The Balkan Connections to the Vienna Terror Attack 

SEERECON Special Security Analysis

As the investigation continues into the November 2020 Vienna terror attack, increasing attention is being focused on the Balkan militant Islamist network that has developed in both Austria and across the Western Balkans.[1]  

On November 2, 2020, Kujtim Fejzulai, a Balkan Islamist of Albanian origin born in North Macedonia and raised in Vienna, went on a pre-meditated shooting spree in the middle of Vienna wearing a fake suicide vest. During his eight-minute rampage, Fejzulai killed four people and wounded more than twenty before being shot dead by Vienna police. 

Fejzulai’s terror attack was the most-deadly action Balkan Islamists had yet carried out in Austria, but it was not an isolated incident. For the past thirty years, Vienna has been an important hub of Balkan Islamist activity, serving as both a financial and recruiting center for several Albanian, Bosnian and Sandžak militant Islamist networks.  

The origins of Vienna’s terror milieu can be traced to the early 1990s, when Alija Izetbegovic, the founder of Bosnia’s militant Islamist movement, established a financial headquarters in the city under the guise of the so-called “Third World Relief Agency” (TWRA), an “Islamic charity” run by a long-time associate of both Osama Bin Laden and Alija Izetbegovic, the Sudanese national Elfatih Hassanein.[2] According to former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler, TWRA was “Bosnia’s unique gift to radical Islam and Al Qa’ida . . . the Bosnian ‘model’ of how to use NGOs and aid money to pay for jihad and terrorism,”[3] while the terrorism expert J.M. Berger has claimed that thanks to TWRA, “Bosnia raised more money for extremism than virtually any other event you can point to in history.”[4] According to Thomas Joscelyn,   

TWRA was run by senior Bosnian government officials, and sponsored the relocation of hundreds, if not thousands, of jihadists to Bosnia to fight in the 1990s. While carrying out some legitimate humanitarian functions as a cover, TWRA was really a front for global terrorist operations.[5] 

A number of Izetbegović’s closest associates were on the TWRA board. For instance, at a meeting in Vienna on 14 September 1992 attended by Alija Izetbegović, Ejup Ganić, Haris Siljadžić and the above-mentioned Hassanein, Izetbegović intimates Irfan Ljevaković, Husein Živalj and Derviš Djudjević (the latter an original member of Izetbegovic’s original Islamist extremist group, the Mladi Muslimani) were elected to the board of TWRA.[6] (Živalj and Djudjević had gone to prison with Izetbegović in 1983. Ljevaković was charged with running a terrorist training camp in central Bosnia in April 2002). Other sources have claimed that Hassanein, Mustafa Cerić, Hasan Čengić (widely considered to be the leading Iranian agent in Bosnia), and Bakir Izetbegović (currently a member of Bosnia’s joint state presidency) also controlled the Vienna TWRA account.[7] Investigations into Osama Bin Laden’s fundraising activities have revealed that one of Izetbegovic’s closest associates, Hasan Čengić, exchanged millions of dollars with Al Qaeda co-founder Wael Jelaidan through TWRA at this time.   

Financial transactions between Al Qaeda co-founder Wael Jelaidan and Izetbegovic associate Hasan Čengić (source: Expert Report Concerning the Area—Financial Investigations—relating to the judicial assistance request, ref. no. INV/10289/T09-PH (245), dated 8/27/2002 of the “Office of the Prosecutor” (OTP) of the International Court of Criminal Justice for the Former Yugoslavia relating to the “Third World Relief Agency” (TWRA) Vienna/Austria. Meckenheim: Federal Office of Criminal Investigations, ST-45-2-185-02, 8/28/2003. Source: The New York Times, at: http://documents.nytimes.com/evidence-of-financial-links-between-saudi-royal-family-and-al-qaeda#p=1

By some accounts, TWRA alone collected $400 million (U.S.) for Izetbegović’s war effort,[8] while other reports claim as much as $2.5 billion passed through TWRA on its way to Bosnia.[9] TWRA also ran a covert program attempting to convert U.S. military personnel serving in Bosnia to Islam and then join Al Qaeda. At least a dozen U.S. soldiers reportedly participated in this effort.[10] 

