Religion


Balkans: Wahabis seen as growing regional threat




Novi Pazar, Serbia, 7 July (AKI) - Although still a small group, Wahabis, followers of a fundamentalist school of Islam, are increasingly seen by officials and observers as a growing threat to the Balkans. Tensions between Wahabis and mainstream Muslims have been simmering for the past 18 months as Wahabis seek to gain influence in Bosnia-Heregovina and also in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. In the past months, seven suspected militants were arrested in southern Serbia and a radical Islamist training camp and weapons cache uncovered. Evidence, the Serbian interior ministry says, that Wahabis are trying to recruit potential terrorists and plot attacks.

In April, at the request of the Serbian authorities, police in breakaway Kosovo province issued an arrest warrant for Ismail Pretic, who they claim is a Wahabi militant who may have fled to the United Nations administered province. Road-blocks have been erected in northern Kosovo to help apprehend Pretic, who should be considered "armed and dangerous," according to police.

Serbian security officials say militants at the Wahabi training camp in Serbia's southern Sandjak region - were planning an attack on local Muslims. On 17 March police discovered there an underground arsenal of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, 10 kilogrammes of plastic explosives and automatic assault rifles. Police said they arrested four suspected Islamist militants during the raid a further two on 19 March.

Up to 30 Wahabis had been gathering and undergoing training in the camp at Ninaja Mountain, about 30 km north of the town of Novi Pazar police said. The six men arrested all come from Novi Pazar, capital of Sandjak - a Serbian region populated predominately by Muslims.

“Wahabis did not act this openly before. When these men were arrested, it was clear they had received some financial support since they were all poor yet loaded with weapons. Their main target was and still is the Islamic community in Sandzak," Mufti Muamer Zukorlic, leader of Islamic community in Sandzak told Adnkronos International (AKI).

There was a connection between Bosnian and Sandzak Wahabis, Zukorlic points out.

“We had individuals from Bosnia-Hezegovina coming to hold lectures and they were considered to be leaders among local Wahabis," Zukorlic said.

"But, gradually Bosnian Wahabis stopped their contacts with locals. Here, we have about 150 sect members and they are not all the same," Zukorlic added. Visibly identifiable by their ankle length trousers and beards, Wahabis have campaigned to do away with with what they see as heresy, attempts that have erupted into violence several times.

Asked if the Islamic community can solve the problem of Wahabi radicalism, Zukorlic replied: "They no longer pray in mosques."

The fundamentalist Wahhabi movement which preaches a 'pure Islam' originated in Saudi Arabia in the early 18th century and preaches religious intolerance towards other religious groups, including moderate Muslims. Several clashes have been reported lately in Bosnia and in Sandzak between Wahabis and moderate Muslims, including in a shootout in Novi Pazar last November in which several people were injured.

The Wahabi movement first emerged in the Balkans during the 1992-1995 civil war in Bosnia, when thousands of mujahadeen fighters from Islamic countries came to fight on the side of local Muslims. Many have remained in the country since the war, and according to foreign intelligence sources have been indoctrinating local youths and even operating terrorist training camps.

Because of the Wahabi military support in the 1990s, the Bosnian government has been reluctant to crack down on Wahabi religious and military training efforts, analysts say. The Wahabis, who believe they are carrying out God's will, refuse to crack down on the alleged terrorists in their midst, stoking tensions between the Wahabis and the government.

“The Wahabi sect is a national security question for Bosnia, because Islamic analysts consider them as militant and therefore dangerous, " the chairman of Bosnia's three-man rotating state presidency, Negojsa Radmanovic, told AKI. "If Wahabis prove to be a security risk, the authorities will have to take action to ensure the public's safety and regulate Islam," he said.

Only the funeral of former Bosnian Muslim leader and wartime Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic went down with a bigger crowd and more security than that of the unofficial leader of the Wahabi sect in Bosnia, Jusuf Barcic,, in Tuzla following his death in a car crash in April.

Barcic's funeral threatened to become a serious incident as more than 3,000 Wahabis from Bosnia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and Sandjak gathered at the event, refusing journalists access to the mosque. More than 50 uniformed and undercover police reportedly monitored the funeral. Police were reported to have taken no action when Palestinian Karray Kanel Bin Ali, the alleged 'mastermind' of the Wahabi sect in Bosnia, threatened to smash cameras and ordered a journalists to be removed from the spot.

Although Barcic had not been on good terms with the Muslim community in Bosnia for the past eight years, after his return from Saudi Arabia, the community granted his father permission to bury him with religious honours. Barcic, a self-proclaimed sheikh became known to the Bosnian public two months ago after he and his followers attempted to enter the central Czar mosque in Sarajevo to preach "a return to traditional Islam. He and his followers had earlier occupied several mosques in the Tuzla region, clashing with local Muslims.

In Maoca, near the Bosnian town of Brcko, Wahabis have even their own elementary school. "The ministry neglected these premises. We renovated them using our money and now we are educating our children," said a teacher at the school, Nusret Imamovic. Some 20 pupils there are following Jordan's rather than the Bosnian school programme, Imamovic said.

Security officials and terrorism experts believe that Wahabis in the Balkans are receiving covert financing from Saudi 'charities'. Five of the '9/11' attackers had served as Wahabi sponsored fighters in Bosnia, according to intelligence sources. Dozens of other militants arrested in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya, who proved to be members of various militant groups had been awarded Bosnian citizenship.

Although the Saudis have reportedly poured money into building mosques and supporting Wahabi missionaries, only about three percent of the Bosnian population adopted this more conservative form of Islam. Commentators such as Zukorlic claim Wahabis remain a small group with no significant influence in the region. Wahabis claim they are merely religious activists.


 

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