Mujahedin In Macedonia, or,
an Enormous Embarrassment For the West
THE CAT'S OUT OF THE BAG BUT THE WEST TRIES TO STUFF IT BACK IN
Macedonia has always maintained that Islamic mujahedin are fighting for the Albanian NLA. Yet somehow, the proof presented was never quite good enough for the West. After all, the stakes were mighty high. For the UN, OSCE, NATO and sundry NGO's, it remains of the utmost importance to minimize signs of "blowback" whenever possible. In other words, to show that their presence – and their coddling of the NLA – were indeed positive contributions to the stability of the country. Yet the shocking developments of the past two weeks in Macedonia have left the West stunned, in disarray. While the story is still unfolding, this much is certain:
Macedonian security forces claim to have liquidated seven mujahedin planning attacks on the American, German and British embassies. The men – at least two Pakistanis and several Albanians – were found with multiple weapons, Arabic prayer-books, and NLA uniforms. A strong connection was also confirmed between one of the Pakistanis and a NLA brigade. The police action was precipitated by the earlier capture of two Jordanians and two Bosnians, in front of the German Embassy:
"Upon the arrest, the police confiscated computer disks containing 12,000 pages of information about the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Analysis of that material revealed some of the intentions of the terror network: committing attacks on the Macedonian government officials and foreign embassies."
As if that weren't enough, three Iraqi terrorist suspects have also been arrested in Macedonia, reported a Bulgarian news source (3 March).
According to the Washington Post, the Bosnian and Jordanian suspects have already been turned over the Americans – and sent straight to Guantanamo Bay. Of course, the US Embassy completely denies this, and anonymous sources deride the validity of the charges. But what else could they possibly say? That Macedonia is experiencing the domino effect of destabilizing intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo? That the presence of mujahedin in the Balkans is partially the fault of NATO and the other intervening Western forces? In short, that this is a case of "blowback" par extraordinaire?
Folks, the NLA-mujahedin connection is clear and well-established. And try as they may, those who have abetted the NLA can no longer conceal this fact. Indeed, despite the enormous embarrassment of the "International Community," it is now in their best interests to cooperate with the Macedonian government. As this latest and most dramatic incident has shown, the mujahedin are no longer under the control of their Albanian minders. They have gone AWOL, and Westerners – not merely Macedonians – are stuck right in the bulls-eye.
Yet hubris, it appears, is all-powerful. According to our sources, Macedonia's Sitel-Television has just announced new Western threats: "the latest is that Carla del Ponte told Boskovski and the government that if they do not stop chasing terrorists, they will be sent to the Hague."
After September 11th, Macedonia disappeared almost entirely from the journalistic radar. It is more than a little ironic that its return to the limelight owes exclusively to the newfound "war on terror" angle. But should it really have required an exciting shootout, and embassy intrigue, for the BBC and Associated Press to return to Macedonia? After all, the case for mujahedin in Macedonia has been there for months. Even outside of the country, a reciprocal connection has been exposed. For one, take the December 2001 arrests of four Macedonian Albanians in Pakistan. Indeed, a Kosovar Taliban was also arrested the week before; he had spoken enthusiastically about blowing up Disney World.
According to the Scotsman, the West is waking up – however sheepishly – to the very real threat of Islamic terrorism in the vulnerable heart of the Balkans:
security officials believe there are serious concerns about the Pakistani,
Jordanian, Bosnian and other Muslim fighters operating alongside and
independently of rebel groups such as the self-styled National Liberation
Army and the Albanian National Army.
TIMING, UNFORTUNATELY, IS EVERYTHING
It was bad timing that ruined things for Macedonia. Immediately after September 11th, precisely when it have seemed to be most pertinent, the Macedonian government and media reminded the world: mujahedin are fighting for the NLA. Yet the apparently self-serving nature of this attempt irritated the pro-interventionist sector of the media, which skewered the Macedonians. Charging them with spreading "propaganda," these reports – citing mostly US officials, NGO types, and Albanians – denied even the possibility of imported mujahedin in Macedonia. Among those who scoffed at the claim was IWPR (28 September 2001). Another was the RFE/RFL Newsline (28 September 2001). Accusing Macedonia of "disinformation," this American institution also attacked the Yugoslav government, which had presented evidence for mujahedin in Kosovo and Macedonia.
