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The True Aims Of Bosnia's 'Operation Light'

Bosnian police move into Gornja Maoca on February 2. Given the extent of the operation and the media frenzy that surrounded it, the results did not seem that impressive.
Bosnian police move into Gornja Maoca on February 2. Given the extent of the operation and the media frenzy that surrounded it, the results did not seem that impressive.
SARAJEVO -- Earlier this month in northern Bosnia, hundreds of police officers raided the remote mountain village of Gornja Maoca, in what authorities described as the largest police operation in the country since the 1992-95 war.

Codenamed "Light," the raid was aimed at "identifying people suspected of endangering the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, threatening the constitutional order and promoting national, racial and religious hatred."

For several years, Gornja Maoca has been home to local followers of Salafism, a strict form of Sunni Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran.

Salafism derives from the Arabic word "salaf," meaning predecessor or ancestor. In Islamic terminology, the term is generally used to refer to the first three generations of Muslims. Salafis believe the practice of Islam should return to those roots and they categorically reject most innovations that entered the religion at a later date.

Foreign Influence

Salafism has shallow roots in Bosnia. Religiously moderate Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, were introduced to the movement during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, with the arrival of hundreds of foreign Islamic fighters, the so-called mujahedin, as well as Islamic missionaries from the Middle East and North Africa. The fighters and missionaries came to Bosnia to defend Islam, fighting alongside Bosnian Muslims in their war against ethnic Serbian and Croatian units.

Most foreign fighters have since left the Balkan country, but the end of the war saw a general revival of Islam in parts of the Bosnian-Croat Federation, with some young Bosniaks embracing the ultraorthodox creed of Salafism.

That is the case with some 20 families in the village of Gornja Maoca, who have been living in strict accordance with Islamic Shari'a law. Local children attend an Islamic elementary school, which operates outside the public education system, while music, television, and newspapers are banned.

Until this month, sporadic efforts by district government officials, journalists, and even police to enter the village were usually met with resistance, as the local Salafi community saw these attempts as trespassing on their private property.

For years, the authorities generally ignored the situation in Gornja Maoca and tolerated its extraterritorial status. It was believed that any resolute action aimed at reestablishing law and order in the reclusive community would enrage the country's official Islamic Community. In recent years, this body in charge of the religious affairs of Bosnian Muslims and a driving force behind the ruling Party of Democratic Action, was quick to brand as Islamophobia any criticism of Salafi radicalization in Bosnia.

The spiritual leader of the Salafis in Gornja Maoca, Sheikh Nusret Imamovic, has been behind a number of controversies, as he declared his intention to establish similar Salafi communities elsewhere in Bosnia. He was perhaps best-known for the sermons and messages he posted on his website, "Path of Believers," in which he suggested that suicide bombings against non-Muslims were permissible in Islam. His radical views and reported growing number of followers raised suspicions about his possible involvement in terrorist-related activities in Bosnia.

Suspected Terrorist Links

Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States, there has been much talk that Bosnia risked becoming a "launching pad" for Al-Qaeda. Media reports and analysts warned about the group's alleged recruitment of Europeans known as "white Muslims," because of their ability to pass unnoticed around the continent.

In that context, Gornja Maoca became suspected as a potential terrorist hideout and logistical base for Al-Qaeda-linked individuals on their way to or from Western Europe. The Bosnian government's reluctance to deal with the issue decisively became an increasing irritant to Bosnia's foreign partners, especially for U.S. officials, who considered the situation in Gornja Maoca untenable.

This message was conveyed to Bosnian authorities in no uncertain terms during the visit to Sarajevo by FBI Director Robert Mueller in November 2009. According to a high-ranking Bosnian official who wished to remain anonymous, "the first question Mueller asked at the meeting with the chiefs of Bosnian law enforcement agencies was: 'What are you doing about Gornja Maoca?'"

After weeks of preparations, on the morning of February 2 hundreds of police officers from 11 Bosnian law enforcement agencies entered the village of Gornja Maoca and began house searches. The 10-hour action resulted in the arrest of seven people, including Sheikh Imamovic, and the seizure of some arms, ammunition, cell phones, computers, and cash, as well as audio and video material.

Given the extent of the operation and the media frenzy that surrounded it, the results did not seem that impressive. A U.S. diplomatic source in Sarajevo familiar with the case, speaking to RFE/RL under condition of anonymity, said that "based on the stuff police are pulling out of there, the Salafis from Gornja Maoca do seem a bit like amateurs."

