The Wall Street Journal Europe, November 01, 2001
Al Qaeda's Balkan Links
November 1, 2001
by Marcia Christoff Kurop
The Balkans' uncharacteristically silent exit from the world stage as
the most prominent international hot spot of the last decade belies its
status as a major recruiting and training center of Osama bin Laden's
al Qaeda network. By feeding off the region's impoverished republics
and taking root in the unsettled diplomatic aftermath of the Bosnia and
Kosovo conflicts, al Qaeda, along with Iranian Revolutionary
Guard-sponsored terrorists, have burrowed their way into Europe's
For the past 10 years, the most senior leaders of al Qaeda have visited
the Balkans, including bin Laden himself on three occasions between
1994 and 1996. The Egyptian surgeon turned terrorist leader Ayman
Al-Zawahiri has operated terrorist training camps, weapons of mass
destruction factories and money-laundering and drug-trading networks
throughout Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Bosnia.
This has gone on for a decade. Many recruits to the Balkan wars came
originally from Chechnya, a jihad in which Al Qaeda has also played a
These activities have been exhaustively researched by Yossef Bodansky,
the former director of the U.S. House of Representatives' Task Force on
Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. The February testimony of an
Islamist ringleader associated with the East Africa bombings have also
helped throw light on these actions.
They have however been disguised under the cover of dozens of
"humanitarian" agencies spread throughout Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.
Funding has come from now-defunct banks such as the Albanian-Arab
Islamic Bank and from bin Laden's so-called Advisory and Reformation
Committee. One of his largest Islamist front agencies, it was
established in London in 1994.
The overnight rise of heroin trafficking through Kosovo -- now the most
important Balkan route between Southeast Asia and Europe after Turkey
-- helped also to fund terrorist activity directly associated with al
Qaeda and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Opium poppies, which barely
existed in the Balkans before 1995, have become the No. 1 drug
cultivated in the Balkans after marijuana. Operatives of two al
Qaeda-sponsored Islamist cells who were arrested in Bosnia on Oct. 23
were linked to the heroin trade, underscoring the narco-jihad culture
of today's post-war Balkans.
These drug rings in turn form part of an estimated $8 billion a year
Taliban annual income from global drug trafficking, predominantly in
heroin. According to Mr. Bodansky, the terrorism expert, bin Laden
administers much of that trade through Russian mafia groups for a
commission of 10% to 15% -- or around $1 billion annually.
The settling of Afghan-trained mujahideen in the Balkans began around
1992, when recruits were brought into Bosnia by the ruling Islamic
party of Bosnia, the Party of Democratic Action, from Chechnya, Saudi
Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, as well as Italy, Germany and Turkey. They
were all given journalists' credentials to avoid explicit detection by
the West. Others were married immediately to Bosnian Muslim women and
incorporated into regular army ranks.
Intelligence services of the Nordic-Polish SFOR (previously IFOR)
sector alerted the U.S. of their presence in 1992 while the number of
mujahideen operating in Bosnia alone continued to grow from a few
hundred to around 6,000 in 1995. Though the Clinton administration had
been briefed extensively by the State Department in 1993 on the growing
Islamist threat in former Yugoslavia, little was done to follow
The Bosnian Embassy in Vienna issued a passport to bin Laden in 1993,
according to various reports in the Yugoslav press at the time. The
reports add that bin Laden then visited a terrorist camp in Zenica,
Bosnia in 1994. The Bosnian government denies all of this, but admits
that some passport records have been lost. Around that time, bin Laden
directed al Qaeda "senior commanders" to incorporate the Balkans into
an complete southeastern approach to Europe, an area stretching from
the Caucasus to Italy. Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon reputed to be
the second in command of the entire al Qaeda network, headed up this
By 1994, major Balkan terrorist training camps included Zenica, and
Malisevo and Mitrovica in Kosovo. Elaborate command-and-control centers
were further established in Croatia, and Tetovo, Macedonia as well as
around Sofia, Bulgaria, according to the U.S. Congress's task force on
terrorism. In Albania, the main training camp included even the
property of former Albanian premier Sali Berisha in Tropje, Albania,
who was then very close to the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Not even stalwart NATO ally Turkey escaped the network. Areas beyond
government control were also visited by bin Laden in 1996 according to
London-based Jane's Intelligence Review. The government has been
battling two terrorist groups: Jund al Islam, whose assassinated Syrian
leader was one of bin Laden's closets confidantes, and the Kurdish PKK,
whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, merged his group's activities with those
of Iran's Hezbollah in 1998.
