After Terror Sentence, Islamic Evangelist Released to a Much-Changed Bosnia

Bosnic in courtroom. Photo: State court

After Terror Sentence, Islamic Evangelist Released to a Much-Changed Bosnia

10. September 2021.13:08
10. September 2021.13:08
Salafi preacher Husein Bilal Bosnic was convicted of recruiting people to go and fight for Islamic State, but while he was in prison, the Islamist militant group was defeated in Syria and other preachers in Bosnia and Herzegovina have changed their tactics.

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On the day that Bosnic was released from prison, several posters were put up in his hometown of Buzim, where he will live after serving his seven-year sentence.

“Welcome home, ghazi [Muslim warrior] Bilal. Buzim stands with you,” was the message on the posters, which were also posted on a Facebook page dedicated to Bilal Bosnic, which was set up in July this year.

BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina’s journalists found a series of posts on private accounts or pages on social networks that play down the seriousness of the verdict in the trial of Bosnic, who was convicted of terrorism, or welcome him back to freedom.

Redzo Begic, who comes from a village by the Croatian border, never got the chance to welcome back his son Samir. Begic saw his son for the last time in the autumn of 2013, and last heard from him in early 2014, when he contacted him from territory held by the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

“It was, I think, sometime before February 2 when he got killed,” Begic said.

He does not know where exactly his son was killed. He has not received any information about it apart from a death certificate.

The verdict in Bosnic’s trial, handed down in 2015, sentenced him to seven years in prison for publicly inciting terrorist acts and recruiting others to commit them, as well as for organising a terrorist group. It determined that he financed Samir Begic’s departure for Syria. It also established that Samir Begic attended Bosnic’s public lectures and was killed as a member of a terrorist organisation.

Redzo Begic said he did not know that his son attended Bosnic’s lectures.

“But if he gave those lectures, if he recruited them, if he organised that… he is now getting out of prison although he ruined the lives of a couple of young men,” Begic said.

Redzo Begic. Photo: BIRN BiH

Sitting in a mosque in the village of Trzac, near Cazin, Begic recalled his last encounter with his son Samir in 2013. Telling him he was going to Turkey for a holiday, Samir left his hometown and went to fight for the so-called Islamic State, one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organisations.

“We said goodbye to each other pleasantly,” Begic said. He added that that his son left Trzac in early November.

“He called me on the phone on around the 15th… He said: ‘Father, I moved from Turkey to Syria,’” Begic recalled, adding that he then asked him: “So, what are you going to do? Fight?”
Samir called his father from Syria several more times before he was killed.

Officers from the State Investigation and Protection Agency visited Begic and his wife several times at their home in a village around 30 kilometres away from Buzim, inquiring about Bosnic and his acquaintance with his son Samir.

Vlado Azinovic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, presented the key expert findings at Bosnic’s trial; on the basis of which, the state court’s judges determined that Bosnic had an influence on people’s decisions to go to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Azinovic believes that after having served his sentence, Bosnic has now been “proven to be an even more authentic leader and potential leader”.

“In the minds of someone’s followers, a prison sentence confirms that person’s authority even more. That’s why I believe he will leave prison as a proven ideological authority for that group of people,” Azinovic said.

On September 3, after having served his sentence, Bosnic left the state prison in East Sarajevo, to which he had been transferred from Zenica prison in late 2020.

During his prison term, the environment he left behind has changed. So-called Islamic State has been defeated and has almost disappeared. People from Bosnia stopped going to Syria and Iraq several years ago, while a large number of men and women have returned to Bosnia from both countries. The men have been tried and jailed.

The attitude towards Salafi preachers has also changed, while prejudices and negative attitudes towards them among the majority of the general public have decreased. Some of the Salafi da’is, Islamic recruiters who urge people to embrace what they call the original Islam, who publicly objected people going to fight abroad, but also some who were involved in the same incidents as Bosnic, are now part of what Azinovic considers to be the mainstream and have tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of followers on social networks.

They no longer discuss whether it is necessary to wage jihad or holy war, said Srdjan Puhalo, the author of an investigation and book about the Salafi movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The topics they are dealing with today are different – more focused on everyday problems.

“In any case, in the future it will be interesting to see the dynamics of the relations between Salafi Muslims and Bilal Bosnic and other authority figures who have graduated from university faculties in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia,” Puhalo said.

Messages on social networks show Bosnic is not forgotten

State prison. Photo: BIRN BiH

The Bilal Bosnic page on Facebook was created in July this year. During the period in which BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina’s journalists monitored its content, advertisements were bought to promote two posts on the page, as well as for the page itself. The page does not say who its author is, and the page administrator did not respond to BIRN’s request for an interview.

One of the videos posted on the Facebook page, which offered the message “Brother, despite the walls, you are free”, was ‘liked’ by a policeman from the Central Bosnia Canton’s Interior Ministry.

Neither he nor the ministry has responded to journalists’ query about the support he offered to Bosnic.

Bosnic received support from the Dava Tim Facebook page, which republishes posts by Salafi preachers, after he attended the funerals of his son and brother last year. Posts on the Dava Tim page claimed that he had defended his homeland during the war and had been unjustly jailed for terrorism, and that he should have been granted early release after serving two-thirds of his sentence.

According to an analysis produced by BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time, the posts were shared by individual members of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina and by a teacher and an imam.

The Bosnian Armed Forces then launched proceedings to probe the conduct of two of its members, Sabahudin Mujak and Mesud Selimovic. After the investigation, the Armed Forces said that it found that in Mujak’s case, his opinion of the Facebook posts about Bosnic could not be established.

