When it comes to charities suspected of terrorist
involvement, at what point can a series of independent actions be said to indicate
coordinated and malevolent intent? And if they do in fact indicate such intent,
what should be done about it?
These are the questions that Thomas Gambill, a former security officer with
the OSCE, had to wrestle with during his time in Kosovo, in regards to several
Islamic NGOs and charities whose stated activities seemed benign, but whose
latent motives were more suspicious.
According to Gambill, whose whistleblower testimony first
came out on Antiwar.com in August, the verdict is not good: in more than
one case, UN bosses of the occupied Serbian province "have turned a blind eye"
to dangerous charities – including a local branch of an Islamic fundamentalist
group that has been linked to terrorist attacks and/or extremism in countries
ranging from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to Azerbaijan, Albania, and
Bosnia – a group that has, in fact, been partially blacklisted by both the Bush
administration and the UN since January 2002.
A Dangerous Disinterest
However, now that the group in question (the Revival
of Islamic Heritage Society, hereafter RIHS) has become more prominent for trying
to spread ultraconservative Saudi Wahhabism and for directly sponsoring terrorist
attacks, such as last
month’s mass bombings in Bangladesh, UNMIK’s apparent disinterest might
be more than just negligent; should the RIHS cement the Balkan foothold it established
over a decade ago in Albania, it could steer long-term social trends away from
the region’s so-called path of "Western integration." More important in the
short term, by ignoring the group’s presence in Kosovo, the international authorities
continue to allow a key source of terrorist funding and logistical organization
to operate unhindered.
Tom Gambill’s initial revelations were made public in
this article, in which the former security chief contended that the majority
of his colleagues were interested only in their paychecks, careers, and desire
to escape Kosovo unscathed, and thus shrank from confronting any potential source
of conflict, no matter how great a danger it might have represented.
"I had this info [about the charities] all the way back in 2001," says Gambill.
"But the State Department didn't want to hear about it. And I brought it up
at every meeting I went to that included [the U.S.] military, but nada.
Many of the American KFOR [Kosovo Force] guys were there for their six months
– you know, get the ribbon, do a few good deeds, and go home. And those who
confided in me didn't want to rock the boat with their superiors… the thinking
was, 'hey, we’re here for only six months – let’s get the job done as assigned
and get home."
For the present investigation, Mr. Gambill has obliged by producing official
written and photographic testimony to support his case for the RIHS’ presence
in Kosovo. He also recalls the generally lukewarm reaction he received from
superiors. In fact, this former Marine believes that the OSCE’s decision not
to renew his contract last spring owed to a face-saving desire to "bury" the
stories he was insisting on telling – something not very surprising, considering
that the brazenly irresponsible international administration has gone to great
lengths since day one to conceal its monumental failures, in areas ranging from
creating a viable economy to protecting vulnerable minority groups.
One might ask, "So what? There are millions of these allegedly 'dangerous’
Islamic charities out there." That was my initial reaction when I first heard
of this case. However, after some research, it became clear that far from being
just another one of the myriad Islamic NGOs operating in the Balkans, the RIHS
was in fact a major player with a distinguished track record and truly global
aspirations. If the UN has really allowed it to flourish in Kosovo, this policy
would seem to be very foolish, as the following should indicate.
The RIHS: A Quick Overview
The Revival of Islamic Heritage Society is a Kuwait-based
charity with branch offices in numerous Muslim-inhabited countries. It was founded
in 1992 and, according to the International
Journal of Not-for-Profit Law in 2002, established international branches,
including even a British one (later registered with the Charity Commission:
registration no. 1014888). Quoting a now-defunct
Web site, the article stated that the RIHS’ purpose is "to improve the condition
of the Muslim community and develop an awareness and understanding of Islam
amongst the non-Muslim communities, by concentrating on youth and education."
Indeed, proselytizing among the young and the poor has served as the group’s
preliminary method of pushing a more conservative type of worship based on the
Saudi Salafi or Wahhabi form
of Islam. This invariably has been carried out through large-scale mosque-building,
financial incentives for converts, and attempts to alienate the young from the
established traditions and political processes of their home countries. As with
any cult, they do this in order to present their solutions to complex social
problems as the only "true" alternatives – even if the execution of these solutions
sometimes involves terrorist activities.
