Scandinavia and Northern Europe
Even as early as the Bosnian war, the unlikely region of Scandinavia had become
an important tactical base for Islamic militant groups from the Middle East. Countries like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were perceived as tolerant and willing to grant political asylum even to militant leaders on the run from law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In Scandinavia, these wanted men knew they could expect “the same freedom as [in] the US.” A March 1995 magazine printed by supporters of Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya noted that “influential guides” within the Egyptian jihadi movement had nonetheless been able to secure “political asylum in Norway” despite the reluctance of the Norwegian Embassy in Cairo to become involved in such proceedings. Even the undisputed top leader of Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya—Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman (currently serving a life sentence in a maximum security U.S. prison)—boasted in interviews with mujahideen newsletters of his numerous trips to Europe, “passing through Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and many other countries.”
Unbeknownst to most Danes, by 1993, the city of Copenhagen was perhaps the
most important safe haven for Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya in all of Europe. At the head of Al-Gama’at’s weighty delegation in Copenhagen was the legendary Shaykh Abu Talal al-Qasimy, among the first Muslim clerics involved in supporting the Bosnian jihad. Al-Qasimy was imprisoned several times by the Egyptian government both previous to and following the assassination of the late President Anwar Sadat. Shortly thereafter, he was able to use fake travel documents to escape Egypt and join the growing number of militant Muslim exiles fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. While there, al-Qasimy “made an appointment with Jihad in the path of Allah, and… embraced the rifle.”
During time spent in nearby Pakistan, Abu Talal al-Qasimy established Al-Gama’at’s official magazine, Al-Murabeton, and wrote most of the early issues.
In January 1993, under pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani government
suddenly reversed its position on supporting the jihad in Afghanistan and ordered the closure of remaining Arab mujahideen offices in Pakistan—threatening official
deportation to any illegal foreign fighters who attempted to remain in Pakistan. These displaced men faced a serious problem, because return to their countries of origin meant certain arrest, torture, and likely death. At the time, a Saudi spokesman for the Arab-Afghans in Jeddah explained in the media, “the Algerians cannot go to Algeria, the Syrians cannot go to Syria or the Iraqis to Iraq. Some will opt to go to Bosnia, the others will have to go into Afghanistan permanently.”
According to Dr. Abdullah Azzam’s son Hudhaifa, Abu Talal al-Qasimy was
forced to flee across the border into Afghanistan because he was “ordered by name to be captured and sent to Egypt by the Pakistani government.” But, “before they caught [him], [he]… got a visa to foreign countries.” In fact, Al-Qasimy had found political asylum in Denmark, where he continued to spread his radical message at the foreign office of Al-Murabeton in Copenhagen. One of the other four editors working in Copenhagen was reportedly Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement and second-in-command of Usama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida. Al-Qasimy was also a close friend of the Amir of the Bosnian mujahideen, Anwar Shaaban, and took an aggressive, committed, and hands-on role in the Bosnian jihad.
On April 24, 1993, Abu Talal al-Qasimy convened in Copenhagen arguably one
of the most important meetings of pan-Islamic militant leaders ever to take place inside of Europe. The other participants included Shaykh Anwar Shaaban from Milan and Imam Shawki Mohammed (a.k.a. Mahmoud Abdel al-Mohamed), the firebrand cleric at the Al-Sahaba mosque in Vienna—considered by Italian intelligence at the time to be “a most important representative of Sunni radicalism in Europe” who was fixated on “the situation of the mujahiddin in the former Yugoslavia.” Abu Talal hoped that this “meeting of minds” would serve as the impetus for the creation of a “Shura Council of the European Union”—a coalition of like-minded Middle Eastern extremist groups with a common presence and interest in Western Europe. The “Shura Council” was to be developed as an autonomous command organism capable of “coordinating and making decisions” without consulting Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya or Al-Jihad leaders located far off in Egypt or Afghanistan. One of the main reasons for establishing a unified leadership nucleus was to fully mobilise shared resources in Europe to support nearby ongoing jihad operations in North Africa and Bosnia-Herzegovina. A note from the diary of Anwar Shaaban written just days before meeting Abu Talal in Copenhagen cites the collective importance of providing assistance “to the Algerian, Tunisian, Senegalese, and Bosnian
Like Shaaban in Milan, Abu Talal al-Qasimy used his position of prominence
while in Copenhagen to establish a circle of like-minded disciples, such as Palestinian Muslim cleric Ahmed Abu Laban (a.k.a. Abu Abdullah al-Lubnani) who arrived in Denmark in 1993. Though he speaks little Danish, Abu Laban has gradually established a persona for himself as the de-facto representative of the minority Muslim community in Denmark, appearing in local media reports and in meetings with government officials. An August 2005 article in the respected Washington Post even referred to Abu Laban as “one of Denmark’s most prominent imams.”
