Iran in the Balkans: A History and a Forecast

27 February 2013
Iran in the Balkans: A History and a Forecast 27 February 2013
By Gordon N. Bardos

As the possibility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities continues to loom over the strategic horizon, despite continued claims by the US that sanctions are weakening the mullahs’ regime, there is increased speculation among security analysts about collateral damage from such an action

One scenario in particular that has caused concern involves a counterstrike by Iran or its allies such as Hezbollah against targets outside the Middle East.

In this regard, when a suspected Hezbollah suicide bomber killed six Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July, it confirmed that the Balkans were a potential front for terrorism in any future conflict.

A recent flurry of diplomatic activity confirms the extent of Western government concern over the possibility that pro-Iranian Islamist factions in southeastern Europe could cause serious problems for Western interests if Israel or the US attacks Tehran. In August, the American and British ambassadors to Sarajevo reportedly warned Bosnian officials to cut their ties to Iran, and a former international high representative in Bosnia publicly lectured the Bosnians about how their future lay with the EU, not with Tehran. The motive for such actions became clear in September when the Sarajevo newspaper Dnevni Avaz claimed that pro-Iranian factions in the Bosnian government were re-activating para-intelligence cells tied to the Islamist regime of the late Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic. And in October, the news magazine Slobodna Bosna revealed that two hundred Iranian "businessmen” had been granted visas to enter Bosnia in the first six months of 2012 alone, along with an unnamed Iranian diplomat whom Israeli intelligence officials have tracked in Thailand, Georgia, and India—all places in which Israeli citizens have been attacked in the last year.

The threat Iran and its proxies pose to Western interests in the Balkans is multiplied by the growth of Wahhabi movements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the mountainous Sandzak region straddling the border between Montenegro and Serbia. In remote, isolated villages throughout the Western Balkans, Wahhabi groups have developed a network of extra-territorial, sharia-run enclaves that over the past two decades have become safe havens and recruiting grounds for jihadis from around the world. Under the guise of running "youth camps,” Islamist extremists in recent years have systematically transported young people into national parks or local hills and forests where they are given military training by former mujahedin. The camps are intentionally transitory, re-established in different places and under different auspices each year, to make it more difficult for security officials to track them, but despite their ad hoc nature they have been effective in fostering the relationships needed for creating extremist networks.

Take your pick of the major terrorist attacks against the US and other Western countries over the past fifteen years—9/11, the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, the August 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, the February 2002 murder and decapitation ofWall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl—they all have Balkan connections in terms of personnel, training, and other background elements. That the Balkan Islamists involved in these and other attacks remain violent threats is clear from the attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011 by a Sandzak Wahhabi, the murder of five Macedonian citizens by suspected Islamist extremists outside of Skopje in April 2012, and the July 2012 Burgas bombing as well. A Western conflict with Iran would in all likelihood motivate Islamists in the Balkans to even more violence. (continue reading...)