The Prophet's Fifth Column: Islamists Gain Ground in Sarajevo

By Walter Mayr in Sarajevo

Radical Muslim imams and nationalist politicians from all camps are threatening Sarajevo's multicultural legacy. With the help of Arab benefactors, the deeply devout are acquiring new recruits. In the "Jerusalem of the Balkans," Islamists are on the rise.

The obliteration of Israel is heralded in a torrent of words. "Zionist terrorists," the imam thunders from the glass-enclosed pulpit at the end of the mosque. "Animals in human form" have transformed the Gaza Strip into a "concentration camp," and this marks "the beginning of the end" for the Jewish pseudo-state.

Over 4,000 faithful are listening to the religious service in the King Fahd Mosque, named after the late Saudi Arabian monarch King Fahd Bin Abd al-Asis Al Saud. The women sit separately, screened off in the left wing of the building. It is the day of the Khutbah, the great Friday sermon, and the city where the imam has predicted Israel's demise lies some 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) northwest of Gaza.

It is a city in the heart of Europe: Sarajevo.

"Tea or coffee?" Shortly after stepping down from the pulpit, Nezim Halilovic -- the imam and fiery speaker of the King Fahd Mosque -- reveals himself to be the perfect Bosnian host. He has fruits, nuts and sweetened gelatin served in his quarters behind the house of worship. A chastely-dressed wife and four children add themselves to the picture. It's a scene of domestic tranquility that stands in stark contrast to the railing sermon of the controversial Koran scholar.

Familiar Allegations

Sarajevo's King Fahd Mosque was built with millions of Saudi dollars as the largest house of worship for Muslims in the Balkans. The mosque has a reputation as a magnet for Muslim fundamentalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the imam is said to be the patron of the Wahhabites, although they call themselves Salafites, after an ultra-conservative movement in Sunni Islam.

Halilovic is familiar with the allegations and the usual accompanying thought patterns: Wahhabite equals al-Qaida, which equals a worldwide terror network. He says he has nothing to do with that, but he "cannot forbid a Muslim from worshiping in my mosque according to his own rites." He explains the general air of suspicion surrounding the King Fahd Mosque as follows: "The West is annoyed that many Muslims are returning to their faith, instead of sneaking by the mosque to the bar, as they used to do, to drink alcohol and eat pork."

Many Bosnians have despised "the West" since 1992, when the United Nations arms embargo seriously impeded the military resistance of the Muslims in their war against the Serb aggressors. It wasn't until four years later, and after 100,000 people had died, that the international community -- at the urging and under the leadership of the US -- finally put an end to the slaughter. Over 80 percent of the dead civilians in the Bosnian War were Muslims.

This traumatic experience left a deep mark on the traditionally cosmopolitan Muslim Bosnians -- and opened the door to the Islamists. Years later, the religious fundamentalists have declared the attacks by Christian Serbs and Croats a "crusade" by infidels -- and painted themselves as the steadfast protectors of Muslim Bosnians.

Imam Halilovic served during the war as commander of the Fourth Muslim Brigade. A photo shows him standing next to a 155 milimeter howitzer, dressed in black combat fatigues, a flowing beard and a scarf wrapped around his head. He witnessed the arrival of the first religious warriors from countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. These fighters brought ideological seeds that have now found fertile ground -- the beliefs of the Salafites, Islamic fundamentalists who orient themselves according to the alleged unique, pure origin of their religion and reject all newer Islamic traditions.

Another Explosive Situation

Sarajevo is at the crossroads of the West and the Orient, in the heart of Europe -- a place where Islam meets the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and a place that shares the historical legacies of the Ottoman Empire and the Austria-Hungary of the Habsburgs. If Europe were to lose Sarajevo's Muslims as mediators between these worlds, it would have to contend with yet another explosive situation.

Bosnia's capital city still remains a bustling town with well-stocked bars, concerts and garish advertisements for sexy lingerie. Men with billowing trousers and full beards and women with full-body veils are still a relatively rare sight on the streets. The last reports of sharia militias intervening against public kissing in parks on the outskirts of town date back two years ago.

According to a survey conducted in 2006, however, over 3 percent of all Muslim Bosnians -- over 60,000 men and women -- profess the Wahhabi creed, and an additional 10 percent say that they sympathize with the devout defenders of morals. But since the radicals and their Arab benefactors have been subject to heightened surveillance in the wake of 9/11, they tend to keep a low profile.

