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Skopje Investigators Wary of Salafi Influence

July 5, 2004

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Counter-terrorism officials in the Balkans have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of Salafi Islam- the austere school of Islam that preaches a return to the “pure” teachings laid down by Muhammad, before they were allegedly corrupted by innovations and wayward religious thought. Salafi revivalists have shown interest in the Balkans for years, and though not great in number, some are conspicuous for their long beards and white robes. Yet is the definition itself perhaps too vague to be very useful for the authorities?

Although the word Salafi has always had meaning within traditional Islamic scholarship, it has only been since approximately 100 years ago that the concept took on its modern, revivalist significance, in the movement led by one Muhammad Abduh. “…Its basic claim was that the religion had not been properly understood by anyone since the prophet Mohammed and the early Muslims–and themselves.”

In a recent report from Iraq, Time Magazine contended that the Salafi movement based there is dedicating itself to global jihad, and leaning towards Taliban-style austerity.

Now, information has come to us that foreign-based Salafi organizations in the Skopje area are paying young Albanians and other aspiring Muslims “salaries” of 150 euros per month for them to come to prayers in mosques, distribute promotional literature and videotapes, etc. According to one local observer, “this is creating tensions between the traditional, non-fundamentalist imams and the more aggressive Salafi ones trying to take over.” These activities have been going on for the past year in Skopje’s neighborhood of Gazi Baba and the nearby villages of Kondovo and Saraj.

Similar reports of these activities taking place on a wider scale in Kosovo have been trickling in over the past nine months, as well. One Pristina witness spoke of a tight-knit Saudi Salafi group whose leaders “did not want to talk to anyone, even they were cautious of other Muslims they did not know”- and at the same time mentions having seen 3 of these leaders with a small group of Albanian students who were to be educated abroad. And UN sources have also mentioned certain charities in the Prizren and Djakovica area who have offered cash and tangible prizes as rewards for anyone coming to their mosques and/or meetings.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the US has taken a greater interest in the phenomenon. A Macedonian intelligence official who has worked closely with the respective American agencies on these issues stresses the Americans’ professionalism and gradually increasing level of involvement. “During the war [of 2001] and before, we had very little contact… but since then we are doing more. They are well-trained, but still the Americans have a lot to learn about the behavior of the people here, and their culture and history. These things affect the way they think and act, after all.”

There have been woeful precedents, such as when Bosnian Serb authorities would give American agents the names of suspected terrorists- only to have those self-same agents literally walk up to the suspects and say, “hey, I heard you’re a terrorist- that right?”

And while American agents are now being commended for their professionalism, as we have seen from the testimony of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, the field agents can be great but if the folks in the office don’t do their job, nothing will come of it.

However, in this case the Macedonian authorities themselves may be the victims of vagueness, failing to distinguish sufficiently between very general identifying terms and to what they may pertain.

According to the Macedonians, the bulk of the Salafi proselytizers’ promotional materials come from organizations in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Interested students are sent off to study fundamentalist Islam there and return to preach or, some fear, participate in armed jihad elsewhere.

That said, the Americans will no doubt be interested to learn that a promotional video airing in Skopje’s heavily Albanian area of Gazi Buba last week starts off with bloody footage from the mujahedin guerrilla war against the Soviets. Picturing the distinctively-dressed Salafi fighters in action, the video mentions the virtues of martyrdom, showing a slain holy warrior with a smile on his face- apparently, according to the tape, a distinctly advantageous final resting pose for receiving Allah’s favor in the afterlife.

The second part of the video reportedly shows examples of Salafi preaching- though the fact that the video is in Arabic must cut down on its usefulness among the locals.

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