The past several years have witnessed a development likely to have significant implications for the future of Bosnia and southeastern Europe as a whole—the emergence of central Bosnia as a target for large-scale Middle-Eastern investment.
Bosnia, the small, poor Balkan country, is still recovering from its civil war, two decades ago. With more than 27 percent unemployment is desperately seeking capital to create jobs. Bosnia’s neighbors are just as willing to accept Middle-Eastern investors. In May 2016, for instance, the Investment Corporation of Dubai announced that it was buying Porto Montenegro in the Bay of Kotor, the new Adriatic home for Mediterranean super-yachts. In Serbia, the United Arab Emirates’ Etihad Airways has bought a 49% share in the former JAT Airlines and re-branded it Air Serbia.
Unfortunately, whereas Arab investment in other places can be reduced to their financial dimensions, in Bosnia this influx of Middle-Eastern economic influence has socio-political, religious and security consequences as well; it serves to further widen the already-broad ethnic-confessional divides in the deeply divided Bosnian state and society.
Since Bosnia’s late Islamist president, Alija Izetbegovic, came to power in 1990, he and his party (the Stranka Demokratske Akcije, (the “Party of Democratic Action”, acronym: SDA) have initiated various efforts to Islamize the institutions and territories under their control. During the Bosnian jihad from 1992-1995, Izetbegovic and the SDA established “Muslim brigades” and a Muslim secret intelligence organization, belying their alleged devotion to a multiethnic society. Much of this effort was financed by generous Middle-Eastern donors. And a CIA report in the 1990s claimed that Izetbegovic himself was “literally on the [Iranian] payroll.”[i]
And Iran was not alone. In the 1990s Saudi economic aid to Bosnia had a religious agenda. Their money was almost exclusively devoted to building (and rebuilding) mosques and madrassas. According to their own claims the Saudis spent $1 billion (US) on “Islamic activities” in Bosnia between 1992-1998. When Alija Izetbegovic was once asked why Saudi monies were not used to bolster the economy, he replied that the Saudis “would not give money for building factories . . . They would only support building mosques.”[ii] Saudi officials now claim that they gave more than $6 billion (US) to Bosnia over the past twenty years.[iii]
More recently, Arab countries have been increasing economic support to Bosnia, especially in Muslim-dominated central Bosnia. One early sign of this increasing interest came in 2011 when the Qatari government-owned al-Jazeera network launched al -Jazeera Balkans as an opening foray into the Balkan media market. Al Jazeera Balkans set up its operations in Sarajevo’s BBI Centar, a shopping complex funded by Bosna Bank International (BBI). BBI was created by the Islamic Development Bank, with starting capital from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
One indicator of the increasing Middle-Eastern interest can be seen in the rising number of Arab tourists visiting the country; in the first eight months of 2016 alone, some 29,360 visitors from Saudi Arabia came to Bosnia,[iv] and more than 13,000 individuals from the United Arab Emirates visited there between January and July.[v] Many of these individuals are acquiring properties and businesses in Bosnia. However, using various cut-outs and front operatives makes it difficult to know what is now Arab-owned, how these properties were acquired, where the capital came from, or what these individuals are doing in Bosnia.[vi] What is clear is that the scale of this investment is substantial. Just a few of the large Arab economic projects in central Bosnia include the following:
The Dubai-based Buroj Property Development Group is building a €4 billion complex in the foothills of the Treskavica, Bjelasnica and Igman mountains southwest of Sarajevo, with 2000 villas, 160 residential buildings, several apartment hotels, a hospital, sports complex, and the largest shopping mall in southeastern Europe. The project is supposed to create some 10,000 jobs, with completion planned for 2025.[vii] Kuwaiti investors have built an enclave outside of the town of Tarcin, southwest of Sarajevo, including a complex of some 160 villas and apartments. Arabic is reportedly the “official language, ” and local Bosnians are only allowed into the compound if they work as servants or cleaners.[viii] Also, the Kuwaiti Rawasi Real Estate Company is building a €25 million residential complex with 246 housing units at Mount Igman outside of Sarajevo.[ix]
The collateral effects of the Arab influx into Central Bosnia are already becoming visible. The past couple of years has witnessed a new phenomenon in Bosnia – Bosnian women becoming second wives to visiting Arab men, who establish “parallel families” in Bosnia alongside their original families in the Middle-East.[x] The study of the Arabic language is also becoming increasingly popular in parts of Sarajevo frequented by Arab tourists and investors, as taxi drivers, restaurant workers, hotel staff, and shopkeepers compete to draw Arab business.[xi] More ominously, Arab visitors to Bosnia have taken to hiring members of the local Wahhabi/Salafi community to be their drivers, tourist guides and handymen[xii]—a useful source of finance for a community that provides the majority of Bosnia’s international jihad volunteers.
