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Is Saudi-funded mosque in Sarajevo threat to Bosnia’s moderate Muslims?

May 16, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
International officials are convinced that Bosnia’s brand of Westernized, moderate Islam is the best possible bulwark against radicalization. The nation’s official Islamic Community is cracking down on rural mosques that it says are too in line with Islamists — but some say the true extremist threat lies in the heart of the capital itself. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country’s reputedly moderate ruling Islamic community is cracking down on dozens of radical mosques.

The head of that community is on guard after his life was threatened by extremists. The radical mosques will be shut down unless they come under the council’s control. But there are doubts whether these small, mainly rural mosques pose the greatest threat in terms of radicalization.

A former Bosnian intelligence officer has told the “NewsHour” that Western allies should be more concerned about the risk from a huge Saudi-sponsored mosque in the capital, Sarajevo.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: I’m in Central Bosnia, about 100 miles from the capital, Sarajevo.

I’m heading up to a remote mountain village called Osve, which is a place where, supposedly, there are some supporters of the so-called Islamic State. There have been people who’ve gone from this village to fight in Syria. Some have reportedly been killed. And we’re going to meet somebody who used to play rock ‘n’ roll, but is now labeled by the head of the Islamic community in Bosnia as someone who is a terrorist.

Izet Hadzic used to be lead guitarist in a band called Black Lady. After fighting in the Bosnian War, he abandoned what he thought was a decadent lifestyle and sought peace in religion. He leads one of these so-called radical mosques. While he’s in dispute with the Islamic establishment, he insists he’s no terrorist.

IZET HADZIC, Mosque Leader (through interpreter): Where does it come from to call us terrorists? It is because that people who look like us, have these beards, are doing such acts in the world, specifically ISIS and this cretin Baghdadi.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Two doors away from Hadzic’s small holding is the father of a young man killed in Syria. Next door is a family Hadzic regards as extreme. Bosnian intelligence officers are frequent visitors.

Hadzic unequivocally condemns Islamic State.

IZET HADZIC (through interpreter): You can’t call this jihad. To take a gun while someone is walking down the street with his family and begin to shoot? Can you imagine soldier doing this? These people are equal to cowards.

MALCOLM BRABANT: We had a polite, but frosty reception in Bocinje, a nearby village that was a stronghold of foreign mujahideen during the Bosnian War. We hoped to interview a man who returned from Syria in 2014, but he didn’t want to be filmed because of an impending court case. His name is Ibrahim Delic.

Dozens of other Bosnians now in Syria are said to want to return because they are horrified by ISIS atrocities. Crippled and radicalized during the Bosnian War, Delic recently talked to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Significantly, he criticized the Free Syrian Army, who are enemies of ISIS.

IBRAHIM DELIC, Syrian Returnee (through interpreter): That Free Syrian Army, that is one scum army. Sometimes, they picked a girl, took her, raped a girl, gave her back home, or they killed her.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The flag in this video shot in Syria is not that of Islamic State. Delic is telling a crowd to fight for Islam. He insists he didn’t commit any crimes.

IBRAHIM DELIC (through interpreter): When I saw that, at the checkpoints, they started to stop foreigners who came to fight, when I saw Free Syrian Army soldiers taking guns away from them and killing them for the gun or for the little money they had, these foreign guys started to attack back. And at that moment, I knew that a big conflict among them is going to happen.

I asked some people to help get me back across the border.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This poor rural village contains several Serb families, once the sworn enemies of Islamists. But subsistence farmer Milan Petrovic insists he’s happy to live here.

MILAN PETROVIC, Farmer (through interpreter): To tell you the truth, they are our good neighbors. We have no problems. They greet us, we greet them. We don’t have any problems.

MALCOLM BRABANT: To get an assessment of the risk posed by radical Islamists in Bosnia, we visited a murder scene, in truth, a mocked-up murder scene used for training students at the Department of Criminology at Sarajevo University.

Professor Goran Kovacevic, a Serb, is an expert on Islamic radicals and spent seven years as an agent with Bosnian intelligence.

GORAN KOVACEVIC, University of Sarajevo: They are not radicals like they are presented in the media. For example, you have in the United States Amish groups behaving in a similar manner.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The big difference is that the Amish are avowed pacifists. The radicals are total opposites, according to officials of Bosnia’s Islamic community.

The organization claims it is trying to preserve moderate Koranic principles practiced in Bosnia since the country was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

International relations director Razim Colic says hard-line mosques are the product of extreme foreign influence.

