The reverse flow of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) is at present one of the main challenges for Western intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies. Following the collapse of the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq, hundreds of FTFs are trying to return home. Some are hiding themselves in displacement camps in Syria, some are in the refugee camps and cities of Turkey, and some relocated to other conflict zones such as Libya, Afghanistan, and the Sinai Peninsula. Others have already made their way back to Europe, through the migration routes in the Balkans or across the Mediterranean Sea. Investigative sources as well as press reports have confirmed that some elite terrorist operatives reached the European Union (EU) among the asylum seekers and were even granted protection while planning terrorist attacks.
Due to the security situation in Libya and the Sahara region, alongside various political factors in Europe and Africa, the migration flow through the Central Mediterranean route towards Italy has decreased significantly. According to the Western Balkans 2018 Risk Analysis of Frontex, the EU border control agency, the illegal border-crossings from the Western Balkans Risk Analysis Network countries (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) towards the EU have decreased by 90% on the previous year. At the same time, though, illegal stay has increased by 48% and false travel-document users are up by 91%. When it comes to the risk of infiltrations, terrorist organizations deploy small cells whose members can travel alone and converge once they have reached their destination.
The Frontex Analysis also mentions an increase of migration pressure at the Croatian–Bosnian border section in 2017. A total of 565 illegal border-crossings by non-regional migrants were detected. A large share of detections (59%) was linked to Turkish nationals who generally arrived in Sarajevo legally (they enjoy visa-free travel), after which they tried to move illegally towards the EU. The main border-crossing points into the EU are five: Karasovići from Montenegro to Croatia; Stara Gradiška from Bosnia to Croatia; Bajakovo from Serbia to Croatia; and Kelebia and Röszke, both from Serbia to Hungary. However, many migrants tend to use alternative passages, both minor legal crossings and illegal pathways. According to the EU border agency, in 2017, Moroccans, Algerians, Libyans, and Syrians accounted together for almost 50% of all detections reported along the Croatian sub-route.
Bosnia has already been a hotbed for jihadist networks twice in recent history. Back in the 1990’s, during the civil war, thousands of Arab mujahideen, many of them veterans of the war to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, arrived in Bosnia to support the Muslim forces against the Serbs and Croats. It has been proven that Al Qaida was massively involved in this military formation, with the aim of establishing a foothold in Europe for future operations. The “Afghan Arabs” tried to spread their Salafist ideology among local Muslims and committed many atrocities, including beheading of prisoners of war and murdering civilians. After the war, all noncitizen combatants were required to leave Bosnia in accordance with Article 3 of the Dayton Peace agreement, but many managed to stay because the authorities simply redefined them, either giving them passports and making them citizens, or providing them residency permits. Some of them, including Algerian nationals, settled in small villages in central Bosnia, enjoying autonomy from the government and enforcing their own strict socio-religious rules. Many were deported after the “war on terror” began due to American pressure on the Bosnian government.
In 2016, the authorities in Sarajevo estimated that about 3,000 Salafists were living in Bosnia, a fraction of the country’s 1.6 million Muslims. Several hundred Salafists left for Syria and Iraq between 2013 and 2016. They were recruited online or by extremist preachers, including Bilal Bosnić (for the Islamic State) and Nusret Imamović (for Jabhat al-Nusra). A network of fundamentalist mountain villages has harboured extremist preachers and militants. This network includes the villages of Šišici, Bužim, Bosanska Bojna, Orašac, and Dubovsko in the northern part bordering Croatia, while in central Bosnia there are the remote villages of Gornja Maoča, Ošve, Gluha Bukovica, and Mehurići, which was a jihadist training camp during the war.
Bosnia has suffered some internal attacks from this extremist population. In 2010, a radical Salafist, Haris Čaušević, planting an improvised explosive device near a police station in the central town of Bugojno, killing one and injuring six. The next year, Mevlid Jašarević, from the Muslim-majority region of Sandzak, in Serbia, carried out an armed assault on the US embassy in Sarajevo. Before the attack, Jašarević was harboured by other extremists in Gornja Maoča and helped by Emrah Fojnica, another Bosnian who blew himself up in Baghdad in 2014. A controversial event occurred in 2015, when Nerdin Ibrić opened fire at the Zvornik police station, killing one policeman and injuring two. According to the investigations, he was both a member of the Wahhabi community and motivated by anti-Serb sentiment. His father was among the 750 Bosniaks killed in the area in 1992 by the Serb forces. On 18 November 2015, Enes Omeragić shot dead two Bosnian Army soldiers in the Sarajevo suburbs; once surrounded, he blew himself up.
The refugee camps in Bihać and Velika Kladuša host thousands of migrants. Every day, hundreds of them head off into the forest, assisted by smugglers, to try to cross the border with Croatia. They follow mountain tracks and unguarded border crossings. Some of them die due to the prohibitive weather conditions, others brave the minefields spread along the border. There is a concrete risk that returning FTFs might join the migrant flow and infiltrate Croatia. Near Bosanska Bojna, a gravel road leads past a rusty border barrier into Croatia (see pictures, right and above). The author has personally inspected the border-crossing. The rural area is almost deserted, except for few isolated farms, the border post is unguarded, and on foot one can reach the Croatian town of Glina in under-five hours. Should Croatia become part of the EU’s border-free travel area, this remote border region would have the potential to undermine the integrity of the whole union.
This area is not far from some of the Salafi villages such as Šišici and Bužim. According to Bosnian prosecutors, Salafists purchased eight hectares of land from Serbs who used to live near Bosanska Bojna, close to the Croatian border, using a donation from Qatar. This land in rural areas may be used for illicit trafficking or even to smuggle terrorists into the EU. But Bosanska Bojna is not the only border crossing at risk of infiltrations. On the Dalmatian side, other border crossings completely lack any security measures, including Jovića Most, Dugopolje, Vaganj/Bili Brig, and other rural roads in the Una National Park, also inspected by the author. In 2018, the local law enforcement detected 450 migrants while they were crossing from Bosnia; they were from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine, all countries of concern when it comes to terrorism.
According to the Croatian Interior ministry, the country expects to meet the technical criteria for the border-free EU Schengen zone by 2020. Given the previous observations, this poses a security threat to the entire European Union. The border control challenge should be supervised on a multilateral basis, in partnership with Frontex, the Croatian and Bosnian authorities, as well as other local and international stakeholders.
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