Reportage. In the impoverished parts of Bosnia, where institutions are weak, Salafist Islam has taken hold. Post-war Bosnia has been a minor source of ISIS fighters and a haven for radicalization in Europe.

The growing influence of radical Islam in Bosnia

One can recognize it by a small speaker mounted on the roof: this is the para-jamaat of Husein “Bilal” Bosnic. Obscured by a cornfield, where the road branches off toward Sisici, in northern Bosnia, this house has been converted into a mosque to spread the most radical form of Islam: Salafism. One of the most prominent jihadist recruiters in Europe preached here, as he roamed from the woods to the battlefields, urging believers to fight against the infidels and establish Sharia. The range of Bosnic’s influence has extended all the way from Sweden to Slovenia, including Italy, but it all had its roots here, in Sisici, just a few turns away from the border with Croatia, with the European Union.

Looking at it from the outside, no one would think that this is one of the most significant centers of radicalization in the whole country—much more so than the Salafite communities in central-eastern Bosnia, which settled here at the end of the war during the 1990s. Back then, two or three thousand mujaheddin came from Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa to Bosnia and Herzegovina to fight the holy war. After failing to establish Islamic law, some of them—a few hundred—nevertheless decided to remain in the country. These are isolated but visible communities, easier to monitor despite their impenetrability. An infamous example is Gornja Maoca, with his black ISIS flags displayed in the windows, which became the symbol of Bosnian jihadism.

The da’is, the preachers of hatred who are often trained in Saudi Arabia, are doing their work undisturbed, far from the spotlight. The nerve centers of their proselytism are the para-jamaat, private homes or buildings outside the circuits of the Islamic community of Bosnia. Breeding grounds for radicalism have proliferated on the outskirts of urban centers, from Sarajevo to Tuzla, Zenica and Bihac. An informal, low-level organization, but rooted in the territory and structured in a network that also involves commercial and nonprofit organizations of dubious origin and equally dubious financing. This network is not recognized by the Islamic community, but partly tolerated and believed to be a point of connection with even less palatable parties.

“They move without being conspicuous. They must hide not only from the police, but also from us who live here and who don’t tolerate their presence or their ideas,” explains Tarik (not his real name), a local man who is accompanying me on this journey. Tarik is terrified of having his identity revealed, because he, a Muslim, is married to a Catholic woman, and that is enough to make him an infidel in the eyes of the hardcore Islamist purists.

“Some of them were radicalized during the war years,” says Tarik. “I have seen friends and family react in this way to the atrocities they endured.” In short, this was the poisoned legacy of the conflict, nurtured by the ethnic divisions that emerged from the war and the dysfunctionality of the state that came out of it. It is a legacy toward which the state institutions, as well as the Islamic community, had often turned a blind eye—at least until the Sept. 11 attacks, when the dangers of what was growing deep inside Bosnia, like in many other places, were put in stark relief.

Since then, a more cautious and less ambivalent attitude has managed to avert the worst outcomes. Bosnia has never been anything like a “time bomb” in recent years, as French President Emmanuel Macron called it in November, arousing the anger of the Bosnians and the praise of Serbian and Croatian nationalists. On the contrary, Islamic radicalism, especially violent radicalism, has struggled to establish itself among the local population.

However, a new generation of radicalized Muslims that has little or no connection with the war has emerged. Sefik Cufurovic described to me his hatred towards Ibro, who had once been his favorite son: “I prayed to God that I’d never see him again. I hoped in my heart that a grenade would hit him full-on,” Sefik says, with the mild and resigned gaze of someone who has nothing more to lose.

As far as Sefik is concerned, Ibro is dead to him—he died one morning eight years ago. That day, the youngest of his sons picked up a few clothes and left. Waiting for him outside the door was the same Bilal Bosnic. He was the providential man, who offered people bread and ideology, school and medicine, creeping into the cracks of a collapsing social and political order. Ibro had gotten himself tangled in the web of the Islamic preacher. He dragged his mother in along with him, but not Sefik, his “infidel” father, as Ibro had once shouted at him.

Since then, the Cufurovic family has fallen apart. “It’s not a matter of poverty,” Sefik points out. “Bosnic has destroyed many families around here, some of them wealthy ones.” He is referring to Rifet Sabic, one of the key witnesses, together with Sefik, in the trial against the Islamic preacher. Like Ibro, Rifet’s son Suad left for Syria to fight among the ranks of ISIS—and Suad will never return.

“It was my son Scerif who told me that Ibro had enlisted. That was four years ago. Some officials from SIPA [the Bosnian intelligence agency] showed up at my house to show me a video. There was a man with a Kalashnikov in his hand and two murdered men at his feet. It was him, my son.” In March of last year, Ibro was expelled from Syria, where he was being held in a camp run by Kurdish militias. On his return to Bosnia, he was tried for terrorist activity and sentenced to four years in prison. As the judges handed down their sentences, his wife and children were also returning to Bosnia as part of a repatriation program that has caused quite a stir.

In December, the first group of Bosnians returned from Syria. They were six women, 12 children and seven men, the latter arrested on their arrival at the airport in Sarajevo. The operation had been postponed for a few months because of the offensive unleashed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in northern Syria. A hundred Bosnians are still waiting to be repatriated there, in prison camps run by Kurdish militias.

“Fighting terrorism is not as high a priority for Bosnia and Herzegovina as it is for other European states,” explains Evan Kohlmann, an American expert and former consultant on terrorism for the FBI. “Institutional weaknesses, regulatory gaps and inadequacies in the conduct of investigations or trials complicate the picture even more. It’s enough to point out that the recruiters and foreign fighters who have been convicted in recent years were still able to communicate with the outside world and continue their activities from prison.”

The conclusion is that no counter-terrorism strategy is possible unless we first work on institution building. The institutions are weak, reflecting the precariousness of the Dayton peace agreements and the nationalist rhetoric with which the political narrative is imbued. Then, there is, according to Kolhmann, another factor which is often overlooked but which is enough to make the situation even more alarming: namely, the qualitative leaps in skills made by the foreign fighters on the ground. “When they left Bosnia, many of them had no experience of war,” the expert explains. “Now they are trained and organized. Among them, some women have actively participated in the fighting, but they have never been convicted or tried in Bosnia.”

And the situation doesn’t look any better from the point of view of rehabilitation. In theory, the government has set up programs for women and children to reintegrate into society, but in reality, these remain a dead letter. The funding from international donors, although sizable, remains unused, so that the burden of the entire rehabilitation process falls on the local authorities.

For instance, on paper, the women are supposed to be doing social work, but the centers have no resources or staff. The situation of the children is even more dramatic, who have been exposed to violence of all kinds for years and are in need of psychological assistance, which is nearly nonexistent at this point.

And then, there is the question of the reintegration of the real foreign fighters and their de-radicalization. “Many of them have a low level of schooling, and, in addition, have few skills, which they mostly developed in the war,” Kohlmann concludes. “We need to understand whether they have a political agenda, and what they intend to achieve, whether it includes the establishment of Sharia law or the planning of terrorist attacks. But we still have a very long way to go.”

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