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Tuesday, April 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Are terrorists recruiting "white Muslims"?

The Associated Press

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — His code name was Maximus, and he held secret meetings in a shabby room at the Banana City Hotel on the outskirts of Sarajevo.

Bosnian police put him under surveillance, and in a raid last fall on his apartment on Poligonska Street, authorities seized explosives, a suicide bomber belt and a videotape of masked men begging Allah's forgiveness for what they were about to do.

What they planned, investigators believe, was to blow up a European embassy. Compounding their concern, they say, was the ringleader's background: Maximus turned out to be Mirsad Bektasevic, 19, a Swedish citizen of Serbian origin with ties to a senior al-Qaida operative.

According to classified intelligence documents, terrorists have been working to recruit non-Arab sympathizers — so-called "white Muslims" with Western features who theoretically could more easily blend into European cities and execute attacks.

A 252-page confidential report jointly compiled by Croatian and U.S. intelligence on potentially dangerous Islamic groups in Bosnia suggests the recruitment drive may have begun as long as four years ago, when Arab militants ran up against tough post-9/11 security obstacles.

"They judge that it is high time that their job on this territory should be taken over by new local forces ... people who are born here and live here have an advantage which would make their job easier. By their appearance, they are less obvious," the report reads.

Arabs, it adds, "have become too obvious, which has made their job difficult."

Bosnia's minister of security, Barisa Colak, acknowledged the existence of the intelligence report but said authorities had no concrete evidence that recruitment efforts are widespread. There are no known cases of a Balkan "white Muslim" recruit being involved in an attack.

Even if systematic recruitment has been occurring, citizens of ex-Yugoslavia need visas to travel to Western Europe or the United States — a complicated and time-consuming process.

Dragan Lukac, the deputy director of SIPA — Bosnia's equivalent of the FBI — said authorities are taking no chances. Undercover counterterrorism agents have placed dozens of suspects under 24-hour surveillance and the country is "very intensively" sharing information with the FBI, the CIA, Scotland Yard and other agencies, he said.

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"Bosnia has become a breeding ground for terrorists, including some on international wanted lists. We can clearly say that," Lukac said.

Some disaffected young Bosnians may be receptive to the terrorist message: After the U.S.-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was considered "almost fashionable" to spout extremist sentiment in public, Lukac said, especially among those "frustrated and influenced by ideology, Islamized through various extremist streams."

Authorities who arrested Bektasevic and several alleged associates last October tipped off police in Britain, who quickly arrested three suspected British Muslim accomplices. They also alerted authorities in Denmark, who took seven others into custody. Investigators say they since have established that Bektasevic maintained close ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, thought to be the leader of the group calling itself al-Qaida in Iraq.

Since the 2001 attacks on the United States, Bosnia has deported dozens of Arabs and other foreign Muslims for suspected ties to terrorist groups or alleged involvement in dummy charities believed to have raised cash to bankroll attacks.

In February, the country launched an exhaustive review of all cases in which citizenship was granted to foreigners dating to 1992 and vowed to deport any with suspected links to terrorism.

Police also confirmed they are keeping close tabs on dozens of mujahedeen — Islamic fighters who came to Bosnia to fight on the Muslim side in the 1992-95 war. Although most left for other conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and elsewhere, some stayed and married local women.

The vast majority of Bosnia's Muslims rejects the mujahedeen's fiery brand of Islam. Yet young, restless men frustrated with 40 percent joblessness and angered by real or perceived insults to Islam can be open to hard-line dogma, the Prague-based think tank Transitions Online said in a recent report.

"A pool of potential white recruits carrying Bosnian or even Western passports would presumably be of great value to terrorists," it said, calling the Balkan country "a deeply traumatized society susceptible to extremism."

"Muslims are going through a very tempting time," conceded Mustafa Ceric, the leader of Bosnia's Islamic community. He insisted, however, that there was no stomach for extremist violence after years of devastating ethnic conflict.

"If we wanted terrorism, we had a chance to do so in the heat of our suffering, and we did not," he said.

Although Ceric keeps close tabs on Bosnia's imams, the 6,500 European Union peacekeepers who patrol Bosnia are one-tenth the number NATO deployed nationwide in 1995, meaning far fewer outside eyes and ears combing the country to disrupt any recruitment effort.

The U.S.-Croatian report says infiltration actually dates back long before the Sept. 11 attacks. It says Islamic militants with ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations have been crisscrossing the Balkans for more than 15 years, financed in part with cash from narcotics smuggling and coming from Afghanistan and points farther east via Turkey, Kosovo and Albania.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, evidence has emerged that extremists have been trying to carve out a beachhead in the Balkans. The region is home to 8 million Muslims, roughly a third of Europe's Islamic faithful, and arms and explosives are easily obtained in what Lukac calls "a kind of El Dorado" for criminals.

Several Islamic militants who fought in the former Yugoslavia went to Spain, bringing new military skills and expertise as well as access to contacts throughout Europe, a Western diplomatic official with intimate knowledge of counterterrorism measures in Spain said on condition of anonymity.

"Yugoslavia was a meeting point," he said.

Among the Islamic leaders Bosnian authorities are monitoring closely is Nezim Halilovic, chief mufti of the King Fahd Cultural Center. The mosque, one of dozens being built around Sarajevo with Saudi donations, can accommodate 5,000 people and is part of a $9 million complex that includes a library, a sports hall, restaurants and classrooms for studying Arabic and the Quran.

Halilovic denies he is a radical and insisted Bektasevic and the others arrested last autumn were the victims of an elaborate setup.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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