Salafists build a community in the heart of Europe

Izet Hadzic, selfproclamed imam of a rebellious Muslim congregation in a secluded village of Osve, near Central Bosnian town of Maglaj, walks in front of his house in Osve on May 18, 2016. (AFP)

Two veiled women work the land while a man collects eggs in a bucolic Bosnian village – now notorious for exporting fighters to Syria.

“This is how we finance terrorism,” joked 50-year old Izet Hadzic as he opened his henhouse in Osve, which overlooks a peaceful valley in the Balkan country’s north.

A gray-bearded former rock musician, Hadzic founded this “dzemat” (religious community) in the late 2000s – one of dozens in Bosnia that refuse to comply with the country’s official Muslim leaders.

Police and religious authorities are now trying to crack down on these rebel communities and bring them back into the official fold; amid fears they are nurturing extremism.

Osve made international headlines last year as an alleged ISIS “stronghold,” and Hadzic says two large families have left the village to fight in the Middle East, among the 300 or so Bosnians to do so.

But Hadzic insists he was “the first to condemn” ISIS and has “prevented 90 percent” of his community from leaving – saying those who did just wanted to help the Syrian people.

But congregations like his are causing concern – especially after suspected Islamist attacks last year killed two Bosnian soldiers and a policeman.

Dragan Lukac, chief constable of Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat entity, said police have identified “around 60 radical communities,” numbering a few thousand, who refuse to follow imams appointed by Bosnia’s Muslim religious leader, the grand mufti.

Based in remote villages or praying in houses in city suburbs, they mostly adhere to the ultraconservative Salafist brand of Sunni Islam and see Bosnia’s traditionally more liberal teachings as a corruption of the faith.

“Here in Osve, we are trying to live in line with the religion,” said Hadzic, who took a break to lead worship as the call to prayer sounded out over the valley.

Contrary to foreign media reports, AFP saw no visible traces of a militant training camp at Osve, and Lukac denied the existence of such camps in Bosnia.

The police chief also stressed that “not all” members of breakaway groups on the radar were “potential terrorists.”

But a 2015 report from a Bosnian think tank, the Atlantic Initiative, said most Bosnian volunteers in Syria and Iraq had come from well-known Salafist communities, naming Osve as an example.

Returning fighters “pose a direct threat not only to the security of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also of the region and beyond,” it said.

Late in 2015, members of one radical congregation in Sarajevo were arrested on suspicion of plotting to detonate a bomb in a police car.

If confirmed, the plot would be “the first sophisticated effort” to organize an extremist attack on such a scale against the general public, said Vlado Azinovic, an expert in radical Islam at Sarajevo’s political sciences faculty.

He fears there is a small group within Bosnia’s Salafist communities “that is embracing these calls” from ISIS to take action at home.
Salafism was introduced to Bosnia by foreign fighters who flocked from North Africa, Asia and the Middle East during the country’s 1992-95 inter-ethnic war.

“It’s been 25 years since Bosnians were introduced to the idea of Salafism. So we have our own [radical] authorities now,” Azinovic said.

These men were often “recruited by foreigners and sent directly to the Gulf states. They received some education there and then were resent to Bosnia to proselytize.”

Some 190 Bosnians, including 50 women and 60 children, are currently abroad involved in militant activity. Another 30 to 40 have been killed and around 50 have returned to Bosnia or elsewhere.

Bosnia’s unofficial Salafist leader Nusret Imamovic left for Syria in 2013 and the man considered his successor, Husein Bosnic, was jailed in November for inciting extremism.

Bosnia’s official Islamic Community has identified 67 groups that refuse its teachings – mostly Salafists – and has so far talked to 38 of them. Half of those have now agreed to comply with its authority.

Others have, since mid-May, faced the zeal of state administration, through checks on building permits, fines and police patrols.

“It’s quite normal that the state seeks to enforce its rules,” Islamic Community official Ismail Smajlovic said.

Musician-turned-imam Hadzic is among those fined for running an unauthorized mosque.

Although he fought during the 1990s war, Hadzic said he was not influenced by foreign fighters and instead turned to Islam after years of alcohol and excess during his rock’n’roll years.

Even if he rejects violence, his version of Islam is foreign to the moderate one practiced by most of Bosnia’s 1.5 million Muslims – he said knowing whether to cut off the hand off a thief is “a complex issue,” for example.

Hadzic said his community had lived peacefully for years following Shariah law until some left for the Middle East.

“These are people, who physically resemble me in some way, but they behave like savages, they add fuel to the flames.”