The Armed Forces said in a written response to BIRN that “it cannot be said that the report [on the investigation] contained an indication that the person in question [Mujak] presented his personal view when expressing his stance on his Facebook page”. Meanwhile, Selimovic claimed during the investigation that the Facebook page that appeared to be his was actually a fake.

The administrator of the Selimovic account told BIRN that “the account is not very active and is used by several people”. Last year’s post about Bosnic has been deleted.

Nermin Sijamhodzic, chief of the Federal Police Administration’s Counter-Terrorism Section, said it is hard to estimate the extent to which support on the internet is real, so it is impossible to assess how many people actually back Bosnic.

“After having served his sentence, Husein Bosnic is practically a free man. At this moment it is hard to predict how he will behave after his return to the local community and his surroundings,” Sijamhodzic said before Bosnic’s release from prison.

Salafi evangelists increase their influence

Vlado Azinovic. Photo:BIRN BiH

Vlado Azinovic’s expert examination of Bosnic, which he conducted during the trial in 2015, determined that, in Bosnic’s public appearances, both in person and on YouTube, Bosnic clearly praised and supported the establishment of the so-called Islamic State. Azinovic noted that the situation is completely different these days, so it is unclear what Bosnic might get up to after his release from prison.

“Today you have encrypted channels for communication on mobile phones, Instagram and other social networks. The question is, who will teach him about that, has he maybe already learned about it in prison, if he had the opportunity? And how quickly will he cope in a market in which he will be one of several factors?” Azinovic asked. Other Salafi da’is are using these newer media very successfully these days, he added.

According to Azinovic, other da’is have continued to say the same things as Bosnic was saying before he went to jail, but they have discarded narratives “that may lead to arrests, trials or detention”.

BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina has monitored the social media accounts of Salafi da’is whose influence increased significantly during Bosnic’s term in prison, and they did not mention his release from jail at all.

All of the da’is who were contacted by BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina declined to talk. Elvedin Pezic, the most popular Salafi da’i on social media, with more than 300,000 followers on Facebook, did not agree to be interviewed. Neither did Safet Kuduzovic or Dzevad Golos, who participated in at least one event at which Bosnic also gave a lecture before he was jailed, old content that can still be found on the internet proves.

Azinovic said it is still hard to assess how Bosnic’s competitors might cause a change in his narratives.

“But in any case, I think that [Bosnic’s release] will influence this scene in a very specific way,” Azinovic said.

A significant number of experts who have researched the radicalisation phenomenon in Bosnia declined to talk about what influence Bosnic’s release might have on society. The official Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina did not want to discuss it either.

After Bosnic’s arrest, in 2015, the Islamic Community managed to integrate into its structures many of the individuals, groups and organisations that had operated unofficially. The Islamic Community now considers the subject of unofficial mosques to be closed, although some of them were never integrated into the Islamic Community.

“There are some informal small groups that follow some other legal schools [of Islamic opinion] and perform prayers in a slightly different was and understand some Islamic teachings differently, which partially deviation from the institutional interpretation of Islam advocated by the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” the Islamic Community said, although it added that they have the right to do this.

Neither the Bosnian Security Ministry nor state prosecutors agreed to be interviewed for this report. The Federal Justice Ministry did not allow BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina’s journalists to talk to the manager and prison staff of the Zenica detention facility, where Bosnic spent the largest part of his prison term.

State prison manager Sinisa Perkovic said that within the facility, deradicalisation programmes ae being implemented in cooperation with the Council of Europe. He said the programmes are aimed at minimising the potential negative impact of radicalised inmates on other prisons and reducing extremism and violence inside jails.

Perkovic could not give concrete examples of the successes of the programme, saying that it has only been running at the prison for a very short period, but he did say Bosnic went through the programme.

“Our view is that he did not express his radical stances, at least not in front of the officers involved in the treatment,” Perkovic said, adding that no attempts to influence other inmates had been observed.

Azinovic argued that Bosnic could not have undergone a deradicalisation programme “because these are non-existent in prisons”.

Bosnic’s lawyer Adil Lozo said he thinks it is an illusion to believe that his client could be re-educated.

“They were afraid that the educators would be re-educated, because he has a really magnetic personality. I remember a situation during his trial when a courtroom officer asked for the hearing be stopped because the man had psychological problems, so he wanted him to recite certain verses from the Koran for him. They loved him, those court officers.”

According to police chief Sijamhodzic, Bosnic’s release from prison represents a security challenge, so the police are planning to keep monitoring the situation.

“Bosnic has a powerful ability to be manipulative, so he can influence some people’s decision-making,” Sijamhodzic said, explaining that the radicalisation of young people online represents the biggest challenge society faces today.

But Lozo said his client will not be giving more lectures.

“I spoke to him. He does not intend to get involved in teaching people the faith, because they have all been taught the faith already. People should be taught to work and do something for a living,” Lozo said. He added that previously his client was involved in cattle breeding, and he might go back to that after getting out of prison.

Loza said he believes that that Bosnic’s lectures would go unnoticed these days, given that “the euphoria about the so-called unofficial mosques has passed, and the euphoria about terrorism has passed”.

Despite that, and the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, Azinovic said he thinks that challenges remain.

“The problem lies in the ideology left behind; the ideology has not been defeated, the ideology still lives in a number of cases,” Azinovic said.

Bosnic’s seven-year prison sentence was no comfort for Redzo Begic after his son’s death.
“If he sent those children to their deaths, it is not enough. Because you will get out after seven years and it will be like nothing happened, you are a free man, while we will continue to mourn,” Begic said.

“When I look at his picture, I cannot sleep.”

Nermina Kuloglija-Zolj

This post is also available in: Bosnian