Yet, despite his disarming exterior, Italian intelligence recorded visits by Abu
Laban to Anwar Shaaban’s ICI in Milan “many times” for “conferences” and
“community prayers.” When news of the capture of Abu Talal al-Qasimy in Croatia filtered back to Denmark, Ahmed Abu Laban led an angry protest of 500 local Muslims in downtown Copenhagen outside the Croatian embassy. During the October 1995 protest (which included an appearance by al-Qasimy’s wife), demonstrators “raised their fists and shouted ‘Allahu Akhbar!’” In interviews with journalists, Abu Laban condemned Egypt, the United States, and Croatia as “the beneficiaries” of Abu Talal’s capture en route to Muslim forces in central Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In early 2006, Ahmed Abu Laban re-appeared in international media after he
helped provoke a new series of violent protests across the Muslim world in reaction to cartoons published in Scandinavian magazines that lampooned the Prophet Mohammed. The controversial cartoons failed to attract widespread interest among Muslims outside of Europe when they first printed in the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten during the fall of 2005. On November 18—in an interview with an Islamic press agency—Abu Laban announced that he would lead a delegation of Danish Muslims touring across the Middle East in a bid to draw pan-Islamic attention to the cartoons issue:
“A delegation will visit Cairo to meet with Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi… The delegation will also visit Saudi Arabia and Qatar to meet with renowned Muslim scholar Sheikh Yussef Al-Qaradawi… We want to internationalise this issue so that the Danish government would realise that the cartoons were not only insulting to Muslims in Denmark but also to Muslims worldwide… It was decided to take such a step because it is wrong to turn a blind eye to the fact that some European countries discriminate against their Muslims on the grounds that they are not democratic and that they can not understand western culture.”
During meetings with Muslim leaders, the delegation led by Abu Laban displayed the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten—along with several other much more offensive items that had never actually been published in Scandinavia, including a cartoon depicting the Prophet having sexual intercourse with a dog. Other printed materials distributed in conjunction with Abu Laban’s campaign contained several other inflammatory and misleading rumours about the would-be “oppression” of Danish Muslims. Within weeks, as a result of Abu Laban’s relentless incitement, the cartoon controversy spun out of control, resulting in angry mobs attacking Scandinavian diplomatic facilities in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories.
Likewise, in neighbouring Sweden, local cells of North African extremists who had
initially organised themselves around the need to support to fellow jihadists in
Afghanistan, North Africa, and the Balkans eventually developed into an elaborate regional network for terrorist recruitment, financing, and other illicit activities. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Stockholm office of a fraudulent Arab-Afghan charitable group known as “Human Concern International” (HCI) served as cover during the mid-1990s for a major covert Bosnian arms smuggling operation. European Muslim newsletters advertised that due to a wealth of contributions from “the increasing Muslim population in Sweden,” the HCI branch in Stockholm had already successfully “equipped the Mujahideen in Afghanistan… The organisation has succeeded in gathering more than half million Kroner last year, and it has been sent to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. We are still helping the Arab youths to go to Afghanistan thus to contribute in the Jihad.” The newspaper Le Monde confirmed that French national police suspected that HCI’s offices in Croatia and Sweden had acted as possible “staging points” for the GIA terrorist cell responsible for a July 25, 1995 bomb attack on the Paris metro system. In the wake of the Paris bombing, Swedish authorities arrested and held a suspected GIA member Abdelkerim Deneche who was living in Stockholm at the time. Deneche had previously been fingered in French news media as a former employee of the HCI office in Zagreb.
Not to be outdone by their British colleagues, groups of young Algerian radicals
from Sweden were also traveling directly to Bosnia seeking to physically join in the jihad against the “Christian Crusaders.” On September 19, 1993, one of these Swedish mujahideen recruits—“Abu Musab al-Swedani”—was killed in a battle with Croatian HVO forces near the central Bosnian town of Kruscica (near Vitez). According to friends, Abu Musab was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and an Algerian father. He grew up in Scandinavia, but at age 20, suddenly developed an intense interest in studying Islam. He travelled to Saudi Arabia on a personal pilgrimage to learn Arabic and study the Islamic Shariah (religious law). During the nearly two years he spent in the Arabian Peninsula, he became a devout, fundamentalist who, upon his return to Sweden, began actively prosthelytising his religion to others around him, including his family and
The jihad in Afghanistan was making major international headlines during this
period of the late 1980s, catching the avid attention of the pro-Islamist community in the West. Abu Musab “began to follow the news of the Muslims around the world and in particular the killing of the Muslims and their expulsion from their homes. He then understood that there is no dignity for the Muslims except through Jihad.” Abu Musab travelled to Peshawar, the “gateway to jihad,” with another young, radical Muslim who was already a member of the mujahideen. After some hesitation, he soon ventured forth into Afghanistan to seek combat training and to fight on behalf of the Islamic revolution. When the Afghan jihad ended, Abu Musab returned home to Sweden and married a Muslim woman. But, in 1992, he once again decided to make a jihadi pilgrimage—this
time in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Abu Musab al-Swedani arrived in the region and joined up with the extremists based in the camp on Mt. Igman, under the lead of “General” Abu Ayman al-Masri. After surviving several months of combat, Abu Musab was finally killed by a sniper’s bullet while in the midst of a chaotic mujahideen military offensive aimed at driving Croatian forces out of Muslim central Bosnia. Al-Swedani’s biography and photo were later publicised in the pioneering English-language jihad propaganda film “The Martyrs of Bosnia,” produced by accused London-based Al-Qaida operative Babar Ahmad.
