Analysis: Bosnian charities aid terror?

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO   |   May 15, 2002 at 9:06 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina, May 16 (UPI) -- The statistics of the Bosnian civil war -- over a million people dead, wounded or made refugees in under four venomous years, 1992-1995 -- convey only part of the toll on a fledgling Balkan nation, its ravaged society and government left dependent on the charity of international organizations that ventured to help in areas even when the International Red Cross deemed it too dangerous.

Yet some of those groups, both Bosnian and U.S. intelligence officials now say, support radical Islamic activities and terrorism.

It was charities from Islamic and other nations immediately after the war, and to a lesser extent today, that took the lead to feed and clothe the survivors of ethnic cleansing -- the Muslim Slavs, mostly, but the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs as well.

Hundreds of millions of dollars and good works later, several Islamic charities active in Bosnia have become suspected conduits for terrorist activities. And after Sept. 11, Bosnian and NATO intelligence organizations began investigations that have revealed links between Islamist terror groups and the charities, including the strong suspicion that some Bosnian-based groups have provided cover, training, supplies and money-laundering services for individual terrorists.

This became evident in a series of raids since last autumn by Bosnian and U.S. intelligence agencies that netted several suspected members of al Qaida and what officials describe as evidence that several charities support terrorist groups.

Some of the evidence became public in April, when authorities in Illinois arrested on charges of perjury the president of the Benevolence International Foundation, a prominent international charity. Enaan Arnaout had signed an affidavit denying he had ever had links to terrorism, but evidence seized from BIF offices in Bosnia showed a long-term relationship with Osama bin Laden that began during the 1980s Afghan-Soviet war as well as other links to suspected terrorists around the world. The raids also found illegal weapons and other signs of a possible terrorist plot.

Sarajevo residents nevertheless continue to appreciate the work done by many charities, even as the mostly secular nation becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the terrorist links and spreading influence of some of the more radical charities.

"You cannot put all of these groups in the same basket," said Jakob Finci, the leader of Sarajevo's tiny but very influential Jewish community. "At the onset of the war, many of these Muslim NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were better equipped and prepared to help us survive than the (Bosnian) government. And after the International Red Cross pulled out, after the murder of a driver, they were the only ones willing to be in the city helping us for a long time."

A widespread investigation by United Press International in Bosnia -- including interviews with Bosnian and international officials, local journalists, religious leaders, local and international intelligence officials and some Muslim groups themselves -- has determined that many groups do actively encourage Bosnian Muslims away from the secular traditions and toward a fundamentalist religious environment that typical Bosnians would have considered alien 10 years ago. And evidence is mounting that some of the charities are active in harboring and supporting terrorists themselves.

The events of Sept. 11 sparked a new interest in Bosnia among NATO and U.S. intelligence operations and the international media. The spotlight has thrust the Bosnian government in a difficult position: its professed desire for European integration as an effective ally of the United States in combating terrorism, while respectfully reforming its dealings with groups that have spent huge sums of money to help them rebuild and armed them when no one else would.

With a weakened government that lacks many typical powers of a federal entity due to the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which provides for international oversight, Bosnian and international officials admit the new government did little to monitor the groups of foreigners that brought millions of dollars in aid.

"This is a very decentralized government of a nonfunctioning country," according to Deputy Minister Rasmin Kadic, a top official in the task force formed after Sept. 11 to coordinate the fight against terrorism. "There are almost no laws (regulating charity work) on the federal level. It is all on the canton (local) level."

But Kadic said that since Sept. 11, Bosnia-Herzegovina's government has begun an exhaustive search of the financial records of charities, investigations of their operations and even some searches of their offices and computers. He said the preliminary results show activity that falls beyond suspicious.

These suspicions led to the closure of the Bosnian offices of three Islamic charities including BIF, Global Relief Foundation and the Saudi-based Alharamain earlier this year. An official with the Bosnian Ministry of Internal Affairs also said the Saudi High Relief Commission, one of the largest Islamic charities in the world, would likely be closed in the near future as well because raids revealed inappropriate materials that appear to indicate terrorist activity.

The Saudi High Relief Commission, which refused UPI's repeated interview requests, has spent an estimated $800 million over the last 10 years on a wide range of humanitarian projects. Kadic and other officials confirmed that suspicious activities by BIF, HRC and GRF include millions of dollars in aid that remain unaccounted for, associations with individuals arrested in a plot against the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, educational materials that endorse terror activities, and what appeared to be planning materials for terrorist strikes throughout Europe.

Materials found in various raids include weapons, money, detailed maps of government buildings in Washington, information on the operation of crop dusters, before and after photographs of the destruction of the World Trade Center by al Qaida, and anti-U.S. and Israeli materials.

