The investigation into a recent bombing in the central Bosnian city of Bugojno turns up evidence that the perpetrators are linked to a radical Muslim network apparently seeking retaliation for the arrest of its leader, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.
A bomb exploded on 27 June at a police station in Bugojno, some 70 kilometers southwest of the capital, Sarajevo, killing one police officer and injuring six others. Immediately, local media speculated that the bombing was the work of organized crime, but subsequent investigation points toward the radical Wahhabi movement.
Later that day, Federal police arrested six suspects and detained a seventh – Naser Palislamovic – two days later in Sarajevo. Police now believe Palislamovic organized the attack. All the suspects are members of the radical Wahhabi movement – a Saudi-based and financed order following a strict interpretation of Islam – while most of them are already known to security agencies for their militant and intolerant behavior.
One of the arrested, Haris Causevic, aka ‘Oks’, confessed to having placed a bag with 14 to 15 kilograms of explosive against the back wall of the police station, setting it off and attempting to flee before being seized by police. While attempting to escape, he also threw a grenade at police officers.
Soon after his arrest, Causevic revealed the names of the others involved in the attack and police arrested three brothers with the last name of Avdibasic. The three were released that same day, while two others, Adnan Haracic and Dzemal Tojagic, remain in custody.
The exact motive behind the attack remains unclear. Causevic has a criminal record, and Bugojno citizens told local media that he was occasionally seen walking around the city toting a machine gun. Two years ago, he was suspected of setting fire to an Orthodox church there. Four years ago, he verbally attacked Sulejman Tihic, then-Bosniak member of the country’s Presidency and the leader of the main Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), criticizing the government for sending troops to Iraq. He called Tihic an “infidel” and “traitor” to Islam, and was fined €100 for the assault.
Even though the first guess was that Causevic attacked the police station for personal reasons of revenge, the investigation later showed that he was simply the executor of the attack on the behalf of a network of radical Wahhabis, some of them awaiting trial for terrorism.
The timing of the attack on the police station is significant. On his facebook profile, Causevic objected to a popular annual Bosnian Muslim pilgrimage to the nearby mountain of Ajvatovica, which radical Wahhabis oppose, saying it is not traditional. Around five o’clock in the morning, when the attack occurred, more than 50 police officers were expected to arrive at the Bugojno station to prepare for deployment to the Ajvatovica gathering.
The key connection
The main connection here is Palislamovic, whose criminal record lists domestic violence, theft and possession of explosives. Palislamovic is the brother-in-law of Rijad Rustempasic, who has been charged with terrorism and is awaiting trial.
Palislamovic was mentioned in Rustempasic’s indictment, suspected of having supplied Rustempasic with explosive materials. He was cleared of those charges due to lack of evidence. Causevic confessed to police that the attack was in retaliation for the arrest of and charges against Rustempasic.
Rijad Rustempasic and three members of his group – Muhamed Meco, Abdulah Handzic and Edis Velic – were arrested in March 2008 after Federal anti-terror police and the Bosnian State Intelligence Agency (OSA) discovered the group was plotting attacks on Catholic churches and international forces in Bosnia during the Christian Easter holidays.
In the house in Sarajevo rented by Rustempasic, as well as in his parents’ house in Bugojno, police last year seized anti-tank mines, laser sights, electronic equipment, topographic maps and bomb-making manuals. In a separate apartment rented by Rustempasic, police seized a hand-made explosive device hidden in a book, set to explode when opened.
After three months in detention, the Prosecutor’s Office failed to win a terrorism indictment against them due to lack of evidence, and all members of the alleged group were released.
However, Rustempasic, Meco, Handzic and Velic were re-arrested in December last year and charged with terrorism following the arrest of Rustempasic’s twin brother Muhamed, who was detained by Bosnian border police trying to reach the Austrian capital, Vienna, where he lives. The prosecution is trying to prove the group’s international connections, already having hard evidence that Muhamed provided his brother’s group with the money and military equipment.
The ever infamous Rustempasic
Since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, Rijad Rustempasic’s name has appeared in connection with several investigations related to terrorism and radical Islam.
During the war, Rustempasic was a member of the El-Mujahid unit, headquartered in central Bosnia. The unit was under the official jurisdiction of the Bosnian army during the war, though it operated autonomously and was comprised of foreign fighters from Islamic countries.
Federal police suspect that Rustempasic was responsible for mining the tower of the Catholic church in the village of Humci, near Bugojno, in July 1996. Police also suspect that Rustempasic was behind numerous threats against Bosnian Croat returnees to Bugojno and other central Bosnian cities where there is a Bosniak majority.
According to sources from the Prosecutor’s Office and the OSA, in 2001, Rustempasic spent time in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but the reasons for his travel are not known. Also, the OSA registered that in 2000 he attempted, unsuccessfully, to go to Chechnya as a volunteer fighter.
In 2004, Rustempasic was arrested by NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) troops in Bosnia for illegal possession of weapons and suspicion of terrorist-related activities. SFOR had found nearly five kilograms of explosives in his possession. For that crime, the court in Bugojno sentenced him to five months parole, during which time he relocated to Sarajevo.
Legal loopholes vs human rights
The most disturbing fact in the investigation is that a complicated legal system, over-crowded prisons and over-booked prosecutors and courts cannot deal with terrorism cases sufficiently, or protect citizens from potential extremist attacks.
Indeed, Bosnia’s security and prosecutorial structures feel as though their hands are tied.
An anonymous source from the Federal police source close to the ongoing terrorism investigations told ISN Security Watch last year that the fight against terrorism “is pointless since all the documented radical Muslims can’t be charged for terrorism until the attack happens, and then it is too late.”
Most previous terrorism suspects have been released or handed minor prison sentences after managing to prove that the explosives and other military equipment in their possession were intended for hunting purposes. .
The Bugojno attack is even more troubling considering that several months ago the same suspects were arrested – and released shortly afterwards – by local police under suspicion of planning an attack on three Catholic churches in Bugojno.
It is very possible that only Causevic – caught at the scene of the crime – will be sentenced for the bombing, while his associates could walk away.
Furthermore, it is increasingly difficult for Bosnian intelligence to predict terror attack targets as they do not fit a particular pattern. The Bugojno attack was on a police station in a Muslim-dominated city, and the victims were Bosnian Muslims.