Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists
Hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists who became Bosnian citizens after battling Serbian and Croatian forces present a potential terrorist threat to Europe and the United States, according to a classified U.S. State Department report and interviews with international military and intelligence sources.
The extremists include hard-core terrorists, some with ties to Osama bin Laden, protected by militant elements of the former Sarajevo government. Bosnia-Herzegovina is “a staging area and safe haven” for terrorists, said a former senior State Department official.
The secret report, prepared late last year for the Clinton administration, warned of problem passport-holders in Bosnia in numbers that “shocked everyone,” the former official said. The White House leaned on Bosnia and its then-president, Alija Izetbegovic, to do something about the matter, “but nothing happened,” he said.
Although no evidence connects any Bosnian group to the suicide hijacking attacks of Sept. 11 blamed on Bin Laden, U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned about the scope and reach of Bin Laden networks in the West and the proximity of Bosnia-based terrorists to the heart of Europe.
A number of the extremists “would travel with impunity and conduct, plan and stage terrorist acts with impunity while hiding behind their Bosnian passports,” the former official said.
In several instances, terrorists with links to Bosnia have launched actions against Western targets:
* An Algerian with Bosnian citizenship, described by a U.S. official as “a junior Osama bin Laden,” tried to help smuggle explosives in 1998 to an Egyptian terrorist group plotting to destroy U.S. military installations in Germany. The shipment included military C-4 plastic explosives and blasting caps, the former U.S. official said. The CIA intercepted the shipment, foiling the attack.
* Another North African with Bosnian citizenship belonged to a terrorist cell in Montreal that conspired in the failed millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
* One of Bin Laden’s top lieutenants--a Palestinian linked to major terrorist plots in Jordan, France and the United States--had operatives in Bosnia and was issued a Bosnian passport, according to U.S. officials.
After the foiled plot against American bases in Germany, the U.S. suspended without public explanation a military aid program to Bosnia in 1999 in an attempt to force the deportation of the Algerian leader of the group, Abdelkader Mokhtari, also known as Abu el Maali.
Finally, after the U.S. went a step further and threatened to stop all economic aid, Izetbegovic agreed to deport El Maali. But the Algerian was back in Bosnia within a year. Two months ago, he was reported to be moving in and out of the country freely. He is now thought to be in Afghanistan with the leadership of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group, according to a senior official for the NATO-led peacekeeping force, SFOR, in Bosnia.
President Clinton’s secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, personally appealed to Izetbegovic to oust suspected terrorists or rescind their Bosnian passports.
The effort by top State Department aides continued through the last days of the administration. “It wasn’t just one meeting, it was 10 to 12, with orders directly from the White House,” said a former State Department official.
Izetbegovic declined the appeals, several sources said, apparently out of loyalty to the fighters who had come to his country’s rescue. The president argued that many had married Bosnian women, had taken up farming and were legal citizens.
“The point we kept making to Izetbegovic was that if the day comes we find out that these people are connected to some terrible terrorist incident, that’s the day the entire U.S.-Bosnia relationship will change from friends to adversaries,” the former State Department official said.
Senior U.S. and SFOR officials believe that some hard-line members of Izetbegovic’s political party gave direct support, through their control of the Foreign Ministry and local passport operations, to foreign Islamic extremists with ties to Bin Laden.
Although Izetbegovic stepped down in October 2000, many hard-liners remain in Bosnia’s bureaucracy, and they are suspected of operating their own rogue intelligence service that protects Islamic extremists, military and intelligence sources said.
Last week, Bosnia’s new interior minister, citing “trustworthy intelligence sources,” said scores of Bin Laden associates may be trying to flee Afghanistan ahead of anticipated U.S. military reprisals for the Sept. 11 attacks, seeking refuge among militant sympathizers in Bosnia. The minister, Mohammed Besic, vowed to intercept any who try to enter the country.
