SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — His code name was Maximus, and he held secret meetings in a shabby room at the Banana City Hotel on the gritty outskirts of Sarajevo.
Bosnian police put him under surveillance, and in a raid on his apartment on Poligonska Street last fall, authorities seized explosives, a suicide bomber belt and a videotape of masked men begging Allah’s forgiveness for the sacrifice they were about to commit.
It was a chilling discovery, say investigators, who believe the cell was close to carrying out a plot to blow up a European embassy. But more troubling, they say, was the ringleader’s background: Maximus turned out to be Mirsad Bektasevic, a 19-year-old Swedish citizen of Serbian origin with ties to a senior al-Qaida operative.
Terrorists have been working to recruit non-Arab sympathizers — so-called “white Muslims” with Western features who theoretically could more easily blend into European cities and execute attacks — according to classified intelligence documents obtained by The Associated Press.
A 252-page confidential report jointly compiled by Croatian and U.S. intelligence on the activities of Islamic groups in Bosnia that might pose a threat suggests the attempted recruitment of radicalized Muslims in the region may have begun as long as four years ago, when Arab militants ran up against tough post-Sept. 11 security obstacles.
“They judge that it is high time that their job on this territory should be taken over by new local forces. … People who are born here and live here have an advantage which would make their job easier. By their appearance, they are less obvious,” the report reads.
Arabs, it adds, “have become too obvious, which has made their job difficult.”
Bosnia’s minister of security, Barisa Colak, acknowledged the existence of the intelligence report but said authorities had no concrete evidence that recruitment efforts are widespread.
There are no known cases of a “white Muslim” recruit being involved in an actual attack. And complicated visa requirements for citizens from ex-Yugoslavia traveling to Western Europe or the United States would be a hindrance to using Balkan recruits for terror attacks.
“Even so, we have to be extremely careful and serious and not miss anything,” Colak told The Associated Press.
Dragan Lukac, the deputy director of SIPA — Bosnia’s equivalent of the FBI — also said authorities are taking no chances. Undercover counterterrorism agents have placed dozens of suspects under 24-hour surveillance and the country is “very intensively” sharing information on possible suspects with the FBI, CIA, Scotland Yard and other agencies, he said.
“Bosnia has become a breeding ground for terrorists, including some on international wanted lists. We can clearly say that,” Lukac told the AP in an interview.
Some disaffected young Bosnians may be receptive to the terrorist message: After the U.S.-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was considered “almost fashionable” to spout extremist sentiment in public, Lukac said, especially among those “frustrated and influenced by ideology, Islamized through various extremist streams.”
Authorities who arrested Bektasevic and several alleged associates last October tipped off police in Britain, who within days arrested three suspected British Muslim accomplices. They also alerted authorities in Denmark, who took seven others into custody. Investigators say they since have established that Bektasevic maintained close ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The vast majority of Bosnia’s Muslims rejects the mujahedeen’s fiery brand of Islam. Yet young, restless men frustrated with 40 percent joblessness and angered by real or perceived insults to Islam can be open to hard-line dogma, the Prague-based think tank Transitions Online said in a recent report.
“A pool of potential white recruits carrying Bosnian or even Western passports would presumably be of great value to terrorists,” it said, calling the Balkan country “a deeply traumatized society susceptible to extremism.”
“Muslims are going through a very tempting time,” conceded Mustafa Ceric, the authoritarian leader of Bosnia’s Islamic community. He insisted, however, that there was no stomach for extremist violence after years of devastating ethnic conflict.
“If we wanted terrorism, we had a chance to do so in the heat of our suffering, and we did not,” he said in an interview.