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By Ioannis Michaletos | Blog
After the 9/11, a worldwide “War on terror” begun in order to disband and neutralize Islamic terrorist networks across the globe. The main focus of the largest anti-terrorist campaign in history is focused in the Middle East area, as well as in Afghanistan. The Balkan Peninsula is the European area where this campaign has also taken place, with numerous arrests and a continuous effort into riding the fundamentalist out of the area. The question arising though, is how did the extremists gain a foothold in South Eastern Europe in the first place, and what was the reaction of the international community over the previous years.
The presence of Islam in the Balkans dates back in the 13th century.
In order to create the much needed mercenary armies, against the then archenemy, the Francs, Byzantine Emperors allowed Muslim Turks into modern day Bulgaria. They were used mainly as cavalry forces due to their excellent techniques in that kind of war. Over the coming decades the antagonism between the Francs and the Vatican from one side and the Byzantium from the other, led to the final conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Gradually virtually the whole of the Balkans came under Muslim dominance and were included in the Dar al Islam territory stretching from the Hindu river and up to Gibraltar.
In Bosnia in particular the sect of Vogomils –Eastern Orthodox sect-, converted to Islam for a variety of societal and spiritual reasons. Since the Vogomils were the affluent class of the central Balkans they soon became the ruling class over millions of Christians of mostly Slavic descent.
In Albania the Islamic takeover had a dramatic effect and in a matter of 150 years 2/3rds of the population converted from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholicism into Islam. The main reason for such a large proselytism in Albania had been the traditional adherence towards the stronger ruler that the mountainous Albanians have showed since their early history. During the Roman Empire times, the Albanians served as elite corps in the Armies of the Emperors Empires –i.e. Diocletian was of Albanian descent- and tended to absorb the cultural and religious norms of their regional superintendents. The same was the case in the more or less Greek dominated Byzantium. As soon as the “Eastern Roman Empire” waned in favor of the Western one; there was a mass conversion to Catholicism in the early 13th century. The historical collective path of the Albanian people can be compared with that of the mountainous Swiss that have eloquently absorbed influences and norms by the much larger and influential neighbors (Germany, France, and Italy).
It is against this historical background that the Islamic fundamentalist drama in the Balkans evolved in the 1990s.
So, the outbreak of the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 presented an unparalleled opportunity for the international Mujaheedin to storm Europe, establish safe havens in the area and thus initiate re-conquest of regions they previously ruled. The leader of Bosnia, Alia Izebegovic was eager to obtain as much assistance as possible and didn’t hesitate in providing the necessary framework by which the Islamic ties were forged. In the same year, a variety of Islamic mercenaries flocked into the Balkans in order to support the “Holy cause”, meaning the establishment of the first Islamic state in Europe. The end of the war in 1995 saw quite a few of those mujahedin, acquiring Bosnian citizenship and establishing the first Islamic community in the village of Bocinja Donja.
Western tolerance of Islamic radicals, however, was one of the gravest mistakes of modern times. Articles on Serbianna.com and in other information sources point to a massive handout of Bosnian passports to hundreds of potentially dangerous individuals of Middle Eastern descent. On top of that, a well organized criminal network has already been established in Sarajevo that in a large extent facilitates illegal immigration from Asia to Europe. That activity is coupled with the narcotics trade that is being supplemented by the infamous “Balkan Drug route”. It is illuminating to note that the areas from where this route is passing are under Muslim influence mostly.
Albania was under the Communist rule during the Cold War, the most isolated country in Europe. The break of the Soviet Empire unleashed forces that were kept dormant in the society for decades, and resulted to some very interesting developments. In 1992 Albania becomes a member of the Islamic Conference, an international Islamic organization. The same year as well the government of Sali Berisha, currently also a Prime Minister, signed a military agreement with Turkey, thus enacting a series of discussions in the neighboring states, around the possibility of an Islamic arch from Istanbul to Sarajevo.
One of the main reasons the Albanian officials were eager to form strong ties with the Muslim world was the hope that large investments from the Gulf would ensure the uplifting of the decaying Albanian economy. Therefore the religious sentiment of the majority of Albanians, mostly in the North, was overplayed in order to gain capital from the Islamic world. Unfortunately no serious investment initiatives were undertaken; instead the Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, found another state to expand their illegal activities. Many different and respectable sources have indicated two visits by Bin Laden in Tirana that aimed into creating an Islamic platform for the country and the construction of terrorist networks within the territory.
An Albanian called Naseroudin Albani played an instrumental role in spreading extremist Islamic values into the Albanian society. He was a fugitive from Albania since 1963 and resided in Amman-Jordan. Sources from Albania point out that Albani organized radical Sunni sects back in the 70’s in the Middle East that became the nucleus of the modern day Mujahedin. Another Albanian, the then head of the Albania’s Secret service, SHIK, called Bashkim Gazidente assisted into implementing radical Islamic agenda in Albanian domestic policies. During the 1997 Albanian riots Gazidente fled from Albania and he is said to be an instrumental part in global Islamic networks. He presumably lives in a Middle Eastern country.
The Al Qaeda factor in Albania was consolidated by the creation of the Arabic-Albanian bank, in which Bin Laden allegedly invested the sum of 11.4 million USD. This financial institution acted as a front cover for the transfer of capital for Islamic activities within the country. Just before Berisha’s political overturn in 1997, another Islamic institution called “El Farouk”, acted as a recruitment agency for young Albanians, under the pretext of a charity. One of the most dramatic indicators of the degree of Islamic presence in Albania is the militant Islamic training camp just outside Tirana, the same camp on which Berisha relied in his unsuccessful 1998 coup of his rival Fatos Nano.
The Nairobi and Tanzania bombings of 1998 shocked the US administration into taking some action, for the first time, do dismantle terrorists networks. Soon, the pressure fell on Albania and in the October of the same month individuals of Middle Eastern origin were rounded up and deported. The head of SHIK, Fatos Clozi, admitted for the first the existence of extremists in Albania and promised the eradication of the terrorist nucleus. The 9/11 attacks proved to be a fatal blow for the radicals in Albania and the USA forces have more or less neutralize any remaining cells. The government of Albania, which is more than willing to become inducted in the Euro-Atlantic security framework, has ceased to seek Islamic assistance and the current Berisha’s administration has refaced its Islamic outlook into a modern European one.
Nevertheless, the Albanian-Islamic connection is now concentrated in Kosovo, the very same province NATO forces are stationed! There is an overwhelming variety of sources and reports that indicate a well established fundamentalist presence in that area. It is a common secret in the international community that the West kept a blind eye during the 1998-1999 Winter where hundreds of Mujahedin joined the UCK forces and helped it expand. At that period the means justified the end which was the disbandment of the Russian influence in the Balkans, as the Clinton administration viewed the Milocevic one. The result was a resurge of Islamic radical networks in the region, thus eliminating the beneficial results of previous actions against it. Moreover Russia managed to regroup and it is still viewed as a great player in South Eastern Europe.
The newly independent Montenegro nowadays faces a long term Islamic population bomb and it is certain that should current trends continue, in 2050 half of the population would be Muslim That is not of course a prelude of terrorism action per se, but the overall turbulent Balkan history and the existence of terror networks in nearby Kosovo do not assure a tranquil political future for the newest Balkan state. The FYR Macedonia is also another terrain where the delicate balance between radicalism and Muslim secularism is taking place. Back in 2001, an Albanian uprising nearly resulted in the disintegration of the state although nowadays there is an uneasy stability. However any negative developments in Kosovo will affect directly the country which is also the epicenter of the Balkans by a geopolitical point of view.
Lastly the Sanjak area in Southern Serbia is a territory to watch, where the Wahhabi strain of Islam has gained tremendous influence in the local Muslim population. Again Kosovo as the centre of radicalism in the Balkans could play the role of the powder keg for any developments in Sanjak, against the Serbian population in the region.
The EU strategists, whoever they may be, must become aware of the complicated Balkan reality: the region is a mostly secular one, but it has the peculiarity of hosting safe havens of terrorists and organized crime related Islamists. Most of these areas are under international protection a paradox that ridicules the entire Western anti terror campaign.
Only a coordinated pan European operation would be able to eradicate this perilous condition. The bombings in Madrid and in London had a Balkan flavor in them, namely the explosives used, according to many, came from those very same Muslim pockets in the Balkans that are protected by Western armies. For the future then, Islamic radicalism in the Balkans is an X factor. What is certain though is that this factor will not be used for the benefit of the West and the only way of neutralize it is by disrupting its logistic and financial base.
The only obstacle so far for the successful inaction of a “Balkan war on terror” are the careers in various world capitals, that are related on the perception of half truths and half lies about the West’s involvement in the Yugoslav wars and the use of the Islamic X factor on them. Political ambitious, international reputations and the all pervading political correctness, hinders the right actions to be taken. A great leader once said “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”. That surely sums up the mentality of the international officials around this Balkan “X factor”.
Sources for the article – readings
on radical Islam in the Balkans