European Affairs

How to Outflank al Qaeda in the Balkans     Print
Joel E. Starr

Joel E. StarrBorijove Jevtic and his 19-year-old co-conspirator, triggerman Gavrilo Princip, decided to kill Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 not only because of Austrian domination in the Balkans, but also because the Archduke was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on June 28, "a date engraved deeply in the heart of every Serb." This was the day on which the Turks defeated the Serbian kingdom in 1389 at the battle of Amselfelde, known today as the Battle of Kosovo, and, in the minds of the conspirators, the Archduke's visit was timed to insult the Serbian people.

There is no particular historical evidence to support this charge, but it symbolizes the 600-year tradition of war and blind ethnic hatred that curses the Balkan people. And notwithstanding the Serbian hatred of the Turks, Asian influences have permeated this region ever since 1389. None more than religion - and today it is a perversion of Islam that threatens the Balkans and the West.

In June 2004, I met with many Balkan and American government officials during a congressional delegation trip headed by Congressman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia. These meetings convinced me that unless continued Western economic and military resources are focused in this area, the Balkans could resume its historical role as the gateway to influences from the East. Unfortunately, radical Muslim fundamentalism could dominate these influences, partly because the Balkan economies are, in the words of one U.S. Ambassador, "flat on their backs." I believe that instead of merely blunting such a radical Islamic surge westward, revived and thriving Balkan economies, combined with an aggressive recruitment of local human intelligence among the region's Muslim communities, could serve as an offensive maneuver in the war against terrorism.We, the West, could in effect outflank al Qaeda.

After the death of Tito in 1980, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Com-munist Party apparatchiks still resisted reforms in Yugoslavia. But they could not prevent the return of the ethnic and religious hatred that had been smoldering since 1945. "It was Tito's legacy of a stultified political system and a collapsing economy," writes Noel Malcolm in his book, "Kosovo: A Short History "that created the conditions under which a politician such as Slobodan Milosevic could rise to power and manipulate Serbian nationalism to his own destructive advantage."

The result was over a decade of civil war in the former Yugoslavia that has been ruinous to the entire region's economy. Despite large infusions of economic assistance, unemployment still hovers at 25 percent. More ominous is the fact that the larger the Muslim minority population is in seven of the eight historically recognized Balkan countries (Albania not being included because of its Muslim majority), the higher the unemployment rate. Conversely, the lower the percentage of Muslims, the lower the country's unemployment rate. In other words, it seems that ethnic and religious economic discrimination exists in a region that scholars called "European Turkey" well into the 19th century.

It would be an oversimplification, however, to blame all current economic conditions on ethnic and religious prejudice. For example, more than 1 million unexploded landmines buried throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina are retarding economic development, particularly in agriculture and forestry. Since 1996, 2,555 people have been killed or injured by landmines, and at the current rate of government demining it will take 50 years to remove them all.

Another drag on the economies is the tax burden placed on businesses. Bosnia, for instance, imposes multiple levels and types of taxation, from federal down to local level. Tax structures vary widely and are punishing. For example, it takes 59 days on average to register a business in Sarajevo, and payroll taxes on businesses there can run as high as 60 percent of wages paid. It is estimated that up to 147 taxes could be levied on a single business in Sarajevo, many requiring collection every week. Financial experts regard such measures as "nuisance taxes," which cost more to administer than the revenue they generate, and drive legitimate medium and small enterprises out of business or underground.

Although these examples do not directly relate to ethnic and religious intolerance, they both arose out of the latest Balkan wars. Landmines were laid along real or perceived ethnic and religious boundaries, and the current government structure, with its lack of strong national institutions, is a result of the Dayton Peace Accords. So it is reasonable to ask whether a region and a population, segregated by relative prosperity based on ethnicity and religion, can become fertile ground for radical religious influences. Specifically, does the relative poverty of the Muslim population create an atmosphere for recruitment by al Qaeda and allied radical fundamentalists? The answer is a qualified yes.