The first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 was financed in part by monies provided by TWRA. Clement Rodney Hampton-el, an American who had trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan, admitted in federal court that he had obtained TWRA funds to operate military-style training camps in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania for individuals who would go on to be involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attack.[11] At his trial, Hampton-el claimed that the individuals at these camps were training for jihad in Bosnia.[12] In the eight weeks before the February 1993 WTC bombing, Hampton-el made three trips to TWRA’s Vienna offices, from which he received a total of US$ 40,000.[13] In addition to obtaining TWRA funds from Vienna, Hampton-el is also reported to have gone to Bosnia circa 1992-93.[14] 

Another TWRA employee, John Fawzan, was discovered to have been the suicide bomber involved in the October 1995 attack on the police headquarters in Rijeka, Croatia.[15] In December 1995, an individual wanted in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing was killed by Bosnian Croat forces near Žepče in central Bosnia.[16] 

Another individual involved with TWRA was Omar Abdel-Rahman, a.k.a. “the blind sheik,” convicted in U.S. federal court for seditious conspiracy in the Landmarks Bombing Plot in 1993, which had targeted the United Nations Building, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and FBI headquarters in Manhattan. After the first World Trade Center bombing, the FBI succeeded in turning Rahman’s former Sudanese-born driver into an informant, who began telling American officials about a terrorist organization named “Al Qaeda.” In 1993-94 the driver travelled to Sudan and met with bin Laden. In 1994, he began working for the CIA and was sent by the agency to infiltrate Bosnian Al Qaeda cells. Unfortunately, his identity was betrayed, and he was killed by Al Qaeda operatives in Bosnia at some point in 1994-95.[17]     

After the end of the Bosnian jihad, TWRA’s legacy in Vienna would be carried on by the growing diaspora population of Balkan Islamist extremists who began organizing radical mosques in the city. For instance, one leader of the Balkan Islamist movement in Vienna was the radical imam Nedžad Balkan, the Vienna-born son of Sandžak emigres in Vienna considered a leader in the Takfiri movement in both Bosnia and Serbia. The afore-mentioned Balkan established himself in the Sahaba Mosque in Vienna’s 7th Bezirk,[18] while another prominent Bosnian militant Islamist, Muhamed Porča operated out of Vienna’s al-Tawhid mosque. One of Porca’s more notable associates was Asim Cejvanović, the Bosnian émigré who attacked the U.S. embassy in Vienna in October 2002.

Bosnian soccer fans chanting “Kill, Kill, Kill the Jews,” Vienna, April 2015 (source: The Jerusalem Post, 5 April 2015) 

Unfortunately, it took Austrian authorities more than two decades to begin addressing the threat posed by Balkan militant Islamists in their midst seriously. In late November 2014, Austrian authorities launched a long-overdue crackdown on militant Islamist networks in an operation codenamed “Palmyra,” which involved a series of coordinated raids on mosques and apartments in Vienna, Linz and Graz aimed at dismantling ISIS’ recruiting network. A Sandžak Wahhabi named Mirsad Omerović, a.k.a. “Ebu Tejma,” was one of the main targets of what was billed as “the biggest operation in the history of Austrian state security” involving over 900 police officers. Thirteen individuals from Bosnia, Chechnya and Turkey were arrested and over a dozen more taken into custody for interrogation, and large amounts of cash and Islamist propaganda material was seized. Omerović, who had lived for a time in the Bosnian Wahhabi settlement of Gornja Maoča, had earlier been alleged to be involved in the disappearance of two Austro-Bosnian teenage girls who later re-appeared as jihadi wives in Syria. Security officials also suspected him of being one of the main jihad volunteer recruiters in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. In Vienna his main base of activity had been the Altun-Alem mosque in the city’s 2nd Bezirk (Leopoldstadt). Austrian press reports claimed that the “Al Qaeda Network’s Bosnian connection” provided a complete logistics chain for extremists, from recruitment of prospective jihadis to their financing, transportation, reception in Syria.[19]  

