Long-Distance IS Threat Roils Bosnia, Top Islamic Cleric

By Maja Nikolic

Authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina are scrambling to provide extra security for the country's most senior Islamic cleric, Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic, after a Bosnian thought to be fighting with the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria issued a threat via the Internet.

In the clip, militant Amir Selimovic vows to "cut the throat" of the grand mufti and warns, in front of an IS flag, that "mujahedin are coming to Bosnia."

The threat, and the seriousness with which officials are treating it, highlight local fears that pockets of Bosnia are becoming hotbeds for militant Islamists as well as international concerns over the operational reach of IS and other extremist groups.

Selimovic was said to be a member of the mainly Muslim Army of Bosnia during the country's 1992-95 war and earned daily wages as a handyman after the conflict. He is said to have left to join Islamist fighters in Syria in 2014.

Villagers from Selimovic's hometown, Svojat, near the eastern city of Tuzla, recalled him to an RFE/RL correspondent as a reserved man but a problem drinker who alienated family before "turning to radicalism" and pledging he would do "something for which all of Bosnia would remember him."

One resident said that while Selimovic "begged for money" and "sold everything" to buy himself drinks, "he was not a menace [and] never bothered anyone."

Former acquaintances painted a portrait of a man whose behavior drove his wife to take their two children and leave before he fell in with fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims and eventually remarried, this time to a conservative woman from the central Bosnian town of Travnik, a hundred or so kilometers away.

"She came here all covered up [under an Islamic cloak], with only her eyes visible," said a villager, adding of Selimovic's departure in 2014 with his wife and infant son: "Before he left, two young men came,... they barely spoke our language. And then, after two or three days, he left too."

Sources close to Selimovic suggested he was recruited to join IS by a cousin who had already left for Syria, where he reportedly was killed late last year.

Before traveling to Syria, one Svojat woman said, Selimovic visited a nearby village called Gracanica, where members of the Wahhabi community are thought to gather.

A secretive Wahhabi community in another northern Bosnian village, Gornja Maoca, has been linked to terrorism in the past.

A former friend in Svojat said he "feel[s] sorry for Selimovic," adding, "He told me he needed to do something with himself; he told me he would do something for which all of Bosnia would remember him."

Kavazovic, the grand mufti who was the target of Selimovic's threat, has repeatedly denounced Islamic extremism and the radicalization of Bosnian Muslims.

He asked the authorities for protection following news of the Selimovic video.

Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic told reporters the threat was "serious" and the state was taking "additional security measures" to protect Kavazovic.

Officials in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia have sought to combat the perception that they are growing exporters of jihadists and mercenaries to areas of conflict abroad, including Iraq and Syria, where IS controls swaths of territory and has carried out brutal mass killings and other atrocities.

Authorities say at least 26 of the estimated 200 or so Bosnians who have joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have been killed, and around 50 others have returned home.

Muslims make up 40 percent of Bosnia's population of nearly 4 million people.