By Helena Bestakova in Prague, Czech Republic
An American-style crackdown on Muslim activists and aid-workers throughout the Balkans has been under way since September 11. The Bosnian government’s surrender of six Algerians, suspected of having links with al-Qaeda, to the US military on January 18 was the latest significant incident of this crackdown, under the rubric of the US’s “war on terrorism.”
The six men, who had been arrested by the Bosnian authorities because of US intelligence information, were suspected of involvement with two Islamic militant groups: Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group and Egypt’s al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah (Muslim Group). They were turned over to the Americans just one day after Bosnia’s supreme court had released them for lack of evidence. The court’s decision prompted the US to request that the men be handed over to its forces to pre-empt the possibility that they might be set free and slip out of the Balkans. The six are now believed to be with the prisoners from Afghanistan in open-air cages at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba).
Three Arab humanitarian workers had earlier been arrested in a NATO-led K-FOR operation in Kosova. The arrests were carried out in the course of a raid on December 14 on the offices of the Global Relief Foundation in Kosova. A K-FOR statement said that its troops and UN police conducted “a coordinated search operation on the offices of the Global Relief Foundation” in Pristina and Djakovica. It also disclosed that the troops “temporarily detained several people and collected a quantity of documents and equipment.” K-FOR did not reveal the identity of those arrested, saying only that they are citizens of an Arab country and that incriminating material was found on them. The local press later identified two of the three as “Iraqi activists”: the third was only described as an Arab.
The K-FOR statement said that the soldiers acted “after receiving credible information that individualso working for the organization may have been directly involved in supporting worldwide international terrorist activities.” The statement also said that the Global Relief Foundation “is allegedly involved in planning attacks against targets in the USA and Europe.” K-FOR has been unwilling to reveal any evidence that might link the Muslim charity or any of its workers to al-Qaeda. Humanitarian workers in the region find it hard to swallow these allegations, and say that they have “noticed nothing that could confirm such claims.”
The raids in Kosova came only hours before agents of the US Treasury Department and FBI carried out raids on the main offices of Global Relief and Benevolence International outside Chicago. Both groups, which raise millions of dollars a year and distribute them throughout the Muslim world, have vigorously denied any links to al-Qaeda or other groups on the growing lists of “terrorist” groups. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service also took Rabih Haddad, president of Global Relief, a Lebanese national who lives in Michigan, into custody on December 14, ostensibly for overstaying his tourist visa.
Prodded by US pressure, on December 15 Bosnian authorities ordered their police to carry out a search operation on the Global Relief offices in Sarajevo, as well as that of Talibah International, another Islamic relief organisation. The Bosnian police seized documents at each place and questioned a total of seven employees without making any arrests.
The current crackdown began almost immediately after September 11. Governments throughout the Balkans wasted no time in declaring their support for America’s “war on terrorism.” On September 15 Albanian public order minister Ilir Gjoni ordered the police force to check and investigate the identities of all Arabs living in the country and to look into possibilities that “Islamic extremists” had entered the country. The Albanian police also began to cooperate with the FBI in “counter-terrorism” activities. On October 6 authorities in Tirana arrested five Arabs (two Egyptians, two Iraqis and one Jordanian) as part of the investigation into September 11. They and their families, a total of 18 people, were deported to Cairo, Amman and Algiers. In October the Albanian parliament passed a resolution granting US authorities carte blanche to move around the country to pursue “terrorists” and monitor their activities.
On January 22 the Albanian government froze the assets of Yassin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman who heads Muwafaq Foundation. Muwafaq is one of the many charities the US accuses of links with al-Qaeda. The Albanian Prosecutor’s Office said that millions of dollars in Qadi’s accounts in 13 Albanian banks were frozen as part of an investigation into his alleged links to al-Qaeda. Qadi is a partner in a construction company set up by the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank to encourage Muslim businessmen to help in the development of Albania. The company is involved in various projects in Albania.
Shortly after September 11 the US government asked the authorities in Bosnia to investigate whether any of the 19 suspected suicide hijackers of the four passenger planes could be linked to any groups operating in the region. The cross-check conducted by the Bosnian authorities failed to establish any links. Later the US government gave the Bosnian government a second list of names, the exact number remains unknown, whom it suspects of involvement in “terrorist” activities.
Various tactics were used to quash any reluctance on the part of the Balkan governments to go along with the US-led campaign. In October, Washington and London moved to close their embassies in Sarajevo and consulates in the Bosnian cities of Mostar and Banja Luka. A day later participants in an international conference in Sarajevo decided not to attend because of their “fear of terrorism”. According to one local newspaper, the embassies and consulates had received instructions from their governments to assess the security situation in Bosnia and, if necessary, “close down temporarily” (Oslobodjenje, October 19, 2001).
Carla del Ponte, prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague, said in October that she believes that groups linked to al-Qaeda are active throughout the Balkans. She also said that the war crimes tribunal was gathering information on “terrorist” activities and “crimes against humanity” committed by members of these groups, in order to prosecute them. But she did not specify the nature of the alleged activities or crimes.
NATO secretary-general General George Robertson also added his voice to the chorus pressurizing Muslims in the Balkans. He declared that “cells of the al-Qaeda terrorist network have been discovered in Kosovo as well,” corroborating his fantastic claims by the arrests made by K-FOR.
The most unsettling aspect of the crackdown is that it is accompanied by signs of a popular backlash, against Arabs and other Muslim foreigners in the region, that is similar to the anti-Muslim backlash that swept the US and other western countries after September 11. Signs of heightened intolerance of people from the East were noticeable throughout the region. For instance, windows of buildings housing Islamic humanitarian organizations were shattered. Young people openly harassed men with beards and wearing robes characteristic of Arab countries.
Before the start of the current crackdown, Yugoslavia and Macedonia were the only Balkan countries to have claimed that international “terrorist” activities had been taking place in the Balkans. In both Belgrade and Skopje, Bush’s declaration of a “war on terrorism” was perceived as a watershed that would bring about a reassessment in Washington and the West of the Serbs’ and Macedonians’ own “anti-terrorist” operations. The Serbian interior ministry announced in October that it had given the Americans important information on the activities of Muslim mujahideen linked to bin Ladin, who, it said, runs training camps in Kosova, Bosnia and Albania. An avalanche of statements from Serb and Macedonian officials left no doubt that Belgrade and Skopje were eager to take advantage of the situation created by the events of September 11 last year. Macedonian prime minister Ljubco Georgievski typified these statements on September 24 when he said that there was no difference between Usama bin Ladin and the National Liberation Army. Likewise, Serbian deputy premier Nebojsa Covic declared that “there are hundreds of little bin Ladens in Kosovo.” Ibrahim Rugova, president of the Democratic Alliance of Kosova, described such statements as examples of “Serb propaganda ...their only wish is to smear Albanians.”
The Serbian and Macedonian media jumped on the bandwagon too. They published reports alleging the presence of some 10,000 Arab and Muslim mujahideen throughout the Balkans. The reports claimed that many of these mujahideensympathised with bin Ladin and that some were linked to or actually receiving financial support from al-Qaeda. The reports, claimed that many of these mujahideen were concealing their true goals by working in the many Islamic charities in the region.
In effect the consequences of September 11 in the Balkans seem to be no different than those suffered by Muslims elsewhere. Behind the exigencies of “counter-terrorism” lurks America’s obsessive determination to go after every form of Islamic activism, root and branch.