The RIHS’ established pattern of activity indicates a special interest in Islamic
or partially Islamic states where a certain level of turbulence prevails, where
stagnant economies and governmental corruption can be assailed from a broadly
populist viewpoint – and, notably, where there is no historical tradition of
Arab Salafi worship. In the wake of 9/11, European
investigators found a clear connection between Salafi propagandists and
indigenous extremist groups.
Yet despite the group’s presence in England, RIHS activities in places like
Azerbaijan and Bangladesh, as well as the Balkans, have been much more important,
strategically speaking, for their goal of bringing developing states under their
eventual ideological and, ideally, political control.
Furthermore, the RIHS is a founding member of an infamous and now largely
disrupted Islamic charity network that includes the banned al-Haramain,
Global Relief, and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, all
of which shared the same strategic goals. As a May
2005 report from the Naval Postgraduate School states, "since 1992, in addition
to the local orders, the main supporters of Salafi ideas [in Bosnia] were the
following relief agencies – High Saudi Committee, al-Haramain Foundation, and
the Society for the Revival of Islamic Heritage (Jam'iyyat Ihya’ al-Turah al-Islami)."
The RIHS Blacklistings
On Jan. 9, 2002, RIHS operations in Afghanistan
and Pakistan were blacklisted
by the U.S. government. The Bank
of England simultaneously followed suit, as
did the UN two days later. Announcing the action as part of a global effort
to cut off the terrorists’ access to "hard-money countries," then-Secretary
of the Treasury Paul O’Neill also mentioned Canada, Luxembourg, and Hong Kong
as among the list of places that were enforcing the ban and freezing the group’s
According to the U.S. government, the Pakistani and Afghani branches of the
RIHS were run by some real bad apples – or "bad actors," as O’Neill called them
– among whom were one Abd al-Mushin al-Libi and Abu Bakr al-Jaziri, "formerly
bin Laden’s chief fundraiser."
Based in Peshawar, the latter was serving as the finance chief of the Afghan
Support Committee, an Islamic charity connected with al-Qaeda. Al-Libi had been
running the Pakistan office of the RIHS while also managing the Afghan Support
Committee's office in Peshawar. Stated O'Neill, these groups had been "stealing
from widows and orphans to fund al-Qaeda terrorism."
The RIHS staffers in Kuwait are less well known, but even involve enthusiastic
from the West. At some point between 2002 and 2004, it seems, the Kuwait
headquarters was also blacklisted, as is stated in
this Oct. 19, 2004 report from O’Neill’s replacement, John Snow. But this
remains somewhat of a mystery, as nothing else has been said about why or how
the blacklisting came about. After all, in January 2002, O’Neill had specifically
said that there was no evidence that the Kuwait RIHS was aware of the money
movements of their Afghan and Pakistani branches. So what happened thereafter?
Did evidence present itself? The situation remains murky.
Aside from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the RIHS has been active in other countries,
most notably working with Chechen émigré jihadis in Azerbaijan and with indigenous
terrorist groups in Bangladesh, in both cases intending to establish a strictly
Islamic government through violent upheaval. When the pattern established by
these activities is revealed in its full dimensions, the allegations made by
investigators such as Tom Gambill regarding the threat to the Balkans acquire
a new urgency. We will consider some examples now that illustrate the RIHS’
three-stage strategy for effecting change: securing a presence, fomenting dissent,
and finally, engaging in spectacular terrorist attacks to set the stage for
an Islamic revolution.
Stage 1: Securing a Presence, Albania
On June 28, 1998, while war was raging between
the Yugoslav army and the Albanian paramilitary KLA in Kosovo, two
Egyptians were arrested for running a terrorist training camp in the central
Albanian town of Elbasan. They had been quietly recruiting young men from the
north of the country for the campaign against the Serbs. Citing the Albanian
ShIK intelligence service, the linked report claimed that the pair (Maget Mustafa
and Muhamed Houda) were seeking "to give a powerful religious character" to
the nascent Kosovo war that would end with NATO bombing the following spring.
According to the article, the Egyptians had been active at Elbasan’s el-Hagri
Theological Institute. Suspicions of Salafi fundamentalists in the midst had
arisen locally "following the arrival of Sudani and Pakistani people" four years
Indeed, while "rumors" had already been circulating locally regarding the real
interests of the detained Egyptians, "their declared activity was of the humanitarian
character to help poor families … [they] held posts in [the] 'Revival of Islamic
Heritage’ association operating in Albania."
