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A recent deadly attack against a police station has raised fears in already ethnically-divided Bosnia




Salafist or just a moderate Sunni Muslim?

Fears grow over spread of radical Muslim movement in already ethnically-divided Bosnia.

By Rusmir Smajilhodzic - SARAJEVO

about the spread of the radical Islamic Wahhabi movement there.

The movement, a deeply austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran, has been around since it was imported by foreign fighters who took up arms with the Bosnians in the bloody 1992-95 wars.

"According to the figures of our intelligence agency we have some 3,000 Wahhabi followers in Bosnia, but that does not mean they are all terrorists," Bosnian Security Minister Sadik Ahmetovic said.

"However we cannot exclude that there are individuals among them ... who could at a certain point commit terrorist acts," he added, insisting that Bosnia's police have the capacity to deal with the menace.

Bosnian Muslims, some 40 percent of a population estimated at 3.8 million, are generally a moderate Sunni community.

During the bloody 1992-95 inter-ethnic war a number of foreign Islamic fighters joined forces with the Bosnian Muslim army. They introduced Wahhabism, also referred to as Salafism, to Bosnia and built a small following.

Currently there are some twenty radical Islamic groups in Bosnia, estimates Ahmet Alibasic, a professor of the faculty of Islamic sciences at the University of Sarajevo.

Seven suspected Islamic radicals were detained in February in Gornja Maoca, a remote northeastern hamlet seen as a key location for Bosnian followers of Wahhabism.

The men were accused of "endangering the territorial integrity" of Bosnia and confined to house arrest but have not been formally charged.

Contacted through an intermediary, the leader of Gornja Maoca's Salafist community refused to talk to AFP. The imam who reads the important Friday prayers at Sarajevo's Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque, known to attract Salafists, also refused to comment for this article.

In front of the mosque heavily bearded men in traditional Islamic calf length trousers and long shirts, a style not worn in Bosnia before the advent of radical Islam in the 1990s, sell shawls, books on Islam and DVDs with sermons or glorifying the mujahedin, or Islamic fighters.

"We are not Wahhabites or Salafists. We are Muslims, that's all. Here (in Bosnia) people invent a lot of things," a young vendor who refused to give his name told AFP.

In the neighbourhood around the mosque several women can been seen wearing the niqab, a face-covering veil, a rare sight in Bosnia.

Vlado Azinovic, a professor of international terrorism at the University of Sarajevo, told AFP that the Bosnian Salafist movement is not homogeneous.

"I don't think there is a Bosnian coordination centre" for local movements which are "divided", he said.

He warned that the late June attack on a police station in the central city of Bugojno, in which an officer was killed, should be a "wake-up call" to the Bosnian Islamic Community, the official organisation that oversees Muslim religious life in the country.

He urged the body to take "a firm stance".

"We have waited much too long to do something ... we did everything with kid's gloves ... because Salafists are considered good Muslims in certain countries," he said.

According to professor Alisabic the approach so far by the Islamic Community has been to fight attempts by radical groups to take over mosques but to keep the door open for Salafists which resulted in many people switching back to the more moderate Bosnian form of Islam.

"That is why now instead of having thousands of terrorists we have problems with only a small isolated group of people," he said.

Two men suspected of carrying out the police station attack were arrested in the days that followed. A third man, accused of helping them, was arrested early September.

Postwar Bosnia still has a weak state in constant turmoil due to permanent inter-ethnic quarrels that dominate politics and it therefore makes an "ideal breeding ground for terrorist networks", professor Azinovic said.

He pointed out that by 2012 some 70 percent of the officials of the Islamic Community of Bosnia -- which controls a majority of the mosques -- will end their mandate or retire.

"Their places will be taken by new people, many of them educated abroad notably in Saudi Arabia" a major centre for Salafist and radical Islamic groups, Azinovic warned.

He fears the future will hold "an even more important clash" between the moderate traditional Bosnian Islamic practice and fundamentalist branches.

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