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Hidden agenda behind the CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop's visit to Sarajevo

Osman Mehmedagić and Vaughn Bishop (photo: OSA-OBA BiH)

In the early morning of 25 April, the delegation of US intelligence officials arrived in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, on a two-day visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The high-level delegation was led by Vaughn Frederick Bishop, the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as confirmed by the BiH Ministry of Security. Initially, the US Embassy in Sarajevo had no comment for the media and refused to answer journalists' questions about the composition of the delegation, apparently due to security reasons. On the first day of the visit, the traffic in Sarajevo was temporarily suspended, while the number of police officers in the streets increased. The only information the local media received was that Bishop would meet with the heads of police agencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as with the heads of other state institutions.

The delegation's official host was the Intelligence-Security Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, commonly known by its acronym OSA-OBA BiH, whose director Osman Mehmedagić included the heads of other police and judicial institutions in the protocol, all with the aim of improving future cooperation in countering security threats. On 26 April, Bishop, Mehmedagić and his closest officers held a brief meeting at the headquarters of OSA-OBA, expressing mutual satisfaction with the strong partnership of the two agencies and agreeing more intensive cooperation on all issues of mutual interest.

After the meeting at their headquarters, the OSA-OBA organized the working lunch, attended by Eric George Nelson, the US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dragan Mektić, the Minister of Security of BiH, Perica Stanić, the Director of State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), Fahrudin Halač, the Deputy Director of Border Police, Mirsad Vilić, the Director of Directorate for BIH Police Bodies Coordination, Slobodan Ujić, the Director of Service for Foreigners Affairs, Dragan Lukač, the Interior Minister of Bosnia's Serb-dominated region Republika Srpska, Aljoša Čampara, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Federation of BiH, Darko Ćulum, the Director of Police of Republika Srpska, and Ensad Korman, the Deputy Director of Federal Police Administration.

At the working lunch, attendees discussed the current security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the performance of activities undertaken in the fight against terrorism, the cooperation of all security agencies and bodies in BiH, as well as the fight against organized crime and corruption. CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop expressed his support to Bosnia and Herzegovina in countering all the security challenges and threats, and emphasized that the CIA will continue to support the work of Bosnian agencies through the data exchange with the OSA-OBA. In the end, he rated the visit as extremely successful and productive.

Bosnian Serb Interior Minister Dragan Lukač confirmed to the media that attendees discussed about cooperation and the fight against terrorism and organized crime, but he denied speculation that the establishment of RS reserve police was among the topics they addressed. Commenting on this controversial issue, recently widely criticized by the Sarajevo's central government, Lukač said: "All police agencies in BiH need to have more officers and I welcome every new policeman on the Bosnian streets, I believe it can serve the purpose of protecting our citizens and their properties, irrespective of whether they are active or reserve units."

Lukač further described the meeting as "a short, but very constructive and good," adding that priority issues were the migration crisis and the fight against terrorism. "There's a problem with illegal migration that will probably continue to exist in the coming years, we spoke about returnees from foreign battlefields (i.e. Syria and Iraq) and agreed that special attention should be paid to prevention of possible terrorist attacks by those people," Lukač said. "Such individuals must be under the absolute control of all security services in BiH," he added.

Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektić told reporters that the United States expressed special interest in the Western Balkans. "We are told that we will have the full support of US partner agencies," Mektić added. The Embassy of the United States in Sarajevo also commented the security meetings: "We welcomed the visit of CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop who focused on a strong partnership between the US and BiH on issues of combating terrorism, crime and corruption, and our continued support for sovereignty and territorial integrity of BiH," the embassy's Twitter account noted.

Besides the typical dull statements about intensifying cooperation, no further details were given, which is understandable considering the character of security agencies. Even such superficial statements can not be taken as accurate because they imply that cooperation between the two countries is weak or almost nonexistent, but that is far from the facts. In reality, Bosnia and Herzegovina is more like an American protectorate than an independent country, and the United States has long been in control of its intelligence institutions. Moreover, over the last few years we have witnessed similar CIA officials' visits to Sarajevo (i.e. John Brennan in April 2016 and Nathan Sales in October 2018), always accompanied by the same statements on strengthening cooperation.

Some Bosnian analysts, such as Jasmin Ahić, a professor at the Faculty of Criminology and Security Studies in Sarajevo, have tried to interpret the US visit as a message to Russia and the Serbian entity's government to suppress separatist outbursts. Yet such interpretation is very narrow, taking into account that separatist remarks must be seen as mere daily political demagogy because there are no practical conditions for secession.

When it comes to terrorism, there's no doubt that a relatively large number of Bosnians were fighting in foreign wars. Officials estimate roughly 120 Bosnians have fought in Syria and Iraq for ISIL, a total of 51 have died on foreign battlefields and 49 have returned to BiH, and half of those have already been processed by courts. The 2014 Bosnian law foresees jail terms of up to 10 years for those who recruit, finance or personally participate in foreign wars.

Regardless of all fear, no terrorist attack or incident has been recorded in the country over the past seven years. Since the outbreak of Syrian civil war, Bosnia and Herzegovina in many ways served as the US proxy tool for transporting extremists and weapons into Syria and Iraq, thus only fear of US officials does not lie in a potential terrorist attack, but rather in the possibility that some revengeful returnee can contact the media and reveal details of the American criminal network.

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.