Barisa Colak, the Bosnian Minister of Security, said that terrorism was "first on my list of priorities." He meant not only terrorism perpetrated within his country, but also the potential of its being "exported" to the West. He blamed the threat on Muslim "volunteers," the thousands of Islamic fundamentalists who came from Arab countries to fight alongside their Muslim brothers during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Many either married into the local population or were granted citizenship "inappropriately" by the previous Muslim Bosnian government, he said. "How do we monitor the movement of these ‘foreigners' in our country?" the Minister asked. "Where do we get the support?"

Congressman Turner replied that the United States appreciated Bosnia's war on terrorism and would continue to assist the Ministry, both technically and financially, as it set up its own FBI-like internal security organization (the State Information and Protection Agency or SIPA). One of the organization's main aims will be to control the country's and Europe's border to the East. According to an embassy official in Sarajevo, "In the [Bosnian] government's mind, it is about drawing the line between extreme Islamic influence and legitimate, moderate ­ traditional if you will ­ Islamic influence."

U.S. Army Major General Virgil Packet, NATO Commander of the multinational Stabilization Force in northeastern Bosnia made a similar point. "With a 1,400 kilometer border, Bosnia and Herzegovina was formerly a sanctuary for terrorism, but now it is a gateway for terrorism," he said. After years of fighting, few Bosnians were gainfully employed, creating a "sort of welfare state," he added. Although there was no threat of conventional war, and some economic progress had been made, a continued military presence was needed because of this potential terrorist threat, the General concluded.

In March 2004, Kosovo experienced the worst violence since the end of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, after rumors spread following the drowning of two Kosovo Albanian boys near the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. The incident left 19 dead and about 3,000 Kosovo Force (KFOR) multinational troops were needed to restore order. There remains a strong chance of further unrest, according to U.S. Army Major Barbara Kuenneck, stationed at Camp Bondsteel. "It could take place with as little as two [more] little sparks in order for things to blow up again."

The reasons she gave were multiple: final status negotiations on whether Kosovo would become independent or remain an autonomous region within Serbia, land ownership disputes and inadequate economic development, with unemployment running as high as 70 percent among a 1.9 million population (90 percent of whom are Kosovar Albanian Muslims). This is particularly disturbing because since 1999 the European Union and the United States have contributed a total of $2.8 billion to Kosovo for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, as well as for economic and community development.

In Croatia, despite ongoing Westernstyle reforms, unemployment is close to 20 percent, which, while low for the region, is still unacceptable. In Macedonia, the figure is more than 40 percent among a population of 2 million, of whom 30 percent are Muslim. United States foreign assistance there for 2004 was set at $39 million (down from $50 million for the two previous fiscal years). In such conditions, it is easy to imagine that the discontented youth of the region could provide new recruits for al Qaeda and other radical fundamentalist organizations.

In Washington, the State Department does not consider the threat to be imminent. The Balkan Muslim communities were "not fertile grounds for recruitment because the Balkan population ­ Muslim or Christian ­ don't like foreigners, they just like hating each other," one official said. He added, however, "there always is the possibility, by not giving economic aid, of opening that door."

Another State Department official gave a fuller explanation. "The Muslim community is a secular society," he said. "The extremist threat is a real one, and we are closely monitoring it for strains of Wahhabism (a minority sect of Islam followed by al Qaeda that does not distinguish politics from religion), but the role of Islam in Bosnia, Kosovo,Macedonia and Albania is mystical not fundamentalist." He added that, "those Wahhabis who have tried in the past decade to recruit were trying to build something that was never there. There is, however, a potential for it to grow whenever you have poverty and lack of hope." Additionally, the official said, "by every objective measure, Muslims in the Balkans are rabidly pro-American . . . . and since the Albanians are original to the region, descended from the Illyrian tribes, they view Arabs, especially Saudis, as an ethnic threat." Then the official paused, and ended by saying, "I did notice, however, on my last trip there that more men were wearing beards, which could be a religious statement. That is why we are watching this very closely."

