Wahhabism: A Forgotten Legacy of the Bosnian War

On October 28, 23-year-old Mevlid Jasarevic opened fire on the American embassy in Sarajevo, wounding one Bosnian police officer before he was stopped. Though Jasarevic’s lawyer claims he acted alone, the gunman has been identified as a member of the Wahhabi movement, the Islamic sect originating in and supported by Saudi Arabia, which preaches hostility towards people of other religions, including other Muslims. The incident draws attention to Bosnia’s growing Wahhabi problem and underscores the problem of Muslim extremism in the Balkans, which threatens local governments as well as international interests.

Analysts such as Stephen Schwartz, Esad Hecimovic, Anes Alic, and Vlado Azinovic have warned of Wahhabi threats in the region for years. Numerous attacks, including the murder of a Catholic Croat policeman in 1996, have been linked to Wahhabis. Several Wahhabis were arrested in 2008 and 2009 for plotting terror attacks on Christian sites and European Union Forces in Bosnia. In July 2010, a Wahhabi group was suspected in the bombing of a police station in Bugojno, killing one police officer and wounding several others.

Originally from the Muslim-majority city of Novi Pazar in the Sandzak region of Serbia, Jasarevic recently spent time in Wahhabi communities in Vienna and Gornja Maoca, a settlement in a remote part of Bosnia that has been the site of repeated anti-terror raids. He was imprisoned for armed robbery in Vienna in 2005 and arrested in his hometown in 2010 after brandishing a knife at an appearance by the American ambassador to Serbia.

The Wahhabi movement has taken hold among a small but vocal portion of the Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) population — the group is estimated to include a mere 3,000 out of 1.4 million Muslims. They largely live in isolated villages that they govern according to strict Islamic law. Men wear long beards and distinctive short pants and women are fully veiled, in sharp contrast to the majority of Bosniaks, who are moderate in practice.

The movement’s presence in Bosnia dates to the 1992–1995 civil war in Yugoslavia, which ended with NATO intervention and the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. The conflict was complicated by the religio-ethnic divide among the three Bosnian parties involved: the Orthodox Christian Serbs, the Roman Catholic Croats, and the Muslims.

The largely defenseless Muslim community was unable to withstand the onslaught by well-armed Bosnian Serb militias. Their desperate situation drew an influx of Wahhabis, such as veteran mujahideen and Islamic aid agencies, including the al-Qaeda front the Benevolence International Foundation. Many of these remained in Bosnia, where they provided material support to the devastated Muslim community, but also influenced it ideologically with Wahhabism. Leading the way was Saudi Arabia, which raised more than $373 million for the “Bosnian jihad” in the 1990s. The mujahideen, charity staff, and foreign-educated Bosniaks provided the vanguard of a local Wahhabi movement.

Thanks to this foreign support, Wahhabis have been able to aggressively challenge Bosnia’s mainstream Islamic community. Two figures led early efforts: Jusuf Barcic and Muhamad Porca, both Bosnian imams who had studied in Saudi Arabia on Saudi-funded scholarships. In early 2007, Barcic and his followers gained national attention by (unsuccessfully) attempting to claim a number of mosques for their movement in Tuzla and Sarajevo. When Barcic died in a car accident two months later, more than 3,000 people attended his funeral.#more#

Barcic’s primary financial supporters, according to Bosnian authorities, had been Porca and Porca’s close friend Adnan Buzar, the Bosnian-born, Vienna-based son-in-law of Palestinian terrorist leader Abu Nidal. Reportedly, Porca has now been supplanted by Nedzad Balkan, a Vienna-based Wahhabi with openly violent views who gained power after his role in the Bugojno police station bombing.

Nusret Imamovic, one of Barcic’s followers, established the Wahhabi settlement at Gornja Maoca, intended as a model for similar communities he aims to establish throughout Bosnia. Gornja Maoca has become Bosnia’s ground zero in the fight against Wahhabism. Bosnian authorities took action against the settlement in early 2010, briefly detaining Imamovic and six others and seizing weapons, cash, and videotapes. Bosnian authorities raided the village again following Jasarevic’s attack this month. Meanwhile, in Serbia’s Sandzak region, authorities recently arrested 17 people for their connections to Jasarevic and have arrested dozens of suspected Wahhabis in past raids.

Wahhabis in Bosnia have succeeded in demonstrating that even in small numbers, they present a threat, especially as Nedzad Balkan’s followers allegedly now promote armed jihad. Bosnian authorities and the international community would be wise to closely monitor links between Wahhabis in Bosnia, Sandzak, and Vienna and larger militant networks. Without closer attention to this growing threat in the region, the October 28 attack undoubtedly will not be the last.

Sarah Schlesinger is a research fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.