I’m a great believer in the value of “taking back-bearings,” a phrase I picked up reading the exploits of George Smiley. Normally this means something like determining one’s current position by relating it to known points visible to the observer and easily identified on a map. In my case, I mean looking back at previous events, incidents, and cases to help understand the present, and often, the mistakes made in past responses that helped contribute to it.
I’d like to do that in this article by taking a look back at one of the first high-profile (at least in terrorism circles) cases involving the online radicalization of young men leading to terrorist plots in their own countries. On October 19, 2005, Bosnian police arrested two young men at an apartment in the Butmir district of Sarajevo following an 8-month operation involving the secret services of 9 different countries. The two, a young Swede born in Novi Pazar, Serbia, named Mirsad Bektašević and a Dutch-Turk named Abdulkadir Cesur were caught red-handed with an arsenal of explosives and guns. The police also discovered a video of the culprits expressing their intent to strike at those governments involved in the oppression of their Muslim brethren in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq. Their strike was probably going to be against the British Embassy in Sarajevo.
Al-Qaeda in Northern Europe and the Cyber-Jihad
The two were part of a Scandinavian cell which had announced itself with a “Communiqué from Al-Qaeda in Northern Europe” on September 11, 2005 on the al-Ansar online forum. The other members of this cell came from Denmark and were collectively known as the Glostrup group throughout the course of the legal proceedings that were initiated against them: Abdul Basit Abu-Lifâ, a Dane of Palestinian background; Adnan Avdic, an immigrant from Bosnia; Imad Ali Jaloud, a Danish convert; and Elias Ibn Hsain, a Moroccan who grew up in Denmark. A future article may look at the Glostrup group and place them in the context of the Danish jihadi scene.
Yet this cell was just one of a group loosely associated with one another through entrepreneurial jihadists running radical websites from the UK. One of these jihadi entrepreneurs was Younes Tsouli (“Irhabi007”), a Moroccan who had gained notoriety for his work on websites for Al Qaeda in Iraq, his ability to successfully upload and distribute large files of propagandistic material, and his mentoring of other cyber-jihadists. The other was Aabid Hussein Khan (“Ocean Blue”), the Bradford, West Yorkshire proprietor of At-Tibyan Publications. The two were involved with cells in both Canada (the Toronto 18) and the United States planning large-scale attacks. These cells were ultimately disrupted and dismantled, but much has been made since from this case of the power of the internet in radicalizing youth and connecting disparate aspirational jihadists with little-to-no connection to established figures. BBC did an excellent documentary entitled Generation Jihad, part 2 of which deals extensively with these various cells.
The Development of Bektašević and the Danish Group
Bektašević moved to Sweden as a 6-year-old in 1994 in the midst of Bosnian conflict with his brother and mother Nafija Hamidović. His father Adem had been killed sometime earlier in a traffic accident. The family lived in Kungälv, north of Göteborg, dependent on welfare. Sometime during the 9th class, friends said he began to change. His mother claims that he was influenced by a Palestinian from Syria, a Kurd, and a Somali who frightened him into becoming more observant. He withdrew from his other friendships and allegedly began spending his leisure time at the Bellevue Mosque in Göteborg. He dropped out of high school at this time and began to get into trouble with the law. He also started spending an inordinate amount of time every day on the internet soaking up jihadist propaganda. On one of these radical sites, he befriended a group of Danish teenagers. He eventually made his way to Copenhagen, sleeping at a mosque there and becoming the leader of his new group of friends.
Building to the Attack
Shortly following the announcement of Al-Qaeda in Northern Europe, Bektašević (known by his online persona, ‘Maximus’) made his way to Sarajevo on September 27, 2005. He first slept at the Hotel Banana, a cheap accommodation between downtown Sarajevo and the Ilidža municipality. His uncle then gave him the keys to a house at 71 Poligonska Street, near the airport. Nevertheless, he rented another apartment under an assumed name at 422 Novopazarska Street in the Novi Grad municipality of Sarajevo.
On October 7, Bektašević called Abu-Lifâ in Copenhagen saying, “Try to get more money because I think, thank God, brother, I have found some really good stuff, you know?” Help arrived a week later in the form of Abdulkadir Cesur and not Abu-Lifâ. Abu-Lifâ’s father had become suspicious of his son’s activities and took his passport from him. Nevertheless, the plot began to gather momentum. Two days after Cesur’s arrival, Bektašević received a call from Younes Tsouli. Three days after that, the two took possession of 20kg of explosives supplied by Bajro Ikanović and Amir Bajrić. Bektašević met Ikanović while praying at the King Fahd mosque in 2003 and the two had become friends. Ikanović and Bajrić were co-workers at a halal grill belonging to a meat company run by foreign fighters from the Bosnian Civil War. Both had criminal backgrounds, but Ikanović had found religion and was trying to reform his friend. The investigation showed that Ikanović and Bektašević socialized intensely during his time in Sarajevo, and Ikanović was able to acquire the materials Bektašević was looking for through Bajrić, who in turn obtained them from another friend, Senad Hasanović (aka Senči). Bajrić claimed he obtained the explosives for Ikanović as a means to pay off a debt he owed him.