All this suggests another interesting possibility. If the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism has been halted for the moment by a strange combination of secularism, pro-Americanism and regional xenophobia, this could be a perfect opportunity for the West, and the United States in particular, to outflank al Qaeda by taking the war to their lands through our own recruitment of the Balkan Muslim populations. We could then infiltrate and help disrupt the planning and execution of future terrorists attacks abroad from Indonesia to the United States to Europe.

My theory was reinforced by a Senior Program Officer of a major implementing partner of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who had spent several years in the Muslim dominated regions of the Balkans. "Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo may be smugglers and traffickers, but they are also capitalists," the officer said. "The women in these urban centers wear mini-skirts, smoke and drink. Their lifestyle is completely incompatible with radical Islam or any other radical missionary creed." Furthermore, the officer continued, "Albanians also credit America with their salvation. Both Woodrow Wilson, who prevented the Great Powers from dividing Albania after World War I, and Bill Clinton, who saved them from the Serbs, are wildly popular. Thus they will remain our allies until we begin to abandon them - which in some ways we are already doing with the gradual reduction of U.S. foreign aid.""Poverty is the problem," the officer said. "Most of the rural areas in Kosovo, northern Albania and western Macedonia are becoming impoverished. When young men can't find opportunity, and feel disenfranchised, they reject existing power structures. One alternative is radical Islam." Mosques are still being built at an astounding rate, according to the officer. "Most are from money sent home by the Albanian diaspora, but many are financed by Saudi and Iranian donors ­ and there are strings." Mostly, these donors simply try to limit the women's dress and behavior, and have not had much success. "But they are still trying," the officer said, "and when associated radical fundamentalist charities are willing to pay women whose husbands are without jobs to wear the veil, the offer becomes more tempting by the day." "The bottom line," the officer concluded, "is that, if we show continued economic and security support, the Muslim people can be our secret weapon in wartime; they want to give back."

Since December 2002, the Congress has criticized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a human intelligence (HUMINT) collection "gap" in its failure to infiltrate terrorist networks. A Joint Senate and House Intelligence Report stated that the CIA generally "has been too reluctant to develop non-traditional HUMINT platforms, and has stuck too much and for too long with the comparatively easy work of operating under diplomatic cover from U.S. Embassies." It called on the CIA to "hire HUMINT collectors from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds." A later Senate inquiry and the 9-11 Commission in 2004 echoed these recommendations.

In the Balkans, the West has such a HUMINT resource ready for recruitment, training and deployment. And this would be not only in our interest but also in the interests of the Muslim minorities themselves. At the very least, such Muslim operatives would ensure that present and future radical Islamic surges westward would be blunted. At the most, they would truly be our secret weapons.

If the price for such support were healthy increases in U.S. foreign aid to these countries, it would also be consistent with the President's National Security Strategy issued in 2002. President Bush sees development, defense and diplomacy as three legs of a stool; without one, the national security strategy falls. With this in mind, a strong case could be made that such increases would be in our national security interest.

There is no time to be lost ­ events appear to be changing on the ground. In July 2004, the London Daily Telegraph reported that "American military intelligence and the CIA have deployed hundreds of officers in Bosnia to track suspected Islamic militants amid concern that the country has become a refuge, recruiting ground, and cash conduit for international terrorism." In September, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty reported that the FBI was investigating the activities in Bosnia of Jasin Kadi, a Saudi whom the U.S. authorities believe helps fund al Qaeda, according to Bosnian federal television.

It is time to examine new strategies, and employ new tactics in the war on terror, without further delay. Bold action in the Balkans could revive economies, add allies and allow the West to take the offensive. It might also begin to defuse the age-old ethnic hatred in the Balkans that motivated a misguided conspirator to fire the shot that started World War I, to avenge a battle more than five centuries before.

Joel E. Starr is Legislative Director of the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and is a Captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps, U.S. Army Reserve. The opinions expressed are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of USAID.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.