Individuals who criticize these trends often become targets for Bosnia’s militant Islamists. When a journalist named Lejla Colak criticized the growing trend of burqa wearing in Sarajevo, she was subjected to ferocious attacks and threats of violence on social media; there were calls to pour gasoline on her and light her on fire; to run over by an automobile, and in August 2016, a serving member of the Bosnian military publicly asked on his Facebook page “Are there any volunteers willing to rape pretty Lejla? I will personally pay for it.”[xiii] Remarkably, three months later no disciplinary action had been taken against the man. In October 2016, Colak announced that she was leaving Bosnia.
The Arab influx into Central Bosnia affects the socio-political and inter-ethnic relations in the country. Increasing Islamization of Central Bosnia will concurrently increase the political and social divide between the country’s Bosnian Muslims, and Bosnia’s non-Muslim Croats and Serbs. Many prominent individuals in Bosnia are already warning of these looming problems. Fahrudin Radoncic, a media mogul and political party leader, has voiced concerns that “by bringing in a large group of people [from the Middle-East] someone wants to Islamize BiH.”[xiv] Along similar lines, Jasmin Imamovic, the Social-Democratic mayor of Bosnia’s second-largest city, Tuzla, recently launched a bitter attack on current SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic (Alija’s son) for his support for the Arab influx into Bosnia. Alluding to the visible number of women in Sarajevo dressed in black burqas, Imamovic gave a speech in September 2016 saying, “We are allowing foreign citizens . . . [to] establish a firm for one-thousand euro’s and buy parcels of land on the slopes around our capital city. Bakir Izetbegovic, you will not cover and wrap Tuzla in black!”[xv]
Even a leading Islamic scholar in Sarajevo, Esad Durakovic, has voiced similar concerns, decrying the “relatively massive sale of land and other assets to wealthy Arabs,” and questioning how many of these new buyers are Salafis or Shi’a who will provoke more conflict within Bosnia. According to Durakovic, the phenomenon of Arabs buying property in Bosnia will “significantly change the social, cultural, confessional context of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital city and [Sarajevo] Canton, and that will inevitably in the future have serious consequences and repercussions in the political context, because the latter cannot be distinguished from the former.[xvi]
In a subsequent interview, Durakovic was even more blunt, noting that the increasing Middle-Easternization of Central Bosnia will only increase separatist tendencies among Bosnia’s Croats and Serbs who “will not want to live in ‘Muslimstan,’” i.e., an area in which women wear burqas and alcohol and pork are prohibited.
