AIM: start



WED, 07 NOV 2001 22:38:28 GMT

Why was the US Embassy Closed?

Checking Dangerous Individuals

AIM Sarajevo, October 22, 2001

B&H Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija has just returned from Brussels where he attended the European Conference on Counterterrorism bringing home soothing news. The message he conveyed was that Bosnia & Herzegovina had not been singled out as a potential terrorist hot spot.

At the time he set off - on Thursday, October 17 - (first to Germany, for a meeting with Chancellor Schroeder), the Chairman of the Ministerial Council and head of B&H diplomacy, left behind a public deeply worried by the closing of the US and UK embassies and consulates in Mostar and Banja Luka. The official explanation cited "credible security threats" as the reason behind the step taken. The closing of the embassies had a devastating psychological effect, practically tantamount to a declaration of war. The message it conveyed to the authorities and the general public was highly unsettling. It could be interpreted as follows: Bosnia and Herzegovina is an extremely unsafe country, one harboring terrorism, so the front gates to our embassies will remain bolted until such point in time when all of bin Laden’s followers have been driven out of the host country. Major international news agencies carried the item under the label "breaking news". Businessmen cancelled prearranged visits to Sarajevo. Participants of an international seminar organized by the Communications University to be inaugurated a day later cancelled their arrivals citing fear of terrorism as the cause.

In the absence of official information, theories and wild-guesses gained momentum. The scenario of "threatening phone messages" received by the staffs of the closed embassies received probably the best rating. The rumor was further elaborated by a number of local dailies covering the arrest of two Algerian citizens in Sarajevo with headlines referring to the detained as the authors of the anonymous telephone threats. Some even ventured into citing the content of the threats, but the authenticity of such reports is to be taken with more than a grain of salt. The sole two indisputable facts are the names of the arrested: Sadber Lahmar and Mustafa Alkadir; the former with no occupation cited, the latter known to be working for a Saudi humanitarian aid organization. Of the two, Lahmar turned out to have a previous police record. He was first arrested four years ago along with two accomplices on aggravated assault and robbery charges concerning Miles Kelvin, employee of MPRI (an US firm engaged in training B&H army personnel) and a separate charge for a robbery carried out in the vicinity of Travnik. For crimes committed, a court in Zenica sentenced him to five years and eight months of imprisonment, for some mysterious reason a penalty never to be carried out in full. It is not likely that the early release of Lahmar can be ascribed to good behavior.

Interestingly enough, while all dailies - citing "confidential sources" - disclosed the identities of the arrested men on the very same day (October 20), none referred to the Federal Police as the possible source of information. Yet, it is perfectly clear that the names and the biographies of the detained men were indeed given to the press by the police itself, so the real question is why was this not done officially? In circumstances as these caution is necessary since possible manipulation or hidden motives are not to be ruled out. Few in Sarajevo believe that telephone threats, as the media claim, are the true reason behind the closing of US and UK embassies. On October 19 Oslobodjenje, a local newspaper, carried a short news item which went by generally unnoticed: the two embassies, it ran, received memoranda from their respective ministries authorizing them to evaluate the security situation in B&H and, if necessary, "close down temporarily". If telephone threats were the real issue behind all of this, half of all US embassies around the world would remain permanently closed.

The events described are to be viewed in the wider context of the beginning of the second phase of the American military operation in Afghanistan (deployment of ground troops), intensified police actions and concerns regarding terrorist threats, as well as the rising international pressure on local authorities. After the attacks of September 11, the US government demanded that a list of 19 individuals suspected to be linked with the atrocities be checked. The crosscheck revealed not a single of the named suspects was a resident of B&H, nor was there proof that any of them could be linked with known extremist groups operating in the region. In the meantime, US federal authorities have presented the local government with an additional list of names (the exact number of which remains undisclosed), possibly involved in terrorist activities. This second list is presently undergoing examination and the fact that all foreigners of Arabic descent residing in B&H are considered suspects is an open secret. It is highly possible that the arrested Sadber Lahmar was on the list, more so since he had a previous police record. The October 20th news item of Oslobodjenje contained an intriguing detail. According to it, the phone number of Abu Mali, former emir (commander) of the El Mujahid brigade (disbanded at the start of 1996 at the explicit request of the Americans, with a deadline of 45 days for its 150 strong force to leave B&H ) was found among the personal belongings of the arrested man. Also at American request, Abu Mali himself was forced to leave B&H. At the time, claims that he was granted asylum by Holland leaked into the press. Now there are reports Abu Mali may well be one of bin Laden’s high-ranking officers. This suspicion is more likely to be the true reason behind the arrest of the Algerian Lahmar, not some telephone threat. On returning to Sarajevo, Lagumdzija made public that five foreigners were arrested, but disclosed no further details. The said arrest could easily be the result of the checking of dangerous individuals from the second American list. The five men arrested in Sarajevo and Bihac (only the identities of the first two are known) are all Algerian. The deputy of the federal Interior Minister Tomislav Limov who confirmed the police actions in Sarajevo and Bihac declared that "with the recent arrests the story of dangerous men may now be considered concluded". By the way, at the time of the war in B&H, Algerians were considered to be the most radical among mujahedin groups. Their very presence presents a threat to the Americans, regardless of their present conduct.

Local authorities are under great pressure while Bosnia is being exposed to a negative media perception. Even the disapproval voiced by the Americans concerning the resignation of the Interior Minister Muhamed Besic, accompanied by the threatening statement that “the USA are entitled to choice of partners" is a form of pressure. The trouble is that foreigners (meaning Americans) have reduced the Interior Minister to the status of a mere IPTF clerk, while the local authorities want to preserve the autonomy of the police and partnership relations, at the least. The closing of the US embassy is a continuation of that pressure.

As for the issue of terrorism, it is out of the question that the current authorities would be prepared to harbor terrorists or so called "sleepers". For days now, the police here are in the state of the highest alert. The situation is also being used for purposes of daily politics. Thus, at a political round-table in Sarajevo, the leader of the New Croat Initiative and member of Lagumdzija’s cabinet, Kresimir Zubak, said there were individuals indicated as "sleepers" residing in B&H, just waiting for the order to spring into action. According to Zubak, that was the true reason behind the closing of the American and British embassies. If this were true, it would rank Bosnia among countries designated as terrorist safe havens. The recent arrest of the "Algerian group" might finally put an end to the issue of Islamic volunteers in B&H.

On his return from Brussels, Zlatko Lagumdzija denied the rumors of "sleepers" awaiting their orders and possible actions of the Al Qaeda followers. One of his messages was that there are no more or less problematic countries in Europe as far terrorism is concerned.

"Bosnia is as safe as any other European country" was the conclusion of the Brussels conference on terrorism, conveyed to the B&H public by the head of its diplomacy. The focusing of negative attention on Bosnia has a positive side to it, too. It has speeded up the creation of an overall state security system. Previously, the full control of the state border was to be rounded up not earlier than next year. As things stand now, due to the fear of terrorism and owing to international financial aid, the federal border authority will probably be established in a month’s time.

EMIR HABUL

(AIM Sarajevo)