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The Croat-Bosniak spy scandal: Hybrid war or justified counter-terrorism mission?

The Bijača border crossing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia (photo: Bljesak)

Over the past several days, the bilateral relations between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina deteriorated dramatically because the two countries are involved in a spy scandal. According to reliable information available, the Croatian Security and Intelligence Agency (SOA) tried to recruit Bosnian expatriates to work as spies and provide information on Muslim groups in Bosnia, specifically members of the Wahhabi movement. The agency had reportedly ordered them to create fake Facebook profiles praising the Daesh (ISIL), infiltrate into radical groups and collect information.

Several Bosnians told the local media 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, Slovenia and other EU members at the time, since those countries provide better job opportunities than in Bosnia. Taking into account that all roadways to the EU lead through Croatia, poor and helpless Bosnian workers were easy prey for Croatian agents at border crossings. When they tried to cross the Croatian territory, their authorities stopped them and said they wouldn't be able to cross it unless they cooperate with them.

After the Bosnia's Intelligence and Security Agency (OSA) had intercepted cases of Croatia's intelligence incursions and everything has became public, 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. Their testimonies of blackmail and recruitment were published this month in Žurnal, an independent Bosnian news website.

Nermin Spahić, a 47-year-old carpenter who worked in Croatia for 17 years, was banned from entering Croatia for 10 years. His troubles began when he received an official work permit, he was called in for interrogation six or seven times in 2018, with each session lasting around two hours. A Croatian officer asked whether he attends a mosque, where he was at certain times during the war, such as in June 1993, whether he knew any Wahhabi in his hometown, and demanded to know his opinion on Daesh. Spahić answered that he don't even know where he was last year in June, let alone in 1993, that he goes to the mosque five times a day, and that he thinks Daesh is s***. An officer said he was failing to cooperate and in late 2018 he received a deportation order saying that he presents a national security threat.

Semir Aganović, a 50-year-old carpenter from the Bosnian city of Travnik, was also labelled a threat to national security and banned from Croatia for three years. Croatia had issued him a working permit valid for a year in last October, but in November agents called him in for an hour-long interrogation, asking him the same set of questions: does he go to the mosque, are there bearded men where he lives, whether he knew certain individuals, and if he had seen certain Arabs during the war in Bosnia. Aganović answered that there are bearded men in his hometown, but in Croatia as well, and that he did not know the individuals named. Following the interrogation, he received a deportation notice.

Another story comes from the unnamed father of two, who had been working as a welder in Croatia for 14 years. In 2014 he received permanent residency and a working contract, but 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, and because he had served in the Bosnian army during the war, they asked whether he knew of certain generals. He responded negatively. A month later, he says they called him in again and the same scenario played out. Finally, in June last year, he received a deportation order and was issued a ban from the EU for five years, having been labelled a threat to national security.

The biggest controversy lies in the case of a Wahhabi from Zenica, known under the initials H.Č., who worked in Slovenia as a welder. He had also been intercepted by Croatian agents at the border crossing and offered to cooperate or go to jail. He chose the first option and for several months he provided them with information about the Wahhabi movement on social networks. H.Č. claims that in April 2018 agents asked him to transport a bag full of weapons from Doboj to the mosque in Stranjani near Zenica, allegedly for the purpose of demonizing the local Wahhabis and Bosnia in general. He further claims that the Croatian agency offered him money, protection against criminal prosecution, and permanent family transfer to Croatia. Still, he refused.

Bosnia's security minister Dragan Mektić told local media that the false flag operation was intended to prove allegations made by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović 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 Wahhabis to transport arms to mosques in Bosnia, where they would later be "discovered." In 2017, Grabar-Kitarović claimed that there are "currently 5,000 Salafists/Wahhabis in Bosnia, who along with their supporters make up 10,000 people with very radical rhetoric and intentions." Bosnian officials, including Mektić, denied the charges at the time, saying they were politically motivated. Some other Bosnians, like professor of international relations Emir Suljagić, have gone even further and have said that Croatia leads a hybrid war and has intention to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order to eventually create a third (Croat) entity in the country.

On the other hand, Croatian President Grabar-Kitarović said there were contacts with some people in order to protect Croatia's state interests, and the SOA director publicly said they contacted H.Č., however, all Croatian officials denied the story of a bag full of weapons as ridiculous. As there's the possibility that Croatia tried to vilify Bosnia, there is also the reverse possibility. The Bosnian media tended to speak of the SOA's recruitment as anti-Muslim harassment, but in fact all involved Bosnians belong to the Wahhabi group. Given that their radicals in the Balkans already carried out terrorist attacks on embassies, provided the Daesh with several hundreds of fighters, and openly use Takfiri rhetoric on social networks, the threat is not imaginary.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.