In 1992 Bosnians passed a referendum to declare its independence from Yugoslavia. The outcome displeased many among its Serb population, who felt being separated from neighboring Serbia could leave them vulnerable in the wake of Yugoslavia's breakup. Civil war erupted, supported by Balkan power-brokers such as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, both since indicted with war crimes by the United Nations.

During the war, the NATO blockade of arms into the former Yugoslavia -- which mostly only hurt the Muslim forces as the Serbs controlled much of the well-equipped federal army -- forced the fledgling Bosnian government to rely on both Mafia groups and Muslim countries to smuggle in weapons, supplies and money to fight the civil war. As many as 3,000 fighters came from around the Islamic world to fight in a unit called El Mudzahid, and brought with them a more intense, and less tolerant, form of Islam to the region.

The role of these foreign religious fighters after the war was of grave concern to international officials, and as a condition of the Dayton accord, most were forced to leave the country. But even the temporary presence, mixed with the between 70 and 300 that remain in Bosnia after marrying local women, had the effect of introducing religious extremism to the army and country. The effects included the adoption of Arabic traditions into military life, including previously unfamiliar traditional greetings among solders and an institutional distrust of the Western culture that most Bosnians considered themselves a part. Since the end of the war, the Bosnian government has been increasingly willing to monitor and evict these men, even if they are married into local families.

But while Bosnian cooperation has impressed some officials, some intelligence operatives from U.S. and NATO agencies believe the close ties between elements of the Bosnian military and intelligence establishments and the Islamic world compromises it as a partner in the fight against religious terrorism.

"You can't trust a lot of these Muslim guys (in the Bosnian intelligence and police services)," one mid-level NATO officer said. "Why would they be candid with a journalist about the crackdown? These are their friends who supplied them with arms during the war."

But a U.N. official was more circumspect on the relationships at work, pointing out that from 1990 until October 2000, the Party for Democratic Action, or SDA, had tightly controlled the BiH intelligence service, the Bosniak Agency for Research and Documentation, abbreviated AID. The SDA, under its founder and the first Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, had strong ties to the Arab and Persian Gulf nations during the war through Cengic, which continues to anger many secular Bosnians. The tangle helped defeat the SDA in 2000, which has been replaced with a more pro-western government, the Alliance for Democratic Change.

One Bosnian political supporter of a multiethnic and secular Bosnia said allowing the Arab fighters into the country and the close relationships between the SDA and some Islamic NGOs and governments should be viewed as criminal corruption.

"I am trying to support changes in the police and intelligence services," said Stjepan Kljuic, head of the Republican Party, which is part of the ruling Alliance Coalition. "I have asked them for a long time to arrest those responsible for bringing the Arabs here and to release the lists of those people holding our passports. Suddenly the international community is arresting Algerian terrorists who hold our passports. And I am told they will arrest five or 10 more. Coincidence that these men are here, I don't think so."

Izetbegovic first rose to prominence as a dissident under communism for his strong religious views and desire to see an Islamic revival in Bosnia. But he never specifically advocated a fundamentalist Islamic state and immediately condemned the Sept. 11 attacks.

But many of his former associates remain powerful in various ministries, and U.N. and NATO officials appear convinced that they protect some of the dubious charities and organizations. One key domestic group, the Active Islamic Youth, or AIO, has advocated that Bosnia should adopt Sharia law, the traditional code that governs Islam, and several observers and intelligence operatives in the area say the group enjoys support from many in the AID. The AIO also aggressively recruits from displaced and disillusioned Bosnian youths that were orphaned or made homeless by the war.

The money spent to rebuild Bosnia also pose a problem in the fight against terror. Local and international officials said such huge sums would make it easy for charities to hide or launder illegal activity. But with billions of dollars spent over the last 10 years, with limited government oversight, it would be hard to overstate the impact of the sheer numbers of dollars spent by these groups to help the local population.

According to estimates supplied by the Saudi Embassy in Sarajevo, from 1993 to 1999, the Saudi High Relief Commission spent over $561 million in aid. Estimates for a near 10-year period of 1992 to present are at almost $800 million from this particular group alone, in a combination of money from the Saudi government and private donations collected by the High Commission.

Although it is difficult to verify the figures because of a lack of outside auditing, the HC says it has spent money in the following areas: over $224 million in support of the government of BiH, $104 million for relief materials, $6 million serving displaced persons, $6 million on health care, and $13 million as part of a orphan protection program.

The Bosnians repeatedly say that they appreciate the efforts of the charities, but the association with terrorism, they fear, could hurt their country's ability to integrate with the west, which remains the goal of most Bosnians.

"We are reaching the point where we need to say, 'Thank you for your generosity and your help, but it is time for you to go home,'" said one top Bosnian police official. "We cannot let anyone make us a base for terrorists."

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories