By Giovanni Giacalone, Analyst KEDISA
On February 26th 2016 Italian authorities arrested 38 year-old FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) citizen Ahjan Veapi, who was living in a small village near Pordenone.
The man is not only accused of recruiting volunteers to send over to Syria in the ranks of ISIS, but he is also considered one of Bilal Bosnic’s main men on Italian soil.
According to investigation, Vehapi covered a major role in recruiting Bosnian citizen Ismar Mesinovic, who was killed in Syria in January 2014 while fighting for ISIS; the photos of his dead body were published on Facebook by a profile linked to Moroccan citizen Anass Abu Jaffar, who later fled Italy and returned to Morocco where he is currently known to be staying. When the Italian press published the news of Mesinovic’s death, Ahjan Veapi immediately contacted Bilal Bosnic by phone, in order to let him know the news.
Veapi is also considered the man who introduced another volunteer to Bosnic, FYROM citizen Munifer Karamaleski, who joined ISIS approximately in the same period of time as Mesinovic and whose whereabouts are still unknown.
In addition, Veapi is connected to other individuals from the Balkans that were expelled from Italy due to their radical positions, such as Arslan Osmanoski and Redjep Lijmani.
It is possible to suppose that Veapi’s role in Italy was to conduct a proper screening of potential volunteers for ISIS that would then be put through a process of quick radicalization and introduced to Bilal Bosnic, while on Italian soil during his visits in Islamic centers such as the one in Cremona, Pordenone, Bergamo and Siena.
Bosnic is considered a key-figure for ISIS propaganda and recruitment in Italy and it is not a case that several volunteers were hosted at his house in north-western Bosnia, before continuing their trip to Syria.
Bosnic was pictured on several occasions inside his home with other fellow-extremists in front of an ISIS banner and he even released an interview on Italian newspapers such as Corriere della Sera and Repubblica in the summer of 2014 where he claimed to support ISIS, to hope for the conquest of the Vatican.
A few days later the preacher was arrested by SIPA and is currently under trial in Sarajevo, where he is accused of recruiting a large number of Bosnian young men for jihad in Syria.
Bilal Bosnic and the Balkanic Spiral
Bilal Bosnic can be considered a living example of that process of jihadist escalation in the Balkans that I have defined as “Balkanic Spiral”: a phenomenon that finds its roots in underground panislamist activities in the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, carried out by the “Young Muslims” group which had, among its leading members, former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic.
However the Balkanic Spiral process had its start during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, when hundreds of Arab mujahedeen who had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets reached Bosnia in order to join the fight against Serbs and Croatians.
The presence of high rank Arab fighters such as Abu Mali, Anwar Shabaan and Abu Abdel Aziz Barbaros have been documented and some of them have even been photographed and filmed with Alija Izetbegovic.
Between 1992 and 1993 a unit mainly composed of Arab mujahedeen and named “el-Mudzahid” was formed in Zenica; the group had among its members many jihadists linked to terrorist groups such as Egyptian Gamaa al-Islamiyya and Algerian GIA (Armed Islamic Group).
After the Dayton agreement of 1995 many of these fighters remained in Bosnia, received Bosnian citizenship, married local women and established small sacks, or enclaves, that were under sharia law, such as the one in Bocinja Donja. Small pieces of Afghanistan on European soil.
Even though many of them were later deprived of their citizenship and expelled due to security reasons and foreign pressures, some of them managed to remain and started preaching an extremist version of Islam, known as Salafism, attracting some local Bosnians who later became preachers and started building radical networks thanks to conspicuous funds received from mysterious ONG linked to Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Vienna became a hotbed for Bosnian radicalism, with major preachers such as Nusret Imamovic, Mirsad Omerovic, Muhammad Fadil Porca and Bosnic establishing connection between the Austrian capital (which covered a major role for Bosnian resistance in 1992-95) and the Bosnian Salafi enclaves.
Some Bosnian preachers (later followed by some Albanians and “Macedonians”) even moved to madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to study and import Salafism in their home countries.
As internet became a big tool of propaganda in the early 2000, the radical preachers from the Balkans immediately took advantage of the situation and began using the web through forums, chats, video channels and websites that are still active today, such as Vijesti Ummeta, which holds pro-ISIS positions (considered close to Bosnic) and Putvjernika, pro Jabhat-al Nusra (considered linked to Nusret Imamovic).
After the breakout of the Arab Springs in 2011, a conspicuous number of volunteers from the Balkans progressively left for Syria in order to join jihadist forces against the enemy Shia-Alawi and internet became a major tool of propaganda as it enabled a large amount of information to be instantaneously exchanged from the areas of conflicts to the rest of the world.
It is well-known how ISIS exploited the internet with videos specifically created to attract fighters into their ranks and to push Muslims towards jihad, either in the Sham or in their home countries. The videos, created and released through ISIS’ al-Hayat Media Center, often had specific geographical targets, such as “Honor is Jihad”, which was made specifically for the Balkans.
Islamist and jihadist radicalization, propaganda and recruitment have touched other countries of the Balkans such as Albania, FYROM and Kosovo, even if with different dynamics. However Bosnia remains today the mainstream study-case for jihadist escalation in the Balkans due to the role that the 1992-95 war had in the jihadist infiltration.
As previously said, Bilal Bosnic is a living example of the Balkanic Spiral as he went through all the five phases of such phenomenon:
1- In the early ‘90s Bosnic returned to Bosnia from Germany, where he was living with his parents, in order to fight against the Serbs and enrolled in the “el-Mudzahid” unit where he embraced the Salafi ideology.
2- After the Dayton agreements in 1995 Bosnic founded his Salafi enclave near Buzim, in the north-west of Bosnia. In the meantime he co-founded the Bosnian radical group Aktivna Islamska Omladina-AIO (Active Islamic Youth).
His house was a place of pilgrimage for many Salafis, not only from Bosnia, but from all over Europe. According to local sources, Bosnic is married to four women, in accordance to Salafi and Wahhabi ideology.
3- Through the years Bosnic managed to create a vast network of contacts and become the most notorious Salafi preacher of the Balkans and with frequent visits in Islamic centers throughout Europe.
4- As the Arab Springs break out in 2011, many volunteers from the Balkans (especially Bosnia and Kosovo) left their home countries to join jihadist factions. It is the first time in history that so many Bosnian Muslims leave home to go fight in a conflict abroad. Bilal Bosnic became involved in propaganda and recruitment for ISIS and was consequently arrested in September 2014.
5- As the Syrian conflict took an unexpected turn, with Assad forces recovering ground, a fifth phase of the Balkanic Spiral is at its beginning stage, as foreign fighters will try to head back to their home countries. This is clearly a serious risk for the security and stability not only for the Balkans but for Europe in general. Will the network built by preachers such as Bosnic have enough means to support potential violent actions against European targets? Will the Islamist radicalization in the Balkans further increase? Will those Balkanic jihadists manage to return to Europe infiltrated in the flow of refugees? These are all serious concerns that require proper preventive measures in order to stop this fifth phase before it is too late, as Europe’s security is at stake.