Last April, a Bosnian court sentenced Munib Ahmetspahic to three years in prison after a guilt admission agreement with the prosecutor. From 2013 to 2018, Ahmetspahic fought in Syria with Jabhat al Nusra and returned to Bosnia with a serious leg amputation. He was detained at the airport in Sarajevo in November 2018. However, Ahmetspahic was not the first returning foreign fighter to be convicted in Bosnia. So far 25 people have been sentenced to a total of 47 years in prison for various terrorism-related crimes, including recruitment, incitement and traveling to Syria and Iraq.
In general, more than 1,000 people (fighters and families) from the Western Balkans have travelled to the Middle East between 2011 and 2016, around 250 of them have already returned. The majority joined the Islamic State, but others chose Jabhat al Nusra (now Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS) or minor jihadist groups. Most of them are from Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania, the remaining come from the region of Sandžak (Raška) between Serbia and Montenegro.
Precisely, according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), around 20 women who left for Syria from the town of Novi Pazar, in Sandžak, Serbia, are now trapped in refugee camps, after the military defeat of the Islamic State. The fate of family members and children is still largely an unsolved issue. The Bosnian intelligence agency SIPA claims that around 70 children were born in Syria from Bosnian parents and 12 were killed during the clashes.
Still according to BIRN, there are 85 children born to women from Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia in the Islamic State, who are now stuck in the refugee camps run by the Kurdish forces in Syria. On April 19, Kosovo brokered an agreement with the local Kurdish forces and the Syrian authorities to take back 110 nationals who moved to Syria (approx. one third of the total) and were later captured. Among them, 32 women and 74 children were repatriated. Nine children became orphans during the war.
When it comes to Bosnia, most of the fighters come from the municipalities of Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Travnik and Bihac. Last April, a foreign fighter from Velika Kladusa, Ibro Cufurovic, was handed over to Bosnian law enforcement by Kurdish forces – he had been fighting in Syria with Armin Curt, 22, from Sarajevo.
Jihadist propaganda found a relatively fertile ground in Bosnia during the peak of the Syrian conflict, to recruit young volunteers from the Muslim community. In 2016, the authorities in Sarajevo estimated that about 3,000 Salafists were living in Bosnia, but what can be considered Salafist is not always clear and unanimous. According to Senad Pećanin, lawyer and former editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Dani, Salafism would have expanded more profoundly across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) had it not been for the 9/11 attacks. According to Pećanin, the “proselytism of Salafism was really organized, and they were doing it in a rather arrogant manner,” adding that “if the Saudis had not been stopped in 2001, half of Bosnian women would be wearing niqab today”.
Actually, in 2004 counter terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann concluded that Al Qaida and the jihadist network had already failed to take root in Bosnia despite the participation in the civil war alongside the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). This was because most of the moderate Bosniaks rejected Salafist ideology. The foreign mujahideen did not form a homogeneous community during and after the conflict, the hierarchy was very fluid and not all of them were recruited by the Al Qaida network, as some were Arab-Afghan veterans who fought with Abdullah Azzam before Osama Bin Laden took over the leadership, while others were young volunteers from the Gulf countries.
Indeed, the operational link between the veterans from the Nineties and the current wave of foreign fighters is quite weak. Some Arab members of the El Mudžahid detachment settled in Bosnia after the Dayton agreement had managed to stay, despite the US request to get rid of them. Some senior mujahideen fighters such as the Algerian Abu el Maali (Abdelkader Mokhtari, alias the Gendarme) and Abu Sulaiman al Makki allegedly lived in the village Donja Bočinja between 1996 and 2000. Even the Syrian Imad al Husein known as Abu Hamza was living there (in 2013 he voiced his support for Ahrar ash Sham in the Syrian civil war). El Maali was deported in 1999 and died in Oran, Algeria, in October 2015. At least two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, had fought in Bosnia with the El Mudžahid detachment.
The crackdown following 9/11 severed the ties between El Mudžahid veterans and the new Bosnian Salafists. In October 2001, six Algerian nationals in Bosnia were arrested and accused of plotting attacks against the United States. They were ultimately acquitted by the Bosnian courts, but on the day of their release, US agents took them to Guantanamo. In October 2008, in the well-known Boumediene v. Bush case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the detainees and other foreign nationals had the right to file habeas corpus suits in federal courts. In November 2008, a United States District Court ruled that five of the six had been wrongfully accused and ordered their release.