Mirsad Omerović alone was reported to have been responsible for recruiting more than 160 European youths for the Iraqi and Syrian jihads,[20] and had previously gained attention for his eulogy of Osama bin Laden, in which he said “Osama bin Laden sacrificed his life for Muslims, and no Muslim should hate him.”[21] By this time, the growth of militant Islamism in southeastern Europe had begun to concern Austrian officials at the highest levels; for instance, on the eve of  visit to Sarajevo in June 2015, then-Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz warned of “dangerous tendencies of radicalization in Bosnia” funded and supported by middle-Eastern sponsors such as Saudi Arabia.[22] 

Vienna attacker Fejzulai first appears to have entered this Islamist radical milieu at some point around 2014, when he began frequenting Omerović’s Altun-Alem mosque and Nedžad Balkan’s Melit-Ibrahim mosque. Under such radical influence, Fejzulai became increasingly estranged from his own family, and embarked upon his would-be career as a terrorist. When his initial attempts to reach the Islamic State failed, Fejzulai appears to have decided to fulfill his ambitions in Europe instead.   

Unfortunately, as the Vienna terror attack has made painfully clear, such belated warnings have not been sufficient to neutralize Austria’s violent Balkan Islamist networks. For the moment, these networks appear to be keeping a low-profile, operating as sleeper cells that can be activated upon instruction, giving them the operational advantage of being able to strike where and when they consider it useful. As the history of Vienna’s militant Islamist networks suggests, however, paying insufficient attention to their activities can have serious consequences for US and European security interests.      


[1] For background, see Johannes Saal and Felix Lippe, “The Network of the November 2020 Vienna Attacker and the Jihadi Threat to Austria,” CTC Sentinel (West Point, NY), February 2021, 33-43. 

[2] See Elsässer’s remarks as quoted by Vlado Azinović, Al-Kai’da u Bosni i Hercegovini: Mit ili stvarna opasnost (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2007), 19.  

[3] See John Schindler, Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida and the Rise of Global JihadUnholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida and the Rise of Global Jihad (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007), 150. 

[4] See J. M. Berger’s comments in Sarajevo Ricochet (Oslo: Fenris Film, 2010). Directed by Ola Flyum and David Hebditch. In the same documentary, former Bosnian diplomat Muhammed Filipović stated that TWRA funds were controlled by a relatively small circle of people, i.e., Aljia and Bakir Izetbegović and Hasan Cengić. Bakir Izetbegović’s central role in his father’s policies during this period are widely acknowledged. In one interview, for instance, the elder Izetbegović publicly stated that he most readily accepted his son’s advice. See Alija Izetbegović’s interview entitled “Odgovori Alije Izetbegovića na 100 pitanja magazina Start,” at http://www.mm.co.ba/index.php/bs/aktuelno/vijesti-iz-bih/930-odgovori-alije-izetbegovica-na-100-pitanja-magazina-start, accessed on 9 November 2014 at 9:43am EST. Similarly, Vildana Selimbegovic has noted that “for a long time it has not been a secret that the recent president of the presidency Alija Izetbegović, through his son Bakir controlled the military and police officials at the highest levels, and it is an open secret that around the younger Izetbegović specifically a team of the unofficial Bosnian secret services has been formed.” See Selimbegović, “Žrtva rata orlova i Ševa? Kome je smetao Nedžad Ugljen?” BH Dani 178 (Sarajevo), 27 October 2000. Indeed, the younger Izetbegovic has long-appreciated the importance of maintaining control over security and intelligence agencies in BiH; for instance, in a recent interview Nermin Niksic, the president of the second-largest Bosniac political party, the Social-Democratic Party of BiH (acronym: SDP-BiH), noted that the B&H state intelligence service, the Intelligence-Security Agency of BiH (local acronym: OSA-BiH) has become “the private intelligence agency of a married couple [alluding to Bakir Izetbegovic and his wife Sebija],” and that “OSA today is just one more toy in the hands of the Izetbegovic couple and the party which they lead.” See Niksic’s comments in Nermin Nikšić: OSA je samo još jedna igračka u rukama bračnog para Izetbegović – Interview.ba, 29 September 2021. 