The organization with the most to lose, of course, was NATO. The alleged protector of regional peace and stability made a mockery of the allegations at a press conference (20 September 2001). Spokesman Mark Laity cracked jokes about suspicious men with beards, and wisecracked, "I'm a little concerned because a mujahedin just entered the room. I hope that's a camera. Just don't point that thing at me too obviously." Throughout, NATO categorically denied that there had been mujahedin present in Aracinovo – to the surprise of Macedonians who had been there.
For the Macedonians, this was a bitter blow. Despite the documented presence of mujahedin in Bosnia and Kosovo, the West's "experts" could scarcely imagine a similar phenomenon occurring in Macedonia – though Albanian and Arab extremists alike have continued to regard the struggle as Muslim liberation from "Slav oppression."
This opinion, coincidentally enough, is shared by the most influential Albanian politician in Macedonia – Arben Xhaferi. He recently maintained that the Albanian uprising is merely a new stage in "Slav decolonization" – a meritorious campaign also underway in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya.
Considering that the "holy warriors" admit to it themselves, it should be easy to prove mujahedin activity in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania. As a matter of fact, it's not just easy – it's like shooting ducks in a barrel, and I don't have the space to even begin. Therefore, those interested should visit the new antiwar.com research page for Islamic terrorism in the Balkans. There readers will find plenty of information documenting the activities of foreign mujahedin – and their Bosnian and Albanian cohorts – in the Balkans.
Indeed, given the activity of Islamic fighters in Bosnia and Kosovo, why on earth would there not be mujahedin in Macedonia as well? While the burden of proof should fall upon the naysayers, the question has never been posed in this way. As such, every Macedonian claim has been scuppered. Now, in the wake of a narrowly-averted plot on the embassies, this failure has become more than a tragedy of Macedonian public relations; it has become a tragedy of the West's inattention. For while there is plenty of evidence for mujahedin in Macedonia, few have studied it. It's time for the West to take heed – before the jihadis exact their misplaced vengeance on Westerners in the Balkans – and beyond.
THE "MAD MULLAH" OF SLUPJANE, AND THE "LONG HOOKS" OF MATEJCHE
During the summer, according to Macedonian intelligence, up to 200 mujahedin were based in the mountainous villages near Kumanovo (in north-central Macedonia). Bin Laden had been directly involved: according to the Washington Post, he gave the NLA $6-7 million. The primary reason for a mujahedin presence in the Kumanovo area, however, has to do with certain homegrown talent, and the local encouragement of extremism.
Slupjane is a small and volatile village in the Kumanovo area. It is also one of the most anti-Macedonian villages in the entire country. Its imam (spiritual leader) is armed with fiery rhetoric, and carries a carries a WWII-era Luger on his belt. According to one local of Kumanovo, this "mad mullah" is a 50 year-old Albanian named Mullah Jakup Asipi. In his vitriolic sermons, he exhorts the Albanians to fight for their religion and nationhood. Educated in Egypt, Asipi travels every year to Saudi Arabia as a pilgrim: "for this purpose, every villager from the area contributes $15." The mullah is also famous throughout the country for his hard-line, fundamentalist stance. Slupjane was the epicenter of NLA activity early last summer, and therefore it was heavily shelled. It's not surprising that this area would be a hotbed of extremism.
Matejche is another nearby village, also under the influence of Mullah Asipi. According to Macedonian refugees from that village, the mullah in the Matejche mosque "was sent from Slupjane, probably by Asipi himself." The Kumanovo man who told me of Mullah Asipi added lurid details about Matejche's "house of prayer":
"The mosque was the site where several villagers were taken as hostages and beaten up. A young man who stayed in the village during the fights said that there are women who were raped but they wouldn't talk, being afraid to admit the rape. I talked to two villagers who were taken hostages in the mosque for 6 days. They were beaten up by local villagers and by an unknown man with a beard, who was called "a boxer." There were some other men with beards around the village wearing black uniforms but they don't know where they were from. Definitely, they were not locals."
