ROME, Italy– Islamist Black flags are waving in Bosnia, just a step away from Italy and far nearer than neighboring Libya. A “potential candidate country” for the European Union, Bosnia shares a long, unguarded border with Croatia, an EU member since 2013.
Estimates place some 3,000 Salafist extremists in the heart of the Balkans, near the border between Bosnia and Croatia, not counting the many who have already enlisted in the “holy war” in Syria and Iraq.
The Balkans are an area of particular concern to the Italian government, because of their geographical proximity and historic ties to radical Islam.
Last week, Italian special forces executed the final stage of a counterterrorist operation known as “Balkan Connection,” breaking up an ISIS terrorist cell in northern Italy involving connections to Albania.
Two Albanians—38-year-old Alban Elezi and his nephew Elvis—have been charged with recruiting militants for international terrorism along the Balkan route, while the third, Elmadhi Halili, a twenty-year-old Italian citizen of Moroccan origin, is being held for spreading propaganda for the purpose of abetting international terrorism, after publishing a 64-page pro-Caliphate document on the internet.
“Bosnia is no exception to the threat of foreign jihadi militants,” said Roger Corrias, the Italian Ambassador in Sarajevo. Official state estimates speak of 160 Bosnians traveling to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, with US estimates decidedly higher at 340.
“Geographical proximity, a fragile rule of law and a deep economic crisis are elements in Bosnia that call for double attention,” said Corrias. “The Italian Government is aware of it and acts on two levels: security and European prospects for the country.”
In the former Serbian village of Osve, lost in the hills of central Bosnia, a black flag flies emblazoned with the shahada, or Muslim profession of faith. The flag is very similar in appearance to those of Al Nusra Front, the offshoot of Al Qaeda operating in Syria and Lebanon. There a man laments the death of his son, a suicide bomber in Iraq.
“I am not happy over the loss of my son, but his death came about by the will of Allah,” Hamdo Fojnica explained to the Italian daily Il Giornale. His 23-year-old son Emrah, with nom de guerre Khattab, blew himself up in Iraq. His father admits: “It is terrible to lose a child, but if Allah decides that his two brothers should also go to Syria I couldn’t say no.”
Europe has never taken root in Gornja Maoca, the most prominent Salafi enclave in eastern Bosnia. In early February, the symbol of the Caliphate began to be seen here and there, and then disappeared. Now black flags with the scimitar and shahada can be seen waving atop houses and mosques.
From these simple houses among the remote forests have come the likes of Nusret Imamovic, one of the foreign leaders among the Al Qaeda ranks listed as a “global terrorist” by the United States. Gornja Maoca was also home to Mevlid Jaarevic, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison after shooting up the US embassy in Sarajevo with a Kalashnikov in 2011.
“I am convinced that they will conquer Rome,” said Esad Hecimovic, a journalist from Sarajevo and expert in Islamic extremism. “You don’t understand that the real danger is closer than Libya. The threat does not just affect Bosnia, but also Italy and Europe,” he said.
The area of Velika Kladusa in Western Bosnia was the stronghold of the Islamist preacher Bilal Bosnic, who ended up behind bars last September for incitement and recruitment for jihad.
One of Bosnic’s young wives, wearing a full veil, declared: “I have nothing to say but that you should embrace Islam. My husband is in jail unjustly. We live for Allah and we are ready to die for him.”
A few miles from his home, in a remote area of Bosanska Bojna, Bosnic bought an 8-acre plot of land to build a majid, or Salafi prayer center. The prosecutor in Sarajevo found that in the course of two years, 200 thousand dollars had arrived from a mysterious benefactor in Qatar.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.