[5] Thomas Joscelyn, “ISNA [Islamic Society of North America] Gave $100K to Terrorist Front Group,” The Weekly Standard, 24 June 2009, at http://www.weeklystandard.com/weblogs/TWSFP/2009/06/report_isna_gave_100k_to_terro.asp, accessed on 20 February 2014 at 10:19am EST. 

[6] See “Shema Bošnjačke Diplomatije,” BH Dani 160 (Sarajevo), 23 June 2000. The most detailed investigation into TWRA’s operations made public so far was carried out by German police authorities at the request of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). See Expert Report Concerning the Area—Financial Investigations—relating to the judicial assistance request, ref. no. INV/10289/T09-PH (245), dated 8/27/2002 of the “Office of the Prosecutor” (OTP) of the International Court of Criminal Justice for the Former Yugoslavia relating to the “Third World Relief Agency” (TWRA) Vienna/Austria. Meckenheim: Federal Office of Criminal Investigations, ST-45-2-185-02, 8/28/2003.   

[7] See Sefer Halilović’s interview with Senad Pečanin, “Izetbegović je izdajnik, a mora dokazati da nije kriminalac,” BH Dani 119 (Sarajevo), 10 September 1999 at http://www.bhdani.com/arhiva/119/inter.htm, accessed on 16 April 2013 at 9:23am EST. Mustafa Cerić and Salim Šabić (at the time the vice-president of the SDA) have also been reported to have been in charge of TWRA’s Zagreb office; see Schindler, Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida and the Rise of Global Jihad, op. cit., 148. For more on TWRA, see Douglas Farah, “The Role of Sudan in Islamist Terrorism: A Case Study,” 13 April 2007, at http://www.strategycenter.net/research/pubID.156/pub_detail.asp, accessed on 18 March 2014 at 12:31pm EST; Thomas H. Kean, et. al., The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), 58; Evan F. Kohlmann, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network (Oxford: Berg, 2004), 45-47; John Pomfret, “Bosnia’s Muslims Dodged Embargo,” The Washington Post, 22 September 1996, A01, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/bosvote/front.htm, accessed on 18 March 2014 at 10:06am EST; Dženana Karup-Druško, “BIO i ostao največi bošnjački tajkun,” BH Dani 229 (Sarajevo), 26 October 2001 at http://www.bhdani.com/arhiva/229/t22907.shtml, accessed on 16 April 2013 at 9:12am EST; and Cees Wiebes, Intelligence and the War in Bosnia, 1992-1995 (Műnster: LitVerlag, 2003), 180-181. 

[8] Estimate according to Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun; see Merchant of Death: Money, Guns and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 50. 

[9] Schindler, Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad, op. cit., 149. 

[10] See J.M. Berger, “Al Qaeda and the US Military,” Intelwire, 5 December 2011, at http://news.intelwire.com/search/label/Bosnia. accessed on 13 February 2014 at 8:53am EST.  

[11] For a profile of Clement Rodney Hampton-el, see Francis X. Clines, “Spectre of Terror; US-Born Suspect in Terror Plots: Zealous Causes and Civic Roles,” The New York Times, 28 June 1993, at http://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/28/nyregion/specter-terror-US-born-suspect-bombing-plots-zealoUS-causes-civic-roles.html, accessed on 25 March 2014 at 2:09pm EST. 

[12] See United States Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Omar Ahmad Ali Abdel RAHMAN, Ibrahim A. Elgabrowny, El Sayyid Nosair, Tarig Elhassan, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, Amir Abdelgani, Fadil Abdelgani, Victor Alvarez, Mohammed Saleh and Fares Khallafalla, Defendants-Appellants.Docket Nos. 96-1044, 1045, 1060 to 1065, 1079 and 1080. Decided: August 16, 1999. 

[13] See J.M. Berger, “Bush CIA Nominee Turned Blind Eye as Arms Flowed to Al Qaeda in 1994, 1995,” Intelwire.com, 12 May 2006, at http://intelwire.egoplex.com/hayden-bosnia.htm, accessed on 4 January 2015 at 9:32am EST.  

[14] According to Landmarks Plot co-conspirator Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali; see Kohmann, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network, op. cit., 73-74. 

[15] Ibid., 152-53. 