U.S. and SFOR officials acknowledge that the new coalition government in Sarajevo has become much more responsive to fighting terrorism. A senior State Department official lauded Sarajevo this year for “working with the international community” in trying to clamp down on suspected terrorists.
Since Sept. 11, Bosnia has launched an audit of passports and mounted a more intensive crackdown on naturalized citizens who are wanted by foreign law enforcement agencies. After years of inaction, several international fugitives have been arrested this year and extradited.
Western Interests in Balkans May Be at Risk
Bosnia has a large Muslim population, most of whom do not practice a strict form of Islam.
A senior State Department official cautioned that “a lot of people’s interests are served by hyping the terrorism problem in the Balkans,” referring to anti-Muslim sentiment among other ethnic groups there. But, he added, “that is not to say there are not bad people who would exploit the weaknesses in the government and the lax security and use [Bosnia] as a place to hide.”
To date, Western interests in the Balkans have not been terrorist targets. However, a senior peacekeeping official in Bosnia said local police report that “there are plans to attack the Western interests here in Bosnia after any future retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan. We don’t have anything to confirm it.”
Bosnia has traditionally served as “an R&R; [rest and recreation] destination” for members of Bin Laden’s organization and other extremists, according to U.S. officials and the peacekeeping force.
“They come to Bosnia to chill out, because so many other places are too hot for them,” said a former State Department official active in counter-terrorism.
They also use Bosnian passports to travel worldwide without drawing the kind of scrutiny that those who hold Middle Eastern or North African documents might attract, officials said. Bosnian passports are particularly valuable for ease of travel to other Muslim countries where no visa requirement is imposed on Bosnians.
Under the Izetbegovic government, the immigration system was so unregulated that Bin Laden allies “would get boxes of blank passports and just print them up themselves,” the former State Department official said.
A military official said that “for the right amount of money, you can get a Bosnian passport even though it’s the first time you’ve stepped foot into Bosnia.”
Among those who Western intelligence sources say was granted Bosnian citizenship and passports was Abu Zubeida, one of Bin Laden’s top lieutenants. Zubeida, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, was in charge of contacts with other Islamic terrorist networks and controlled admissions to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. He arranged training for unsuccessful millennium bomb plots in Canada and Jordan and a recently foiled suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, according to court records and investigative reports.
Zubeida also asked LAX bomb plot figure Ahmed Ressam to get blank Canadian passports that would allow other terrorists to infiltrate the United States, according to testimony from Ressam, who was convicted in the bomb plot and is cooperating with investigators.
Another terrorist with Bosnian credentials is Karim Said Atmani, a Moroccan who was Ressam’s roommate in Montreal and who was in the group that plotted to bomb LAX, according to testimony. The Bosnian government arrested him in April, and Atmani was extradited to France, where he awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.
Beginning in 1992, as many as 4,000 volunteers from throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Europe came to Bosnia to fight Serbian and Croatian nationalists on behalf of fellow Muslims. They are known as the moujahedeen. A military analyst called them “pretty good fighters and certainly ruthless.”
“I think the Muslims wouldn’t have survived without this” help, Richard Holbrooke, the United States’ former chief Balkans peace negotiator, said in a recent interview. At the time, U.N. peacekeepers were proving ineffective at protecting Bosnian civilians, and an arms embargo diminished Bosnia’s fighting capabilities.
But Holbrooke called the arrival of the moujahedeen “a pact with the devil” from which Bosnia still is recovering.
The foreign moujahedeen units were disbanded and required to leave the Balkans under the terms of the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accord. But many stayed--about 400, according to official Bosnian estimates.
Although the State Department report suggested that the number could be higher, a senior SFOR official said allied military intelligence estimated that no more than 200 foreign-born militants actually live in Bosnia, of which closer to 30 represent a hard-core group with direct links to terrorism.
“These are the bad guys--the ones you have to worry about,” the official said.
But he also said that “hundreds of other” Islamic extremists with and without Bosnian passports “come in and out” and that Bosnia remains a center for Al Qaeda recruiting and logistics support.