RAZIM COLIC, Foreign Affairs Director, Islamic Community: As the passage of time, these people got radicalized. A number of them, they have been in contact with some people outside Bosnia-Herzegovina, because this is not from Bosnia. It has been imported from somewhere else.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Since issuing an edict effectively outlawing the radical mosques, Bosnia’s Muslim spiritual leader, Husein Kavazovic, seen here at an inauguration ceremony, has required additional security.

RAZIM COLIC: They told that they are — when they come here, they will slaughter him in the middle of Sarajevo. So, we are probably the first target, because they take us as infidels.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But concerns have been raised about the huge Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque, one of several that have changed not just Sarajevo’s skyline, but also allegedly the way of thinking.

Yet, nominally, it’s controlled by the Bosnian Islamic community.

GORAN KOVACEVIC: People should be worried about this mosque. They will have a lot of money. That’s the most radical mosque in the whole Bosnia-Herzegovina. But it’s under formal Islamic community. And it’s not ever mentioned as a part about this story of these illegal religious communities.

And that’s the most radical. All those guys that actually performed some kind of terrorist activity in Bosnia-Herzegovina were part of that mosque, and nobody is mentioning that.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Certainly, the King Fahd Mosque doesn’t welcome scrutiny. We were some distance away because of a sign at the entrance banning filming. Just a few moments after the call to prayer began, the police arrived.

WOMAN: The King Fahd guys were calling because they saw us filming. So I said, we are doing nothing wrong. What you can do, you can write our names and let it be, let us be.

MALCOLM BRABANT: I’m sorry. Yesterday, we were talking to the foreign relations guy in charge of the Islamic council, and we were told that there’s absolutely no problem, they can be perfectly open about it, so what’s the problem?

Via text messages, we complained about our half-hour encounter with the police to Colic of the Islamic community, who, despite his position, had been unable to allow us to film inside the mosque. He dismissed our complaints and also rejected the concerns of the former intelligence agent.

RAZIM COLIC: I simply don’t agree with the officer.

MALCOLM BRABANT: So, what is the — the sort of message that is coming out those mosques then?

RAZIM COLIC: I don’t know that we don’t have — the message…

(CROSSTALK)

MALCOLM BRABANT: Do you monitor the mosques?

RAZIM COLIC: Sorry?

MALCOLM BRABANT: Do you monitor the mosques to hear what they’re saying?

RAZIM COLIC: Yes, yes, yes, of course.

MALCOLM BRABANT: How frequently do you do that?

RAZIM COLIC: On a daily basis, because we have five times a day prayer there. Our imams, the three of them are there.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Late last month, Margaret Cormack, the piano-playing U.S. ambassador, hosted CIA Director John Brennan when he made a surprise visit to Sarajevo to discuss the country’s counterterrorism efforts.

Ambassador Cormack regards the Bosnian Islamic community as a crucial partner in the battle against radicalization. But she had a clear message for Muslim nations and their vested interests.

MAUREEN CORMACK: We need these countries to allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to maintain its traditional moderate version of Islam.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Given the uncertainty about which Muslims potentially pose the greatest risk, can she be certain that the U.S. and its allies are getting the right information from Sarajevo?

MAUREEN CORMACK: Certainly, all the U.S. security teams who either work inside of our embassy or who have visited from Washington feel that we have a really positive, open information-sharing with our colleagues, our counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We don’t have a sense that there are blockages in that. What we have worked with them on is establishing better information-sharing between the services here in the country, and I think that they’re making progress in that regard as well.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Analysts like Dino Abazovic, a specialist in conflict and its aftermath, are certain that poverty is also a precursor for radicalization.

DINO ABAZOVIC, University of Sarajevo: A number of people, particularly youngsters, younger generation are seeing no future in the way of their prospects for employment and all these things. More than 40 percent of Bosnia population is officially unemployed.

In that respect, I would say is the kind of circumstances that are fertilizing a fertile ground for different kinds of radicalization. So, unfortunately, anyone who neglects social and economic situation that these people are living in are — I think is wrong.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Bosnia’s enduring economic crisis requires members of the country’s top rock band, Konvoj, to take second jobs to support their music careers. They are advocates for the ideal of Sarajevo as a multicultural city and are horrified by increasing international hostility towards Muslims.

MAN: It’s pretty — wow, what’s happening now in the world?

BOJAN CRNOGORAC, Drummer: I have been with these people all of my life. My best friend is a Muslim. He was the best man at my wedding. I was the best man at his wedding. My parents told me not to divide people according to nationality or ethnic.

People here are normal. I think that’s the kind of media stuff that’s pumping all this situation in Bosnia.

MALCOLM BRABANT: International officials are convinced that Bosnia’s European, Westernized moderate Muslims are the best possible bulwark against radicalization. But in a country awash with weapons left over from the war, the need for enhanced vigilance is paramount.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Sarajevo.

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