The six foreign-born Muslims accused of planning a shooting attack at the U.S. military base included four ethnic Albanians, and U.S. officials say their arrests highlight how Islamist groups are using the Balkans region to help in recruiting and financing terrorism.
Prosecutors described the men as “radical Islamists,” with four coming from the province of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, where the ethnic Albanian population of Muslims fought one of the several wars that grew out of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Suspect Agron Abdullahu, who faces only weapons violations in the case, was described in court papers as a “sniper in Kosovo.”
U.S. officials said the Islamists were motivated by al Qaeda sympathies and that ringleader Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, who was born in Jordan, had copies of the wills of two September 11 terrorists on his laptop computer.
The other suspect in the group — accused of seeking to kill hundreds of soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. — was born in Turkey.
U.S. officials said intelligence reports from the Balkans have identified a support structure for several terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, among the Muslim communities in Albania and in the former Yugoslavia, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia.
“When it comes to extremists, we’re talking about very, very small pockets in Albania, as well as among the ethnic Albanian populations in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and other parts of the Balkans,” said one official with access to intelligence reports.
The official pointed out that the Albanian government has been supportive of U.S. efforts to counter Islamic terrorist activities, including curbing logistics and financial aid, and working to prevent terrorists from receiving training and weapons.
But a Congressional Research Service report produced in 2005 said instability in Albania during the 1990s gave al Qaeda a “foothold” there.
“Poor internal security, lax border controls, and high rates of crime produced an environment conducive to terrorist activity,” said the report by CRS specialist Steven Woehrel. “Some foreign Islamic extremists used Albania as a safe haven and gained Albanian citizenship.”
Balkan Muslims also have been targets of al Qaeda recruitment efforts because they have an easier time blending in or evading U.S. and European security measures and border controls, which often are geared to identifying Middle Eastern extremists.
The State Department’s latest annual report on international terrorism said the Albanian government has taken steps to stop terrorism financing but noted that “government and police forces faced substantial challenges to fully enforce border security and combat organized crime and corruption.”
The Albanian government identified seven financial holdings by terrorist groups last year that were frozen.
Israeli government sources have said that agents for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, as well as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, have been actively buying weapons from organized-crime groups in the Balkans.
Bosnia also has a large Muslim community that in the past has provided a base of support for al Qaeda and other terrorists. After the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, most Islamic radicals, who were helping Bosnia’s Muslims fend off the Orthodox Christian Serbs, left the Balkans, but some remained behind.
“It is estimated that several hundred former fighters stayed behind in Bosnia after the war and became Bosnian citizens by marrying Bosnian women,” the CRS report said. “Some al Qaeda operatives in Bosnia reportedly had connections to members of Bosnia’s intelligence service.”
European intelligence agencies estimate that as many as 750 Muslim former fighters remain hidden in Bosnia and have acted as a supply network to send guns, money and documents to terrorists passing through the region.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders often mention Bosnia as an important example of jihad, or holy war.
“Terrorist recruiting videos often include footage of combat in Bosnia,” the CRS report said.
According to the Associated Press, a joint U.S.-Croatian intelligence report produced last year stated that Algerian extremists were active in the Balkans. Bosnia’s intelligence service last year published information on 15 extremists living in that country: eight Algerians, two Syrians, two Tunisians and an Egyptian, Kuwaiti and Yemeni.
Officials also said the nongovernmental organization Revival of Islamic Heritage Society remains active in the region and spreads the radical Wahhabi form of Islam that animates al Qaeda.