From Brussels to Sarajevo: Why Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina Are Home to Islamic terrorists

It is ironic that Brussels, the capital of the European Union and the headquarters of those EU institutions that have set out a strict legislative and economic reform agenda for Bosnia and Herzegovina, is also home to terrorists and radical Islam.
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Before he blew himself up in his home outside of Sarajevo, Enes Omeragic killed two soldiers of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) army and opened fire on a bus near the Rajlovac military base. The Bosnian prosecutors and the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) labeled this as an act of terrorism and ISIS-related materials were found in Omeragic's apartment. His neighbors said that he had become an adherent of the ultra conservative Salafi Muslim movement. This assault, which took place on November 19, 2015 is just one in a series of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic radicals in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In June 2010, Haris Causevic, who had ties to Wahhabi groups in BiH, placed an explosive at a police station in the city of Bugojno. The attack killed one officer and injured several others. Causevic was sentenced to 45 years in prison. A 15-year sentence was given to Mevludin Jasarevic, who fired his Kalashnikov rifle at the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo and wounded a Bosnian police officer during the 30-minute onslaught that took place in October 2011. Then, in April 2015, a gunman attacked a police station in Zvornik shouting "Allahu akbar" killing one police officer and wounding two others. He was shot dead by police officers.

For years, Bosnia and Herzegovina was singled out as a failed state and a ticking time bomb for terrorist attacks. Now, following the November 13th attacks in Paris, Belgium is in the spotlight. The mastermind behind the Paris attacks was 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national. The Charlie Hebdo attacks also had a Belgian link as well as and the failed attack on a high-speed train travelling from Brussels to Paris in August 2015. It's not any neighborhood in Sarajevo that is making front-page news; instead, it is the notorious Molenbeek district of Brussels that played a staging ground for several terrorist attacks, including the 2014 barbaric attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels where four people were killed. The district's bad reputation is well deserved because it has served as a safe house where Islamic extremists could acquire access to weapons and plan their attacks without having to worry about neighbors calling the cops. No wonder that the orchestrators of the 2004 attacks in Madrid had also lived in Molenbeek. Today, experts are pointing out the failures of Belgium, which have made it an ideal breading ground for terrorists. But while the eyes of the world are on Belgium, we shouldn't lose sight of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is striking how Bosnia and Herzegovina, the multiethnic entity that was born from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Balkan wars, and the 1995 Dayton peace accords, resembles Belgium. In his assessment on the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement, Carl Bildt, co-chair of the Dayton Peace Conference and high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from December 1995 to June 1997, commented that, "The constitutional settlement for Bosnia, agreed in Dayton, ended up somewhere between Belgium, with its complicated structure of Flemish, Walloon, and even some German 'entities', and Cyprus..."

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of several autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (consisting of 10 federal units), Republika Srpska, and the Brčko District. Belgium has a federal government based in Brussels while the country is divided along 3 language communities (Flemish, French, and German-speaking) and 3 regions (Flemish and Walloon - both subdivided into five provinces - and the Brussels-Capital Region). Both countries have weak central governments and are beset by irreconcilable tensions between different ethnic and linguistic groups. Unemployment in BiH is at 43.9 percent (just 1.2% lower than the Gaza Strip) making it one of the highest in the world. The infamous Molenbeek municipality has unemployment around 30 percent and it has been reported that in 2013 the Belgian government's labor oversight committee noted that unemployment among Belgians of North African origin was twice the number than that of white Belgians. Whether Belgian authorities have done a poor job in integrating the Muslim communities or whether there exists a culture of denial, which chooses to see social and economic exclusion as the source of radical Islam in Belgium, is another, broad topic, but commentators have even gone as far as to call Belgium a failed state. That label may be a bit farfetched, but Belgium is certainly dysfunctional - a characteristic that it shares with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The fact that both countries, with intricate federal state structures, have multiple, overlapping security and police agencies, hampers their ability to act effectively against terrorist threats. 22 police agencies operate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Brussels alone has 6 police forces. This makes intelligence sharing, monitoring of radical groups, and coordinating all the more difficult. In fact, as pointed out by Dominika Ćosić, an expert on the Balkans living in Brussels, the Belgian police often complained that they are underequipped and expressed fears for their own safety in the predominantly Muslim neighborhoods of Brussels and Antwerp. And although both Belgium and BiH may claim successful preemptive strikes against terrorists, but both have reason to worry because hundreds of Bosnian and Belgian nationals have joined ISIS and are returning to Europe.