Furthermore, as revealed in the February 2001 East Africa bombing trial
testimony of Jamal al Fadl -- an al Qaeda operative in charge of
weapons development in Sudan -- uranium used in "dirty bombs" that
release lethal radioactive material, had been tested in 1994 by members
of the Sudan-based Islamic National Front in the town of Hilat Koko, in
Turkish-held northern Cyprus. Cyprus, both its north and southern
sides, has also become a center for offshore money laundering by Arab
banks fronting al Qaeda funds into the Balkans. The CIA puts al Qaeda's
specific Balkan-directed funds -- those tied to the "humanitarian"
agencies and local banks and not explicitly counting the significant
drug profits added to that -- at around $500 million to $700 million
between 1992 and 1998.
So where was the U.S. in all this? It was not until 1995 that the
Clinton administration was forced to start pursuing the Islamist
network in the Balkans. Not quite a month after the Dayton accords had
been signed in November 1995, an influx of Iranian arms came into
Bosnia with the apparent tacit approval of the administration, in
violation of U.N. sanctions. While publicly pressing Bosnian President
Alia Izebegovic to purge remaining Islamist elements, the
administration was loath to confront Sarajevo and Tehran over their
Instead, Islamist groups went quietly underground as the windfall of
weapons landed in their hands. They later joined up with a new Islamist
center in Sofia established as a kind of rear guard by the al Zawahiri.
Following the Zagreb arrest and extradition of renowned Egyptian
militant Faud Qassim, an al Zawahiri favorite, the Sofia-based
militants planned the deployment in Bosnia of terrorists capable of
planning and leading possible major terrorist strikes against U.S. and
SFOR facilities, according to al Fadl's testimony to the House Task
Force on Terrorism.
Islamist infiltration of the Kosovo Liberation Army advanced,
meanwhile. Bin Laden is said to have visited Albania in 1996 and 1997,
according to the murder-trial testimony of an Algerian-born French
national, Claude Kader, himself an Afghanistan-trained mujahideen
fronting at the Albanian-Arab Islamic Bank. He recruited some Albanians
to fight with the KLA in Kosovo, according to the Paris-based
Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues.
By early 1998 the U.S. had already entered into its controversial
relationship with the KLA to help fight off Serbian oppression of that
province. While in February the U.S. gave into KLA demands to remove it
from the State Department's terrorism list, the gesture amounted to
little. That summer the CIA and CIA-modernized Albanian intelligence
(SHIK) were engaged in one of the largest seizures of Islamic Jihad
cells operating in Kosovo.
Fearing terrorist reprisal from al Qaeda, the U.S. temporarily closed
its embassy in Tirana and a trip to Albania by then Defense Secretary
William Cohen was canceled out of fear of an assassination attempt.
Meanwhile, Albanian separatism in Kosovo and Metohija was formally
characterized as a "jihad" in October 1998 at an annual international
Islamic conference in Pakistan.
Nonetheless, the 25,000 strong KLA continued to receive official
NATO/U.S. arms and training support and, at the talks in Rambouillet,
France, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shook hands with
"freedom fighter" Hashim Thaci, a KLA leader. As this was taking place,
Europol (the European Police Organization based in The Hague) was
preparing a scathing report on the connection between the KLA and
international drug gangs. Even Robert Gelbard, America's special envoy
to Bosnia, officially described the KLA as Islamic terrorists.
With the future status of Kosovo still in question, the only real
development that may be said to be taking place there is the rise of
Wahhabi Islam -- the puritanical Saudi variety favored by bin Laden --
and the fastest growing variety of Islam in the Balkans. Today, in
general, the Balkans are left without the money, political resources,
or institutional strength to fight a war on terrorism. And that, for
the Balkan Islamists, is a Godsend.
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