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Extremists Worry The Balkans, Europe’s Muslim Heartland

By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

GORNJA MAOCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — One day in early February, the black flag of the Islamic State appeared on the roof of a dilapidated home in Gornja Maoca, an isolated hamlet in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The flag was gone when the police arrived, and whoever hoisted it was never found. But the episode reaffirmed to Bosnian officials and Western intelligence agencies that the settlement, peopled by followers of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, has ties to the networks that have recruited hundreds of Muslim men from across the Balkans to fight in Syria and Iraq.

“It is fair to say that it (Gorjna Maoca) is perhaps the biggest center of extremism in Bosnia,” said a Western intelligence official. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss sensitive information with a journalist. While the region hasn’t seen the kinds of mass terrorist attacks that have shocked France, they wouldn’t be a surprise, the official said: “We’ve seen aspirational plotting.”

Most of the men who’ve left the Balkans to fight in the Middle East come from Bosnia and Kosovo, parts of former Yugoslavia whose independence was secured by U.S.-led military interventions in the 1990s. Nearly half of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people are Muslim. Kosovo, whose 1.8 million population is 95 percent Muslim, arguably is Europe’s most pro-American country. A statue and massive portrait of former President Bill Clinton overlook a thoroughfare named after him in the capital, Pristina, where there’s also a street named for George W. Bush and a boutique named for Hillary Clinton.

Since the wars, the United States and its European partners have spent billions of dollars and years of diplomacy trying to help build the two nations into stable democracies. Yet both countries are mired in dysfunctional governance, pervasive corruption, ethnic divisions and poverty-fueled despair, conditions that have boosted the appeal of hard-line Islam, the seeds of which were planted, ironically, with the help of some of America’s closest Arab allies.

And even as Balkan men fight in Syria and Iraq, mostly with the Islamic State, fundamentalists at home are intensifying attacks on the legitimacy of the liberal version of Islam that’s evolved in the Balkans over centuries. The result is mounting fears that the assault on traditional Islam will intensify, fueling insecurity, and that Bosnia and Kosovo could become pathways to the West for deeply radicalized jihadis.

“For these conservative radical groups, their first purpose is to take over the Muslim community of Kosovo,” said Ramadan Ilazi, the country’s deputy minister for European integration and an expert on political Islam. “It’s a real challenge.”

Even if they don’t indulge themselves, most Balkan Muslims tolerate drinking and smoking. They eschew Islamic-style beards and veils and rarely — if ever — attend mosque. They freely mix with the opposite sex and members of other faiths, and marry non-Muslims.

Some traditional clerics who’ve spoken out against extremism have been harassed, assaulted and forced out of their mosques. They’ve had their sermons disrupted and have been denounced as infidels on videos and radical websites that condemn traditional Islam as apostasy.

On Monday in Bosnia, an alleged Islamist extremist died in an attack on a police station that killed a Bosnian Serb officer. In November in Kosovo, two American women serving as Mormon missionaries were assaulted by suspected extremists, two of whom were later charged, along with five others, with plotting terrorist attacks. An expatriate Kosovar was convicted of raking a bus with gunfire in 2011 at Frankfurt Airport, killing two U.S. soldiers, Germany’s first fatal attack by an Islamist. In 2013, a Bosnian court convicted a Wahhabi of planting a bomb that killed a Bosnian Croat police officer.

Reporters who’ve investigated Islamist groups and the recruitment of fighters, and politicians who’ve sounded alarms about creeping fundamentalism, have received death threats.

“Anyone who is not like them is (considered) a nonbeliever,” said Alma Lama, a Kosovo Assembly member who’s sought police protection for herself and her family because of “thousands” of threats triggered by her denunciations of hard-line Islam and its denial of women’s rights. “These guys are inciting hatred between religious groups and gender hatred.”

“The radicals are threats to us traditional Muslims, not to Serbs and not to Croats,” said Shaykh Edin Kukavica, a Bosnian cleric of Islam’s mystical Sufi branch who recently received a text message warning him that “the arrow is on its way.”

While the number of hard-line Islamists in both countries is very small, officials agree that just a few who acquire combat skills in the Middle East is too many.

“Even if only one person had gone, it would be a problem, and we are taking this problem very seriously,” said Amir Veiz, the director of counterterrorism for the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Bosnian state police.

