US hunts Islamic militants in Bosnia
By Harry de Quetteville in Sarajevo
American military intelligence and the CIA have deployed hundreds of officers in Bosnia to track suspected Islamic militants amid concern that the country has become a refuge, recruiting ground and cash conduit for international terrorism.
Almost a decade after the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia has become a "one-stop shop" for Islamic militants heading from terrorist battlegrounds in Chechnya and Afghanistan to Iraq, according to European intelligence officials.
With five months to go before European Union peacekeepers take over from Nato troops in Bosnia, the United States is preparing for a huge cut in its military presence.
But local sources say that, while its soldiers will leave, about 300 intelligence personnel will monitor the activities of Muslim foreign fighters who settled peacefully in Bosnia after the end of the 1992-95 war. They are believed to be providing documents and weapons to active mujahedeen returning to the country after tours abroad.
"There is a flow of people heading in from Chechnya and Afghanistan on to Europe and back, then to Iraq," said one official. "They are spreading the story that Bosnia is a one-stop shop close to Europe for terrorism needs: guns, money, documents."
Almost 750 suspected militants have come under close surveillance in Bosnia in recent years. Six Algerians were seized by the United States and deported to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in 2002, under suspicion of plotting to attack the US embassy in Sarajevo.
In one of the biggest deployments by US intelligence anywhere in the world, the teams are led from a compound in the unprepossessing suburb of Butmir, south of Sarajevo, where Bosnia's Nato peacekeeping force has its headquarters.
They are combing the country for militant support networks and monitoring Muslim charities accused of raising funds for terrorists. One, the Saudi-based al-Haramain foundation, was closed in 2002 after the US accused it of channelling millions of dollars to al-Qa'eda.
The US Treasury determined that the group then simply changed its name and continued operating until late last year, when it was closed once more. Others are thought still to be active.
Among the recipients of al-Haramain cash was the Active Islamic Youth, a group dedicated to the same extreme Wahabbi strand of Islam followed by Osama bin Laden.
Wahabbism was first imported into Bosnia during the conflict in the early 1990s, when Bosnian Muslim soldiers were joined in the fight against Serb and Croat forces by fighters from across the Muslim world.
Most Bosnians now reject Wahabbism. Observers accuse the United States of using a heavy-handed approach in its anti-terror campaign in the country, detaining and releasing suspects without charge, and devoting the vast majority of its resources to keeping tabs on local Muslims rather than the hunt for wanted war crimes suspects such as Radovan Karadzic.
"The US intelligence people are concentrating on suspected Islamists and not on known war criminals," Senad Slatina, of the International Crisis Group, said. "It is effectively becoming a witch hunt."
Other agencies say US operations have begun to sour relations with local people that were once extremely harmonious.
"The US had everything going for it here," said Madeleine Rees, head of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Sarajevo. "It stopped the war, set up and funded human rights initiatives. But then it bypassed the local police, courts and legal system, and now confidence in the US has plummeted."
Source: The Telegraph (UK), Washington Times (USA)