It is well known that Osama
bin Laden sought to break in to post-Communist Albania in 1994 by offering
humanitarian assistance through Islamic charities to the impoverished nation.
Of course, this was merely a front for importing Islamic radicals and terrorists.
Some seemed to have been reporting to Ayman
al-Zawahiri, leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad since 1991, and later bin
Laden’s right-hand man. In a short report of June 2, 2004, the U.S. Treasury
claimed that Osama
bin Laden himself founded al-Haramain in Albania, and that "in 1998, the
head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad in Albania was reportedly also a financial official
for AHF in Albania."
Finally, "in late 2000, a close associate of a UBL operative moved to Albania
and was running an unnamed AHF subsidiary." Which "subsidiary" could it have
While this question is not answered in this
fascinating July 2005 article from the Chicago Tribune on the CIA’s
rather lavish 2003 kidnapping of Egyptian-born Imam Abu Omar in Italy, it
does clarify the Egyptian connection with the RIHS in Albania.
Several years before turning into an anti-American firebrand in late 2001,
Abu Omar had been a valuable informant in Albania for the ShIK and thus, ultimately,
the CIA. The article recounts that on Aug. 27, 1995, the then-unknown Abu Omar
was taken in for questioning by the Albanian authorities, together with several
known members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and another Egyptian terrorist group,
the Jamaat al-Islamiya. The ShIK had received a tip from the CIA that this group
was planning to assassinate the visiting Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa.
In fact, only two months earlier, Jamaat al-Islamiya had tried to assassinate
President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. So given the circumstances,
the CIA’s concerns were understandable.
Under questioning, Abu Omar admitted having fled Egypt "because he belonged
to Jamaat al-Islamiya." But he denied any assassination plot, since "such a
move would have cost Jamaat its [safe] haven. … Abu Omar told the ShIK agents
that, for Jamaat members like him, Albania was a 'safe hotel’ – a country where
fundamentalist Muslims believed they could live without fear of political repression."
At the same time, Omar claimed that the Egyptian terrorist group "had about
10 people working for three Islamic charities in Albania, including al-Haramain
Islamic Foundation and the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society."
Although Abu Omar vanished mysteriously weeks later, only to resurface in Italy
as a radical, he didn’t sever his ties to foreign terrorist groups based in
Albania. Indeed, as a conversation of June 6, 2002 taped by the Italian police
makes clear, he was very much aware of ongoing operations. The Chicago Tribune
article transcribes the relevant fragment:
"[A]bu Omar is overheard speaking with an unidentified South African man
who seems to be talking about car bombs.
"'Who has made them?’ Abu Omar asks. 'Who? Who?’
"'One of the Palestinian brothers,’ replies the South African.
"’The Palestinian?’ Abu Omar asks.
"'Yes,’ the man answers. 'The one who is called the machine … the one who
is in Albania.’"
This is interesting, because there is scant information regarding current activities
of the RIHS and similar groups in Albania. They seem to have dropped off the
radar. But it is notable that the branch has not been put on the U.S.
blacklist, as were the Afghan and Pakistani branches. Why? Have their activities
been suspended, voluntarily or involuntarily? Or has the U.S. been treading
lightly in the country for some reason? There is simply no way of knowing.
Essentially, however, what is important to note here is the RIHS’ attested
means of infiltration and clandestine operations, which are incontestably displayed
in the Abu Omar case and other events discussed above.
Stage 2: Transforming the State, Azerbaijan
With its substantial oil
and gas deposits and headship of the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
oil pipeline, Azerbaijan is a strategically vital country to the United
States – as well as to Islamist "reformers" such as the RIHS. The proximity
of this Caucasus country to trouble spots like Chechnya,
not to mention its key relationships with neighbors such as Turkey and Iran,
have led American policymakers to watch developments in the country closely.
But have they been missing something?
July 2005 article from the Jamestown Foundation recounts the post-USSR arrival
of Salafi missionaries in Azerbaijan, a phenomenon that accelerated with the
first war in Chechnya in 1994. In fact, the first Salafi missionaries arrived
directly from this bitterly contested war zone: "the majority of them came from
Chechnya and Dagestan where the Salafis had some influence, in large measure
due to the Russian-Chechen wars."