Another report from the same village, Matejche, chronicled a suspicious battle during Summer 2001:
"They (the Macedonian policemen) all confirmed that during the fight one night, several terrorists with long beards had been killed. The policemen who took the bodies were fiercely attacked by all possible means. They said that there had never been such strong resistance and determination from the terrorists' side as during that night. Since their lives were in danger, the police left the bodies on the field and retreated. The terrorists used long hooks and managed to drag the bodies back to their positions."
During an earlier period of fighting, residents of the nearby village of Vaksince were evacuated by bus, after they called the police and told them "…that the terrorists, in particular the foreign mercenaries and mujahedin, wouldn't let them leave their houses, and also tormented them."
MUJAHEDIN IN WESTERN MACEDONIA
Information about the west of Macedonia, with its impenetrable mountains and fortress-like NLA villages, is a lot harder to come by. The majority of Macedonian refugees have been evacuated from the city of Tetovo and the villages above it. Nevertheless, some locals of the area were able to confirm the story. Several people claim to have seen bearded fighters of distinctly foreign appearance during the summer. Some were spotted during battles in Tetovo itself; one businessman saw several foreign fighters rush past in the street beyond his house. A reservist active in one early battle spoke of obviously non-Albanian opposition fighters. Finally, a representative of KISS TV in Tetovo claims that some mujahedin were present in the villages above Tetovo. The only Macedonian-language TV station in Tetovo, KISS suffered a famous kidnapping last summer, when the station's director was abducted by the NLA in the village of Semsovo. It was only the intercession of a German general that brought about his release. The NLA views the station as a threat – not least of all because of the specials it has broadcast on mujahedin in western Macedonia.
In January I spoke with the coordinator of a refugee action group, who disclosed a specific incident from summer 2001. It occurred in the village of Tearce:
"The date to remember is the 22nd of July. At 1:30 PM, shooting started from Drenovice, above Tetovo, towards Neproshtino and then Leshok. At that point we knew that Leshok and the other Macedonian (majority) villages had gone under control of the NLA.
…All this fighting happened around the church of St. Nikolas, which is now burned. When they (the NLA) attacked near the police station, foreign mujahedin with beards were seen…there were seven or eight of them, and these appeared to be the leaders. When the (Macedonian) people saw the NLA guys who were coming in to rob them, they noticed their heavy beards and foreign appearance… some of them are still there in Tearce – we know this from the few elderly (Macedonians) who still live there."
A CHANCE ARREST LEADS TO AN INFORMATION BONANZA
All of these anecdotes pale in comparison, however, to one overlooked source. The real breakthrough came last Fall, when Macedonian security forces arrested an Albanian, Sedula Murati, in a taxi cab in Arachinovo. With him, says the Reality Macedonia report (6 October 2001), were also found "…several computer CDs, a hard disk, photographs of NLA members and lists of Albanian terrorists from the "Ismet Jashari" brigade 113 operating in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo region."
This report is corroborated by Macedonian intelligence documents and photographs. This information is a gold mine for establishing a link between mujahedin and the NLA. It chronicles, in particular, the activities of the NLA's 113th brigade – dubbed the "Ismet Jashari."
The 113th brigade, operating in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo region, fostered a close relationship with the mujahedin. According to the same Reality Macedonia report, the man arrested in the taxi cab had played an important role:
"…(Murati) was in charge of the computer processing of data on all the structures of the brigade 113. He recorded the presence and the activity of the mujahedin unit within the 'Ismet Jashari' brigade, the activities of the special units, and also kept data on the brigade's formation and commanding personnel.
Sedula joined the terrorists on March 22 this year at the personal request of Hajrula Misimi, known as commander Shpati. During the fighting against the Macedonian security forces, the arrested was stationed in the Kumanovo village of Lipkovo where he was processing information for the needs of the brigade 113. According to the data in Murati's captured computer records, a mujahedin unit of about 120 fighters operated in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo region. This unit was not included within the "Ismet Jashari" brigade. The mujahedins arrived in the area of Kumanovo in May of this year upon previous agreement among Xhezair Shaqiri – commander Hoxha, commander Sokoli and Daut Haradinaj. Only these two had direct contacts with the mujahedins.