In 2014, the authorities in BiH had organized a police operation codenamed "Damascus," which ended in the arrest of 11 individuals suspected of terrorist activities and links to the Wahhabi movement. One of those apprehended was Hussein Bilal Bosnic, who between 2013-2014 was a member of the Salafi Movement that operated outside of the official Islamic institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The court in BiH charged Hussein Bosnic with propagating Islamic radicalism and inciting others to join terrorist organizations and ISIS - through his public speeches and social networks such as Youtube. Bosnic was given a sentence of seven years in prison. Belgian police had also carried out similar counter-terrorist operations.

In a clear reference to the Charlie Hebdo attack, Belgian authorities claimed that a "second potential Paris has been averted" when, in January 2015, police killed two gunmen and wounded another in a raid by counter-terrorist units in the town of Verviers. It was known that the gunmen had returned to Belgium from Syria. It is estimated that 520 ISIS militants are from Belgium, making it the greatest contributor to foreign ISIS fighters of any Western country. But BiH is also fertile soil for ISIS terrorist recruits. Estimates show that anywhere from 300-340 fighters in Iraq and Syria come from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which means that proportionally to its population (per one million inhabitants), BiH has 92 fighters, as compared to Belgium's 46. Consequently, ISIS' propaganda machine has also shifted its attention to the Balkans where it has targeted potential candidates.

In April 2015, ISIS produced a twenty-minute video entitled "Honor is in Jihad" aimed at attracting volunteers from BiH to come fight in Syria or urging them to carry out terrorist attacks in the Balkans. The notion that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a nesting ground for potential terrorists is well based on several important factors, both historic and current. Between 1992-1995, thousands of mujahideen travelled to the Balkans to fight alongside the Bosniaks. One of those foreign fighters - who even attained Bosnian citizenship in 1995 - was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - the "principal architect" of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Furthermore, two out of the five terrorists that hijacked the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon had also fought in Bosnia. Osama Bin Laden himself received a Bosnian passport in Vienna in 1993. After the violence in the Balkans subsided, many of the mujahideen settled down in BiH and the country became their safe haven and training ground.

The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, recently pointed out that according to the Dayton Agreement, all mujahideen were to be expelled from Bosnia, but added, "Of course this was not done, and of course they stayed, and all the crimes of terrorism, which later occurred - from Germany, Madrid, Washington, London, Paris - had a relationship and starting point from Bosnia." It is estimated that currently the mujahideen make up half of the BiH nationals that are fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The report entitled "The Lure of the Syrian War: The Foreign Fighters' Bosnian Contingent" notes that there are two groups of BiH citizens that travel to fight in Syria: The first group includes the mujahedeen who see "the war in Syria and Iraq as continuation of the jihad they felt was ended prematurely in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accord" while the second group generally includes young converts to Islam who desire "adrenaline and a quest for self-validation, self-respect, group belonging, and purpose." The reports add that one-third of the fighters have criminal records. Most of those going to join ISIS have travelled via Istanbul, but many were barred from leaving BiH in the first place. During the visit of Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to BiH in May 2015, Mladen Ivanic, then-chairman of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that the fight against terrorism is in the common interest of both countries and that thanks to the cooperation with Turkish security agencies, close to 100 citizens of BiH were turned back because of suspicion that they were headed for terrorism-prone areas.

Some in Sarajevo argue that the level of potential terrorist threats in BiH is no different than in other European countries. Other experts in Bosnia disagree and point out that number of potential terrorists ranges from 3,000-5,000. In his commentary for Republika Srpska Press, Predrag Ceranic, an expert on security, stated that authorities address terrorism when it strikes but their efforts are short-lived. He points to cracks in BiH's security architecture and warns, "Be sure that the Islamic state has a plan for the Balkans, that their operatives do not sleep, and that they will take advantage of the migrant crisis to deploy men to wait for a suitable time."

In 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina was identified by the European Union as a potential candidate for EU membership. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between BiH and the EU entered into force on June 1, 2015. It is ironic that Brussels, the capital of the European Union and the headquarters of those EU institutions that have set out a strict legislative and economic reform agenda for Bosnia and Herzegovina, is also home to terrorists and radical Islam. Unfortunately, we can expect more trouble originating from both Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This article was co-authored with Marta Ochyra. Marta is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Her research focuses on the United States' policy toward Bosnia and Herzegovina and terrorism in the Balkans. Between 2008-2014, she lived in Brussels and served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland. She currently resides in Chicago.

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