Bin Laden Reportedly Financed Recruits
A U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed that “several hundred” former moujahedeen remain in Bosnia. “Are they a threat? Absolutely. Are we all over them? Absolutely,” he said.
The fighters were organized as an all-moujahedeen unit called El Moujahed. It was headquartered in Zenica in an abandoned hillside factory, a compound with a hospital and prayer hall.
Bin Laden financed small convoys of recruits from the Arab world through his businesses in Sudan, according to Mideast intelligence reports. Other support and recruits for El Moujahed came, at least in part, through Islamic organizations in Milan, Italy, and Istanbul, Turkey, that European investigators later linked to trafficking in passports and weapons for terrorists.
A series of national security and criminal investigations across Europe have since identified the El Moujahed unit in court filings as the “common cradle” from which an international terrorist network grew and ultimately stretched from the Middle East to Canada.
Abu el Maali, its leader during the Bosnian war, remains an enigmatic figure, charismatic and popular within the moujahedeen but barely known outside. He briefly appeared in a propaganda video on El Moujahed during the war, but his face was digitally removed before distribution.
French court documents say El Maali now is the leader of terrorist cells in Bosnia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Court testimony, confidential police records and interviews with European intelligence officials show how El Maali marshaled recruits from the West and Muslim countries to assemble the infrastructure of what would become a terrorist organization.
Two French converts to Islam, both in their mid-20s, were among the early volunteers for El Maali’s ranks in the Bosnian war. Christophe Caze, a medical school dropout, and Lionel Dumont joined El Moujahed to provide humanitarian services. But once assigned to the moujahedeen unit in Zenica, they immediately “plunged into violence,” an associate told French police.
A French judicial official said their eventual passage to terrorism was strongly influenced by El Maali, with whom they became close. El Maali “exerted a lot of influence on the fighters . . . which led them to commit these violent actions under the cover of Islam,” the magistrate said.
The converts emerged as leaders, rendering impassioned exhortations to younger volunteers to defend Islam “by all means,” according to court records. They also began setting up a clandestine network in France, creating multiple identities, encoding phone lists and recruiting followers they could call into action later. Court records say that Caze, working as a medic, recruited future terrorists among the wounded he treated.
At the war’s end, U.S. officials focused on state-sponsored terrorism and worried about getting Iranian fighters back to Iran. Less clear were the implications of loosely allied extremist groups and individuals.
Looking back, peace negotiator Holbrooke blamed imprecise and “sloppy intelligence” for failing to distinguish which Muslim groups posed a threat to the United States. It turned out that Iranian fighters went home. Many of El Maali’s trained warriors did not.
Spasm of Violence Hits Northern France
In Bosnia, most of the violence stopped with the peace accord in 1995. But in January 1996, it broke out again--on the streets of northern France.
A puzzling crime wave swept the area around Roubaix, a gritty, Muslim-majority town near the Belgian border. Small groups of men began holding up stores and drivers. They brandished machine guns and wore hoods and carnival masks. Two people were killed.
On March 28, just before a Group of 7 summit of leading industrial nations that would bring top ministers to Lille, police discovered a stolen car abandoned in front of the police station. It was parked askew. And it contained a bomb packed into three gas cylinders rigged to devastate everything within 600 feet. It was disarmed.
The next night, a special tactical squad surrounded a house at 59 Rue Henri Carette in Roubaix that had been linked to the booby-trapped car. Police fired thousands of rounds into the building. The house erupted in flames because of munitions inside, police said later. Four charred bodies were recovered.
Two men fled the barrage and inferno. At a police roadblock just inside Belgium, another furious gun battle erupted. One of the men was killed, and his accomplice was wounded.
In the getaway car, police found rocket launchers, automatic weapons, large amounts of ammunition and grenades. They also recovered an electronic organizer containing coded telephone contacts, nearly a dozen of them in Bosnia. The dead ringleader was identified as Christophe Caze, the young medic who went to fight in Bosnia.
