greek economic investment in the region. While this is certainly important, however, it is certainly not the only or even the most important factor. For real leadership involves taking an active role in the most important issues of the day and in this era one of the most important, certainly, is terrorism. Greece has certain advantages here, with its placement geographically in the Balkans, and because of its historically good relations with the countries of the Middle East.
In short, by enhancing its capacities in intelligence-gathering and by providing a more accurate and objective assessment of what’s going on in the region, Greece can at the same time increase its value as a strategic partner to America and the West in the ongoing fight against terrorism, and thus be regarded as a true leader in the Balkans. But this requires investment in personnel, technology, time and money, as well as political commitment. I think that there is already reason to believe that this commitment exists. But it will become an issue that can translate into policy and action only when the Greek voting public is educated as to the full severity of the threat of extremist groups in their neighborhood, the Balkans.