A few years later, however, "missionaries from the Persian Gulf countries dramatically
increased their activities in Azerbaijan." According to the article, the current
number of Salafi worshippers in Baku alone numbers around 15,000, despite there
having been no tradition of this Saudi form of Islam before. This worries the
Azeri government, and perhaps with good reason: "alarmingly for the Azeri establishment,
Salafis do not make a secret of their aspirations to acquire political power
Considering that some 65-70 percent of Azeris are Shi'ite Muslims, the inroads
Salafis are making also concerns neighboring Iran, the perceived "archrival"
of this Sunni Arab movement. This factor leads the author to speculate that
if the proselytizers make problems for the Shi'ite majority, it could "provoke
some form of Iranian intervention," and that ultimately, "the proliferation
of Salafi ideas among religious and ethnic minorities could create powerful
centrifugal forces that will in due course threaten the national unity of Azerbaijan."
Interestingly enough, the RIHS has been a key player in promoting the ideas
that could lead to such a destabilization. So why hasn’t the U.S. blacklisted
it here, as it did in Afghanistan and Pakistan? States the article:
"[B]y 2003, 65 new Salafi-controlled mosques had been established in Azerbaijan.
One of the largest Salafi mosques in the country is the Abu Bakr mosque. Built
in 1997 in Baku by the Azeri branch of the Kuwaiti society Revival of Islamic
Heritage, Abu Bakr became one of the most successful mosques in Azerbaijan.
"While on average the Shi’a or Sunni mosques are able to attract approximately
300 people for Friday prayers, the number of people visiting the Abu Bakr mosque
typically reaches 5,000 to 7,000 people.  The Imam of the Abu Bakr mosque
is Gammet Suleymanov, a graduate of the World Islamic University of Medina that
is a leading center for the study and export of Salafism."
According to the article, a spring 2001 trial of aspiring mujahedin for the
Chechnya campaign led to the summoning of Suleymanov, since the accused had
been "frequent visitors" to his mosque and had in fact been recruited there
by Chechen leaders. In another trial, Suleymanov’s Abu Bakr mosque was also
singled out as a refuge for members of the Pan-Islamic Hizb-ut
Tahrir organization. Finally, in May 2002, deputy minister of national security
Tofiq Babayev attested that
"[A] number of Arab countries were interested in spreading radical Wahhabism
in Azerbaijan. According to Babayev, over 300 Azeris had been trained in Wahhabi
centers in Dagestan. The deputy minister identified three stages in the effort
to make Wahhabism a grassroots movement in Azerbaijan. First there is the spread
of Wahhabi literature and the provision of financial assistance to potential
activists. The second stage involves the efficient training of the activists,
and the final stage deals with the mobilization of active members for acts of
terrorism designed to destabilize the state. "
All things considered, it seems surprising that the U.S. apparently hasn’t
moved to shut down the RIHS branch in Azerbaijan. As the above testimony implies,
things could eventually progress to the point where national stability becomes
a real concern; the third stage of the extremist plan could then unfold.
Stage 3: Destabilization Through Terror, Bangladesh
On Aug. 17, a coordinated bombing campaign was
conducted in 63 out of 64 districts of Bangladesh. Almost 500 small but nearly
simultaneous explosions killed three and injured at least 150. The attacks were
meant to be a show of force, to intimidate rather than kill – and to show the
country what the terrorists were capable of doing.
Last week, the government charged that the main suspect in the attacks – local
terrorist group, Jama'atul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB) – had been heavily funded
and assisted by the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, along with a mysterious
imam from the UK and several other organizations and front groups.
These groups had illegally employed foreign Islamists visiting Bangladesh on
tourist visas, as well as several veterans of the notorious al-Haramain, reported
Kerala on Sept. 8. Thus, while it likes to present itself as having
shattered the terrorist-supporting Islamist charities, the Bush administration
has merely scattered them. They can and do easily regroup, under different umbrella
groups and names.
With the pressure on following the ensuing police crackdown, the RIHS sought
to lower its profile drastically. According to the article, "the Heritage Society's
front organization, the Higher Islamic Education Institute, in the capital was
closed down last week. It has started trimming manpower in other affiliated
institutions as part of the wrapping-up process."
Only four days after the explosions, a high official of the RIHS from Kuwait,
Abdul Aziz Khalaf Malullah, cut short his month-long visit and left Bangladesh.
