ISIS has new turf, this time in Europe. The German magazine Der Spiegel reports that there are now remote villages in the mountains of northern Bosnia where where the ISIS flag flies, and residents live under Sharia law. Roughly half of Bosnians are Muslim, and the radical ultra-devout make up a very small percentage. But it appears that percentage is growing — and growing violent — as extremists are gaining a foothold in rural Bosnian society.
There are between 200 and 300 Bosnians fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, more than from any other European nation besides Belgium. The Der Spiegel report indicates that young Bosnians are being recruited domestically by Bosnian Salafist (ultraconservative Sunni Muslim) clerics.
The Bosnia-ISIS connection isn’t random. On the contrary, the Bosnian War of the 1990s was a crucial period in the history of modern jihadism. In many respects, Bosnia is where contemporary jihadism took shape, culminating in the rise of ISIS.
In the early 1990s, Bosniak communities were suffering massacre after massacre at the hands of Serbs, and their plight had become a cause célèbre among Muslims worldwide. A group of foreign fighters from the Middle East and North Africa came to the aid the Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians), calling themselves the Mujahideen Battalion. Thousands of them arrived between 1992 and 1995, financially backed by wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. They brought with them weapons, combat training, and a burgeoning jihadist ideology.
Modern jihadism originated in Afghanistan, during the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. At that time the United States supported the Afghan mujahideen, so jihadism lacked the dimension that now defines it: a narrative of apocalyptic war between Islam and the West. In Bosnia, however, the Mujahideen Battalion found itself fighting Westerners on behalf of Islam, for perhaps the first time. “Bosnia gave the modern jihadist movement that narrative,” said Aimen Dean, a Saudi who fought with the Mujahideen Battalion as a young man. “It is the cradle.”
The Mujahideen Battalion recruited local fighters to join their brigade, and in doing so introduced a global brand of hardline Islamism into the Bosnian population. Islamic extremism in Bosnia today is a direct descendent of that period of cultural exchange between Bosniaks and foreign jihadists. One Bosnian who fought with the Mujahideen Battalion was Bilal Bosnić — today, he’s known as the nation’s top extremist cleric, and is currently serving seven years in prison for recruiting ISIS fighters. Bosnić and other clerics like him are responsible for turning northern mountain towns into miniature caliphates.
In the 90s, foreign fighters from the Arab world flocked to Bosnian Muslims’ aid, and refined their jihadist message in the process. Now Bosnian Salafism — the ideological offspring of that historical moment — is supplying young recruits to Arab countries. ISIS’s presence in Bosnia is alarming but ultimately unsurprising: what we’re witnessing now is merely a revival of a decades-old relationship between Bosnia and jihad.
Originally published on 2016-04-16
Author: Meagan Day
Origins of images: Facebook, Twitter, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google, Imageinjection, Public Domain & Pinterest.
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