A second consequence of the increasing Arab influence in Central Bosnia is religious. For years, “moderate Balkan Islam” has been subtly but inexorably changing as increasing numbers of local clerics are educated in the Middle-East. According to Esad Hecimovic, a leading expert on the Bosnian jihadi movement, “There is now a new generation of Islamic preachers in Bosnia who were educated after the war at Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and other countries . . . Thus, it is no longer possible to distinguish between ‘imported’ and ‘local’ versions of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina anymore.”[xvii]
A majority of the muftis in Bosnia have now been educated at Cairo’s Al Azhar Islamic university or other Islamic educational institutions in the Middle-East, where they were “exposed to Salafi teachings, schools of jurisprudence and lifestyles . . . Some of these imams [have] returned home with a hardened spirit and a politicized theocratic worldview, which they then tried to instill in their communities.”[xviii]
One example of the new type of Middle-Eastern-trained Bosnian Islamic cleric is Nusret Imamovic, the former leader of the Bosnian Wahhabi movement who in September 2014 was named one of ten “global terrorists” by the U.S. State Department. As Mehmet Gomez, the head of Turkey’s Diyanet (the official government directorate of religious affairs) has warned, individuals who graduate from places such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Medina Islamic University in Saudi Arabia “are becoming the problem themselves, rather than solving problems.”[xix]
In addition to a large number of Balkan Islamic clerics now being trained in the Arab world, Middle-Eastern funders are also establishing their own educational infrastructure within Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans. Saudi donations have provided funds for the creation of Islamic faculties in Bihac and Zenica which propagate the most extreme Salafi/Wahhabi interpretations of Islam.[xx] What is being promoted in these Arab-funded establishments is already clear. In Sarajevo, the imam of the Saudi-funded King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo, Nezim Halilovic-Muderis, is known for voicing some of the most virulent forms of anti-American, anti-Semitic propaganda one can publicly hear in Europe. In a hutba (sermon) entitled “The Koran on Jews,” Halilovic tells his audience:
“Jews currently create world policy, they hold in their hands money and the media . . . Jews are prepared, for the sake of interests of this world, to trample every rule and every law . . . [the Jews’] desire for gold and material goods of this world has shown itself throughout history . . . I pray to Allah to destroy the Zionists and their helpers.”[xxi]
Halilovic is not alone. Another radical Bosnian cleric, Muharem Stulanovic, the dean of the Saudi-funded Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihac, has offered the following views:
There are three foreign-political factors that play a role in creating BiH—America, the Jews, and the Shiites. As far as the Americans are concerned, everything is known. It is one of the main enemies of Muslims and Islam in the world. Furthermore, the Jews are the enemies of Islam and enemy number one at that. And Judgment Day will not come; that is faithfully in the Hadis, and it is true, without the Muslims completely winning. Judgment Day will not come, the conclusion of this world until the Muslims begin a total battle against the Jews, and in that battle, the Jews will be so defeated that they will hide behind every tree and behind every rock. And every tree and every rock will say, “Oh, Muslim, Servant of God, here is a Jew, he has hidden behind me, come and kill him.”[xxii]
In addition, the Arab influx into Central Bosnia has a significant security dimension that is cause for concern as well. For decades, Middle-Eastern monies have been used to subsidize and grow the militant Islamist movement in the region. To take but one example, an estimated $200,000 (US) in Qatari financial contributions allowed Bilal Bosnic (known as “ISIS head-hunter in Europe”) to buy 20 hectares of land in the village of Bosanska Bojna, on the very border of the EU. As a recent report in Der Spiegel noted, “those looking to smuggle people, weapons, and money into the EU could hardly find a better place to do so.”[xxiii]
Another aspect of the security threat posed by the large-scale influx of Middle-Eastern money will be the opportunity it presents for money-laundering and terror-finance in a country already notable for both. In July 2016, Bosnia became the only European country (together with Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and North Korea) which anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism regimes (AML-CFT) were considered by the European Commission to pose “significant threats to the financial system of the Union.”[xxiv] The extremist infrastructure and resources built up in Bosnia over the past two decades—built, it should be added, in large part by Arab mujahadin in the country and Middle-Eastern “NGOs” and “charities”—devoted to supporting ISIS. A recent study on terrorism finance has reported that ISIS has instructed that donations are to be routed through Bosnia or Turkey (with Bosnia considered the safer option).[xxv]
If left unchecked, the cumulative effect of these developments is likely to have highly detrimental consequences for Bosnia’s future as a united state. There has long been a widespread consensus that in the event of Croats and Serbs seceding from Bosnia and the country disintegrating the inevitable result would be a Muslim mini-state in Central Bosnia based on radical Islam.[xxvi] What is happening now is a somewhat different dynamic. Rather than Croats and Serbs seceding from Bosnia, what slowly appears to be happening is that the SDA’s drive for more and more Islamization in areas under its control, intensified and accelerated by the recent Middle-Eastern influx into the country. This contributes to the increasing social, cultural and political divide between Muslim parts of the country and Croat and Serb areas. But can an enclave based on hardline, militant Islamism of the Middle-Eastern variant peacefully co-exist in a European environment? Probably not.radical Islam
Alija Izetbegovic once noted, “There is no peace or co-existence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions . . . The Islamic movement can and may move to take power once it is morally and numerically strong enough, not only to destroy the existing non-Islamic government but to build a new Islamic government.”[xxvii]
Unfortunately, many of Izetbegovic’s acolytes are still in power, and the Middle-Eastern influx into Bosnia will only help their cause.
