Several Balkan mothers burst into tears at the beginning of 2014 after being told their sons were killed fighting in Syria on the side of various Islamist militias. Mirza Ganic (19) from the Serbian province of Sandzak, who used the pseudonym “Abu Shehid,” was among the last that became a real “shehid” (martyr). The more foreign fighters go to Syria, the more they their bones there.
Those “European jihadists” will not be on the agenda of the Geneva conference, with the aim of finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria, but they can hardly be avoided as a matter of discussion on its margins. In the event the conference brings an end to the Syrian warfare, which is almost impossible to expect under the circumstances prevailing, then the return of all those young people to their homes or countries of residence might become a more important issue than their adventurous trip to the “holy war” against the infidel Bashar Al-Assad.
In fact, those who have already come back are becoming a matter of considerable official and public concern. As long as the foreign mujahideen have been fighting in the lines of the “moderate“ Free Syrian Army (FSA) they were given, though reluctantly, a green light from Western governments. However, when the vast majority of them joined Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) and other smaller militant groups that are linked to al-Qaeda, it became a call for bell ringing for Western intelligence groups. At the same time, considerations and consultations on measures for preventing their return have started in European capitals.
The British Independent daily reported last December that the terrorist threat to Europe and the United States from the “jihad warriors” in Syria was growing rapidly. The Strategic Culture Foundation, an online journal, learned that MI5 and Scotland Yard have detected the first case of rebels sent from Syria to London for the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks there “when needed.” According to US intelligence and counterterrorism officials, fearing that they may have received training and extremist indoctrination, the FBI started undertaking round-the-clock surveillance on around 70 Americans who have either traveled to Syria or tried to in the last three years. Recalling that some of them might obtain American weapons while serving in the FSA, “Then Washington will face a baptism of fire from Americans when merely one of these fighters returns to the US to carry out acts of terrorism,” Martin Jay wrote recently in The Atlantic Post, an international journal of news and analysis.
A major security concern
In Western Europe, where larger numbers have left for Syria, security and agencies share the same concerns and have started to track those who return. Officials from some EU countries, like the UK, France, Holland and Belgium, have already made known that jihadists might lose many of their rights, even citizenship, if they attempt to come back home. “Thus they will be forced to remain in limbo on their transit routes,” wrote somebody recently. I forget who said it, but I am convinced that just the Balkans was meant by that “limbo.” I would divide all those areas between Syria and the US that the young Muslims are penetrating and moving through — more illegally than legally — on their way to or coming back from the Syrian front into three regions: Turkey, the European Southeast and the European West.
Besides great political and security consequences, and particularly heavy economic burdens caused by hundreds of thousands of refugees coming from war-torn Syria, Turkey has to deal with the additional problem of foreign rebels using its territory and vulnerable borders as a transit route. Turkey has been deporting European citizens linked to Islamist groups going to Syria, but still “Ankara has been accused of turning a blind eye to radical Islamists fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad,” said Semih Idiz, the Taraf daily diplomatic columnist. The agreement signed last December with the EU on refugees and illegal migrants should help Turkey to avoid such accusations. EU member states might more easily solve the problem of returnees from jihad in Syria by more strict controls on its eastern and Mediterranean borders, not permitting them back and coordinating their efforts to track those who eventually succeed in returning.
Some Balkan countries have initiated legal measures to prevent young people from going to war-torn countries. So far, only Macedonian law forbids citizens from taking part in foreign paramilitary groups, and if it was proved that some of them fought in Syria, for example, they could face trial. In Serbia draft amendments to the criminal code envisage five years in prison for recruiting adolescents for military campaigns of the extremist Islamic movement Wahhabi and three years of prison for the young men who join the war. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic, himself a Muslim, proposed the amendments, and a similar bill for sanctioning participation in paramilitary forces was also initiated in Sarajevo by Fahrudin Radoncic, the Bosnian minister of security.
Both ministers, however, found themselves targets of serious treats by the above-mentioned Mirza Ganic. He recently posted pictures of ministers Ljajić and Radoncic on his Facebook profile, with a caption reading, “Prostitutes of the West.” “These are traitors of Islam and devils, people who seek to ban what Allah ordered, therefore, seek to introduce ‘laws’ that will prohibit joining the Jihad. They would like us to sit idle while Ummah is bleeding. That won’t happen…” continued Ganic, who appeared on Facebook the last time on Jan. 4. That was probably the day he bled to death for the joint cause of his companions. He was deputy to Bajro Ikanovic, another Bosniak “mujahid,” who had already been convicted of terrorism. He was commander of one of the most extreme paramilitary formations in Syria under the control of al-Qaeda. After “liberating” Azzaz from the FSA, near Aleppo, Ikanovic and Ganic established there a small Bosniak settlement and staff of Balkan mujahideens in Syria. They arranged it in similar way as Gornja Maoca, the village in northern Bosnia, where Wahhabi-Salafi followers established their main Balkan base and recruiting center.
The story of the Muhajideen arriving in Bosnia
It would be good if further recruitment of Balkan youths could be prevented by legal or other means, but regarding Ikanovic and similar mujahideen, it would be better if they go somewhere else than Bosnia and the Balkans after the eventual, but still almost impossible, end of the war in Syria.
Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading newspaper of Turkey.