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.


Previously at OTB:

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sissy Willis says:

    I suspect the “clear, unmistakable evidence” shows that Larry Johnson is trying to cover his rear end. As the Swedish National Defense College specialist Magnus Ranstorp testified before Congress, “They came in ten years ago, that was the first warning signal, it was the embryo of what became al-Qaida in Europe.” That would have been, perhaps, when Johnson was failing to connect the dots during his CIA stint. Too early to blame Bush then, so let’s displace the source of the threat to the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption.

    Re Gregory Katz’s assertion that “This sentiment has grown in ferocity since the United States and Britain invaded Iraq two years ago, according to analysts and enforcement agents,” two questions:

    1. Who are these “analysists and enforcement agents,” and what are their agendas?

    2. What, since we invaded Iraq, has outdone 9/11 for ferocity?

  2. jimbo says:

    “We’ve already seen some of the fruits of this [illegal immigration in the Balkans], with the bombings in London and Madrid.”

    Excuse me, the London bombings were carried out by young men who were born in England.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Excuse me, the London bombings were carried out by young men who were born in England.

    Actually, no.

    BBC profiles three of the four principal bombers:

      Ibrahim Muktar Said – “He arrived in the UK in 1992 from Eritrea in east Africa as a child refugee, with his family.”

      Yassin Hassan Omar – “He arrived in the UK with relatives as a 12-year-old refugee from Somalia and in May 2000 was granted indefinite leave to stay in Britain.”

      Hussain Osman – “He was originally said by the authorities there to be a Somali who is a naturalised British citizen. However they later corrected this to say the 27-year-old was naturalised British subject of Ethiopian origin and had lied to obtain a British passport. “

    I haven’t found much on Ramzi Mohamed. He is “reportedly from Somalia.”

    At any rate, the antecedent of “this” is Europe’s failure to take terrorism seriously, not the Balkan problem per se.

  4. DL says:

    Some might say that all this has happened since Bill Clinton went into the Balkans with our troops and prevented the Serbs from keeping the terrorists on the run – and now they’re free to do as they please.

  5. kb says:

    Actually, no.

    Well that’s the bombers who failed on the 21st july.

    3 of the 4 bombers on the 7th july were british born and the 4th had moved to the UK as a child.

  6. Rick says:

    Interventionist blowback is actually not a cycle but a wobbly spiral, usually out of control.

    Thank you, Mr. Clinton, for your empirically fallacious contribution to a grand unifying approach to the chaos theory known as the Balkans.