The dots begin to connect in a radical network that reaches from Bosnia across Western Europe as police in Bosnia arrest five suspected of plotting to attack Catholic and EUFOR objects, Anes Alic and Damir Kaletovic report for ISN Security Watch.
By Anes Alic and Damir Kaletovic in Sarajevo for ISN Security Watch (28/03/08)
In the second major anti-terrorism operation in Bosnia in three years, Bosnian police have arrested five men and seized anti-tank mines, laser sights, electronic equipment, topographic maps and bomb-making manuals.
The ongoing investigation shows so far that the group involved in the alleged plot is connected with earlier terrorism-related arrests in the country, and that the network extends to Western European capitals.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's Federation Anti-Terror Unit on 20 March arrested five men: Rijad Rustempasic, Muhamed Meco, Abdulah Handzic and Edis Velic, all in their early thirties and from Sarajevo, along with Muhamed Ficer, from the central Bosnian city of Bugojno, who was released from custody after questioning.
The four arrested in Sarajevo were members of the local Wahhabi movement - the Saudi-based and financed order following a strict interpretation of Islam. Some of the suspects were already well known to the police for their radical activities. The group had been under surveillance for several months by the Federation Anti-Terror Unit and the State Prosecutor's Office.
Federation Anti-Terror Unit and the State Prosecutor's Office have strong evidence that Rustempasic's group was planning attacks on Catholic Churches and international forces within the country during the Easter holidays.
According to the authors' source from the Federation police, who are running the investigation, the alleged leader of the group is Rustempasic, who was born and raised in Bugojno but moved to Sarajevo four years ago.
On condition of anonymity, the police source said that Rustempasic was one of the most notorious and most violent Bosnian radical Muslim they had so far investigated, and that the suspect has managed to evade prison thanks to the tolerance of the local authorities in Bugojno.
The key suspect
Since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 1995, Rustempasic's name has appeared in connection with several investigations related to the terrorism and radical Islam.
During the Bosnian 1992-1995 war, Rustempasic was a member of the El-Mujahid unit, headquartered in central Bosnia. The unit was under the official jurisdiction of the Bosnian Army during the war, though it operated autonomously and was comprised of foreign fighters from Islamic countries. The author's police source said it was during that period that Rustempasic developed his bomb-making skills.
Federal police suspect that Rustempasic was responsible for mining the tower of the Catholic Church in the village of Humci, near Bugojno, in July 1996. No suspects were ever arrested in connection with the attack. Police also suspect that Rustempasic was behind numerous threats against Bosnian Croat returnees to Bugojno and other central Bosnian cities where there is a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) majority.
In 2004, Rustempasic was arrested by NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) troops in Bosnia for illegal possession of weapons and suspicion of terrorist-related activities. The international forces had found nearly five kilograms of explosives in his possession. For that crime, the court in Bugojno sentenced him to five months parole, during which time he relocated to Sarajevo.
"In Rustempasic's apartment we seized a hand-made explosive device hidden in a book … and when someone would open the book, the device would be activated," the source said.
The police source said Rustempasic had a couple of supply chains for bomb-making equipment. He would go to the war-time frontlines and dig up anti-tank mines to remove the explosives from inside. Each anti-tank mine contains around 3 kilograms of explosives - enough to cause massive damage.
"We also have evidence that from the money he would get from [sources] in Western Europe, was buying explosives and other equipment on the illegal market here. Also, we have reason to believe that some of the seized materials arrived from other countries in travel bags," the police source said.
The group came under closer scrutiny by the Anti-Terror Unit and the Bosnian State Intelligence Agency (OSA) after an intercepted telephone conversation between Rustempasic and another arrested member of the group.
"Christmas passed and we didn't do anything," one of the group's members told Rustempasic late on 25 December 2007, alerting the authorities.
Federal police had reason to believe that the next opportunity to attack would be the next Catholic holiday, Easter. Analyzing intercepted communiqués, police concluded that would be targets of the group are Sarajevo central Cathedral and Franciscan Monastery in Central Bosnian city of Fojnica.
Aside from Catholic institutions, police also have reason to believe that the group was planning to sabotage electricity supply stations and launch attacks against European Forces (EUFOR) Liaison and Observation Team (LOT) here.
EUFOR has 45 LOTs stationed across the country. One of the intercepted telephone conversations between Rustempasic and another group member mentioned international community targets and talked about locations where international soldiers were based, particularly those coming from countries involved in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Most of the weapons seized during the raid on six locations were found in Rustempasic's apartment in Sarajevo's old town, where he lives with his family.