Both countries have stepped up crackdowns on extremists, officials say, and are coordinating closely with U.S. and European intelligence agencies to throttle the flow of men and women to Iraq and Syria, where as many as 160 Bosnians and some 300 Kosovars, some with their families, are said to be fighting. A few joined the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian wing, but the bulk enlisted with the Islamic State.

Still, Kosovo, with its small population, remains the largest per-capita European contributor of fighters to the Islamic State, and some experts say both governments initially minimized the problem to cover up their failures to act earlier and to avoid alienating powerful religious conservatives.

“I had information that 150 to 200 people were fighting, but the government said there were only 10,” said Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist at Kosovo’s main independent newspaper, Koha Ditore, who charged that he was pressured to stop writing about the issue. “The government was trying to suppress this, but they couldn’t because the problem is a big issue for Kosovo.”

“We are already a bit late, I think, and this is why this is an emergency situation in terms of the need for a response, a response that is comprehensive economically speaking, socially, politically,” said Ilazi, Kosovo’s deputy minister for European integration.

Hard-line Islam was carried to the Balkans by hundreds of mostly Arab foreign fighters who helped Bosnia’s Muslim-led government, hamstrung by a U.N. arms embargo, resist the country’s dismemberment by Serbia and Croatia in a war that lasted from 1992 to 1995. A much smaller number joined the ethnic Albanian rebels who fought for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

The foreigners — many of whom later are thought to have joined al-Qaida — were Takfiris, radicals who embrace violence in rejecting secular politics, culture and other faiths, and seek to return to the “pure” Islamic rule that they believe was founded by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh-century Arabian Peninsula.

They were backed by funds from Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Arab allies, and their proselytizing was reinforced by a flood of Islamist charities offering money, food and educational training in return for devotion to their hard-line practices.

Virtually all the foreigners eventually left — a few married Bosnian women — but the charities stayed. Flush with cash in struggling, war-damaged societies, they won devotees by expanding aid programs, rebuilding mosques and constructing new ones, supported by officials who welcomed the money and the patronage of powerful Muslim countries, experts said.

The charities “found a fertile place here,” said Denis Hadzovic, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Sarajevo policy institute. “They began to be more aggressive in their behavior and their efforts to promote another approach to Islam.”

While the Bosnian and Kosovar governments shuttered more than a dozen Islamist charities during crackdowns last year, the organizations’ influence is widely apparent.
Skullcapped men wearing Islamic-style beards and Arabic dress now are a common sight in the villages and cities of Kosovo and Bosnia, where their baggy, calf-length trousers are derided as “floodwater pants.” Young local clerics trained in fundamentalist seminaries in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are running mosques.

Stores selling Islamic women’s garb — including veils and head-to-toe coverings — religious texts and videos, halal food and other Arabic goods are clustered around Pristina’s Ottoman-era mosques, sharing streets with Western-style boutiques and bars offering martinis and mojitos.

In Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, sidewalk vendors hawk the same wares outside the Saudi-built King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud Cultural Center, the largest of its kind in the Balkans.

The center — with its Saudi-style mosque — is run by Saudis with diplomatic status, adding to the discomfort of many Sarajevans unnerved by the Gulf-funded mosque-building and Arab property investments such as the Hotel Bristol, where alcohol is banned.

“I try not to have any contact with these radical people in mosques or elsewhere,” said Adnan Talic, 54, a cobbler whose tiny shop in Sarajevo’s centuries-old Ottoman market is thick with the sweet scent of newly tanned leather. “We are afraid of them, but ignoring them is my way of fighting radical Islam.”

Several men in Gorjna Maoca denied any ties between the village and violent groups.

“We are good Muslims. We are true believers, and just as we don’t want anything bad to happen to us, we don’t want anything bad for anyone else,” said a bearded, skullcapped man working in his driveway. Like the others, he declined to give his name during a recent visit by McClatchy.

“More attention is being given to the way we look than is warranted. More attention was given by the media to that flag, and it represented nothing. Maybe the children put it there,” the man replied when asked about the display of the Islamic State flag, pictures of which were published by local media.

Current and former Bosnian security officials tell a different story, saying the hamlet is linked to extremist networks that run from Western Europe through the Balkans into the Middle East.

More than a dozen men associated with the village are among the Bosnians who’ve gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, they said. One of them, Emrah Fojnica, 23, blew himself up last August, killing 23 people in Baghdad. In 2011, the settlement hosted a Muslim from Serbia who’s now serving an 18-year jail term for spraying more than 100 bullets at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.