What really raises eyebrows about this sudden departure was the fact that Malullah
had apparently planned his trip "with the express mission to ensure continuation
of the RIHS activities in the country," according
to South Asian Media Net on Aug. 22. But since the Kuwaiti had arrived just
days before the blasts, was he not probably aware that they would take
place – and thus necessitate the immediate presence of someone to lobby the
government on the group’s behalf? And especially considering that the preparations
for the complex series of bombings began way back in April, and required much
coordination with the RIHS?
In any case, Malullah "failed to manage a positive response from the government,"
and left on Aug. 21. He is one of the only officials of the RIHS known by name.
The RIHS, however, could not hog all the limelight. The New Kerala article
adds that "more than 100 foreigners … from different Middle East and African
countries" had been illegally employed in nine other Islamic charities as well.
In addition, four charity officials suspected of terrorist involvement had been
among the 14 who worked for al-Haramain, but who left the country when the group
was banned in 2004. However, they "returned several months later and joined
the Heritage Society [RIHS] without the knowledge of intelligence agencies."
Further, local investigators following the money trail have arrived at the
RIHS’ door, says the article:
"[A]n intelligence report recently submitted to the government said that
the Kuwait-based organization used to channel funds for [extremist group] Ahle
Hadith Andolon's leader, Asadullah al-Ghalib, also a university professor, who
was arrested last February for exploding bombs at NGOs' offices and cultural
functions in the northern part of the country.
"Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, blamed for the Aug. 17 chain of bomb blasts,
has been getting foreign funds for its militant activities through Ghalib."
And, according to the Asia
News Network on Sept. 3, "Bangladesh intelligence agencies have recently
recommended banning RIHS for financing Islamist militants in the country … claiming
that it seems to be more concerned with promoting militancy rather than protecting
Islamic heritage, said an intelligence source."
According to the report, the RIHS had provided funds to two related organizations,
the Tawhid Trust and the Hadith Foundation, both of which had been "founded
by militant kingpin Asadullah al-Galib."
In a follow-up article which sought to explain the problem of Islamic extremism
in Bangladesh, the Christian
Science Monitor reported that the Bangladeshi government "is working
with the country's banks to identify suspicious accounts and transactions, some
possibly originating abroad. 'They've received monetary help from Saudi Arabia,
South Africa, Pakistan,’ says a retired police investigator, who spoke on condition
of anonymity. 'They first started in 1989 during the Afghan war.'"
This apparent show of diligence is no doubt meant to keep one optimistic regarding
the ability of international police to freeze accounts and put terrorists in
the poorhouse. However, as another
recent article which discusses huge foreign funding for Bangladesh’s 34
registered Islamic NGOs makes clear, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves:
"[T]his money has no official records as it does not come through official
channels. The persons concerned themselves carry the money or send it through
unofficial channels like hundi. Some exporters and importers in Dhaka and Chittagong
also help transferring the money. The foreign funds that are channeled through
businessmen mainly come via Bangkok and Singapore, the sources pointed out.
"This is one of the major sources of funds for the local Islamic NGOs and
Qawmi madrassas which do not have government recognition. The income and expenditure
of these madrassas are not accounted for properly as they are not accountable
to any government body."
That said, the CSM does point out how the fundamentalists have used
a well-rehearsed plan – exploiting social and economic crises – to gain influence,
as was specified in the beginning of this article as being a major strategy:
"[I]slamist militant groups have taken firm root here, demonstrating a widespread,
highly coordinated, and well-funded network … homegrown militancy, invigorated
by foreign funds and leadership radicalized in Afghanistan, has flourished here
because of growing economic inequalities and acrimonious politics that have
crippled the functioning of democracy."
India cited an intelligence source as claiming the "JMB militants through
Galib have utilized the facilities of some 700 mosques built across the country
by the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS)." The CSM report states
that altogether the RIHS has funded 1,000 mosques in Bangladesh, as well as
10 new madrassas.
Finally, as retired Brigadier General Shahed Anam Khan told the paper, "the
organization behind Aug. 17 was extremely sophisticated and networked. It's
clear that at least 500 people were used to place the bombs; their strategy
was classic – send in men who don't know the core group which had planned and
assembled the bombs. This is something which we never encountered in the past."