European Security Cooperation

While the police raid in Gornja Maoca was still in progress on February 2, Bosnia's minister of security, Sadik Ahmetovic, addressed the 13th European Police Congress in Berlin. Sadikovic spoke of the progress Bosnia was making on security issues and he reiterated his government's readiness to contribute to the establishment of a secure European environment. He also stressed Bosnia's "complete support for the EU strategy in the fight against terrorism."

The positive impression Ahmetovic made on his fellow European law enforcement officials was in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Tarik Sadovic, who was banned from addressing the Police Congress in 2008 for his alleged support for "Muslim radicals" in Bosnia.

The German government, which until then had been a staunch opponent of visa liberalization for Bosnia, said following the Gornja Maoca operation that it was now ready to intensify assistance to Bosnian institutions and law enforcement agencies in order for the next European Commission report to be positive and for Bosnia to be granted a non-visa regime.

The European Commission is scheduled to complete its next progress report on Bosnia in April.

Following the Bosnian police operations of February 2, the European Police Mission in Bosnia commended what it termed "the highest level of coordination and ever-increasing degree of professional cooperation among law enforcement agencies."

PR Exercise

However, just a week after the raids in Bosnia took place, there is growing sentiment in the country that the police operations were only designed to create a positive impression, aimed primarily at getting the visa regime lifted.

And why not? For the vast majority of Bosnians, visa-free travel is seen as the most immediate benefit of any progress made in their country's tortuous march toward the European Union.

A low-budget police operation, estimated to have cost only 65,000 euros ($90,000), against an isolated Salafi village community, seems like a small price to pay for visa liberalization. It has the added bonus of perhaps securing more popular support for the authorities in the coming general elections this October.

But there is a potential pitfall. By choosing to portray the operation in Gornja Maoca as an action aimed at restoring territorial integrity and the rule of law on a patch of usurped land, the government in Sarajevo has opened the way for another, possibly unintended political development.

A few hours after the police raids in Bosnia, U.S. Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair, in a report to the Senate, warned that tensions in Bosnia "pose a threat to stability in all of Europe." But the top U.S. intelligence official wasn't referring to Bosnian Salafis and their alleged ties with Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist networks, but rather to rising animosities among the Bosnian Croat, Muslim, and Serb factions and the "hardening of their divergent agendas" that could threaten the stability of the fragile state.

War Continues By Different Means

"Bosnian Serb leaders seek to reverse some reforms, warn of legal challenges to the authority of the international community, and assert their right to eventually hold a referendum on secession, all of which is contributing to growing interethnic tensions. On the other hand, Muslims and Croats want to suspend division in entities in order to advance toward the membership in the EU," Blair's report states.

Fifteen years after the Dayton peace accords, Bosnia remains an ethnically divided country. The peace agreement, brokered by the United States, may have ended a bitter 3 1/2-year armed conflict, but through the establishment of the ethnic Serbian Republika Srpska and Bosnian-Croat Federation it incorporated, rather than resolved, the fundamental dispute over which the war was fought -- namely, whether Bosnia is a single or divided country.

The authorities in the Republika Srpska are pursuing a nationalist agenda while refusing to commit to a more centralized state. In addition, the Bosnian Serb leadership keeps flirting with the idea of independence from Bosnia and threatens to hold a referendum on the issue in order to get popular support for secession. This strategy not only questions the legitimacy and viability of the Bosnian state, but also introduces instability and fear of a renewed conflict, especially among Bosniaks who suffered the most during the war at the hands of their Serbian and Croatian enemies.

Fear-producing factors can ignite hatred, and sometimes incite violence. Bosnia's recent history provides a stark reminder of the dangers that can result from the unfortunate marriage of hatred and fear.

Once the "Salafi threat" to sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia has been removed in Gornja Maoca, the public in the Bosnian-Croat Federation now expects law enforcement agencies to engage, with equal resolve, against similar and more imminent challenges to the survival of the country. That means those arising from secessionist policies of the Bosnian Serb leadership.

These expectations may seem naive as much as they are unrealistic. But in the absence of such action, many local observers believe the spectacular police operation of February 2 will amount to little more than a publicity stunt aimed at pleasing the international community and creating a false pretense of unity among Bosnia's opposing ethno-political factions.

By choosing to play along with Bosnian politicians, the international community has not only demonstrated its failure to produce coherent policies on Bosnia-Herzegovina, it has also become an accomplice in what might become a quagmire leading to the dissolution of the country. That's the kind of scenario U.S. Director of National Intelligence Blair warned of only last week.

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