Bosnian Travel Documents Again Become a Security Issue

The resignation of Fahrudin Radoncic, the B&H security minister, has again highlighted a problem with a long and dangerous history—the willingness of some elements B&H institutions to provide travel documents to individuals with ties to international terror organizations. 

Sarajevo media have published a leaked stenographic report of a meeting of the B&H Presidency in which Radoncic tendered his resignation because of differences with presidency member Sefik Dzaferovic and B&H foreign minister Bisera Turkovic (both members of the Islamist “Party of Democratic Action,” local acronym, SDA) over policy towards illegal migrants in the country. Radoncic claimed that over 3000 Pakistanis had come into B&H on the basis of falsified visas given out by the B&H embassy in Islamabad. 

Radoncic claimed that there were currently 9,500 individuals from Pakistan in B&H whose identity was unknown to domestic authorities, and that Pakistani authorities were refusing to assist B&H officials in identifying them. Radoncic also claimed that two Pakistanis who had passed through Bosnia were suspected of a terrorist attack in France. Radoncic argued that he was in favor of legal deportations of people who cannot be identified, which SDA members rejected.

Another report in the Sarajevo media (as of yet unsubstantiated) claimed that the B&H Prosecutor’s Office has begun an investigation into allegations that the B&H embassy in Amman, Jordan, had provided a thousand tourist visas to Iraqis through various irregular procedures. Suspicions were raised at the end of April when a group of fifty Iraqis showed up at Sarajevo airport and it subsequently became known that they had paid 1,000 Euros for their B&H tourist visas. The Iraqis are apparently only using B&H as a waystation to the EU.    

These incidents raise concerns because elements of the SDA have a long history of providing travel documents to international terrorists. 

A secret report prepared for the Clinton Administration in late 2000 “shocked everyone” with its revelations of the scale on which B&H’s former Islamist president Alija Izetbegović had provided travel documents to international extremists. Ahmed Zeid Salem Zohair, a Saudi militant fighting in Bosnia in the 1990s, obtained and distributed 500 blank Bosnian passports to fellow jihadis in 1992-93. One of the beneficiaries of Zohair’s largesse was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. By one count some 12,000 Bosnian passports were distributed to international jihadis, and both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia accused the Izetbegovic regime of giving Bosnian passports to known terrorists.

In 1997, in the second (of three) attempts to assassinate Pope John Paul II linked to Bosnia, Italian police discovered an assassination plot targeting the Pope during a planned pastoral visit to Bologna. All fourteen men arrested were travelling on Bosnian passports. 

One of the individuals suspected of involvement in this assassination attempt on the Pope was Bosnian jihad veteran Karray Kamel bin Ali, a.k.a., Abu Hamza, a Tunisian who had fought in the El Mudžahedin battalion (the Al Qaeda unit in Izetbegović’s army) during the war. In 2001, Italian authorities requested Abu Hamza’s extradition but Bosnian officials refused because Hamza had “Bosnian citizenship.” 

A couple of years earlier, in 1999 Italian authorities had also requested the extradition of two other individuals in Bosnia suspected in the 1997 assassination attempt on the Pope, Salih N. Nidal and Khalil Jarraya, but cantonal courts in Travnik and Sarajevo rebuffed their requests because the two had Bosnian citizenship. 

Although the aforementioned Nidal was allegedly under 24-hour surveillance by Bosnian police, he nevertheless managed to “disappear” in June 2002. The aforementioned Abu Hamza was subsequently arrested in 2007, but was released from Zenica prison and allowed to take a short “holiday”—during which he promptly (and predictably) escaped.

The distribution of new identities to international terrorists proved a useful way for the Izetbegović regime to evade provisions in the Dayton Peace Accords which required foreign fighters to be expelled from the country; thus, as security expert Evan Kohlmann has noted

The Dayton Accords had specifically mandated that the Bosnian government expel soldiers who were not of ‘local origin.’ In order to evade this provision, Izetbegović’s regime simply issued thousands of BiH passports, birth certificates, and other official paperwork to various members of the foreign [mudžahedin] battalion . . . . many of the most dangerous ones . . . were protected by religious and political hardliners at the most senior levels of the Bosnian government, and thus were able to easily ‘melt into’ mainstream Bosnian society. 

Osama bin Laden himself was the owner of a Bosnian passport, and Western reporters even saw him Izetbegović’s office during the war. In 2006—five years after the 9/11 attacks—the Bosnian government finally revoked bin Laden’s passport.

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s brother, Mohammed al-Zawarhiri, a logistics expert for Al Qaeda, also had a Bosnian passport, and Abu Zubaydah, considered one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants in charge of admissions to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and maintaining contact with other terrorist organizations, had Bosnian citizenship and a Bosnian passport.

In 1998, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, the mastermind of the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, visited Bosnia on a “business trip” on a visa issued to him by the Bosnian consulate in Ankara. Salim left Bosnia in the summer of 1998 after being tipped off by a Bosnian intelligence agent (and former Alija Izetbegović bodyguard), Munib Zahiragić, that he was under surveillance.

Unfortunately, U.S. officials realized far too late what they were dealing with in Bosnia. In 2005, Richard Holbrooke would admit that “we [then] called them mujahedin freedom fighters. We now know that that was Al Qaeda.” In April 2008, Holbrooke claimed that “Without Dayton, Al Qaeda would probably have planned the 9/11 attacks from Bosnia, not Afghanistan.”

Similarly, Richard A. Clarke, the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-Terrorism, noted that “what we saw unfold in Bosnia was a guidebook to the bin Laden network, although we didn’t recognize it as such at the time . . . Although Western intelligence agencies never labeled [the mudžahedin activities] in Bosnia an al Qaeda jihad, it is now clear that is exactly what it was.