A Shocking Disinterest
Taken cumulatively, shouldn’t all of the dubious
partnerships and destructive activities of the RIHS have set off alarm bells
for international authorities in Kosovo, where the charity’s presence was evidenced
long ago? According to Tom Gambill, even when confronted with proof of the RHIS’
existence in the occupied province, UN and American officials alike seemed rather
While there were some "motivated" American security officials who "wanted a
piece of the action," says Gambill, "they were held back in some cases by orders
from those higher up in the pecking order. This was much to the disgruntlement
of the lower echelons – lieutenants, captains, some majors … the same thing
with the CivPol [UN Police]."
However, he adds, the authorities in Kosovo were generally indifferent to the
RIHS’ presence and what it could mean for the future. When Gambill raised the
issue at another Camp Bondsteel meeting, showing photographic proof and citing
the UN Mandate outlawing the group, he got a somewhat "peeved" reaction from
the FBI’s representative in Kosovo: "It seemed like he knew nothing [about the
group] – go figure!"
Naysayers and Defenders in the UN and US Military
Yet the aspiring whistleblower was not just a
nuisance; through his arguments and frequent e-mails to UNMIK and U.S. security
officials in Kosovo, he was rocking the boat – essentially, the last thing the
"I’m OK, you’re OK" international administration wanted to see happen. And this
led certain individuals to get flustered unduly. States Gambill:
"In another case, I was verbally attacked via e-mail by an American major.
… He said that I was not qualified to make comments, and that neither my information
nor comments were accurate. However, the comments he was making were erroneous
… and completely unwarranted. After forwarding his comments to my point of contact
on the American base, he (another major) was taken back at this kind of behavior.
"Later, in early 2003, one member, an American assigned to the OSCE who
was on my e-mail list, complained to my Division Head that I was sending out
information contained in OSCE classified reports, which was incorrect. I got
my information from non-classified sources and correctly triangulated my information
before writing anything and distributing. In other words, I always obtained
the same information from at least three different sources that were unrelated
but consistent. This then qualified as reliable information. I also used a disclaimer,
just in case. So his complaint was inaccurate and made for personal reasons,
as I learned after I confronted my manager about the report and source."
But the biggest group of naysayers was not made up of hotheads, but rather
cynics who, Gambill claims, claimed to be experts – though they visited Kosovo
only once or twice a year:
"The ones who did not believe my reports were many internationals who argued
that these things [Salafi penetration, etc.] didn't occur in Bosnia, and that
therefore the Islamic fundamentalists were not a threat. They claimed that there
were no organized efforts on the part of the Islamic fundamentalists and that
the [Albanian] rebel groups causing trouble were not a significant concern.
That line came from many of the US military commanders who came through the
region once every six months. There was no continuity in the passing of intelligence
from one unit to another – ever."
But all reactions were not hostile, says Gambill. Other security officials
more keen on fighting the "war on terror" were impressed by his tenacity and
commitment to rooting out hostile elements. He recounts:
"In several meetings of the combined group (U.S. military, UN, and CivPol),
just as many commended me for the information that I brought to the table. I
was told that my sources and reports were 90 percent accurate and were appreciated.
In one case, a commander came to me after a meeting and commended me on my participation
in all his meetings and gave me a unit coin for my contributions. It was done
quietly, of course."
In fact, certain of the security officers who appreciated Gambill’s input in
turn provided him with further "accurate reports and bits of info that helped
to substantiate the info that I was putting out."
RIHS in Kosovo: The Proof
Tom Gambill admits that having left Kosovo over
a year ago, he can’t state with certainty what is happening there now on a day-to-day
basis. However, he does provide compelling evidence that proves the UN authorities
in Kosovo, through mid-2004 at least, were tolerating the presence of an Islamic
group (the RIHS) that had been banned elsewhere a year and a half earlier.
To buttress his claim, Gambill presents two internal UNMIK police documents
and a photo that attest to a RIHS presence in Kosovo – and that disclose the
same activity patterns demonstrated by the group in the countries discussed
"In one security meeting at [U.S. military base Camp] Bondsteel," recounts
Gambill, "a sympathetic American [agency deleted] officer slipped me a photo
of their vehicles, with 'RHIS/P’ spray-painted on the side in big bold black
letters and parked on the street in Malishevo [near the southwestern town of
Prizren]. They ran around freely; this picture was taken in 2003 or early 2004."