Another event that influenced the missing link between the Nineties and the current Salafist scene was the death of the most famous Salafist leader in Bosnia, Jusuf Barčić, who died in a car accident in 2007. Other relevant radical preachers were the Austrian-based Nedžad Balkan, alias Abu Muhammed, from Sandžak, and Muhamed Porča, from Sarajevo. More recently, extremist Bosnian preachers included Bilal Bosnić (who was a recruiter of the Islamic State) and Nusret Imamović (who recruited for Al Qaida and Jabhat Al Nusra).
A network of Bosnian mountain villages has hosted Salafist communities. Including the villages of Šišici, Bužim, Bosanska Bojna, Orašac, and Dubovsko in the northern part bordering Croatia, while in central Bosnia Gornja Maoča, Ošve, Gluha Bukovica, and Mehurići, which was a jihadist training camp during the war. It must be said that most of the Salafists living in these communities nowadays are quietist, they do not advocate violence and simply want to live their lives according to their strict interpretation of Islam. Nevertheless, certain villages such as Gornja Maoča openly displayed jihadist flags and harboured foreign fighters and recruiters in the past.
While quietist Salafists prefer to live in remote locations, many political Salafists are active in the major Bosnian towns, including Sarajevo and Zenica, where they organize their da’wa (“proselytism”) efforts. It is common to meet Bosnian women in the street wearing black niqabs, which are not part of the Bosnian traditional clothing, and to find abundant Salafist publications in Arabic and local language even in shopping malls. Furthermore, it is common for Bosnian imams to receive religious education abroad, as some of them from Bihać, Zenica, and Travnik spent time in Gulf countries, while others traveled to Egypt or Libya (before the civil war). The King Fahd mosque in Sarajevo is still under the influence of Wahhabi doctrine. Some of the most popular Salafist preachers are Safet Kuduzović, Elvedin Pezić (very popular among the youth), Zijad Ljakić and Dževad Gološ.
Safet Kuduzović is a friend of Imad El Misri, an Egyptian who came to Bosnia in 1992 to join the mujahideen and brought the Wahhabi doctrine by publishing the book “Understanding what needs to be changed”. In 2000, he was preaching in Bočinja, but was arrested in July 2001 and deported to Egypt for his alleged involvement in terrorist activities. According to El Misri, traditional rituals of Bosnian Islam such as the Ajvatovica gathering (an annual ceremony that takes place in Prusac and dates back to Ottoman Sufism) and astrology are syncretism and must be eliminated. According to the researchers of the Atlantic Initiative, the strongest narrative of the Salafist preachers was directed against Shias and Sufis, who were considered murtad (“apostates”).
The refugee camps established in Bihać and Velika Kladuša host thousands of migrants from the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa and there is a risk that returning foreign fighterss might join the migrant flow and infiltrate the European Union. Near Bosanska Bojna, an unguarded border barrier leads to Croatia. This area is not far from some of the Salafist villages such as Šišici and Bužim. According to Bosnian prosecutors, Salafists purchased eight hectares of land from Serbs who used to live near Bosanska Bojna, using a donation from Qatar. In May 2019, the chief of Italian police Franco Gabrielli said in a meeting with Balkan police chiefs in Rome: “Migrant flows in the Balkans are under surveillance. We have indications that they may and, in some cases probably do, contain foreign fighters”.
As a significant part of the foreign fighters from the Balkans did not return yet, the threat of terrorist attacks and infiltrations remains high. However, the institutions of Western Balkan countries and law enforcement agencies should implement strategies to deal with returning family members and children (the most vulnerable to radicalization and discrimination), with plans of rehabilitation and reintegration into the local communities. Ethnic hatred and nationalism pose another challenge related to violent extremism and terrorism in the region, and thus should be addressed accordingly with regional cooperation policies.
 Reuters, 2019.
 E. Bećirević, Salafism vs. Moderate Islam, Atlantic Initiative, 2016.
 E. Kohlmann, Al Qaida’s jihad in Europe, the Afghan-Bosnian network, Berg, 2004.
 J. Schindler, Unholy terror, Bosnia, Al-Qa'ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad, 2007.
 US Congress, 9/11 Commission; J. Schindler, op. cit.
 E. Bećirević, op. cit.