Serbs raid Islamist training camp

Interior Ministry says group was trying to recruit potential terrorists

April 05, 2007|By New York Times News Service

NOVI PAZAR, Serbia -- Security officials in this region of southern Serbia say they have found a base about 20 miles north of town that they believe was a training ground for radical Islamists who were planning an attack on members of the local Muslim community.

Four men were arrested during a raid March 17, and two more were arrested three days later in connection with the camp, a series of tents hidden under pines on the edge of a plateau, according to police.

All six detained men come from Novi Pazar, the main city in the heavily Muslim Sandjak region. Police said they had uncovered weapons - including rocket-propelled grenades, about 20 pounds of plastic explosives and automatic assault rifles - hidden in a small cave.

The discovery of the camp, which the police described as being poorly hidden and less than four weeks old, has brought fresh attention to small Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Balkans, many of which are said by security officials to receive financial backing from charities based in Saudi Arabia.

Residents here call them the Wahhabis, after the fundamentalist form of Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia. Such groups emerged in the region during the Balkan wars of the 1990s; they are mostly present in Bosnia but have also been seen in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

In Novi Pazar, police say about 120 people have become followers in the past four to five years.

The movement here says it wants to restore what it calls a pure and original form of Islam, as practiced in much of the Arabian peninsula. This puts them at odds with the mainstream, Turkish-influenced strain of Sunni Islam typically practiced in the Balkans.

Serbia's Interior Ministry said the camp proved that the group, who insist that they are religious activists rather than militants, was trying to recruit potential terrorists.

Dragan Jocic, Serbia's minister of police, said of the detained men: "I believe they were a cell that by themselves cannot make a decision on who might be the target. The final order would most probably come from somewhere else."

Western diplomats in Serbia have discounted claims of a bigger conspiracy, and they have suggested that any plot might have more to do with recent tensions between the Wahhabis and the more mainstream Islamic community, as the Wahhabis have sought to exert increasing influence in the town.

Visibly identifiable by their beards and ankle-length trousers, they have campaigned to do away with what they see as heresy. Their attempts have erupted into violence several times over the past year.

Last April, members of the group disrupted a rock concert in the town center, kicking over loudspeakers. In November, a fight erupted between members of the group and other Muslims in a mosque in the center of town in which 17 people were injured.

"They want to control this region, and make others act and pray the same way as they do," said Muamer Zukorlic, the leader of the Islamic community in the Sandjak region.

But while many worshipers resent what they see as attempts by the Wahhabis to impose their views on others, most do not see the group as a substantial threat. "They aren't real Wahhabis like in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan," said Fehim Sejdovic, a 54-year-old Muslim, speaking outside a mosque frequented by the Wahhabis. "They don't even cover up their families like over there."

Zukorlic added: "It's important to say that this is a small group. They don't have any significant influence."

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