Charlie Hebdo: The Balkan Connection
By Gordon N. Bardos on 4 February 2015
Officials in both the Paris State Prosecutor’s office and Bosnia’s Ministry of Defense have now confirmed that the ammunition used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks was produced in Bosnia, and officials now believe that the weapons used in the attacks may have come from Bosnia as well.
Although it is still too early to say with any certainty how these arms and munitions made it to Paris, all of this is hauntingly reminiscent of similar such incidents in the past, such as the murder of Dutch film producer Theo van Gogh, in which, according to veteran Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah, the murder weapon had also been traced to Bosnia (other sources claim the weapon was produced in Croatia). There are other Balkan connections to the recent Paris tragedy as well. The “mentor” of Amedy Coulibaly (who killed a police officer and four other people in the attack on the Parisian kosher grocery store) and Chérif Kouachi (one of the brothers who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices) was Djamel Beghal, a man who had been originally recruited by Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants and a man with both Bosnian citizenship and a Bosnian passport. Beghal himself was an associate of another Bosnian jihad veteran, the imam of London’s Finsbury Park mosque, Abu Hamza al-Masri, recently sentenced to life imprisonment in US federal court.
This is not the first time France has been the victim of Islamist terrorists with roots in the Balkans. In the 1990s, the so-called “Roubaix Group” was largely composed of French veterans of the Bosnian jihad who managed to smuggle an arsenal of heavy weapons back to France from the Balkan battlefields. The Roubaix Group engaged in a wave of metro bombings and armed robberies across the country. Among the group’s more prominent members were Christophe Caze and Lionel Dumont, both French converts to Islam who had fought in Bosnia. Other Bosnian jihad veterans involved in the Roubaix Group were Fateh Kamel (who was also connected to the Millennium Plot bombers, see below), and Rachid Ramda, whom French police found had sent a wire transfer of $10,250 to the individuals involved in the wave of bombings against the Paris metro system in 1995.
The Roubaix Group’s most well-known action was a botched attempt to bomb a Group of 7 summit in Lille, in March 1996. Caze was afterwards killed in a confrontation with police, while Dumont escaped France and was, in March 1997, arrested in Zenica, in central Bosnia, in an apartment belonging to the local interior ministry. He subsequently “escaped” from a Sarajevo prison just five days before he was to be extradited to France.
Dumont was not unique among Islamist terrorists who found convenient Balkan hiding places—or support from local officials sympathetic to the global jihad. Ahmed Zuhair, a.k.a. Abu Hanzala, wanted in connection with the murder of a US citizen and a car bombing in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar, was revealed to have been hiding in the apartment of the chief of police of the central Bosnian town of Travnik (American intelligence ultimately captured Zuhair in Pakistan and transferred him to Guantanamo).
Similarly, in September 1997, Italian police discovered an assassination plot targeting Pope John Paul II during a planned pastoral visit to Bologna. All 14 men arrested were travelling on Bosnian passports. One of the individuals involved in the attempt was the Tunisian national and Bosnian jihad veteran Karray Kamel bin Ali, a.k.a. Abu Hamza. In 2001, Italian authorities requested Kamel bin Ali’s extradition but Bosnian officials refused because he had “Bosnian citizenship.” Subsequently arrested in 2007, he was allowed to take a short “holiday” from a Bosnian prison, during which he promptly escaped.
In December 1999, US authorities arrested would-be LAX bomber Ahmed Ressam on the US-Canadian border. During the subsequent investigation, US officials tried to track down the document forger for the plot, Karim Said Atmani, who lived in the Bosnian village of Donja Bocinja. US intelligence believed that Atmani was traveling between Sarajevo and Istanbul, but Bosnian officials denied that Atmani had ever been there—until investigators later discovered that Atmani had been issued a Bosnian passport six months earlier.
Unfortunately, the underground (and not so underground) militant Islamist infrastructure in southeastern Europe supporting such people still provides significant logistical aid to the global jihad. Two Balkan extremists, Bosnian “sheikh” Nusret Imamovic and Kosovo jihadi Lavdrim Muhaxheri, were in September 2014 declared “global terrorists” by the US State Department, while Italian media have named another Bosnian Wahhabi, Bilal Bosnic, “ISIS headhunter in Europe.” Perhaps even more ominously, evidence that the Balkans are still considered a safe place for extremists to lay low can be seen in the May 2013 arrest of Zahid Ali Akbar Khan, one of the architects of the Pakistani nuclear program, on the Bosnian-Croatian border.
Southeastern Europe has also become an important base of activity for the security and intelligence services of various Islamist states; according to a report in the newspaper Dnevni Avaz late last year, Iran, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia had some one thousand intelligence agents operating in Bosnia alone. Meanwhile, the propaganda department of the militant Islamist movement in southeastern Europe continues to draw new recruits and spew various forms of hate speech, with extremists in Bosnia such as the imam of Sarajevo’s King Fahd mosque, Nezim Halilović-Muderis, and “journalists” with the Islamist website Saff telling listeners and readers that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were “staged.” (These same people, by the way, claim that “the Jews prepared 9/11 and blamed the Muslims.”
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged that “When 17 people die, it means there were cracks [in security].” Some of the deepest fissures in our security efforts and counterterrorism strategies can be found in southeastern Europe. Many of the individuals and networks supportive of or complicit in the global jihad movement remain in important positions of power and influence in southeastern Europe, yet policymakers in Brussels, Washington, and elsewhere have for more than a decade ignored the dangers they pose—both to their own societies and others. Preventing future terrorist attacks, and preventing these people from again destabilizing southeastern Europe, will require far more responsible and determined efforts.
Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security specialist based in New York.