Bosnians deported from Croatia for ‘refusing to spy on Muslims’
Citizens and politicians say Croatian intelligence label Bosnians who do not collaborate as national security threats.
Dozens of Bosnian citizens have claimed that Croatia has revoked their working permits, deported them and labelled them as national security threats after they refused to work as spies and provide information on Muslims in Bosnia.
Their testimonies were published this month in Zurnal, an independent Bosnian news website.
Zurnal claimed that Croatian intelligence officials have been trying to recruit Bosnian collaborators, specifically members of the Muslim Salafi group, to plant weapons and explosives in mosques, according to documents provided by Bosnia’s security agency.
In one case, it is claimed that Croatian intelligence requested a Bosnian Salafi known as HC to transfer a bag full of weapons to a mosque in central Bosnia in April 2018.
Prior to that, a Croatian official had reportedly ordered him to create a fake Facebook profile praising the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), and use it to spy on Muslims in Bosnia.
Because he worked in Slovenia, he often travelled through Croatia, making him a target for blackmail and recruitment, HC told Zurnal.
Dragan Mektic, Bosnia’s security minister, told local media following the news that the “false flag” operation was intended to prove allegations made by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a “terrorism haven”.
He said that for the past two years, Croatian agencies have tried to exhort Bosnian citizens connected with Salafis to transport weapons to mosques in Bosnia, where they would later be “discovered”.
As reported by Croatian media, Grabar-Kitarovic said in 2017 that in Bosnia, there are “currently 5,000 Salafists, who along with their supporters make up 10,000 people with very radical rhetoric and intentions”.
Bosnian officials, including Mektic, denied the charges at the time, saying they were “politically motivated”.
‘A special type of warfare against Bosnia’
The director of Croatia’s security and intelligence agency has admitted that they have had “conversations” with Salafis from Bosnia, but that they did not request to smuggle weapons.
Goran Kovacevic, professor at the University of Sarajevo’s criminology and security studies faculty, said Croatia is “certainly leading a special type of warfare against Bosnia”.
“We’ve seen this with their propaganda directed against Bosnia by way of Croatian politicians, other officials and media,” Kovacevic told Al Jazeera.
Damir Becirevic, a former member of the monitoring committee for Bosnia’s security agency, told Al Jazeera that the case exemplifies Croatia’s years-long attempt to discredit Bosnia.
“Outside [the region], Croatia pretends to be a friend to [Bosnia],” he said. “But with concrete moves, it attempts to do everything it can to bring about Bosnia’s destabilisation.”
Three Bosnians told Al Jazeera that Croatian intelligence had summoned them for several interrogations over the past two years in an attempt to recruit them as collaborators.
The individuals were working in Croatia at the time, since the EU-member country often provides better job opportunities than in Bosnia.
While the exact number of Bosnians working in Croatia is not known, 6,733 people were registered in Croatia as having only Bosnian citizenship, according to Croatia’s 2011 census.
Croatia’s security and intelligence agency did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
A ‘threat to national security’
Semir Aganovic, a 50-year-old carpenter from Travnik, Bosnia was banned from Croatia for three years, after he received a deportation notice on November 16 and was labelled a “threat to national security”.
He told Al Jazeera that Croatia had issued him a working permit valid for a year on October 22. But two weeks later, Croatian intelligence called him in for an hour-long interrogation.
“[They asked me]: ‘Do you go to the mosque? Are there bearded men [where you live]?'”
He responded: “Yes there are, and I can see that there are men with beards here [in Croatia] as well.”
The officer asked whether he knew certain individuals and if he had seen certain Arabs during the war in Bosnia.
Approximately 2,000 Arabs joined Bosnian government forces in defence of the country during the three-year conflict, which ended in 1995.
While Aganovic had served in the Bosnian army, he did not know the individuals named by the Croatian officials, and told them as much.
Following the interrogation, he received a deportation notice, which was later published in Zurnal’s report.
“I didn’t violate any law … I know that I have never wronged anyone. If I was guilty of anything, I wouldn’t go [to Croatia],” Aganovic said.
Banned from Croatia for 10 years
Nermin Spahic, 47, worked as a carpenter in Croatia for 17 years, but his troubles began when he received an official work permit.
He says he was called in for interrogation six or seven times in 2018, with each session lasting around two hours.
One officer asked whether he attends a mosque, where he was at certain times during the war – such as in June 1993, whether he knew of any Wahhabis in his hometown and demanded to know his opinion on ISIL.
“I don’t even know where I was last year in June, let alone in 1993,” Spahic told Al Jazeera.
“I’m not someone who goes to the mosque but when he began with this sort of talk, I told him I go to the mosque five times a day [on purpose].
“I told him what I think about ISIL – that they’re s***,” Spahic said.
An officer said he was failing to cooperate.
In late 2018, he received a deportation order saying that as a national security threat, he was banned from entering Croatia for 10 years.
Banned from the EU for five years
Alen* (name changed to protect identity), a father of two, is still trying to find work in Bosnia after being deported from Croatia in June last year – having lived there for 14 years.
In 2014, he received permanent residency and a working contract. He had been working as a welder.
In January 2018, Croatian authorities summoned him for his first two-hour interrogation.
He claimed he was asked about individuals with Muslim names, who he did not know.
Because he had served in the Bosnian army during the war, they asked whether he knew of certain generals.
“They’re simply forcing you [to talk about] something that you have no clue about,” Alen told Al Jazeera.
“They asked me to start talking [and said] ‘If you want to stay here and to continue working, you have to start collaborating with us.’
“I told them, ‘I’m not involved in this. I have no clue [about the names you’ve mentioned]. I don’t follow these people. I am only here to work like before.”
A month later, Alen says they called him in again and the same scenario played out.
He received a deportation order in June, and was issued a ban from the EU for five years having been labelled a “threat to national security”.
“They are presenting us [to the EU] as if we’re ISIL members, as if we’re terrorists,” Alen said.
Analysts told Al Jazeera that Croatia’s intention is to destabilise Bosnia, in order to eventually create a third, Croat entity in the country.
“Why does the state president [Grabar-Kitarovic] talk about a third entity in Bosnia? Why did she come out with false information that there are 10,000 terrorists in Bosnia, when the director of Croatia’s security and intelligence agency confirmed at a meeting in Sarajevo that it’s incorrect?” said journalist Avdo Avdic, who broke the news of the affair.
“This is their motive: political destabilisation of Bosnia and it is happening continually.”
According to Emir Suljagic, professor of international relations at the International University of Sarajevo and former deputy minister of defence, Croatia’s goals haven’t changed since the war – either formally divide Bosnia or create a proxy entity which would allow it a stake in running the country.
“[Croatia’s] policies have roots in the ideology of [first Croatian President] Franjo Tudjman, himself found to be the leading member of a joint criminal enterprise [during the war in Bosnia] aimed at destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina [as ruled] by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY),” Suljagic said.
“Equally important is the deep-seated belief in both political and Church corners that Bosniak-Muslims represent the Asian ‘Other’ – that they are successors of the Ottoman invader and as such barbaric and in need of ’emancipation’.
“It is high time NATO and the EU paid attention to the hybrid war one of their member-states is conducting in Bosnia.”