Possible U.S. ties to the extremist networks were highlighted in February, when a federal grand jury in Kentucky indicted six Bosnian immigrants on charges of sending money, military uniforms, combat boots and other military goods to Bosnians fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Political analysts, moderate clerics and other experts in Bosnia and Kosovo blame senior political and religious leaders, charging they ignored the creeping extremism for years. The leaders were happy to let Islamist charities reconstruct war-damaged mosques, build new ones, and provide aid and educational programs in return for devotion to their brands of Islam.

The few Bosnians who spoke out were publicly denounced by some political and religious leaders as “Islamophobes,” said Senad Pecanin, a co-founder of Dani, a crusading investigative magazine that he left in 2010 to practice law. “For years they were attacking anyone who was warning about the threat.”

In Kosovo, moderate clerics and political experts charged that the official Islamic Community, the independent body that oversees Islamic affairs, had been taken over by conservatives who’ve been replacing moderate imams with fundamentalists in a bid to appease radical elements and ensure continued financial support from the Middle East.

“I saw that I couldn’t get help from anyone, from the government, from the Islamic Community,” said Musli Verbani, 49, a moderate cleric whose car was fire-bombed in 2006 in what he charged was an intimidation campaign that led to his 2011 replacement by a hard-liner as imam of the main mosque in the southern Kosovo town of Kacanik.

Vedat Sahiti, an adviser to Kosovo’s chief Islamic cleric, Naim Ternava, denied that the Islamic Community had succumbed to Islamist influence and said the organization didn’t accept foreign aid.

“We don’t take money from the Middle East,” said Sahiti, shortly before proudly pronouncing that the organization’s new headquarters and seminary were built with funds from the Saudi and Qatari governments.
Critics noted that 15 clerics, including the then-grand mufti of Pristina’s main mosque, were among 55 people detained in August and September crackdowns for allegedly promoting violent extremism and recruiting fighters for Syria and Iraq.

Shpend Kursani, a senior researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a policy institute in Pristina, said the crackdowns last year had slowed the flight of young men to Syria and Iraq but that now he was seeing whole families going.

As part of an in-depth study, Kursani has been interviewing young Kosovars who’ve returned from Syria and Iraq. One has a master’s degree in international relations, while 37 percent had police records before they embraced radical Islam, he said.

What they all shared, he said, was little hope of a better future and bitter disillusionment with the corruption and nepotism that infect all levels of Kosovo’s political system. Even the anti-corruption mission in Kosovo run by the European Union is under investigation on suspicion of corruption.

Another factor contributing to radicalization, experts and officials said, is that many Kosovars feel betrayed and isolated by the West.

The country’s 2008 declaration of independence still hasn’t been recognized by the United Nations or all 28 EU members, making Kosovo the only Balkan country whose citizens need visas to travel to EU countries. They can, however, travel without visas to nearby Turkey, the crossing point to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Serbia refuses to renounce its claim to its former province, and it continues to exert enormous political influence through Kosovo’s tiny Serbian minority and its representatives in the legislature.

“We have all the elements of a failed state,” said Kursani. “The state cannot provide security to its citizens.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: An elderly woman begs on the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, Europe’s poorest country. (Jonathan Landay/McClatchy/TNS)

Analysis: Proposed Accord Far Tougher On Iran Than Expected, Nuclear Experts Say

By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — On its face, the framework announced Thursday for an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program goes further toward preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon than many experts expected it would, including requiring an international inspection system of unprecedented intrusiveness.

Several contentious issues, however, remain to be clarified in the final accord, scheduled to be negotiated by June 30. These include the exact process for lifting international sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy, and the degree to which ending the sanctions will hinge on the Islamic Republic’s clarifying past research it’s suspected of conducting on missile-borne nuclear warheads.

Several experts cautioned that their analyses of the tentative accord relied on the Obama administration’s interpretation of what Iran accepted in talks with the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, and Germany, collectively known as the P5 plus 1. They warned that the Iranians could have a different understanding of their obligations.

“I’m cautious about what the Iranian version says. The devil is in the details,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif.

Still, he and other experts who intensely follow the Iranian nuclear issue said that based on an Obama administration fact sheet, it appeared that the tentative accord would achieve the U.S. goal of ensuring the international community would have a year’s warning if Tehran decided to produce enough uranium fuel for a single bomb, a concept known as breakout.

