Terrorism trials involving Balkan Islamists show that many of these individuals were either indoctrinated by – or had close links to – radicalised communities in Germany, Austria and Italy.
Elameri Skrgic Mikulic, Fatjona Mejdini, Maria Cheresheva, Maja Zivanovic, Labinot Leposhtica BIRN Sarajevo, Sofia, Belgrade, Pristina, Tirana
I do not know what Islamic State is,” Ahmed Moussa told journalists when he was temporarily released from prison in Bulgaria in November.
An imam from Iztok, he was arrested three years ago alongside 13 other Roma men on suspicion of inciting religious hatred and spreading ISIS propaganda.
He and two others were additionally charged with providing support to foreign jihadists travelling to Syria.
Moussa had been a Christian until the age of 20, attending the local evangelical church. However, he later became a standard-bearer for the new radical brand of Islam in Iztok.
Court documents from his previous convictions of spreading religious hatred sketch out the process of his transformation.
He converted to Islam on a visit to Austria in the mid-1990s. Later, he attended a one-year course for imams in the Bulgarian village of Surnitsa, which is where his teacher, who had a degree from Saudi Arabia, introduced him to hardline Salafist ideas.
The investigation into Moussa and his group established links to the large Bulgarian community in Cologne, Germany, where many Roma have gone in search of employment.
A witness in the case told prosecutors that one of the other defendants in case, Angel Simov, got to know the Turkish man he allegedly helped travel to Syria while they were working together in Germany.
In Cologne, in 2001, Moussa himself got in touch with a German-based Turkish radical Islamist organisation Kalifatsstaat [Caliphate state] and agreed to spread their ideas, court documents say. The German authorities banned the group in December of that year.
Moussa’s case is not an isolated event. Ongoing local trials in the Balkans for terrorism and participation in foreign conflicts that BIRN has monitored show that many defendants either received funding from organisations and individuals from Europe or were influenced by Islamic fundamentalists in Europe, mainly in Germany, Austria and Italy.
Hub for Bosniak jihadists is Austria
Court proceedings in Bosnia, Serbia and Austria show that most Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] radical Islamists have had links to diaspora groups in Austria.
Beside Austria’s geographical proximity, some experts believe this is because Austria gives a good deal of freedom for fundamentalist organisations to operate.
“Due to the openness of Austrian society to religious freedoms and its significant population from the Balkans, it has been easy for preachers of radical Islam to develop organisations [there], including the most notorious radical Islamist preachers,” Professor Jasmin Ahic, from Sarajevo’s faculty for security studies, told BIRN.
In 2016 the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, found Nedzad Mujic guilty of providing financial assistance to foreign fighters, traveling several times himself between Austria and Syria from 2013 until 2015.
The court found that Mujic had travelled to Syria from Austria with large amounts of money, which he then gave to Bosniak jihadists fighting the secular regime of President Assad.
Mujic was sentenced to one year in jail, which he was permitted to avoid by paying a fine of about 15,000 euros. He than returned to Austria, where he owns a private business.
Austria’s own courts have also prosecuted cases related to Bosniak Jihadists.
When two Bosniak teenagers, Sabina Selimovic and Samra Kesinovic, fled from Austria to Syria three years ago, Austrian police arrested Mirsad Omerovic, aka “Ebu Tejim”, and 12 others on suspicion of recruiting volunteers for terrorist activities.
It was believed that Omerovic, who was born in the mainly Bosniak town of Tutin, southwest Serbia, was a significant person in Islamic State’s network in Europe.
He allegedly operated as link between the ISIS leadership based in Raqqa, Syria, and Bosniak jihadists, including the convicted Islamist preacher Bilal Bosnic.
In 2015 Omerovic was sentenced to 20 years in prison. His trial revealed also how he had run a mosque that most of the known jihadists from the former Yugoslavia had attended.
Bosnian security services believe that Austria-based radical Islamists were also behind Vijesti Ummeta, [News of the Community], a website that spreads ISIS propaganda in the Bosniak language.
Ongoing trials in Serbia for terrorism activities in Syria also showed that many leaders of youth organisations that recruited young people from the mainly Bosniak city of Novi Pazar either had financial or spiritual links with Austria and that their premises were visited by radical Islamist preachers from Vienna.
Albanian Jihadists look to Italy
Besides Bosniaks, Muslim Albanians – from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia – have provided another significant cohort of fighters from the Balkans in the Middle East.
While Bosnia has been oriented historically towards Austria, Albanians have closer links to Italy, which is often a hub for Albanian criminals, organised crime networks and, more recently, Jihadists.
The trial in Kosovo of Samet Imishiti, who used Facebook to spread ISIS propaganda, showed that he travelled often to Italy and had connections with there diaspora there both from Kosovo and Albania.
Italian police last year arrested four suspected Islamist militants from Kosovo, all with residence permits in Italy, following 12 raids, ten in the historic centre of Venice, one in Mestre, the mainland suburb of Venice, and one in nearby Treviso.
Media reports said telephone conversations between the suspects recorded them celebrating the Islamist terror attack in March 2017 in London, in which Khalid Masood, 52, drove a car into crowds walking across Westminster Bridge, killing three people, before fatally stabbing a policeman outside Parliament.
“They were all attached to the ideology of ISIS and interested in the recent attacks, above all the one in London, which they praised,” Adelchi D’Ippolito, a prosecutor in the case said.
They also allegedly downloaded information from extremist websites about how to carry out terrorist attacks.
Derand Krasniqi, Tirana-based security expert, told BIRN, that many of the most problematic terrorist cases involving Albanians had an Italian connection, noting also that Italian authorities have deported at least 15 Albanians in recent years for extremism.
In May 2017, Italy deported an Albanian aged 25 living in Bergamo for eight years after he was accused of active support for the ISIS ideology.
In October, an Albanian and a Macedonian Albanian were expelled from Italy after anti-terrorist police in Bari found out that they were in constant communication with a pro-ISIS radical.
In the last such case, in November 2017, a 22-year-old Albanian living in Rimini was deported to Albania after reportedly violating a home detention order and showing up in a church and demanding that the believers convert to Islam.
Italian authorities also suspect that radical Islamic cells in Albania were key in enabling the safe passage of militants from Italy to Syria, including whole families, as in the case of Aldo Kobuzi and Maria Guila Sergio, nicknamed by the Italian media as “Lady Jihad”.
According to a document seen by BIRN, the Italian Interior Ministry in 2015 identified five radical cells from the Balkans operating in Italy and recruiting jihadist fighters for the Islamic State.
The cells in Milan, Rome, Liguria, Lucca and Siena were all infiltrated into local communities of Muslim emigrants from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia.
Derand Krasniqi said the German, Belgian and British authorities were also concerned about the activities in their countries of radicalized members of the Balkan diaspora.
He believes ISIS propaganda machinery has had a real impact on both first and second-generation migrants from the Balkans in Western countries.
These people initially went in search of a better life, escaping poverty and employment in the Balkans, but ended up becoming targets for radical Islamists who offered them their own perception of integration and belonging.
Such was the case with Perparo Delia, a Kosovo Albanian reported dead last month following a car accident in Syria.
Sadri Delija, his father, told BIRN that he received the news of the death from his son’s mother-in-law who lives in Germany, from where the young man travelled to Syria.
“I haven’t seen my son for seven years. He went to Germany to study theology and language,” he said. “When he went to Syria there wasn’t a war going on. Allah has decided this, so this has been his destiny,” he said.