In rebuilt Bosnia, no terror toehold
Bosnia-Herzegovina's postwar success is a nation-building model.
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — Just four years ago, driving into town from Sarajevo's Butmir Airport meant driving past bullet-riddled terminal buildings, neighborhoods of burned-out single-family homes, and partially collapsed commercial buildings before arriving at the foot of the skeletal remains of the 22-story office towers that preside over the city center.
Today travelers pass through an airport of glass and polished marble, neighborhoods of new and rebuilt houses, apartment blocks, and commercial buildings, including the rehabilitated office towers, sheathed in mirrored glass. With each passing month, fewer physical reminders of the 1992-95 war remain, and, on the surface at least, Sarajevo again resembles a normal peacetime city.
While world attention has been focused on Iraq and the Middle East, the international reconstruction effort in Bosnia has begun to bear fruit, and not just for Bosnians. As the country's infrastructure, border patrol services, and national governing institutions have been rebuilt, experts say it has become a less attractive potential host for global terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, which seek out "weak states" with porous borders, ineffective governments, and sympathetic locals.
"If I were a terrorist group member I would think twice about coming to this country," says Senad Slatina, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict- resolution organization based in Brussels, noting the presence of 10,000 NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia. "On top of that, Bosnian Muslims are so European that the radical form of Islam has absolutely no chance of spreading here."
The eight-year international reconstruction effort in Bosnia shows both how long it can take to rebuild a fractured nation - and how eventual success can help fight the war on terror.
During Bosnia's long war - in which ethnic Serbs and later, Croats attempted to seize large portions of the country and cleanse it of all Muslims, or Bosniaks - hundreds of mujahideen, or Muslim militants, from the Middle East and north Africa trained and fought alongside Bosniak forces. Some 200 of them stayed in Bosnia, as did a number of questionable Islamic charities that US officials say are linked to international terrorist networks.
US concern over these groups increased after Sept. 11, 2001. In October 2001, Bosnian officials arrested six Algerian humanitarian workers and turned them over to the US, which is holding them in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Police raids on suspicious Islamic charity groups here in 2002 reportedly turned up weapons, explosives, forged passports, and, in one case, letters from Osama bin Laden.
But Western officials here say that Bosnian officials - including Bosniaks - have been extremely cooperative in monitoring and investigating individuals and groups suspected of terrorist links. Most of the suspicious charities have been shut down, they say, while Bosnian authorities and NATO peacekeepers keep close tabs on mujahideen, many of whom have married Bosnian women and settled in rural areas.
"There is no evidence that there are or were Al Qaeda camps in Bosnia," says a Western diplomatic source here. "Al Qaeda is not here now, but it certainly could be here if we don't keep our eyes on it."
Seated in his audience chamber at the 16th century Sultan's mosque, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, says the West has nothing to fear from Bosnia's Islamic community. "I want to assure each and every American that as far as Bosnia is concerned, they can sleep safely," says Dr. Ceric, whom foreign diplomats praise for his efforts to promote tolerance and reconciliation.
But there has been unease here that Wahabism, the more radical version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, might take root among Bosniaks, who follow the tolerant Hanafi tradition of Turkey and the Balkans. Saudi money built the enormous King Fahd Mosque on the edge of Sarajevo, and there has been a noticeable increase in the number of young people wearing long beards or head scarves since the war's end.
But Ceric plays down concerns that Wahabism will spread among Bosnian Muslims, who have lived among a Chris- tian majority for centuries. "Some young people have been influenced by this way of thinking or interpretation of Islam, but the mainstream of Muslims here remains loyal to our traditions," he says. "I have never doubted that my people will stay the way they are."
Most important, over the past few years large numbers of victims of ethnic cleansing have been able to return to their former homes. Of the approximately 2.2 million people forcibly displaced in the conflict, about 1 million have been able to return to their prewar homes, almost half of them to places where their ethnic group was a minority, according to UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency. Forty percent of the country's 4 million people are Muslim.
After years of resistance and in fighting between Serb, Croat, and Bosniak political leaders, Bosnia's national governing institutions are also starting to show signs of life. A joint defense ministry is now in operation while a unified border patrol service mans the country's border crossings.
If progress continues, the country may be eligible to join NATO's Partnership for Peace Program - an important step toward eventual membership - at the alliance's June summit in Istanbul.
"Certainly the idea of becoming a member of NATO or the European Union one day is the driving force behind many of these changes," says Oleg Milisic, a spokesman for High Representative Paddy Ashdown, the highest-ranking international official here.
But with Bosnia's economy still dependent on foreign aid and organized crime, not everyone is quite as upbeat. "We're definitely moving forward, but the progress is too slow," says Jakob Finci, head of Bosnia's Jewish community, who notes that Yugoslavia's economy had largely recovered from World War II after only three years of peace, while Bosnia's remains in the gutter after eight. Unemployment remains at 40 percent, the country is deeply in debt, and foreign investment is scant.
"The problem is that we're all still not pulling in the same direction," says Mr. Finci, director of the country's new civil service agency. "I don't think that everybody has given up on the idea of splitting Bosnia into two or three parts."