[16] See Colin Soloway, “Kosovo Reckoning: Bin Laden Casts a Shadow over Sarajevo Summit,” The Independent (UK), 29 July 1999, at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/kosovo-reckoning-bin Laden-casts-a-shadow-over-sarajevo-summit-1109335.html, accessed on 11 June 2014 at 10:03am EST.  

[17] See Richard Esposito, “Mole Who Met Bin Laden Killed by Al Qaeda in Bosnia,” NBC News, 27 February 2014, at http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/exclusive-mole-who-met-bin Laden-killed-al-qaeda-bosnia-n39306, accessed on 17 October 2014 at 11:38am EST.  

[18] See Anes Alic, “A New Generation of Extremists Threaten Bosnia,” Eurasia Press and News, 14 January 2011, at http://eurasia.ro/?p=39758, accessed on 23 March 2014 at 1:03pm EST. For a useful profile of Balkan, see Alic, “Nedžad Balkan: The Face of Southeastern Europe’s Newest Radical Threat,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (January 2011),  at www.jamestown.org, accessed on 23 March 2014 at 1:42pm EST.  

[19] Andreas Wetz, “Bosnien-Connection: Al-Qaidas Netzwerk in Ősterreich,” Die Presse (Vienna), 28 November 2014, at http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/4607236/BosnienConnection_AlQaidas-Netzwerk-in-Osterreich, accessed on 29 November 2014 at 12:41pm EST; Christoph Budin, “Operation Palmyra: Islamisten-Boss bei Terror-Großrazzia gefasst,” Kronen Zeitung (Vienna), 28 November 2014, at http://www.krone.at/Oesterreich/Islamisten-Boss_bei_Terror-Grossrazzia_gefasst-Operation_Palmyra-Story-429201, accessed on 29 November 2014 at 10:04am EST; Elvira M. Jukic, “Balkan Suspects Held in Austrian Anti-Terror Raids,” BalkanInsight, 28 November 2014, at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/austria-arrests-alleged-terrorist-including-of-bosnia-serbia-origin, accessed on 29 November 2014 at 9:36am EST; S.D. and M. Aš., “U Austriji uhapšen Mirsad Omerović poznatiji kao Ebu Tejma,” Dnevni Avaz (Sarajevo), 28 November 2014, at http://www.avaz.ba/clanak/149157/u-austriji-uhapsen-mirsad-omerovic-poznatiji-kao-ebu-tejma, accessed on 29 November 2014 at 9:39am EST; S. Degirmendžić, “Svi tragovi vode do Ebu Tejme,” Dnevni Avaz (Sarajevo), 20 April 2014, at http://www.avaz.ba:8081/vijesti/iz-minute-u-minutu/vijesti/teme/svi-tragovi-vode-do-ebu-tejme, accessed on 29 November 2014 at 9:55am EST.  

[20] See “Woman in Spain arrested for allegedly procuring wives for ISIS,” The New York Daily News, 17 December 2014, at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/woman-spain-arrested-procuring-isis-wives-cops-article-1.2048435, accessed on 19 December 2014 at 5:58pm EST, and John Hall, “The ISIS family: Mother, father, and three flee to Syria from Vienna after being lured by hate preacher,” The Daily Mail (UK), 6 February 2015, at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2942473/The-ISIS-family-Mother-father-three-children-flee-Syria-Vienna-lured-hate-preacher.html, accessed on 8 February 2015 at 7:51pm EST.    

[21] See M.M., “Austrijska policija uhapsila Suada Ramića iz Osmaka i Sandija Suljića iz Zenice,” Dnevni Avaz (Sarajevo), 28 November 2014, at http://www.avaz.ba/clanak/149349/austrijska-policija-uhapsila-suada-ramica-iz-osmaka-i-sandija-suljica-iz-zenice, accessed on 30 November 2014 at 10:02am EST.  

[22] See “Kurz warnt vor islamistichen Tendenzen in Bosnien,” Salzburger Nachtrichten, 18 June 2015, at http://www.salzburg.com/nachrichten/welt/politik/sn/artikel/kurz-warnt-vor-islamistischen-tendenzen-in-bosnien-154469/, accessed on 26 June 2015 at 7:34am EST.