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Malaysian, EU-Rejected Islamists Penetrate Macedonia

September 28, 2005

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- According to Macedonian security sources surveyed recently by Balkanalysis.com, Malaysian nationals in groups of 10-20 at a time have been periodically stopping over in the country for the past 2 years. They, along with other ‘traveling salesmen’ from the international Islamic community, are seeking to radicalize select Muslim-populated areas, offering influence, directions and cash to villagers in some of Macedonia’s most isolated areas, as well as in Skopje and Tetovo.

“At first, it seems puzzling- we wouldn’t expect many tourists from Malaysia,” said one official. “But that’s exactly what they say they are when arriving at Petrovec [Skopje International Airport]. What can we do? We let them to come as tourists, and then they leave again after one or two weeks.”According to the Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs visa regime page, Malaysian passport holders don’t need visas to enter the country, and can stay for up to 1 month.

The expert testimony suggests that the Malaysians tend to come to Macedonia as a stop-over before heading to points further west in Europe. “But when they stop here, they bring money and instructions,” said the official, stopping short of saying who exactly these ‘instructions’ come from.

However, as for the money, the use is more obvious: drawing adherents. In one regard the official’s comments echoed those made in Kosovo as well as Macedonia: “they are offering payment to those villagers who grow their beards long, who completely veil the women, etc. So it seems the people supporting this are associated with these radical Wahhabi and Salafi sects.”

The numbers of such foreign and foreign-influenced Muslims has jumped precipitously in Macedonia over the past 5 years. It culminated this summer in a pitched battle for control of the country’s Islamic community. According to Skopje daily Vreme, “…the young muftis from Skopje are trying to preserve the Islamic Community’s autonomy and the foundations of the so-called secular or traditional Islam. An the other end is a faction represented by Skopje Mufti Zenun Berisha, whose goal is allegedly to strengthen the position of radical Islam — fostered by a movement known as Wahabbism — in the Islamic Community.”

Should Wahhabism win out, says Vreme, “…in addition to being asked to follow conservative norms and customs, believers… [would also be] asked to boycott US and west European brands and promote products coming from the Arab world, primarily from Saudi Arabia, experts have said.”

A second group of Islamists making frequent trips to Macedonia, according to security sources, are made up of Europe’s expelled jihadis- rabble-rousing Muslims kicked out of EU countries but “who still travel on EU passports- we get, for example, Arabs from France, Pakistanis from England, all traveling on EU passports. So there is no visa required for them, obviously.”

Further, these sources provided independent verification to previous allegations received regarding certain target areas, the Struga-region villages of Oktisi and Labunista, primarily inhabited by Macedonian Muslims. “No question, they are there and are trying to influence the people to turn more conservative… and it’s also a perfect area, quiet and out of the way, to plan their activities without anyone watching them.”

Indeed, these villages are built on the bottom of Mt. Jablanica, which forms an easily-penetrated border with Albania. Macedonian border police operate in the area and even pass through these villages, but it is clear that foreign Islamists generally have a free run of the place. Yet while these villages are isolated, they also have strong connections with the outside world: for example, Macedonians frequently remark that “half of Labunista is in Italy,” a traditional destination for migrant workers from the area.

Since various connections between the Balkans and the Madrid and London bombings have been established, it might come as no surprise that EU-resident extremists would pass through Macedonia. But Malaysia?

At least in one high profile case, this Southeast Asian country has hosted planning for major attacks: that is, the al Qaeda meeting in January 2000 in Kuala Lampur, which included two of the eventual 9/11 hijackers, the Saudis Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. The CIA tracked the meeting, at which the planning for the Oct. 12 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen is believed to have taken place. Known as the “Al Qaeda Summit,” the meeting

“…was held in the hotel room of Yazid Sufaat, a former army captain and businessman, in Kuala Lumpur Hotel. The meeting lasted from January 5 to January 8, 2000. The summit’s purpose was allegedly to plan future terrorist attacks, which apparently included the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the 9/11 plot. The attendance consisted of Arab veterans of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, including Hambali, Ramzi Binalshibh, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Tawfiq bin Attash.”

In July 2003, at the third public hearing of the 9/11 Commission, a general theme was raised:

“…the degree of tolerance of the jihad also affects its rate of growth. In a ‘tolerant’ country, where people can publicly advertise their connection to the jihad, potential members can ask them to serve as their link to arrangements for training and recruitment. This was the case in Western Europe, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and Salafi mosques prior to 9/11/01, when people who had undergone training in Afghanistan could openly boast about their exploits to strangers.”

And, according to a February 2002 Newsweek allegation that was harshly criticized by the Malaysian government and denied by the FBI, the country had served as a “launchpad” for the 9/11 attacks:

“‘…Kuala Lumpur is the perfect place for Arabs to lie low,’ says an intelligence source in the region. The city attracts many Arab tourists, and Malaysian law allows Muslims to enter and exit the country without visas. And unlike Somalia, Afghanistan and other backwaters, Malaysia is a modern country, with working phones and Internet access, a stable banking system¬óand world-class shopping.”

But some have seen heavy-handed cultural, and even governmental, interference at work too. And, as the New Straits Times reported in January 2002,

“…while the country is regarded by many outsiders as a model of a modern and moderate Muslim nation -where women, for example, can work, travel alone and wear what they want – the truth is the undertow of conservatism has grown over the years.   This, some say, was introduced by former political leaders who brought in Arab culture disguised as Islamic values.”

The age of globalization is a marvelous thing. It now seems that even a handful of Malaysians radicalized by jihad in Afghanistan and educated by Arab Salafis can pose a threat to the traditional Ottoman character of Islamic society in Macedonia- while putting the beleaguered little country into the global network of countries that are ‘tolerant,’ to borrow the definition of the 9/11 Commission.

 

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