The Washington Post March 11, 2000, Saturday
A Bosnian Village's Terrorist Ties; Links to U.S. Bomb Plot Arouse Concern About Enclave of Islamic Guerrillas
BY: Jeffrey Smith , Washington Post Foreign Service
DATELINE: BOCINJA DONJA, Bosnia
A sign along the road into town warns visitors to "be afraid of Allah." It is a message worth taking to heart: Two NATO generals who ventured here in the past year were assaulted or threatened by residents. Last August, the windshield of a visiting relief worker was shattered by an ax.
The village's 600 residents include 60 to 100 former mujaheddin, Islamic guerrillas from the Middle East and elsewhere who came to help Bosnia 's Muslims during the 1992-95 war. Since the conflict ended, they and their families have organized a community that stands apart from the rest of Bosnia , whose Muslim majority largely follows a relaxed version of Islam. Bocinja Donja's affairs, in contrast, are governed by strict Islamic law. Women wear veils and long black robes; men have long beards. They do not smoke or drink--or speak to visitors.
Washington and its allies have complained periodically about the mujaheddin, who were technically obligated by international treaty to leave the country in 1995. But Western complaints lacked urgency until two months ago, when U.S. law enforcement authorities discovered that a handful of the men who have visited or lived in this area were associated with a suspected terrorist plot to bomb targets in the United States on New Year's Day.
Among them was Karim Said Atmani, who was identified by authorities as the document forger for a group of Algerians accused of plotting the bombings. He is a former roommate of Ahmed Ressam, the man arrested at the Canadian-U.S. border in mid-December with a carload of explosives, according to authoritative Western sources. Atmani has been a frequent visitor to Bosnia , most recently a few days after Ressam's arrest. A recent Bosnian government search of passport and residency records--conducted at the urging of the United States--revealed other former mujaheddin who are linked to the same Algerian group or to other suspected terrorist groups and who have lived in this area 60 miles north of Sarajevo, the capital, in the past few years. One man, a Palestinian named Khalil Deek, was arrested in Jordan in late December on suspicion of involvement in a plot to blow up tourist sites; a second man with Bosnian citizenship, Hamid Aich, lived in Canada at the same time as Atmani and worked for a charity associated with Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi financier Washington has blamed for masterminding the bomb plan.
A third suspect, an Algerian named Abu Mali who was regarded as a community leader in Bocinja, was asked to leave the country with his family last spring after Washington accumulated evidence that he worked for what it described as a terrorist organization, U.S. and Bosnian officials say. Another former resident, Mehrez Amdouni, was arrested by Turkish police last September in Istanbul , where he arrived on a Bosnian passport, and charged with counterfeiting and possessing stolen goods.
"We have been concerned about this community for years," said a senior U.S. official in Washington, who spoke by telephone and asked not to be named. "We flushed out a lot of them [after the end of the war]. Bosnia 's not becoming the crossroads of terrorists. [But] we find the whole group of them a threat, and we want them out of there." Atmani, for example, obtained his first Bosnian passport in 1995, using a false address in Sarajevo . After being deported by Canada in October 1998 and escorted to Sarajevo , he was allowed to stay without a valid passport. He obtained a new passport last June in Zenica, 35 miles northwest of Sarajevo . He traveled to Istanbul , then returned to Sarajevo in late December before dropping out of sight.
So far, complaints about the town by Western diplomats and international officials charged with resettling displaced Serbs have largely fallen on deaf ears in the Bosnian government, which is run by the same Muslim leaders who welcomed Islamic fighters during the war. Bosnian officials have said the former mujaheddin--who came here from Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria and Afghanistan, as well as Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries--obtained citizenship by marrying Bosnian women, many of them war widows. That made it hard to enforce the Dayton peace accord's December 1995 requirement that foreign fighters leave within 30 days.
"They should have been gone long ago, but now we're stuck with them," said a senior Western official in the area. He said NATO soldiers, who are charged with policing implementation of the Dayton accord, have been reluctant to act against them, in part for fear of retaliation. "There is absolutely no reason why Muslims can't be here," said British Lt. Gen. Michael Willcocks, the deputy chief of NATO operations in Bosnia . "We can't singularize people over beards and veils. . . . They are not engaged in overt acts of terrorism, nor do we have evidence of them sitting around and indoctrinating people. We investigate and carry out surveillance, and there is no evidence of . . . ranges [for weapons or military training] of the kind most people have in mind."
But the real reason the former fighters have stayed, Western officials complain, is that Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim member and chairman of Bosnia 's three-member presidency, wants them to stay. They say that Izetbegovic turned Bocinja Donja over to 100 members of the "7th Muslim Brigade" after the Bosnian army organized a massive sweep during the last months of the war and forced Serbian residents to flee.
The sweep ended a long and bitter artillery siege of several Muslim enclaves in the area by Serbs and Croats, making the village a hard-fought prize. Moreover, Western officials say, the town's location at the head of the Bosna River Valley makes it easy for its residents to block Serbs traveling south from returning to seven villages in the valley. As a result, ethnic resettlement--a major goal of the Dayton accords--has been stunted in the region, with up to 10,000 people thought to be hesitating to return home because of the situation.
Mirza Hajric, senior foreign policy adviser to Izetbegovic, said he understands the community is creating a problem. "We've raised the attention of police. We have been approaching everyone and saying, 'Do you want to go back home?' " He said the government recently formulated "an ambitious plan to displace all of the residents--to make them go back to their own countries or move elsewhere." A local official of Bosnia 's ruling Muslim political party--which dominates decision-making in the area--said there is no reason for concern, even though residents of other towns say they resent Bocinja's efforts to close bars and punish public displays of affection. "We have no problems" with the people there, said Redzic Ismet, the party chairman in nearby Zavidovici. "I don't think the other people have any problem with them. There are no kind of incidents with them."
Efforts to obtain comment from Bocinja residents were unsuccessful. Contacted by telephone and on the street here, a community leader named Abu Hamza asked three times for $ 60,000 to give an interview. When the request was refused, he said residents do not speak with foreign reporters.
But in 1998, in the group's sole published interview, Hamza told reporters for a Bosnian magazine called Dani that "our president is Alija Izetbegovic. It will be as he says. If he will say that we have to leave this place, we will do it. If he says stay, we will stay." Branko Jovanovic, 67, an ethnic Serb who says he owns the two-story, eight-bedroom house that Hamza occupies, said at least 150 families from the village would like to return but "there is no possibility . . . while there is one mujaheddin in that area. They did bad things to us. We cannot live with them." He cited the vandalization of Serbian graveyards by former mujaheddin, an act witnessed by Western officials who have driven through the town.
Three local men beat and tortured two Serbs who strayed nearby 16 months ago, only to be given suspended sentences by a local judge. During an inspection visit last year by Willcocks, the British general, one resident tried to pull open the door of his guard vehicle and made slashing motions across his throat. "It was a very threatening atmosphere," Willcocks said. "They do not like [peacekeeping] troops patrolling there. But any suggestion we're terrified to go in is absolutely nonsense."
Local officials say that several U.S. military officers who visited in January 1999 received even rougher treatment. More recently, the Norwegian commander of the NATO brigade responsible for peacekeeping in the town was assaulted when he attempted to escort an ethnic Serb home.
"We were approached by two residents, both of foreign origin, who physically tried to attack the Serb and pushed me away," said retired Brig. Gen. Kjell Grandhagen, who left Bosnia at the end of January and now runs the Norwegian war college in Oslo. "We decided immediately to return to our armored vehicle, where a third foreigner flashed a knife. It was quite tense. There were verbal threats" by a man from Sudan .