Accessibility links

The Results Of Hate Speech And Inaction In Bosnia

A gunman identified as Mevlik Jasarevic lies on the street after being overwhelmed after he fired shots at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo on October 28.

A gunman identified as Mevlik Jasarevic lies on the street after being overwhelmed after he fired shots at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo on October 28.

Last week, 23-year-old Mevlik Jasarevic made headlines when he got off a tram outside the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo and began firing an automatic rifle.

But his journey began several hours earlier that morning, when he crossed the border from Serbia into Bosnia-Herzegovina. Jasarevic is a Serbian citizen.

Stepping from tram No. 3, Jasarevic reportedly yelled "Run! Run away!" at passersby as he pulled an AK-47 from his backpack and began to fire. He continued to shoot for some 20 minutes before a police sniper shot him in the leg. It was later revealed that he had two explosives on him, but he apparently made no attempt to activate them. In fact, he stood calmly at the tram stop throughout the incident, making no effort to leave or to take cover.

It was a strange incident. Terrorists more commonly seek to maximize civilian casualties. Spreading fear is, after all, the definition of terrorism.

But nothing like this happened in Sarajevo. It is unclear whether Jasarevic expected to die in the attack. And he warned citizens to run away. One police officer was wounded in the initial moments of the attack, but there were no other casualties except the gunman himself. Instead of being afraid, citizens of Bosnia have spoken out loudly and often to denounce the violence.

As the details of the incident emerged, it became clear that Jasarevic was an easy recruit. His few visits to the Wahhabist village of Maoca in Bosnia hardly qualify him as an Islamic fundamentalist or a radical. But he has a criminal record, including a robbery three years ago in Austria. Late last year, he was spotted by police in the Serbian city of Novi Pazar during a visit there by ambassadors from the United States, Japan, and eight EU countries. He refused to show his identification, and a large knife was found in his pocket. He was detained but not arrested.


The main result of Jasarevic's attack so far has been to provoke a long-overdue discussion about the ability of Bosnia-Herzegovina to cope with radicalism.

The reactions of politicians across Bosnia have been predictable. Leaders in Sarajevo say the attack was targeted "against Bosnia." And, indeed, it was -- but these same leaders are forgetting their responsibility for increasingly imposing Islamic practices on all citizens of the country. They haven't been commenting on why they tolerate the implementation of a parallel legal system (Shari'a law) in Maoca.

They don't talk about why they took little action in June 2010 when a terrorist attack in the village of Bugojino left one police officer dead and six others wounded. "After the Bugojino attack, we proposed several measures, but half of them were refused by parliament and condemned by the Islamic community of Bosnia," Sadik Ahmetovic, head of the Bosnian Security Agency, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "But even some media outlets and NGOs were arguing that imposing such measures would protect human rights."

Bosnian Serb leaders point their fingers at their Muslim counterparts and accuse them of tolerating Wahhabism. But they don't talk about how they tolerate -- even sponsor -- Serbian organizations that recruit Serbs to go to Kosovo to "defend Serbian lands" against NATO-led KFOR forces. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said that Bosnian Muslims "declared themselves an ethnic group in 1993." "They cannot build up their identity without destroying the identity of other ethnic groups," he said.

This kind of hate speech, of course, fuels radicalism just as surely as Sarajevo's resistance to tighter controls on Wahhabism does. One part of Bosnia's leadership is radicalizing Muslims with hate speech, while another part does the same by tolerating radical behavior.

Lost Opportunity

Just three weeks ago, the Atlantic Initiative wrote in a security-risk analysis:

Unsubstantiated allegations of an increased terrorism threat in Bosnia, based on the preposterous claim that some 100,000 Wahhabis reside in the country, are not aimed at deterring such a threat but rather at pigeonholing Bosniaks as terrorists and delegitimizing their political aims. In response, the Bosniak side, and particularly the official Islamic community, has descended into default denial of any security threat that may be posed by the presence of dangerous individuals and ideologies associated with Islam, calling all such references hostile and Islamophobic. Consequently, law enforcement officials have been left to balance between two opposing, and equally flawed, perceptions and they have adjusted their analysis and reaction to the terrorism threat to suit the outcomes desired by their respective political elite.

Bosnia's political leaders -- from both federal entities and all ethnic groups -- are not only failing to building a functioning federal state, they are also jointly managing to radicalize one ethnic community after another. And they seem to be doing everything in their power to make the situation worse. The economy is in tatters and unemployment is about 40 percent. More than a year has passed since the last elections and the country still has no functioning executive branch. Bosnia's Serbs consistently block any movement toward a functioning state, while the leadership of the Bosnian-Croat Federation cannot agree even within itself, to say nothing of finding common ground with Bosnian Serb leaders.

"The nature of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina prevents us from creating a government or attracting investment. And that conflict could become even violent," Bakir Izetbegovic, a member of Bosnian Presidency, told RFE/RL last week.

Following the attack on the U.S. Embassy, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Patrick Moon expressed the hope that the violence would unite Bosnians and push them forward to the common goal of European integration. Unfortunately, this will not be the case. For more than two decades now, virtually all of Bosnia's political leaders have had one thing in common -- the undeviating pursuit of their personal interests at the price of dividing the country along ethnic lines. More than 16 years after the war ended, fear remains the dominant mood in all Bosnia's ethnic communities. And fear is the perfect environment for fostering radicalization and manipulation.

An International Role

The previously quoted Atlantic Initiative report argues that this manufactured fear must be replaced by "credible deterrence." This would "not only prevent a return to violent conflict, but would create the potential for forward movement on the political and social fronts by stripping the entrenched political elites of their current ability to leverage fear. This would create space for citizens and potential leaders who want to find a way to make the country function consensually. Restored, credible deterrence is the sine qua non of any political and social progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

But "credible deterrence" can only be imposed by the international community. That community still "agrees to disagree" about the causes of Bosnia's problems. Immediately after the attack last week, the following "joke" appeared on Facebook: "Packing for Sarajevo: coat, sweater, Kalashnikov, bulletproof vest, pants, boots...."

I'm not sure that's really all that funny.

Nenad Pejic is a regional director at RFE/RL. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Show comments