The members of the mujahedin unit were natives of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Turkey. However, the unit also comprised persons from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia who used to live in the Arab countries and were trained in their terrorist camps. Selim Ferit from Skopje was the commander of the mujahedin unit, while Bekjir Halimi was his deputy. The activities of this unit were videotaped by Adem Ramzi, a mujahedin from Turkey. The principal activities of this unit were surveying the terrain, discovering positions of Macedonian security forces and conducting ambush attacks."
OTHER ACTIVITIES OF THE 113TH BRIGADE
The 113th Brigade seems to have been large and self-contained, having security details, special forces, and logistics units. According to government sources, it numbered about 1400 soldiers. Even taking into account the typical over-estimating associated with all governments' figures, the 113th Brigade still appears to have been a formidable fighting force. Within it, the seized records show, there was a special group of 25-30 mujahedin, under the direction of one Sabedini Selmani from Lipkovo. "He graduated (in) theology in Saudi Arabia, and participated in the war in Bosnia." also associated with this unit was one Jakup Asipi, mullah of Slupjane, who had spent a month in Saudi Arabia and Switzerland to raise funds for the NLA. Among the captured gear were official NLA identity cards and uniforms. We should remember that the seven mujahedin recently killed were also found with NLA uniforms.
BUT COULD THE ALBANIANS BENEFIT FROM THE SCANDAL?
Through it all, the Albanians have been vociferous in denouncing the mujahedin claims. Although bin Laden's operations in Albania have been conclusively proved, they still continued to deny it: the Albanian ambassador even wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Times. On 25 January 2002, a Saudi businessman with ties to bin Laden was indicted in Tirana. Yet the problem has not been just the flow of mujahedin into the Balkans; Albanians from Macedonia had also been trained in foreign camps. Indeed, many were veterans of other Islamic crusades. According to war reporter Scott Taylor,
"Albanian guerrillas eagerly admitted they had gained combat experience in previous conflicts. Twenty-three-year old Commander 'Jimmy' claimed he was a veteran of Chechnya and Kosovo, while 'Snake' Arifaq bragged of service in Bosnia and displayed a scar he received during the fighting in Croatia. Both of these Albanians acknowledged the involvement of Arab/Afghan 'volunteers' in training members of the UCK."
This does not speak well for the Albanians. Yet how could admitting a mujahedin presence actually work out to their benefit?
Consider the reports that atrocities last summer were carried out by foreign fighters. Take the particularly horrible Vejce massacre,
He may be right, if we take into account Georgian accounts of Chechen atrocities: these mujahedin were known for cutting off the ears of Georgians, and wearing them as necklaces. When it comes to creative murder, the Albanians are thankfully less experienced.
A TARNISHED LEGACY
In the end, this might be the only solution the West can stomach. Faced with choosing between their Albanian allies, and the less cooperative mujahedin, the West will go with the former every time. In its heart of hearts, the West knows that the NLA uprising was never really about righting the wrongs of oppression, nor about gaining "human rights." Regardless, this pretty illusion can be fostered easily enough, so long as the West can portray itself as mediating a Macedonian-Albanian spat. However, when we throw into the mix a dangerous and uncontrollable influence (that is, the imported mujahedin), it becomes clear that the Albanians made a serious error of judgement. In recruiting religious zealots for their ethno-mafiocratic cause, they have unwittingly rolled out the red carpet – er, the green carpet – for the expansion of Islamic terrorism in Europe. If the most recent incident in Macedonia is anything to go by, the NLA's "guests" have grown bored with their simpleminded, nationalistic hosts. Go all the way, they argue – go for the jihad. In the end, the mujahedin presence in Macedonia will come at the peril not only of the Macedonians, not only the Westerners – but even of the Albanians.
One hopes this gloomy prediction will not come true. If the West decides to take notice – for once – of what has been going on under its very nose in Macedonia, there may be a solution yet. Most likely, however, they won't. Pride is precipitating a pretty big fall. As it stands now, feelings of vindication are of little solace to the Macedonians: they would appreciate some results.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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