According to Muhamed Ficer - Rustempasic's brother-in-law who was arrested and released in connection with the plot - the weapons found in the apartment did not belong to Rustempasic but to his brother, currently living in Austria.
Following his release, Ficer told local media that the electronic equipment seized by the police and suspected of being used for bomb-making had actually been found at a garbage dumb and they had planned only to repair and resell it.
According to Ficer, Rustempasic is unemployed (along with the others arrested), and depended on financial assistance from his "brothers" (Wahhabi's) from Austria.
According to Rustempasic's neighbors from Sarajevo suburb of Sedrenik, the house in which he has lived for free for the last four years is owned by Bosniak Deso Karisik, who lives in Germany.
Rustempasic also sparked the authorities' interest during clashes last year between radical and moderate Muslims in Sarajevo and two cities in the country's north. Rustempasic was a close associate of the late, self-proclaimed sheik, Jusuf Barcic, the leader of the local Wahhabi movement. In March last year, Barcic, an aggressive preacher calling for a return to traditional Islam, and his followers tried to forcibly enter several mosques to preach wahhabism, but were prevented by locals. Barcic died in the car accident a month after those incidents.
Another member of the arrested group, Edis Velic, also has a criminal past. According to the police source, Velic spent some time fighting in Chechnya several years ago. Last year, he was fired from a Sarajevo-based private security company after a shooting incident in which Velic shot the owner of a second hand stall in the open market in the legs.
Velic and another detainee, Abdulah Handzic, were present at the recent protests against the deportation of foreign mujahideens and against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Notably, police spotted Velic and Handzic burning US and EU member country flags at the protests.
The arrests on 20 March was the second major crackdown on Bosnian Wahhabis suspected of terrorism in the last three years.
In October 2005, Federation police arrested five men, three of whom were indicted and later convicted on a string of terror charges.
Mirsad Bektasevic, a Swedish national from Serbia; Danish-born Turkish citizen Abdulkadir Cesur; and Bosnian national Bajro Ikanovic were arrested in late 2005 in two Sarajevo suburbs. The three were found guilty of "intending to carry out a terrorist act" in Bosnia or another European country with the aim of forcing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or Afghanistan.
During the raid on the home of Bektasevic and Abdulkadir police found a suicide bomb belt, nearly 20 kilograms of explosives, guns and a bomb-making video.
Prior to his arrival to Sarajevo, Bektasevic was active in trying to recruit Jihadists through internet sites, using the codename "Maximus." Correspondence between Bektasevic and some Islamists in Denmark led to further arrests and prosecutions. Bektasevic was in contact with Abdul Basit, also known as Abu-Lifa, sentenced by a Danish court in February last year to seven years in prison. He was believed to be a financier of Bektasevic's group.
Having previously been marked as potential militant by Federation and international authorities, Rustempasic appeared even in this case. According to the police source, Bektasevic was also in contact with Rustempasic in the two-month period between his arrival in Bosnia and his arrest.
According to the source, at the time Rustempasic was questioned by police and prosecution investigators and gave very valuable information regarding Bektasevic's case. Investigators had no evidence to charge Rustempasic in that case.
After Rustempasic's group was arrested on 20 March, local authorities discovered several locations, in almost unapproachable mountainous parts of Bosnia, with cottages where military equipment was held and the surrounding area used for military-style exercises. Those locations were discovered after analyzing a map found in Rustempasic's apartment.
They also found another map containing coded signs. Police believe, once decoded, the map will lead to more hidden sights or even potential targets.
"But now we are troubled with the fact that four days prior to Easter, and one day ahead of the group's arrest, a duffle bag containing military equipment arrived in Sarajevo from a Western Europe country, and could be linked to the group," the police source said.
The whereabouts of the bag is still unknown, and police are focusing their investigation on this, hoping for cooperation from those arrested.
A source from the prosecutor's office told ISN Security Watch that in the coming days the investigation into Rustempasic's group will be expanded beyond the borders of Bosnian. It is clear, the source said, that the group is receiving financial and logistical support from wahhabi figures in Western Europe.
Anes Alic, based in Sarajevo, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Southeastern Europe and the Executive Director of ISA Consulting.
Damir Kaletovic is Sarajevo-based investigative reporter for Federal Television's (FTV) "60 Minutes" news program.