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Balkans: Region Not High-Risk For Al-Qaeda, But Long-Term Threat Exists

The deportation of suspected Al-Qaeda agents from Bosnia has renewed fears the Balkans could become a staging ground for future terrorist activities. With its weak state institutions, porous borders, and a large Muslim population traumatized by war, Bosnia has in recent months come under particular scrutiny from Western intelligence officials. But some analysts say the threat of Al-Qaeda operatives living in Bosnia or elsewhere in the Balkans has been exaggerated.

Prague, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Suspicion that Bosnia may be a staging point for terrorist activities intensified considerably last October after six Algerians with possible ties to the Al-Qaeda network were arrested in the Balkan nation. The six, suspected of planning an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, were turned over to American authorities last month and transferred to the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

One of the suspects worked for the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a humanitarian organization founded in 1993 that has reportedly spent some $600 million in postwar aid for mosques, cultural centers, schools, and orphanages in the country.

A week ago, NATO sources confirmed that a computer confiscated from the Saudi High Commission was found to contain files with information about crop dusters and the production of pesticides, as well as photographs of U.S. military installations. U.S. and Bosnian officials have said the find does not conclusively prove the commission was directly involved in terrorist activities. But the discovery has heightened anxiety that the Islamic organization and others like it in Bosnia may be doubling as fronts for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

Mark Wheeler is the Bosnia project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank that provides research and analyses of many of the world's areas of conflict. Wheeler says intelligence officials do not really know the extent to which charities like the Saudi High Commission are conducting back-room operations for terrorist cells.

"We have a legacy of freely operating, extremely rich, uncontrolled Islamic charities, of which the Saudi High Commission for Relief is one of the most important and richest. And one doesn't really know the extent to which they have taken the opportunity to not just proselytize in a religious sense, but to be used as covers for groups or cells that have a more sinister intention. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, we don't really know yet the extent to which outfits like the Saudi High Commission may have been used for conduits for terrorist money or arms, or as a convenient place for potential terrorists to work and have cover."

Since the deportation of the Algerian suspects in January, many local journalists -- particularly those in Bosnia's Serbian entity, Republika Srpska -- have sought to play up a connection between the Bosnian Muslims and Islamic terrorists. Some 3,000 mujahedin fighters did travel to the former Yugoslav republic to fight during the 1992-95 war, with many marrying local women and settling permanently in the country. But many of the recent media reports on a suspected Bosnia-Al-Qaeda link are unsubstantiated, and may reflect postwar animosities in the country more than any actual connection to terrorist activities.

The persecution and ethnic cleansing of the local Muslim population during the war did, however, give rise to a stronger sense of Islamic identity among the traditionally moderate or secular Bosniacs. But David Phillips, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, says the Bosniac population is not likely to support terrorist activities against the U.S.

"There are Islamic groups in the Balkans, but the Islamists who are from the Balkans are people that were rescued either in Bosnia or in Kosovo, so they are not at all inclined to participate in any terrorist networks that would be targeting the West. There has been some infiltration by foreigners in the course of those conflicts. There's some evidence of a small number of individuals and charities that have been acting as fronts or participating in potential terrorist activity. But I would not characterize it as a high-risk zone."

Although Bosnia and other Balkan states may not currently be at high risk of terrorist activity, Phillips says conditions are nonetheless ripe for the region to become a transit point for terrorism. With porous borders and weak legal and law-enforcement systems, Balkan countries already play a key role in criminal rings trafficking in humans, weapons, and drugs. Phillips says this is why the U.S. and other Western governments must stay committed to state-building in the Balkans.

"[Having] weak legal systems doesn't necessarily imply that the countries are terrorist staging grounds. It means the conditions exist where terrorist networks could try to take advantage, which is precisely why we need to stay focused on the Balkans, stay engaged, and continue to provide political and material resources to finish a job we started there."

But the West's focus on Bosnia is already starting to fade. Wheeler of the International Crisis Group says he has seen NATO and U.S. intelligence officials "retreating into the background" and leaving the ill-equipped and inexperienced Bosniacs to lead antiterrorism efforts in the region. The trend, he says, reflects a general determination by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to shift its foreign policy away from the Balkans.

"Among the immediate after-effects of 11 September was the realization that the Balkans in general -- and Bosnia in particular -- were now more important, or were seen again as important in a way they were not over the past couple of years. But it does seem now that the Bush administration is reverting to its earlier determination -- the determination it had when it came into office -- effectively to get out of the Balkans, to let the Europeans assist and monitor. So any immediate intensification or re-intensification of American interest in Southeastern Europe seems to have faded."

Wheeler and Phillips agree the Balkan states are not currently a high-risk region for terrorist activity, but warn they could easily become so. Both say that unless the U.S. and other Western governments renew their attention to building adequate state structures in vulnerable countries like Bosnia, the potential for more tragedy is considerable.