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RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists

October 07, 2001|CRAIG PYES and JOSH MEYER and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists who became Bosnian citizens after battling Serbian and Croatian forces present a potential terrorist threat to Europe and the United States, according to a classified U.S. State Department report and interviews with international military and intelligence sources.

The extremists include hard-core terrorists, some with ties to Osama bin Laden, protected by militant elements of the former Sarajevo government. Bosnia-Herzegovina is "a staging area and safe haven" for terrorists, said a former senior State Department official.

The secret report, prepared late last year for the Clinton administration, warned of problem passport-holders in Bosnia in numbers that "shocked everyone," the former official said. The White House leaned on Bosnia and its then-president, Alija Izetbegovic, to do something about the matter, "but nothing happened," he said.

Although no evidence connects any Bosnian group to the suicide hijacking attacks of Sept. 11 blamed on Bin Laden, U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned about the scope and reach of Bin Laden networks in the West and the proximity of Bosnia-based terrorists to the heart of Europe.

A number of the extremists "would travel with impunity and conduct, plan and stage terrorist acts with impunity while hiding behind their Bosnian passports," the former official said.

In several instances, terrorists with links to Bosnia have launched actions against Western targets:

* An Algerian with Bosnian citizenship, described by a U.S. official as "a junior Osama bin Laden," tried to help smuggle explosives in 1998 to an Egyptian terrorist group plotting to destroy U.S. military installations in Germany. The shipment included military C-4 plastic explosives and blasting caps, the former U.S. official said. The CIA intercepted the shipment, foiling the attack.

* Another North African with Bosnian citizenship belonged to a terrorist cell in Montreal that conspired in the failed millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

* One of Bin Laden's top lieutenants--a Palestinian linked to major terrorist plots in Jordan, France and the United States--had operatives in Bosnia and was issued a Bosnian passport, according to U.S. officials.

After the foiled plot against American bases in Germany, the U.S. suspended without public explanation a military aid program to Bosnia in 1999 in an attempt to force the deportation of the Algerian leader of the group, Abdelkader Mokhtari, also known as Abu el Maali.

Finally, after the U.S. went a step further and threatened to stop all economic aid, Izetbegovic agreed to deport El Maali. But the Algerian was back in Bosnia within a year. Two months ago, he was reported to be moving in and out of the country freely. He is now thought to be in Afghanistan with the leadership of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda group, according to a senior official for the NATO-led peacekeeping force, SFOR, in Bosnia.

President Clinton's secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, personally appealed to Izetbegovic to oust suspected terrorists or rescind their Bosnian passports.

The effort by top State Department aides continued through the last days of the administration. "It wasn't just one meeting, it was 10 to 12, with orders directly from the White House," said a former State Department official.

Izetbegovic declined the appeals, several sources said, apparently out of loyalty to the fighters who had come to his country's rescue. The president argued that many had married Bosnian women, had taken up farming and were legal citizens.

"The point we kept making to Izetbegovic was that if the day comes we find out that these people are connected to some terrible terrorist incident, that's the day the entire U.S.-Bosnia relationship will change from friends to adversaries," the former State Department official said.

Senior U.S. and SFOR officials believe that some hard-line members of Izetbegovic's political party gave direct support, through their control of the Foreign Ministry and local passport operations, to foreign Islamic extremists with ties to Bin Laden.

Although Izetbegovic stepped down in October 2000, many hard-liners remain in Bosnia's bureaucracy, and they are suspected of operating their own rogue intelligence service that protects Islamic extremists, military and intelligence sources said.

Last week, Bosnia's new interior minister, citing "trustworthy intelligence sources," said scores of Bin Laden associates may be trying to flee Afghanistan ahead of anticipated U.S. military reprisals for the Sept. 11 attacks, seeking refuge among militant sympathizers in Bosnia. The minister, Mohammed Besic, vowed to intercept any who try to enter the country.

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