Not Doing the Time
Authorities moved in quickly once the explosives changed hands, and the dominoes began to fall rapidly in other countries. When the Bosnian court handed down its initial convictions, Bektašević received 15 years and 4 months, credited with time spent in custody since his arrest in 2005. Cesur received 13 years and 4 months; Ikanović received 8 years; and Hasanović received 2 years and 6 months. Bajrić escaped jail time by making a deal with prosecutors. Six months later, the court cut the sentences drastically. Seven years were chopped from Bektašević and Cesur, four years from Ikanović, and two years from Hasanović.
Bektašević was granted a request to be transferred to a Swedish prison in June 2009. In Sweden, it is generally the rule that a convict only serves 2/3 of his sentence before he is granted a conditional release, and this was the case for Bektašević. He walked a free man on May 10, 2011.
Thus, no one convicted in this case served any more than 6 years for his crime and of the total 39 years and 2 months meted out at sentencing, only 16 of them were served. That has serious consequences.
I was not able to find anything on Amir Bajric following the trial. A handful of personal information is supplied through court documents, but none of it was helpful in digging up anything further on him. Surprisingly, I was also not able to find anything on Cesur following his release. Frankly, I couldn’t even find a news story about his release itself; nobody in the press seems to care what he is up to. He was the subject of a 2009 documentary titled, “The Accidental Terrorist”. I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this, but I am eager to see it. Maybe the press takes the view that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and fell in with the wrong crowd as he reportedly claims, but I wouldn’t bet on it given what the remaining three characters on the Bosnian side of this story have done since becoming free men again.
Hasanović, who seems to have only a bit part in this story, is a confirmed believer in the global jihad. The Balkan press shows that he departed Bosnia in September of 2013 to fight in Syria, and there is plenty of photographic evidence of his relationships with other Bosnian foreign fighters both at home and abroad.
One of those close friends is fellow perpetrator Bajro Ikanović who has achieved a meteoric rise within the ranks of Islamic State. He was released in 2009 and went right back to activities in his home area of Hadžići supportive of his radical views. He turned his home into a mosque of sorts and began to engage in racketeering schemes with other young “toughs” in the area who had been drawn into the Salafist web. This only ceased when they impinged upon the territory of the established Albanian mafia in Bosnia. Nevertheless, Ikanović’s recruiting activities never ceased, and he was identified as one of the main conduits for Bosnians wanting to go fight in Syria. He departed himself for Syria in January 2013. By December of that year, he was put in charge of ISIL’s largest training camp in northern Syria by Umar al-Shishani. He joined ISIL’s Shura Council in 2014, and he achieved a special prominence in the eyes of the US when he was added to the Office of Foreign Asset Control’s (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list on September 29, 2015.
It was clear Bektašević was not going to change even before leaving prison. While still in Bosnia, he received a visit from fellow Swedish radical Ralf Lennart Wadman, aka Abu Osama El Swede. He wrote a letter to his supporters posted on Wadman’s blog, in which he thanks them for their support and expresses his honor at being in prison for the sake of Allah where he is “patiently waiting for [the] time to come.” Upon his release, he shared an apartment with Mohamoud Jama, a Somali who had trained in an al-Shabaab camp. On March 2, 2013, he was convicted of aggravated larceny, drug trafficking, driving without a license, shoplifting, and violent resistance. It’s not clear that he ever served a day for any of that.
By May of 2014, his Facebook account showed pictures of him with a Kalashnikov in Syria, although intelligence sources cited in press reporting claim he returned after a few months to Europe. Bosnian news agency Federalna reported on May 29, 2015, that Bektašević had been turned away from the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Uvac border crossing with Serbia three times, the last garnering him a permanent prohibition against entry.
And in defiance of my attempt to produce a predominantly retrospective piece, he was arrested again as I was writing this. Authorities nabbed him and a 19-year-old Swedish-Yemeni named Amer al-Hasani on a bus in Alexandroupolis, Greece, on January 28 in an alleged attempt to join the Islamic State. The two had flown to Athens, Greece ten days prior, took a bus to Thessaloniki and were on another bus from there to Turkey when detained. The authorities discovered in their suitcases two knives, blade lengths of 32 and 23 centimeters, military camouflage clothing, as well as 6,400 kronor, 1,270 euros and 3,600 Syrian pounds. Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported that Bektašević had been listed on the Schengen Information System as a potential terrorist suspect but Swedish authorities failed to alert their European counterparts of his departure from their territory.