“If the U.S. fact sheet corresponds to what the Iranians understand are the basics, then it’s better than I expected,” said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I’d like to see what the Iranian fact sheet looks like.”

President Barack Obama made a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear dispute one of his top foreign policy goals, although he insisted that he’d use military force to deny Iran a nuclear weapon if necessary.

The United States and the other powers have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It kept secret for 18 years its program of uranium enrichment, the process used to produce low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Iran insists that its program is strictly for civilian purposes.

The P5 plus 1 and Iran reached an interim accord restricting Iran’s enrichment program in September 2013 while they pursued a full-blown agreement that would allow Iran to continue producing low-enriched uranium but eliminate its ability to secretly develop a bomb. The sides breached several deadlines on their way to producing the framework for a full-blown accord announced Thursday.

Other experts said they were surprised by how detailed the framework was, saying they had expected it to be a very general document or even a verbal understanding short on specifics because the Iranians had indicated that was what they wanted.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that some of those details provide better news than we expected,” said Greg Theilman, an expert at the Arms Control Association, a policy institute, and a former senior official with the State Department’s intelligence bureau. “It’s a pretty good deal. I thought we’d get less nailed down.”

One surprise was Iran’s agreement to cut by about two-thirds for a 10-year period the 19,000 uranium enrichment machines — known as centrifuges — installed in two facilities. That means Iran would be left with only 6,104 machines at its main enrichment plant at Natanz and at Fordow, a facility buried under a mountain near the holy city of Qom that Iran kept secret until it was disclosed by the United States, France and Britain in 2009.

Only 5,060 centrifuges could be operated at Natanz, producing 3.67 percent low-enriched uranium for fuel for a research reactor. None of the machines remaining in Fordow could be run. The facility would be converted into a research center from which fissile materials — needed for a bomb — would be prohibited for 15 years.

Frank von Hippel, an expert with Princeton University’s Science and International Security Program, said he was surprised that Iran had accepted an enrichment level of 3.67 percent and hadn’t insisted on 5 percent.

“There are still details to be filled in, but I like it a lot,” von Hippel said on the framework.

The centrifuges removed from Natanz and Fordow would have to be placed in storage under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Moreover, Iran couldn’t operate for 10 years advanced centrifuges that are far more efficient than those it could continue running at Natanz.

Iran had sought to keep all 19,000 centrifuges installed, seeking to reconfigure the piping systems to satisfy the P5 plus 1 objective of limiting its enrichment capacity.

“They gave up the idea of re-piping excess infrastructure,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former IAEA inspector.

Another provision that caught some experts by surprise would require Iran to eliminate for 15 years all but 660 pounds of its stockpile of about 22,000 pounds of 3.65 percent low-enriched uranium, significantly restricting its ability to quickly produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.

Just how the bulk of the low-enriched uranium would be eliminated wasn’t spelled out, indicating that the details are still to be resolved.

The framework would require that Iran purchase any nuclear-related goods through a United Nations-approved and -monitored procurement channel, a provision that also stunned some experts, who said it would halt Iran’s practice of evading sanctions by secretly buying equipment through foreign front companies.

“The procurement channel is a very good idea that a lot of people had. But I was shocked that they actually did it,” said Lewis.

Experts said that another surprise was Iran’s agreement to an international nuclear inspection regime of unprecedented intrusiveness.

“On transparency, it looks like they really are doing a lot,” said von Hippel.

Under the framework, IAEA inspectors would have regular access to all nuclear-related facilities, including the mines from which Iran obtains uranium ore and the mills in which it produces uranium yellowcake, a concentrated form of uranium. The agency also would install continuous monitoring technology in Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Such broad access and continuous monitoring would allow the IAEA to detect any attempt to divert uranium to a secret enrichment facility, experts said.

“These are safeguards on all aspects of the (nuclear) fuel cycle,” said Cheryl Rofer, who worked as a chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which designed U.S. nuclear weapons, and who writes for a blog called the Nuclear Diner. “If they’ve even agreed to half of this, it’s a big step.”

Iran would have to allow IAEA inspectors investigate suspicious sites or allegations of secret facilities. But the U.S. fact sheet left unclear whether they included facilities controlled by Iran’s military or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as Parchin, a complex from which the IAEA has been barred in its efforts to investigate suspected weapons-related work.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: AFP/Henghameh Fahimi

Human Rights Groups Urge Criminal Investigation Into CIA Torture

By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama should appoint a special prosecutor to determine if former Bush administration and CIA officials broke the law by having suspected terrorists abducted and tortured in secret prisons by waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods, two leading human rights groups said Monday.

