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Extremists Worry The Balkans, Europe’s Muslim Heartland

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Extremists Worry The Balkans, Europe’s Muslim Heartland

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By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

GORNJA MAOCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — One day in early February, the black flag of the Islamic State appeared on the roof of a dilapidated home in Gornja Maoca, an isolated hamlet in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The flag was gone when the police arrived, and whoever hoisted it was never found. But the episode reaffirmed to Bosnian officials and Western intelligence agencies that the settlement, peopled by followers of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, has ties to the networks that have recruited hundreds of Muslim men from across the Balkans to fight in Syria and Iraq.

“It is fair to say that it (Gorjna Maoca) is perhaps the biggest center of extremism in Bosnia,” said a Western intelligence official. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss sensitive information with a journalist. While the region hasn’t seen the kinds of mass terrorist attacks that have shocked France, they wouldn’t be a surprise, the official said: “We’ve seen aspirational plotting.”

Most of the men who’ve left the Balkans to fight in the Middle East come from Bosnia and Kosovo, parts of former Yugoslavia whose independence was secured by U.S.-led military interventions in the 1990s. Nearly half of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people are Muslim. Kosovo, whose 1.8 million population is 95 percent Muslim, arguably is Europe’s most pro-American country. A statue and massive portrait of former President Bill Clinton overlook a thoroughfare named after him in the capital, Pristina, where there’s also a street named for George W. Bush and a boutique named for Hillary Clinton.

Since the wars, the United States and its European partners have spent billions of dollars and years of diplomacy trying to help build the two nations into stable democracies. Yet both countries are mired in dysfunctional governance, pervasive corruption, ethnic divisions and poverty-fueled despair, conditions that have boosted the appeal of hard-line Islam, the seeds of which were planted, ironically, with the help of some of America’s closest Arab allies.

And even as Balkan men fight in Syria and Iraq, mostly with the Islamic State, fundamentalists at home are intensifying attacks on the legitimacy of the liberal version of Islam that’s evolved in the Balkans over centuries. The result is mounting fears that the assault on traditional Islam will intensify, fueling insecurity, and that Bosnia and Kosovo could become pathways to the West for deeply radicalized jihadis.

“For these conservative radical groups, their first purpose is to take over the Muslim community of Kosovo,” said Ramadan Ilazi, the country’s deputy minister for European integration and an expert on political Islam. “It’s a real challenge.”

Even if they don’t indulge themselves, most Balkan Muslims tolerate drinking and smoking. They eschew Islamic-style beards and veils and rarely — if ever — attend mosque. They freely mix with the opposite sex and members of other faiths, and marry non-Muslims.

Some traditional clerics who’ve spoken out against extremism have been harassed, assaulted and forced out of their mosques. They’ve had their sermons disrupted and have been denounced as infidels on videos and radical websites that condemn traditional Islam as apostasy.

On Monday in Bosnia, an alleged Islamist extremist died in an attack on a police station that killed a Bosnian Serb officer. In November in Kosovo, two American women serving as Mormon missionaries were assaulted by suspected extremists, two of whom were later charged, along with five others, with plotting terrorist attacks. An expatriate Kosovar was convicted of raking a bus with gunfire in 2011 at Frankfurt Airport, killing two U.S. soldiers, Germany’s first fatal attack by an Islamist. In 2013, a Bosnian court convicted a Wahhabi of planting a bomb that killed a Bosnian Croat police officer.

Reporters who’ve investigated Islamist groups and the recruitment of fighters, and politicians who’ve sounded alarms about creeping fundamentalism, have received death threats.

“Anyone who is not like them is (considered) a nonbeliever,” said Alma Lama, a Kosovo Assembly member who’s sought police protection for herself and her family because of “thousands” of threats triggered by her denunciations of hard-line Islam and its denial of women’s rights. “These guys are inciting hatred between religious groups and gender hatred.”

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