US embassy attack in Bosnia underscores radical Islamist threat in the Balkans
BELGRADE, Serbia — The young man wore a long beard and pants that stopped above his ankles. He sprayed the U.S. embassy in Bosnia with machine gun fire.
Friday’s incident in Sarajevo, in which the gunman and a police officer were wounded but no one died, was the latest in a series of incidents in eastern Europe involving Wahhabis — followers of an austere brand of Sunni Islam promoted by radicals, including the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
The recent rise of militant Wahhabis and other Islamic radicals across the Balkans — including in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and even European Union member Bulgaria — has triggered concerns that the region could become a breeding ground for terrorists with easy access to Western Europe or the U.S.
The shooter in Friday’s incident, 23-year-old Mevlid Jasarevic, came from Serbia — the southern region of Sandzak, a Wahhabi stronghold — but also had strong links with a conservative Bosnian Muslim village that has attracted police attention in the past.
Authorities across the Balkans say that not all Wahhabis are militants, and not all militants are Wahhabis. But they say the radical anti-Western Islamic teaching has the potential for creating terrorist cells that support the sect’s militants rooted in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many fear that militant Wahhabis and other extremist Muslims from the Balkans could slip across borders and blend into Western societies before conducting terrorist attacks.
There have already been incidents. In March, a Kosovo Albanian acting alone fatally shot two American airmen in Frankfurt. In 2008, three ethnic Albanian brothers originally from Macedonia were implicated in a plot to attack the U.S. Army’s Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
In March 2007, a police raid on what Serbian authorities said was a mountain terrorist camp unveiled a large cache of weapons, ammunition, hand grenades and plastic explosives. Twelve Wahhabis were later sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including on convictions that they planned terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassy in Belgrade.
“At this moment, the radicals cannot topple governments or trigger wars,” said Dragan Simeunovic, a political science professor at Belgrade University and terrorism expert. “What they can do are sporadic terrorist attacks.”
But, if they grow in numbers because of financial support from some Muslim countries, “we could expect bigger problems in the Balkans,” he said.
The presence of radical Muslims in the war-ravaged Balkans is linked to mujahedeen foreign fighters who joined Bosniak Muslims in their battle against the Serbs in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war for independence.
The Islamic fighters in Bosnia were largely tolerated by the U.S. and the West because of their opposition to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s quest to create a “Greater Serbia” out of the former Yugoslav republics.
The issue of radical Islamic influence is particularly politically charged in Bosnia, a country divided between Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. The Serbs maintain there is a huge presence of Wahhabis in the