In the evenings, though, individuals and small groups quickly exit the shell-pocked apartment buildings surrounding the King Fahd Mosque. At this time of day, there is a much smaller crowd of worshipers than at noon during the big Friday prayers, and the fifth column of the prophet can almost feel as if it has the mosque to itself.

They pray differently, with spread legs and in tight rows, "so the devil cannot pass." They refuse to allow fellow worshipers to say the ritual peace greeting "salam" at the end, they don't say a word, they don't want to be part of the Jamaat, the community, and they leave the mosque together as a group before the others.

Locked the Doors

The older generation of Muslims in Sarajevo's mosques now has to listen to lectures from bearded missionaries on what is "halal" and "haram" -- lawful and forbidden -- as if they and their ancestors had been living according to a misconception for over half a millennium. To protest this, the imam of the time-honored Emperor's Mosque has temporarily locked the doors of his house of worship -- for the first time in its nearly 450-year history.

This clash of civilizations also takes place in less prominent places, like the Internet forums of the Bosnian Web site Studio Din. Here the heirs of the officially godless, socialist Yugoslavia can learn about the Salafi doctrine. They ask questions that have to do with everyday life -- listening to music, smoking, earning money -- but also questions dealing with clothing and moral rules.

The answers from the preachers on the Web are unequivocal: "Music is forbidden in Islam, listening to instruments is a sin." "Smoking is forbidden in Islam." "Whoever works as a cleaning lady at a bank that charges its customers interest is an accessory to a sin. It's no different than having cleaning ladies in bars and brothels."

In October, 2008, the Baden-Württemberg state branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, conducted a study on the Studio Din Web site, which is also regularly visited by Bosnians living in exile. Entries in the forum -- which include discussions on jihad, the holy war, as a direct way of reaching Allah -- indicate time and again visitors from the Wahhabi King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo, Imam Halilovic's flock.

Could a radical, potentially violent parallel society be emerging in the Muslim dominated region of the war-torn republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, eight months after the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union?

Explosive Belts

There are indications of this. Resid Hafizovic, a professor at the Islamic University, was the first to speak of a "potentially deadly virus" in Bosnian society. The head of the Bosnian federal police has recently admitted that there is a growing threat of "terrorism with an Islamistic character" and has cited indications that suicide bombers have begun to equip themselves with explosive belts.

"They have everything to blow themselves up. Whether they do it depends on the orders from their leaders," says Esad Hecimovic, author of a standard work on the mujahedeen in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Last March, officials of the special anti-terror unit arrested five men, including four Salafites in Sarajevo.

The Bosnian leader of the group, a former fighter in the Al-Mujahedeen Brigade, reportedly has sponsors in Germany and Austria who helped him acquire explosives. In connection with the arrests, police conducted raids in remote mountain areas and seized caches of arms and military equipment that were used for combat training exercises.

After discovering that some of the masterminds behind 9/11, such as Khalid Scheikh Mohammed, had been active in Bosnia, international pressure increased on the government in Sarajevo in 2002. Foundations were closed and police searched the Sarajevo office of the Saudi High Commissioner for Aid to Bosnia, which had until then enjoyed the protection of the United States.

Al-Qaida veteran Ali Hamad from Bahrain and Syrian-born Abu Hamza are currently in custody on the outskirts of Sarajevo and awaiting deportation. Intelligence sources say that Hamza secretly channeled money between Arab sponsors and Bosnian Salafites. The amount of €500 -- an average monthly salary -- is reportedly rewarded for every woman who decides to wear a full-body veil.

The Islamists are slowly but surely permeating the firm ground upon which Sarajevo's society stands. They are influencing men like the quiet, bearded cab driver who waits for customers day after day at the bridge where the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in June, 1914. On the evening of Sept. 24, 2008, the cabbie suddenly appeared at the front of a protest, right in the midst of those who shouted "Allahu akbar!" at the police line in front the Art Academy of Fine Arts and attacked visitors to Bosnia's first gay and lesbian festival.

Wahhabites scuffled alongside common hooligans. Eight people were injured and all subsequent events were canceled. Srdjan Dizdarevic, chairman of the Bosnian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights -- an independent, nonprofit organization for the protection, promotion and monitoring of human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- spoke afterwards of a defeat for civil society, of "fascist rhetoric" leading up to the incident, and called it reminiscent of the "pogroms that happened in the times of Adolf Hitler."

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