As a testament to what had been achieved, when the mujahideen military
campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina came to a sudden halt in September 1995, the
predominantly Algerian arms smuggling and recruitment network based in Stockholm continued their ongoing activities virtually unabated. Jihad became a hot topic of discussion and a host of individuals surfaced in Scandinavia claiming to represent various Islamic extremist movements—including “Abu Fatima al-Tunisi” (a spokesman for a Stockholm-based Islamic group), and “Abu Daoud al-Maghrebi” (a Swedish-based activist working on behalf of the GIA in Northern Europe). Even the Nusraat al-Ansaar newsletter—the semi-official publication of the GIA’s foreign delegation in Europe—offered a correspondence address at Box 3027 in Haninge, Sweden.
Indeed, Swedish-based militants who were initially mobilised by ongoing jihadi
conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan were also the first to establish an official Arablanguage Internet homepage for the notorious Algerian GIA, with an entire sub-section dedicated just to “terrorism.” These same individuals began to distribute Arabiclanguage jihad training manuals on the Internet, many of which have become classic documents in the online world of the mujahideen—including a lengthy book titled “The Restoration of the Publication of the Believers,” written by Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. When it was published on the Internet from Sweden, Zawahiri’s book still carried a watermark on the cover from 1996 identifying it as the property of “Muslimska Forsamilingen i Brandbergen, Jungfrugaten 413 N.B.” in the town of Haninge.
To some degree, all major conflicts in the Islamic world have a bearing on
Muslim social and political attitudes in Europe. Yet, the proximity of Bosnia-
Herzegovina to Europe and the underlying nature of the conflict in the Balkans (pitting an embattled and forgotten Muslim minority against two larger Christian “crusader” forces) caused an infusion of European youth that no such conflict had previously seen. Bosnia became a rallying cry and the impetus for disparate groups of Islamic extremists spread across Western Europe to come together in common cause. It was a mobilisation drive that simply never stopped when the Dayton Accords were signed and the Bosnian war ended.
The recent discovery of a transnational terrorist network anchored in Sarajevo—
and with branches in Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—is further evidence of the extent to which the jihad in Bosnia still influences Western European mujahideen networks. Last fall, Bosnian authorities announced a series of arrests in connection with a security sweep known as Operation Mazhar. The men taken into custody had purchased explosives and allegedly planned to carry out suicide attacks against Western targets across Europe. The leader of the cell, Swedish national Mirsad Bektasevic (a.k.a. “Maximus”) was initially based in Sweden and then travelled on to Bosnia “to plan an attack aimed at forcing Bosnia or another government to withdraw forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In a videotape recovered by Bosnian police, masked militants were shown
building explosives while another individual—allegedly Bektasevic himself—explained to the camera, “This weapon will be used against Europe, against those whose forces are in Iraq and Afghanistan… These two brothers ... have given their lives to God to help their brothers and sisters. We are here and we are planning and we have got everything ready.” Mobile phone records also showed that Bektasevic was communicating with other known extremists based in Denmark and the United Kingdom. He was also believed to be running a recruitment operation sending young European jihadi recruits on to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Moreover, at least one of the suspects arrested in Bosnia-Herzegovina in connection with the Bektasevic network was the former accountant of a financial front company run by veterans of the El-Mudzahedin Unit in Sarajevo and Zenica.
Thus, the brotherhood of radical Muslims forged as a result of the conflict in
Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to present a formidable challenge for European
intelligence and law enforcement. In the future, it is crucial for Western security
agencies to pool information on the identities of any foreign nationals known to have joined mujahideen forces in the Balkans—just as they have done for Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, European nations must provide further resources and investigative support to Bosnian Muslim authorities in their drive to uproot remaining pockets of foreign extremists. Without substantial international assistance, it is doubtful that the Bosnians can alone shoulder this weighty and complex security responsibility.
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