The May 7 arrests of six Islamic radicals, four of them ethnic Albanians originally from Macedonia and Kosovo, led American intelligence officials to issue a direct order to their Macedonian colleagues, urging them to redouble efforts against known and unknown Islamic radical elements in the country, Balkanalysis.com can now report.
The alleged aspiring terrorists have been held without bail since their arrest and were indicted on June 5. While the majority of news reports on the subject have remained preoccupied with details such as the ‘true’ nationality of the men arrested or their prior experience as refugees, or the larger legal issues of whether the FBI had erred into using entrapment, little was said of the ripple effect the operation would have on unfolding counterterrorism developments in the Balkans specifically.
However, according to two Macedonian intelligence officials speaking off the record, in a meeting held soon after the arrests in New Jersey, “we were told by our American colleagues to intensify our work [against Islamic extremist elements], and to find out more about their operations here… and identify new players.”
This testimony contradicts the conventional wisdom that states the US is omniscient when it comes to counterterrorism work in the Balkans. This belief is cultivated by popular culture (television shows depicting ingenious agents performing daring and efficient operations, etc.) yet has apparently been instilled in the hearts of many. For example, one American official in Skopje surveyed by Balkanalysis.com regarding local security developments, shortly before the Fort Dix arrests were made, stated confidently that “we have a very good handle on the situation…we are aware of everything going on [involving Islamic radicals].”
However, the fact that the US administration was caught off-guard by the Fort Dix arrests, and their links to the Balkans, is indicative that this is not always the case. What remains unclear is whether the order to the Macedonians to pick up the pace came as a result of a directive from Washington- and if so, from whom.
In the bigger picture, the fact that the arrests came also less than two months before President Bush’s trip to neighboring Albania can also be attested as a reason for enhanced vigilance. It would have happened, in other words, with or without a botched jihadist plot in New Jersey. A second major reason for a clean-up is of course the NATO conference in Ohrid on June 28-29, which has led to unprecedented security measures in this idyllic lakeside tourist town in preparation for over 800 foreign guests.
Indeed, according to the Macedonian intelligence officers, the CIA has, over the past 9 months, dramatically increased the frequency of requests for information on the growing fundamentalist Wahhabi community in Macedonia. This new focus has been mirrored by allied services, such as the British, French and Italian, not only in Macedonia but in Bosnia and, as Balkanalysis.com recently reported, in Albania as well.
Nevertheless, the disconnect between ‘mission accomplished’-type rhetoric and the reality is still wide. A less than discreet operational protocol is occasionally revealed in the details. A veteran European intelligence officer with long experience of the Balkans mocked an alleged American “intelligence-gathering” procedure in Skopje. “Once a week, without fail, they send someone from the embassy down to an Islamic bookstore in the Carsija (old town) of Skopje…and they buy all of the new Islamist literature, if there is any, bid them good day and go back.”
A second case indicating less than perfect knowledge was seen a year and a half or so back, when a Skopje newspaper presented the US Embassy with publicly-available data received from an outside party, confirming that an Albanian-language jihadist website, previously registered in Lebanon, had been transferred to the name of a Macedonian woman in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood in the central Macedonian town of Veles. “They seemed genuinely surprised by this and thanked us,” said one newspaper representative involved. Despite the provocative jihadist content of the website, nothing more was heard about whether the investigation yielded any results- or, more likely, whether it was even begun.
The discrepancy between assumed greatness and a more pedestrian reality is not surprising, considering the internal criticism that Western counterterrorism efforts have received in the past. In Balkanalysis.com director Christopher Deliso’s new book, The Coming Balkan Caliphate: the Threat of Islamic Extremism to Europe and the West, several former security professionals in the Balkans weigh in on the topic, generally supporting the thesis that the US does not necessarily know all that goes on- and, in some cases, deliberately seeks to avoid doing so.
The most outspoken of these officials is Tom Gambill, an OSCE Security Officer in Kosovo from 1999-2004. In numerous meetings and through private correspondence, Gambill presented evidence of a concerted Islamic fundamentalist build-up in Kosovo, sometimes involving known terrorist entities, to army and intelligence officials from the US and allied countries. When he mentioned such intelligence data gleaned from sources in the field indicating a terrorist presence, however, he was often ignored. “The peacekeeping motto was, ‘don’t rock the boat.’ So long as everything bad that was going on could be hushed up or smoothed over, the policy was to leave it alone.”
Gambill’s testimony is reminiscent of the situation in Bosnia a few years earlier where, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Clinton administration had sought “to keep the lid on the pot at all costs” regarding its role in abetting the Iranian infiltration of the country with mujahedin, military trainers and heavy weapons during the 1992-1995 civil war. While that was done to suppress an embarrassing and shortsighted government policy, the disregarding of dubious developments in Kosovo has had more to do with the general mediocrity and every-man-for-himself dynamic of a non-accountable UN peacekeeping mission.
While the foiled plot to massacre soldiers at Fort Dix appears to have been more a case of wishful thinking than anything else, it was an important case in that it showed that Balkan Muslims who had previously been helped by America could in fact turn against their benefactors. There have not been any demonstrated connections between the plotters and any groups in Macedonia, though US authorities were no doubt correct to err on the side of caution in ordering their local colleagues to take a more active stance.
Despite the unlikelihood that a specific connection will be found linking the “Fort Dix Six” to Macedonia, some dedicated security officers there took satisfaction in knowing that the arrests in New Jersey had spurred the US into action. “This (the arrests) was the best thing that could have happened for us,” said one intelligence officer. “Now we can get down to work and hopefully the Americans will respect more what we have to say.”
Future counterterrorism operations in Macedonia will likely branch out to new terrain. While the major population centers such as Skopje and Tetovo remain the places where most known radicals live, at present a significant trend is the growth of fundamentalist groups in the central and central-western mountainous areas of the country, from the Karadzica-Kitka massif westward to Debar, including rural areas near Prilep, Brod and Kicevo. Outside funding from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others is responsible for the growth of Islam in predominantly poor and ethnically-confused mountainous areas that, with time, could materialize into more significant areas of concern, as the state has done little to offer social alternatives for marginalized groups.