As for the documents, the first (dated July 26, 2003) covers this incident
in Malishevo. UNMIK police there observed a white Toyota with Tirana registration
and the name RHIS/P printed along the side panel. The vehicle was parked in
the town for two hours, but when its occupants returned, the police stopped
them and learned that the driver was a Kosovo Albanian, and the passenger, a
Both had UNMIK ID cards; the car was registered to a Tirana-based NGO. When
questioned, the pair stated that they were employees of the Revival of Islamic
"[A]ccording to them this is a humanitarian organization and they have representative
offices in many cities in Kosovo and they visited an Islamic office in Malishevo.
The purpose of this organization is to take care [of] orphans in Kosovo."
This is a very interesting admission because, if true, it reaffirms the RIHS’
time-honored preliminary tactic of "educating" the youth. And indeed, what easier
youth are there to educate than those without parents? Such activities have
already been used by (secular enough) Kosovo Albanians in creating "front lines"
protesters who can be easily indoctrinated toward a militant "liberation" cause.
Numerous sources in Kosovo stated last year that a special group of war orphans,
whose families had been killed in the 1999 war, were cynically being located
at the front at various protests (including the early stages of the March
2004 riots), specifically because of the bad PR that would be generated
were children to be harmed or killed by UN police.
The other major strategy employed by RIHS during stage one – mosque-building
– is attested in the second document shared by Gambill. In an "assessment" report
of Sept. 20, 2003, also from the Malishevo UN police, it is stated that another
RIHS vehicle (this one a Kosovo-registered, dark green Opel Frontera) had been
spotted twice in the nearby town of Orahovac, driven by a bearded Arab. More
importantly, the police report states that the RIHS had "asked" an Emirates-based
NGO, Human Appeal International, to fund
and build a mosque in the town – "the third mosque they [HAI] have constructed
in Kosovo." The HAI, it turns out, is also heavily
involved with orphan services in countries including Kosovo.
This tactic of keeping beneath the radar by working indirectly through an Islamic
NGO (so far) untainted by terrorist links shows that the RIHS is prepared to
work slowly and in stages to attain its key goal of increasing the Salafi head
count in Kosovo. It is frequently declared by Kosovo Albanian leaders and KLA
war veterans that theirs is a secular, pro-Western society that can never fall
under the influence of foreign Islamists, and that the KLA has always refused
their help. While this is no doubt true for a large section of the former KLA,
the splintering of the organization that began after the war has led different
factions to explore new partnerships. Thus, adds Gambill, "right now, I have
evidence from good sources who are reporting that a branch of the AKSH [an Albanian
nationalist militant group] has hooked up with the fundies [Islamic fundamentalists]
in the southern tip of Kosovo, the Dragash area between Albania and Macedonia."
Moreover, leaving this argument aside for the moment, we should also remember
that terrorists never require a majority to operate in any given country; indeed,
it would be almost antithetical to their purposes. In the absence of a majority
population sympathetic to their cause, all that groups like the RIHS need is
a place to take cover while they quietly plan – a "safe hotel," as Abu Omar
memorably dubbed Albania back in 1995.
This vehicle, belonging
to the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, was monitored by UN police in Kosovo.
The Balkan Black Hole – and Beyond
Unfortunately, Albania remains such a place today,
as do Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Riddled with Islamist sympathizers, Bosnia
is the most amenable of the four, a place where "fitting in" is not difficult
(especially in the Zenica area). In Kosovo, the UN’s fear and feebleness, as
well as its intelligence shortcomings, have made it impossible to really crack
down on groups that are transient, resilient, and well-funded. And in the last,
poor Macedonia, the complete lack of a government agency or even individual
to regulate the activities and finances of the NGO sector makes the motives
and finances of suspicious charities almost impossible to ascertain, while the
preponderance of heavily guarded militant villages make it very dangerous for
police to investigate what’s going on in local Islamic communities and isolated
Of course, as Tom Gambill concedes, "It’s always true that more [counter-terrorist
investigative work] might be going on behind the scenes than we know about."
The U.S. and its allies might simply be playing a waiting game with the Islamists,
or working with a very select staff, or both.
Nevertheless, real concerns remain. Indeed, given the absence of any visible
proactive and public governmental actions when it comes to cracking down on
groups like the RIHS (and not only in the Balkans) how can one not conclude
that the U.S. and its allies are demonstrating a dangerous negligence in the
face of a clearly demonstrated threat to Western security?