The call by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union was the second proposal for a special investigation issued from a human rights organization since the publication earlier this month of a blistering Senate Intelligence Committee report into the CIA interrogation program that ran from 2002 until 2007.

“We believe the failure to conduct a comprehensive criminal investigation would contribute to the notion that torture remains a permissible policy option for future administrations; undermine the ability of the United States to advocate for human rights abroad, and compromise Americans’ faith in rule of law at home,” Human Rights Watch and the ACLU wrote in a joint letter to Obama.

The letter follows an analysis of the Senate report issued last week by Physicians for Human Rights, which urged Obama to appoint a special commission to examine whether CIA health professionals violated international and U.S. laws prohibiting experimentation on human subjects without their consent.

It’s highly unlikely that Obama will embrace any calls for such investigations. The White House repeatedly has pointed out since the release of the Senate report that a special prosecutor who spent three years looking into possible wrongdoing by the CIA closed the probe in 2011 without finding sufficient “admissible evidence.”

“The Department of Justice actually did conduct a review of the actions of CIA operatives that are mentioned in this report, that there was a career federal prosecutor who was assigned to this case and that this individual conducted an extensive inquiry, and upon looking at the facts in evidence decided not to pursue an indictment,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Dec. 10.

But the ACLU and Human Rights Watch asserted in their letter that a fresh criminal investigation is warranted by new disclosures about the CIA program in the Senate report.

Even if the former special prosecutor, John Durham, had access to the more than 6 million pages of classified CIA cables, emails and other documents reviewed by the Senate investigators, the Senate report “has now synthesized a huge volume of information into a narrative that clarifies the extent and seriousness of criminal conduct,” the groups said.

The United States, they wrote, is obliged as a signatory of international treaties banning torture to “effectively, independently, and impartially investigate all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention or enforced disappearance” and prosecute those found to be responsible, they wrote.

The Senate report, written by the majority Democrats, found that the CIA’s use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, extensive sleep deprivation and other interrogation techniques failed to produce any intelligence on imminent al-Qaida attacks and that information gained from detainees was available from other sources.

It also concluded that the agency misled the White House, Congress and the public about the program’s results. CIA interrogators used methods that weren’t approved as legal by the Justice Department and submitted detainees to medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” and “rectal rehydration,” it said.

The agency admitted that mistakes were made. But the CIA, former Bush administration and agency officials and minority Republicans on the Senate committee disputed the findings, contending that the program was legal and produced intelligence that led to senior al-Qaida operatives, including Osama bin Laden, averted terrorist plots and saved American lives.

In their letter to Obama, the two groups said another reason for appointing a new special prosecutor was because there was no evidence that Durham had ever interviewed any former CIA detainees.

“The absence or paucity of victim interviews, particularly when many of the victims remain in U.S. custody, undercuts the credibility of the decision not to indict anyone for torture-related crimes,” they said.

Finally, Durham didn’t examine possible crimes by CIA officials who operated under Justice Department-issued legal guidelines on interrogation, the groups said. The Senate report, it explained, showed that senior agency officials were aware that the interrogation methods were illegal before they ever asked for those guidelines.

“The argument of good faith reliance on (legal) counsel appears inapplicable to some of the officials who were involved in conceptualizing, ordering, and executing these crimes,” said the letter. “We believe that officials who provided legal advice meant to authorize torture should also not benefit from any presumption that they were fulfilling their responsibilities in good faith.”

The need for a new criminal investigation “is made more urgent” because former Bush administration and CIA officials “who authorized the conduct documented in the Senate torture report” have been defending the necessity, legality and effectiveness of the program in news media interviews and opinion pieces, the letter said.

In a related development, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee condemned as “beyond the pale” a report that no punishments will be recommended by a panel appointed by CIA Director John Brennan to review the CIA’s unauthorized infiltration of the computers used by the panel’s Democratic staff to compile the report.

“The CIA’s unauthorized search of computer files and emails belonging to its congressional oversight committee was a massive breach of the separation of powers and very well may have violated federal laws,” retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), a former committee chairman, said in a statement.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the accountability panel of three CIA officers and two agency outsiders was expected to criticize the agency over the search but wouldn’t call for disciplinary action against the CIA officers who were involved.

AFP Photo/Shane T. McCoy