[i] See James Risen, “Iran Gave Bosnia Leader $500,000, CIA Alleges,” The Los Angeles Times, 31 December 1996, at http://articles.latimes.com/1996-12-31/news/mn-14139_1_iranian-influence, accessed on 22 October 2012 at 1:28pm EST.
[ii] See Nenad Pejic, “The Suicide of Multiethnic Sarajevo,” at http://www.rferl.org/content/The_Suicide_Of_Multiethnic_Sarajevo/2023847.html, accessed on 26 November 2013 at 12:02pm EST.
[iii] According to Nedzad Latic; see his interview, “VIZIJA ‘SARAJEVSKOG ARMAGEDONA’ Latic: Umjesto da Bosnjacima islam bude utjeha nakon genocida, selefije nam unesose nespokoj i tegobu,” The Bosnia Times, 8 March 2016, at http://thebosniatimes.ba/clanak/3330, accessed on 19 March 2016 at 7:54am EST.
[iv] See Eleanor Rose and Elameri Skrgic Mikulic, “Arabic Courses Boom in Suburb of Bosnian Capital,” BalkanInsight, 20 October 2016, at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/arabic-language-boom-in-sarajevo-suburbs-10-19-2016-1, accessed on 2 November 2016 at 11:04am EST.
[v] See Daria Sito-Sucic, “Gulf tourism frenzy delights business, polarizes locals,” Reuters (Dateline: Sarajevo), 21 August 2016, at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-bosnia-arabs-investment-idUSKCN10W08L, accessed on 3 November 2016 at 9:25am EST.
[vi] See Dzenana Halimovic, “Ujedinjeni bosanski emirati,” Radio Slobodna Evropa, 5 October 2015, at http://www.slobodnaevropa.org/content/ujedinjeni-bosanski-emirati/27288811.html, accessed on 7 October 2015 at 6:04pm EST.
[vii] See Zdravko Ljubas, “One Arab project could change Bosnia-Herzegovina,“ Deutsche Welle, 19 October 2015, at http://www.dw.com/en/one-arab-project-could-change-bosnia-herzegovina/a-18790892, accessed on 2 November 2016 at 11:44am EST; see also “Bosnia’s New Visitors: Ottoman Comfort,” The Economist (London), 23 January 2016, 46-48.
[viii] See “Fury over Bosnian town built by Middle East investors which has Arabic as its ‘official’ language—and locals can only enter if they work as servants,” The Daily Mail (UK), 26 October 2016, at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3875940/Bosnian-town-Arabs-live-women-fourth-wives-wealthy-sheikhs-slammed-locals.html, accessed on 2 November 2016 at 11:37am EST.
[ix] See Sito-Sucic, “Gulf tourism frenzy in Bosnia delights business,, polarizes locals,” op. cit.