French authorities, confused about the motives for the spasm of gang violence, considered it a new phenomenon, calling it “gangster terrorism.” Their investigation uncovered what may have been the first terrorism cell exported from Bosnia.
After an investigation of the surviving associate, Caze’s electronic organizer and other evidence recovered by French police, the robbery gang was identified as nine militants who attended a local mosque. Most of them had undergone military training at the El Moujahed compound in Bosnia.
The armed robberies were a radical form of fund-raising by Caze and his associates to benefit their “Muslim brothers in Algeria.” Their high-powered weapons were smuggled home from the Bosnian war.
Caze’s organizer was described by one official as “the address book of the professional terrorist.” It contained phone contacts in England, Italy, France and Canada, as well as direct lines to El Maali’s Zenica headquarters. It led French authorities to trace travels and phone records and to set up electronic surveillance.
French counter-terrorism officials soon realized they had stumbled upon more than a band of gangsters. Five years before the sophisticated terrorist assault on the U.S., the French were starting to uncover loosely linked violent networks spreading into several countries, all tied together by a common thread: Bosnia.
One of the phone numbers in the dead terrorist’s organizer led to a suspect in Canada: Fateh Kamel, 41, who ran a small trinkets shop in Montreal.
French authorities say Canada rejected their initial request to investigate Kamel, calling the dapper Algerian “just a businessman.”
But Kamel also was a confidant of El Maali. He spoke frequently to the Bosnia moujahedeen chief over his wife’s cell phone. Kamel had gone to Bosnia early in the war, suffered a shrapnel wound in one leg and been treated at the El Moujahed hospital by Caze, the young medic.
Kamel first came to the attention of European intelligence officials in 1994, when Italian agents tracking suspected terrorists stumbled upon him recruiting fighters in Milan for El Maali’s brigade.
After the Dayton accord, French police say, Kamel became deeply involved in terrorist logistics. He was “the principal activist of an international network determined to plan assassinations and to procure arms and passports for terrorist acts all over the world,” according to a French court document.
In 1996, an Italian surveillance team recorded Kamel discussing a terrorist attack and taped him declaring: “I do not fear death . . . because the jihad is the jihad, and to kill is easy for me.”
During the same period, Kamel assisted other North African extremists relocating to Canada, exploiting the country’s lax immigration laws and Quebec’s eagerness for French-speaking immigrants such as Algerians.
According to French investigators, Kamel was the leader of a terrorist cell in Montreal. Other members included Ressam, Atmani and a third roommate, Mustafa Labsi.
Like Kamel, Atmani had served in Bosnia and was close to El Maali. A U.S. law enforcement official described Atmani as a “crazy warrior with a nose so broken and twisted that he could sniff around corners.”
Later, authorities believe, the three roommates went to Afghanistan together to train for a terrorist attack on the United States. They returned to the West after learning that their target would be Los Angeles International Airport. The conspiracy was interrupted when Atmani was deported from Canada to Bosnia.
When Ressam, traveling alone, was captured at the border with explosives in his rental car, U.S. officials tried to track down his former roommate Atmani. Authorities had information that he was traveling between Sarajevo and Istanbul, but Bosnian officials denied even that Atmani had been deported there. Investigators later learned that Atmani had been issued a new Bosnian passport six months earlier.
Atmani was part of the hard-core terrorist group noted in the secret State Department report. He remained beyond the reach of international extradition until this year, when he was arrested and turned over to France by Bosnia’s new coalition government. He awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.
Kamel, the alleged ringleader of the group, was arrested in Jordan and was extradited to France, where he is in prison on a terrorism conviction. Ressam and Labsi also have been jailed. All of the members of the former Montreal cell have been convicted of being operatives in a terrorist network that originated in Bosnia.
James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, said that although the U.S. works closely with countries in the Balkans to deal with “the problem of these cells,” the very nature of secret terrorist organizations confounds those efforts.
“It’s one thing to [arrest] the people you know [are terrorists], but then the others . . . bury themselves even deeper,” he said.