By DUSAN STOJANOVIC
BELGRADE, Serbia – The young man wore a long beard and pants that stopped above his ankles. He sprayed the U.S. embassy in Bosnia with machine gun fire.
Friday's incident in Sarajevo, in which the gunman and a police officer were wounded but no one died, was the latest in a series of incidents in eastern Europe involving Wahhabis — followers of an austere brand of Sunni Islam promoted by radicals, including the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
The recent rise of militant Wahhabis and other Islamic radicals across the Balkans — including in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and even European Union member Bulgaria — has triggered concerns that the region could become a breeding ground for terrorists with easy access to Western Europe or the U.S.
The shooter in Friday's incident, 23-year-old Mevlid Jasarevic, came from Serbia — the southern region of Sandzak, a Wahhabi stronghold — but also had strong links with a conservative Bosnian Muslim village that has attracted police attention in the past.
Authorities across the Balkans say that not all Wahhabis are militants, and not all militants are Wahhabis. But they say the radical anti-Western Islamic teaching has the potential for creating terrorist cells that support the sect's militants rooted in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many fear that militant Wahhabis and other extremist Muslims from the Balkans could slip across borders and blend into Western societies before conducting terrorist attacks.
There have already been incidents. In March, a Kosovo Albanian acting alone fatally shot two American airmen in Frankfurt. In 2008, three ethnic Albanian brothers originally from Macedonia were implicated in a plot to attack the U.S. Army's Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
In March 2007, a police raid on what Serbian authorities said was a mountain terrorist camp unveiled a large cache of weapons, ammunition, hand grenades and plastic explosives. Twelve Wahhabis were later sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including on convictions that they planned terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassy in Belgrade.
"At this moment, the radicals cannot topple governments or trigger wars," said Dragan Simeunovic, a political science professor at Belgrade University and terrorism expert. "What they can do are sporadic terrorist attacks."
But, if they grow in numbers because of financial support from some Muslim countries, "we could expect bigger problems in the Balkans," he said.
The presence of radical Muslims in the war-ravaged Balkans is linked to mujahedeen foreign fighters who joined Bosniak Muslims in their battle against the Serbs in Bosnia's 1992-95 war for independence.
The Islamic fighters in Bosnia were largely tolerated by the U.S. and the West because of their opposition to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's quest to create a "Greater Serbia" out of the former Yugoslav republics.
The issue of radical Islamic influence is particularly politically charged in Bosnia, a country divided between Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. The Serbs maintain there is a huge presence of Wahhabis in the country, while Bosniaks downplay the problem and at times claim it does not exist.
Bosnian terrorism expert Vlado Azinovic said the divided and "dysfunctional" state of Bosnia does not have enough internal capacity to deal decisively with militant groups.
As a result, police complain they are not getting sufficient support to prevent terrorist attacks such as the one on Friday, or last year's bomb attack by a group of Wahhabis on a police station in the central town of Bugojno, in which one policeman was killed and several others injured.
"If you talk to law enforcement officials, they would tell you that they could deal with this problem decisively if there was political will, but unfortunately we have not seen that political will for way too long," Azinovic said.
According to Bosnia's intelligence agency, there are about 3,000 followers of Wahhabism in Bosnia, though not all of them could be considered a security threat.
Bosnian police on Saturday launched a massive operation against a conservative Muslim community in the northern mountain village of Gornja Maoca, the second such raid in the village in a year.
The remote village, where children are taught according to the austere Muslim school programs and women are clad head to toe, had been under continuous police surveillance.
So was Jasarevic, a Muslim from Serbia, who often visited there.
He was also known to police elsewhere. Serbian police said he was briefly arrested a year ago for brandishing "a large knife" during a visit by the U.S. Ambassador to Serbia to Novi Pazar, the administrative center of the Sandzak region. He was reportedly deported in 2008 from Austria after a robbery in Vienna, which is thought to be Europe's spiritual center of Wahhabism.
Serbian police on Saturday briefly detained 17 people in Sandzak who were alleged to be Jasarevic's associates. v Since the 2007 arrests, the ultraconservatives have reduced their presence in Novi Pazar, a town of 100,000 that is nearly 90 percent Muslim. Many are believed to have fled to neighboring Kosovo or Bosnia, escaping the police crackdown.
"The Wahhabi movement is no longer a problem in Novi Pazar, some of its individuals are," Serbian police Director Milorad Veljovic said.