- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The arrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday of at least 11 people suspected of ties to the Islamic State has underscored growing concerns among U.S. and European intelligence officials that the Balkans region of southeastern Europe is emerging as the next big target of opportunity for the jihadi terrorist group.

A series of raids carried out by special police in and around Sarajevo targeted several groups suspected of involvement in “incitement of and recruitment for terrorist attacks,” according to a statement by Bosnian authorities.

Although few other details were made public, the statement by the nation’s main prosecutor’s office said the police had gone after 15 individuals suspected of being in “close contact” with the Syria- and Iraq-based terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and that searches had turned up evidence confirming such links.

The raids follow similar crackdowns undertaken by authorities across Western Europe following last month’s attacks by ISIS operatives in Paris. They also come roughly a month after a high-level Balkan diplomatic official told The Washington Times of a growing body of intelligence that the extremist group may be setting its eye on infiltrating and destabilizing the region as it expands beyond its Middle East and North African bases.

The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said intelligence officials in Croatia had identified a possible extremist leader who was setting up in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, both of which have sizable Muslim populations. The leader was also said to be organizing scores of fighters who returned to the Balkans after traveling to join the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front in Syria and Iraq.

Although the individual’s name was not divulged, another source who spoke with The Times on Tuesday said American intelligence officials have “serious concerns” about the situation in the region.

Several U.S. agencies have raised red flags in the past year about the Islamic State threat in the Balkans.

In September 2014, the State Department designated two Balkan fighters — one an Islamic State member from Kosovo and the other an al Qaeda sympathizer from Bosnia — as terrorists who should have their assets frozen.

The Congressional Research Service this spring estimated that some 330 foreign fighters for the Islamic State in Syria came from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 100 to 150 from Kosovo, 90 from Albania, 50 to 70 from Serbia and about a dozen from Macedonia.

About 50 of the fighters are believed to have been killed on the battlefield, and about 100 have returned to the Balkans.

“Data patterns for known foreign fighters from the Western Balkans appear to reveal several main clusters, with groups of individuals linked to isolated, radical communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia or to radical networks based around several informal mosques in Albania,” the Congressional Research Service report said.

There are fears that the situation is being exacerbated by the refugee crisis swamping the Continent, where security officials in the Balkans worry that Islamic State sleeper cells could slip into the region disguised as Syrian refugees seeking asylum.

Threatening video

Several Balkan nations raised their internal security levels last summer after the release of an Islamic State propaganda video on the Internet that showcased numerous Balkan fighters in Syria and threatened the spread of jihad to southeastern Europe.

“For those of you that can’t come here, fight over there,” said one of the men featured in the video, an Islamic State fighter whom the independent regional publication Balkan Insight described as appearing to have originally hailed from Bosnia.

“If you can, take poison and put it in their drinks and their food. Let them die. Kill them in every place, whenever you can,” says the fighter, who calls himself Salahuddin in the video — an apparent reference to the 12th-century Muslim military leader who successfully battled European Christian crusaders.

In July, roughly a month after the video emerged, authorities in Kosovo — where Muslims represent over 90 percent of the population — arrested several people with suspected ties to the Islamic State who reportedly planned to poison Pristina’s main water supply. The water supply was shut off in the city for an extended time until authorities could confirm no poisoning occurred.

A month later, Macedonia rounded up nine Islamic State sympathizers believed to be involved in recruitment and radicalization or in having fought in Syria.

The June video particularly heightened concerns in Bosnia. While roughly 40 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million people are Muslim, the society is notoriously secular and tolerance for extremism is low.

Bosnian authorities told The Associated Press that a small number of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, have embraced hard-line Salafism under the influence of Islamic foreign fighters who came to the nation during its 1992-1995 war to help Muslims fight Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats.

Some of the facilities raided Tuesday were in the suburb of Rajlovac, where a gunman killed two Bosnian army soldiers in November in an apparent terrorist attack. The gunman, identified as 34-year-old Enes Omeragic, also shot at a bus before killing himself with a hand grenade.

Bosnia Insight, meanwhile, reported that no connection between Omeragic and terrorist networks operating in Bosnia had been established — a factor that raised questions about the extent to which Bosnian authorities may be overreaching in their crackdown against suspected jihadis.

In Washington on Tuesday, the State Department declined to comment when asked whether U.S. officials were concerned about potential human rights violations in connection with the raids in Bosnia.

Asked whether the Bosnian arrest increased U.S. fears of Islamic State infiltration in the Balkans, Elizabeth Trudeau, State Department director of press relations, suggested that Washington is more focused on helping nations in the region identify potential Islamic State foreign fighters and then stem their flow to and from the Middle East.

“We work with our partners around the world, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on counterterrorism measures to defeat terrorism wherever it exists, and we’ll continue to do that,” she said, adding that the U.S. has “information-sharing agreements with over 45 international partners to identify and track the travel of foreign terrorists.”

Ms. Trudeau added that 44 nations have pushed through or updated legislation “to effectively identify and prosecute foreign terror fighters.”

“We understand the seriousness of this,” she said, adding that she would not comment on Tuesday’s arrests as the investigation proceeds. “We understand that countries around the world are facing this issue.”

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