Just a few days after the deadly Paris terrorist attacks, 34-year-old Enes Omeragic walked into a small betting shop in the Sarajevo suburb of Rajlovac carrying an AK-47 assault rifle.  

He immediately approached the table where the Bosnian army servicemen were sitting, ignoring the rest of people inside the shop, and after yelling Allahu Akbar opened fire, killing both of them in a matter of seconds.

While fleeing the scene, he noticed another soldier in a city bus which was just entering the bus stop nearby. Without thinking he fired several rounds in his direction, slightly wounding him, and causing the injuries to the bus driver and two other passengers.

This wasn’t the first time in recent history that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens were alarmed by apparent acts of terror. Back in April 2015, a lone gunman attacked a police station in the Bosnian town of Zvornik near the border with Serbia, killing an officer and injuring two others before being shot dead.  In October of 2011, another gunman fired on the U.S. Embassy in the center of Sarajevo with an assault rifle in an attack that lasted 30 minutes, wounding one police officer seriously before being wounded himself by a police sniper and subsequently arrested.  And just a year earlier, on June 27, 2010, a bomb exploded at a police station in Bugojno, some 70 kilometers southwest of Sarajevo, killing one police officer and injuring six others. Two perpetrators were quickly identified and apprehended.

All of these attacks have something in common. They were carried by younger Bosniaks with known connections to radical Islamic Wahhabi and Salafist movements.  This should come as no surprise, since several hundreds of Bosniaks have joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, comprising a 1,000-strong Balkan contingent of fighters, also coming from Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania.  The roots of radical Islam in Bosnia can be traced to the early nighties, during the bloody war that claimed lives of more than 100,000 people.

The mujahedeen, many with a decade-long experience of fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, began to arrive into Bosnia in 1992, bringing a jihad in a war that started with the breakup of Yugoslavia.  They were soon followed by others recruited in North Africa and the Middle East.  By 1993, their numbers rose to 1,500 fighters, whose skill in battle was matched by their brutality towards captured Croat and Serb soldiers and civilians.

These fighters also brought a more radical, Salafist version of Islam that embraced the concept of global jihad, especially aiming to convert young Bosnian Muslims, who were practicing a much more moderate form of Sunni Islam. After the war, around 1,000 of them were still present, but Bosnian authorities, pressured by the West, soon expelled more than half of them. The remaining group blended in with the local population, mostly in isolated rural areas, and in some cases gathering around them local Bosniak Muslims, sympathetic with their views. In one such village, Gornja Maoca, in February 2014, an Islamic State flag appeared on a house, despite the fact that the enclave is under constant surveillance by the Bosnian security services.

In the words of former National Security Agency (NSA) employee John Schindler, “Bosnia is considered something of a ‘safe house’ for radicals,” and now harbors a stable terrorist infrastructure which represents an existential threat to the fragmented republic.”  IS fighters from Bosnia are also notably louder recently in making public threats against the country’s officials and institutions. The grand mufti of the Islamic community in Bosnia, Husein Kavazovic, received a threat of beheading from one Bosnian IS combatant in Syria, after he called for public resistance to terror.  He’s been under police protection ever since. The notorious IS-affiliated website in the Bosnian language is mixing its reports on “successive IS actions in Syria and Iraq” with warnings that “Caliphate soldiers” will soon “visit” infidels in Bosnia, in a similar manner as other “martyrs” recently did in Belgium and France.

Besides the threat from radical Islamic groups that have shown potential for organizing or inspiring terrorist attacks, Bosnia and the rest of the Balkan region is also under increasing pressure from renewed Russian influence.  Secretary of State John Kerry said at a hearing before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, “Whether it’s Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, other places — they are all in the firing line,” while Germany’s Angela Merkel expressed a similar opinion, saying “Russia is trying to make certain Western Balkan states politically and economically dependent.”

Russia is particularly present in Serbia, with investment in the transport and energy sectors, and Serbia is the only country in Europe that has a free-trade deal with Russia.  The Russian–Serbian military relationship has also been very active in recent years, and Serbia and Russia have also signed a 15-year military cooperation agreement that includes military exercises and sharing of intelligence.

With regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia is very active in the ethnically Serb region of Republika Srpska (RS), one of two entities that emerged after country’s civil war in 1992-95.  Moscow is a staunch supporter of RP President Milorad Dodik, who is nowadays advocating separation from Bosnia, despite once being hailed by the West as a reformer.  Dodik became even more vocal about the independence issue after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and many observers believe that he was quietly encouraged by Moscow to do so.  Dodik is also a frequent visitor to Moscow, where he is treated by Putin and other Russian officials as if he were the head of state of an independent nation.  

It was recently announced by the Interior Minister of RS that the entity government would soon send special police units for training in Russia and would also proceed with the purchase of military equipment from Moscow, with the explanation that Russia has “experience in dealing with terrorism.” The purchase will include assault rifles and armored vehicles.   According to independent experts, this cooperation is not all that surprising, since Moscow believes it can use its influence over Bosnian Serbs to permanently block BiH’s entry into NATO, as stopping Alliance enlargement is one of its main strategic goals in the region and beyond.  

So, the converging influence of Russia and radical Islam in the Western Balkan region is proof that this part of the world cannot be regarded as a side show on the global geopolitical map, but on the contrary, it requires attention from the United States and its allies, before it is too late, and another wave of instability hits this vulnerable European region.   The experience from Ukraine clearly shows what can happen with “unfinished business,” and it is not unforeseeable that the clock can be turned, and the still fragile Western Balkan states again plunge into uncertainty, divisions or even open conflicts, instead of a clear path towards the West.  If this happens, the dire consequences will be felt not only in the region itself but in Europe as a whole, already under serious pressure from challenges of the migrant crisis and Moscow’s aggressive policies on its eastern borders. 

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