[x] See Albina Sorguc, “Arabs Marry Bosnian Women to Establish Parallel Families,” BalkanInsight, 6 June 2016, at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/arabs-marry-bosnian-women-to-establish-parallel-families-06-06-2016, accessed on 2 November 2016 at 11:10am EST.
[xi] See Rose and Skrgic Mikulic, “Arabic Courses Boom in Suburb of Bosnian Capital,” op. cit.
[xii] See Jasmina Rose, “Bh. selefije kao vozaci, makleri i turisticki vodici,” Deutsche Welle, 7 October 2016, at http://www.dw.com/bs/bh-selefije-kao-voza%C4%8Di-makleri-i-turisti%C4%8Dki-vodi%C4%8Di/a-35987604, accessed on 7 November 2016 at 6:14pm EST.
[xiii] See “Pripadnik OS BiH Mirza Dzidic ponudio placanje za silovanje sarajevske novinarke Lejle Colak,” Depo.ba, 28 August 2016, at http://depo.ba/clanak/151432/pripadnik-os-bih-mirza-dzidic-ponudio-placanje-za-silovanje-sarajevske-novinarke-lejle-colak, accessed on 11 November 2016 at 1:03pm EST.
[xiv] See Halimovic, “Ujedinjeni bosanski emirati,” op. cit.
[xv] See “Jasmin Imamovic: Arapski investitori nisu dobro dosli u Tuzlu,” Dialogos.ba, 5 September 2016, at http://dialogos.ba/index.php/2016/09/05/jasmin-imamovic-arapski-investitori-nisu-dobrodosli-u-tuzlu/, accessed on 7 November 2016 at 11:28am EST.
[xvi] See Esad Durakovic, “Rasprodano Sarajevo: Dok Evropu preplavljuju arapski beskucnici, Bosnu kupuju arapski mocnici,” Dnevni Avaz (Sarajevo), 2 October 2015, at http://www.avaz.ba/clanak/198221/dok-evropu-preplavljuju-arapski-beskucnici-bosnu-kupuju-arapski-mocnici?url=clanak/198221/dok-evropu-preplavljuju-arapski-beskucnici-bosnu-kupuju-arapski-mocnici, accessed on 7 October 2015 at 6:08pm EST.
[xvii] See Esad Hećimović, “Radical movements—a challenge for moderate Balkan-Islam?” (paper available at http://www.bmlv.gv.at/pdf_pool/publikationen/rel_exterm_vs_fried_beweg_05_radical_movements_moderate_balkan_islam_e_hecimovic_17.pdf , 96, 109, accessed on 22 January 2014 at 6:06pm EST.
[xviii] See Kerem Oktem, “New Islamic actors after the Wahhabi intermezzo: Turkey’s return to the Muslim Balkans,” (European Studies Center, University of Oxford: December 2010), 19. As of 2005, Ahmet Alibasic has reported that there were 100 Bosnian students in Saudi Arabia, 60 in Syria, 40 in Egypt, 35 in Jordan, 30 in Iran, 10 in Pakistan, 10 in Turkey, and 20 in Malaysia. See Alibasic, “Traditional and Reformist Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Cambridge Programme for Security in International Society Working Paper No. 2, 17 February 2008), 4.
[xix] As quoted by David Lepeska, “Turkey Casts the Diyanet:Ankara’s Religious Diectorate Takes Off,” Foreign Affairs, 17 May 2015, at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2015-05-17/turkey-casts-diyanet, accessed on 9 July 2015 at 11:05am EST.
[xx] See the comments by Professor Adnan Silajdzic of the Faculty of Islamic Sciences in Sarajevo in the program “Tkz. Selefije i Vehabije,” (Sarajevo: Bosnian Federation TV program Posteno). Date unknown.
