Balkans Paradise for Al Qaeda
The Houston Chronicle‘s Gregory Katz has a disturbing report from Belgrade that the combination of loose borders and powerful organized crime syndicates have made the Balkans “a paradise for al-Qaeda.”
A hidden alliance between terror networks and organized crime gangs that control heavily used smuggling routes in the Balkans is making it easier for terrorists to infiltrate Western Europe, according to law enforcement officials and intelligence experts. In addition, prosecutors in Serbia believe that in some cases the money earned by people traffickers is used to support terrorist activities in Europe, which has been hit by several major terrorist attacks in the last two years, with many others prevented by police raids.
A key problem is lax border controls throughout the region. Many borders, such as the one between Romania and Serbia, are wide open to gangs that smuggle people, heroin and goods. Europe’s battle to contain the spread of international terrorism has been hobbled by such porous borders, which each year allow tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants to enter. So many people are sneaking into Europe that authorities admit they do not know exactly who resides in their countries, complicating the effort to prevent more terrorist attacks. “This is a paradise for al-Qaida,” said Marko Nicovic, former police chief in the Serbian capital Belgrade and a director of the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association. “For Europe, it can be a disaster at any time because the authorities don’t know who is there and they don’t know who is who. The attacks in Madrid and London showed that.”
Once illegal migrants reach Serbia overland from Eastern Europe, police say they can easily cross into Bosnia and then Slovenia, thus entering the European Union. At that point, they can take advantage of weak or nonexistent border controls to travel freely to France, Spain, Germany and other countries on the continent.
Police officials believe that most of the migrants are law-abiding people looking for work, but they caution that the migration gives terrorist gangs a way to move sleeper cells into the West while also fueling tensions between Western Europe’s Muslims, the fastest growing minority on the continent, and the rest of society. These tensions surface in a number of ways: the deadly attacks on transit systems in Madrid and London, intense rioting in France, death threats against secular politicians in the Netherlands, and legal battles over the right to wear Muslim scarves and headgear to public schools.
While smuggling gangs are using Serbia as a transit point, some Muslim militants seems to have established a base in neighboring Bosnia. Officials warn that several hundred militants who came to Bosnia to fight on behalf of Muslims there during the war in the 1990s have remained in the country to attack the West.
In October, police in Bosnia uncovered an apparent plot to blow up the British Embassy and found a large cache of weapons and explosives along with propaganda vowing to retaliate for the U.S.-and-British-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. A Swede and a Dane were also arrested in that raid, and there were follow-up arrests in Sweden that suggested the Bosnian extremists had operational ties to Western Europe, investigators said.
Magnus Ranstorp, a specialist at the Swedish National Defense College who testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said the presence of Islamic militants inside Bosnia makes it an attractive gateway into Europe for terrorists. “They came in ten years ago, that was the first warning signal, it was the embryo of what became al-Qaida in Europe,” he said. “The Iranians are supporting activity there, and the Balkans have become the crossroads where we see the merger of Islamic extremist groups who reach out to organized crime groups.”
A large number of immigrants formally apply for political asylum in their new countries, giving them the right to a legal review that can take years. Others destroy their identity documents, making it difficult for authorities to determine their nationality. Many come from predominantly Muslim countries like Morocco, Pakistan and Afghanistan where jihadis committed to waging holy war against the West are active. This sentiment has grown in ferocity since the United States and Britain invaded Iraq two years ago, according to analysts and enforcement agents.
“There is clear, unmistakable evidence that the level of terrorist activity that has killed and injured people has soared to unprecedented levels since we invaded Iraq,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and State Department counter-terrorism specialist now working in the private sector. “Iraq is creating a new generation of jihadis looking for places to live in Europe,” Johnson said, “and they have this festering resentment that is usually at the core of terrorism. They will take up residence with existing communities or form new ones in Europe. “It doesn’t augur for a great future.”
Scary stuff. We’ve already seen some of the fruits of this, with the bombings in London and Madrid. As the piece makes clear, European leaders are finally awakening to the problem. It may, however, to be too late to undo the damage.
“Please Appease Me,” TCS, July 8, 2005.
Previously at OTB:
EuropeÃ¢€™s Restrictive New Data Law
14 Terror Suspects Detained In Belgium
EU May Suspend Nations With Secret Prisons
Series: French Muslim Riots
Paris: The Beirut of Europe?
Prince Charles to Argue IslamÃ¢€™s Merits in U.S.
U.K. to Deport Islamist Radicals, Possibly Even Citizens
Lost in [London] Bombings, Diverse and Promising Lives
Three Blasts Rock Kosovo Capital, Hit U.N. Headquarters
Terrorists Hit London Transportation System
Grenade Blasts at British Embassy in New York
Watching Europe Implode
Coming Civil Wars in Europe?
Seven Bombs Explode in Spanish Cities
UK Terror Attack Thwarted
Van Gogh Killing Reveals Dutch Anger at Muslims
NATO Chief: Europe Must Adapt to U.S. View on Terror
Muslim School Bombed in Netherlands
Europe: 90-Pound Weakling
Europe Slow to Grasp Terrorism
European Wake-Up Call
Europe Fears Islamic Converts