Bosnian security forces have rearrested three men on charges of terrorism and illegal weapons trafficking in a renewed attempt by the prosecution to prove the group’s international terror network connections, having failed to indict them previously due to lack of evidence, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.
Arrested for a second time in early November, the three – Rijad Rustempasic, Edis Velic and Abdulah Handzic – are all prominent members of the local Wahhabi movement and well known to the police for their criminal activities and radical Islam during and after the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.
The three were first arrested in late March 2008 on the same charges, and police seized anti-tank mines, laser sights, various electronic equipment, topographic maps and bomb-making manuals, explosives and munitions in raids on their residences in Sarajevo and Bugojno, and two abandoned cottages in Barice, just outside the capital city.
Analyzing intercepted communiqués between the group’s members, police concluded that the potential targets were Sarajevo’s central cathedral and the Franciscan monastery in the central Bosnian city of Fojnica.
In addition to Catholic institutions, after decoding the maps found in Rustempasic’s apartment, investigators concluded that the group was planning to sabotage power stations and launch attacks against the European Union Forces (EUFOR). Experts are still decoding the maps hoping to reveal more would-be targets and possible weapons stashes.
The three were released soon after their initial arrest in March 2008 when prosecutors failed to win a terrorism indictment against them due to lack of evidence – despite the uncovering of caches of explosives and military equipment – that they were planning a terrorist attack.
Connecting the dots
This time around, the Bosnian Prosecutor’s Office intends to prove that the three have connections with terrorist groups in Western Europe and were planning to attack civilian and military targets in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Drew Angel, chief of Bosnia’s organized crime unit, told a press conference shortly after the arrests that the three suspects had conducted unspecified terror activities and trade in weapons and military equipment.
“The arrest follows an intense investigation including interviews with nearly 70 different witnesses and several suspects, and collected over 1,000 pieces of evidence from here in Bosnia, as well as from Germany and Austria and elsewhere,” prosecutors said.
As proof that the group posed a serious terror threat, Angel stressed that between October 2007 and their initial arrest in 2008, the three were in contact with a man the Prosecutor’s Office referred to as “Abdurrahman,” said to have had fighting experience in Afghanistan and to have played an advisory role with the group, training them to conduct terrorist attacks.
A source close to the investigation in the Bosnian Prosecutor’s Office revealed to ISN Security Watch the identity of “Abdurrahman” as Nihad Cosic, who had provided the technical and ideological support for the group, and perhaps financial support from “brothers” in Afghanistan and other countries.
“Cosic is a controversial person very well known to Bosnian and Western European anti-terror services for his militant beliefs and violent history. Within the group, he is considered the planner and trainer,” the source said, stressing that Cosic could appear as the main witness for the prosecution when the case goes to trial.
Cosic is a German-born Bosnian. He is also the only Bosnian who has publicly confessed to being a member of al-Qaida. According to statements he gave to Bosnian media several years ago, Cosic fought in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. He said he joined al-Qaida in 2005, but was arrested two years later in Pakistan on suspicion of undergoing training in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. He was not charged. Cosic claims to have killed an Australian soldier while fighting in Afghanistan and that he has been linked to the Madrid train bombing perpetrators.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office source, upon Cosic’s deportation from Pakistan to Bosnia, his claims were investigated but could not be definitively confirmed. However, the source did confirm that Cosic was the focus of several investigations into radical Muslim activity.
One of those investigations was into the murder of a Bosnian Croat policeman from the town of Travnik in 1996, which was believed to have been perpetrated by members of the Wahhabis. That case remains unsolved. Furthermore, in 2002, Cosic was wanted for several crimes, including attacks on Bosnian Croat refugee returnees, Catholic churches and a series of robberies. It was then that he fled to his parents’ home in Germany and later to Pakistan.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, Cosic was trained in an al-Qaida camp in the Hindu Kush mountains on Pakistan-Afghanistan border before he was arrested in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Later, his identification documents were found in an al-Qaida camp near the town of Zamzola in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region.
Cosic is now a free man and Bosnian intelligence and security services no longer believe he poses a threat to the country. That said, others may disagree, and over the past two years he has been frequently questioned by German, Austrian and US intelligence.
Even after the release of the three led by Rustempasic in 2008, Bosnian intelligence and security services continued the investigation, focusing particularly on the group’s contacts in Germany and Austria, in an attempt to nail down the supply and financing chain.
A breakthrough was made in late September after Bosnian border police detained Muhamed Rustempasic, Rijad’s twin brother who lives in Vienna, while trying to cross the Bosnian border to visit relatives in Sarajevo. Muhamed Rustempasic remains in custody, charged with illegal trafficking in weapons and military equipment.
The Prosecutor’s Office says it has reliable information that Muhamed Rustempasic sent 10 laser sights in March 2008 through his contact Edis Strojil, a Bosnian living in Germany, who is also wanted by authorities but whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
The source said that Strojil sent the equipment from Germany to Rustempasic who repacked them in a duffle bag and gave it to Sead Medic, a driver for Centrotrans (the Bosnian state-owned bus company), who in turn passed it on to Rijad Rustempasic in Sarajevo.
Another source from the Bosnian State Intelligence Agency (OSA) told ISN Security Watch that in late 2007 and early 2008, Rijad Rustempasic had contacted acquaintances in Germany and Austria, requesting that they secure night vision optics and scopes, allegedly for a hunting expedition.
“But what got our attention was that person he spoke with said he could find those ‘silent’ ones. We realized that they were talking about gun silencers. The information we have is that some of the ordered military equipment came to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Austria. We don’t know how much of it arrived at its destination [but we know] that it was shipped by buses in ordinary duffle bags,” an OSA source told ISN Security Watch last year.
Another Bosnian police source told ISN Security Watch that during the raid on Rustempasic’s house they confiscated a sniper shotgun equipped with night vision optics and other technology that made investigators doubt that it would be used for hunting.
With Muhamed Rustempasic arrest and the revelation of “Abdurrahman’s” true identity, the prosecution is confident that this time around it will have enough evidence to prove that that Muhamed Rustempasic, Velic and Handzic were members of a well-organized terrorist cell plotting attacks on Bosnian territory.