[xxi] See Halilovic’s hutba (sermon) 1 & 3, entitled “Kur’an o Jevrejima,” at
[xxii] See Stulanovic’s comments as quoted in “Islamska Zajednica je sve osim Rijaseta,” BH Dani 647 (Sarajevo), 6 November 2009, at https://www.bhdani.ba/portal/clanak/647/arhiva/islamska-zajednica-je-sve-osim-rijaseta-, accessed on 7 November 2016 at 10:32pm EST.
[xxiii] See Walter Mayr, “Sharia Villages: Bosnia’s Islamic State Problem,” Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 5 April 2016, at http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/islamic-state-presence-in-bosnia-cause-for-concern-a-1085326.html, accessed on 8 April 2016 at 9:26am EST.
[xxiv] See Jean –Claude Junker, “Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) . . ./. . . of 14.7.2016 supplementing Directive (EU) 2015/849 by identifying high risk third countries with strategic deficiencies” (Brussels), at https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regdoc/rep/3/2016/EN/3-2016-4180-EN-F1-1.PDF, accessed on 20 September 2016 at 10:40am EST.
[xxv] See Magnus Normark and Magnus Ranstorp, Understanding Terrorist Finance: Modus Operandi and National CTF-regimes (Stockholm: Swedish Defense University, 18 December 2015), 19.
[xxvi] For instance, according to former U.S. diplomat Daniel Server, should Bosnia breakup the result would be “a non-viable rump Islamic state that would be a platform for Iranian terrorism.” See Server, “Why Bosnia Can’t Be Divided,” 20 August 2012, at http://www.peacefare.net/?p=10516, accessed on 26 September 2012 at 8:16am EST. Similarly, Michael Haltzel has claimed that “Any attempt at division of Bosnia and Hercegovina would restart civil war and radicalize the heretofore secular Muslim population, raising the spectre of an Islamist country in the heart of Europe.” See Haltzel, “The Chance for a Multi-Ethnic Bosnia,” The Huffington Post, 30 December 2014, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-haltzel/the-chance-for-a-multieth_b_6070250.html, accessed on 5 October 2015 at 4:00pm EST. Similarly, James Lyon has claimed that another war in Bosnia could “radicalize Bosnia’s moderate Muslims, who are under growing pressure from extremist Gulf elements, risking the creation of an angry, Muslim-majority ministate directly on the EU’s border.” See Lyon, “Is War About to Break Out in the Balkans?” Foreign Policy, 26 October 2015, at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/26/war-break-out-balkans-bosnia-republika-srpska-dayton/, accessed on 9 January 2015 at 1:04pm EST. Former Croatian president Stipe Mesic has likewise argued that Bosnia’s disintegration would result in the creation of an “Islamic statelet . . . which would be able to sustain itself only with the help of fundamentalist Islamist regimes.” See Mesic, “Mesic za izmjenu Daytona: ‘Raspad BiH doveo bi do stvaranja islamske državice u neprijateljskom okruzenju’,” Vijesti.hr, 9 December 2015, at http://www.vijesti.rtl.hr/novosti/hrvatska/1857457/mesic-za-izmjenu-daytona-raspad-bih-doveo-bi-do-stvaranja-islamske-drzavice-u-neprijateljskom-okruzenju/, accessed on 17 November 2016 at 5:27pm EST. Bosnian journalists have expressed similar views; thus, according to Senad Pecanin, if Croats and Serbs were allowed to secede from Bosnia, “a sort of European Gaza would be created for the Bosnian Muslims . . . [leading to the creation of a radical Islamic republic] . . . The worst scenario for the Bosniaks: a radical Islamic state led by the clerics.” See the interview with Pecanin by Andrea Rossini entitled “Bosnian Chess,” Osservatorio balcani e caucaso, 2 July 2009, at http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Regions-and-countries/Bosnia-Herzegovina/Bosnian-Chess-46072, accessed on 29 August 2014 at 12:28pm EST.
[xxvii] See Izetbegovic, Islamska Deklaracija (Sarajevo: Bosna, 1990), 22-43.
* Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security specialist based in New York.