Balkanalysis on Twitter

Wahhabis in Labunista Antagonize Locals, as New Details Emerge about Italian Arrests

January 5, 2007

( Research Service)- Local sources in the Macedonian Muslim stronghold of Labunista have disclosed today for details of a new altercation instigated by foreign-directed fundamentalists- as well as previously unknown exclusive information regarding a series of arrests made earlier this winter by Italy’s anti-terrorist police in the northern cities of Trieste and Treviso, directly involving Macedonian Muslims from Labunista.

This sleepy village in the south-western corner of Macedonia, which has already been identified as home to a small group of radical Muslims of the Saudi Wahhabi persuasion, witnessed unrest today as fundamentalists upbraided non-Wahhabi locals outside the village’s newer, Saudi-style mosque for not following the ways of the “true believers.’

Such antagonism is the preliminary step in a pattern now common throughout the Balkans, where fundamentalists have sought to impose their ways violently on the traditional, Ottoman-style Islamic community. Typically, the attacks start with verbal criticism but become more violent as the fundamentalist numbers increase.

Provocations Increase, but Most Disapprove

However, in Labunista, according to a local Muslim who works as a migrant labourer in Trieste, Italy the Wahhabis are still largely disliked and ostracized by the majority of Muslims. Another local, a businessman, adds that “the real extremists are only 15-20 in number, and no one can stop them from praying in the mosque, because we are not violent people.”

In Labunista, the leaders of organized religion have sought to keep the faithful from straying down the Saudi path. In response to the supporters of more creative toothpick construction, “the imam said that “maybe it was like that in Mohammed’s time, but now we have other methods,'” said the labourer, currently on holiday vacation from his job in Italy.

“He also tells us that science goes forward, Allah gave us a brain to use and we should go forward too. And, he says, “what’s wrong about it if you don’t have a beard?'” The Wahhabis, everywhere from Bosnia to Bulgaria, have made wearing a long and well-sculpted beard a point of pride. At the same time, while many people have beards, most of them are not extremists.”

Still, while fundamentalists are few in the villages of Labunista, Podgorci, Oktisi and so on, they obviously enjoy support from powerful outside funders. Even though most are unemployed, they survive, and can sustain their families while spending months at a time in Pakistan or Afghanistan, locals say.

Youth groups, also directed from outside, are trying to fill the opportunity gap for young people, chiefly through education, recreation and sport opportunities, which ultimately include heavy doses of Islamic teaching.

A Singular Village

So far, they have met with limited success. The Labunista businessman adds that “one or two years ago, [the Wahhabis] brought one Bosnian imam to the village to give a speech- but the villagers would not even let him into the mosque.”

An ethnically mixed village of 10,000 people, Labunista is populated by Macedonian Muslims, the Torbeshi, as well as by Muslim Albanians and a small number of mostly elderly Macedonian Orthodox Christians. Traditionally ignored and alienated from the latter groups due to their strange identity combination (Macedonian ethnicity, Muslim religion), the Torbeshi, who converted to Islam during Ottoman times, have historically been both more dependent on outside sponsors and insular, choosing to stick together as a community.


Labunista's old mosque, off the square, is smaller than the new one.

The Macedonian Muslims have cannily chosen to put their votes for whatever political party seems to serve their interest, going from Macedonian to Albanian parties from one election to the next.

Ali Ahmeti’s DUI managed to extract the support of the village during the March 2005 local elections, helping the new super-sized Struga municipality, incorporating the Labunista area villages and Velesta, long associated with prostitution, to fall under DUI control. Some of the urban renewal projects that have gone on since then include a large, Saudi-style mosque directly opposite from a hotel and Struga’s main tourist beach on Lake Ohrid.

Nevertheless, the Macedonian Muslims felt manipulated too by the DUI, and before parliamentary elections of July 2006 a new party was formed by Oktisi-born businessman Fiat Canovski, directed towards the disgruntled populace. While Canovski, owner of a private college, could hardly be considered a radical Muslim, his party reportedly handed out Korans to the people at pre-election rallies.

The Torbeshi have long felt misunderstood and underappreciated, relying on their religious rather than ethnic identity and fostering a sort of siege mentality. Indeed, a message written on a wall in the village square by the village’s last mayor, when it was losing its municipal status due to the 2004 municipal redistricting, the outgoing mayor implored the younger people to study, and the elders to “stay together; drink from one well. They don’t like you, they never liked you and they never will.”

This dynamic has resulted in many Macedonian Muslims from Labunista and similar western Macedonian villages going abroad for work- typically, to Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Although this keeps them for a large part of the year away from their families, it also means that there are not a few Mercedes in the village’s dusty streets during winter and summer holidays.

The Italians Crack Down

Now, can disclose new and exclusive details about arrests made in Italy in late November 2006- some of which targeted natives of Labunista and other villages in the area, as well as Bosnian Muslim migrant workers and mosque employees.


The intelligence services of various Western European countries had been investigating some of these men and their local leaders for several years, in light of the contacts some have maintained with Bosnian Islamists connected with anti-Western groups like Active Islamic Youth. A Labunista-born Muslim cleric states that “we [Macedonian Muslims] would rather go to Sarajevo for studies instead of Kondovo [madrassah, near Skopje] because we don’t want speak Albanian.”

The village’s new, Saudi-style mosque was built 10 years ago

Even more a concern for police, however, has been the believed interaction between Balkan (and other) Muslim ˆšÃ‰Â¬Â©migrˆšÃ‰Â¬Â© workers with radical imams of Arab background in mosques in cities like Linz, Graz, Vienna, Trieste, Treviso and Milan. Italy is considered by terrorism experts to be high on the list of targets for decentralized, al-Qaeda spin-off groups. In late November 2006, these demonstrable connections between Bosnian and Macedonian Muslims and members of Iraq and Afghan-based terrorist groups spurred the Italian police to undertake an unprecedented counter-terrorism operation.

In it, some 150 agents from the Trieste branch of DIGOS, Italy’s political crime unit, took part in coordinated raids on 38 different locations in northern Italy. They resulted in the detainment of dozens of Macedonian and Bosnian Muslims, according to a December 1, 2006 report from the Italian news agency, ANSA. Along with Treviso, a small city near Venice and Trieste, on the border with Slovenia, suspected radicals were also detained in Bergamo, Gorizia, Pordenone, Siena, Udine and Vicenza.


“They don’t like you, they never liked you and they never will”: holiday greetings from the “first and last mayor of Labunista”

According to ANSA, the police operation came after long surveillance of radical mosques, internet chat groups and web sites. Foreign supporters of bin Laden and al-Zarqawi were rounded up, apparently along with suspects in the Marca Trevigiana (Treviso area) “being by nationality Macedonian,” including an imam in Susegana, a small town of 10,000 located 37 kilometers from Treviso.

However, at least some of these Muslim economic migrants from Macedonia were released. The fact that the Italian authorities have not elaborated further on the results of the raids perhaps means that they were not entirely successful.

Presenting the first hard data to be published regarding the DIGOS action, can now reveal that in all some 29 Labunista-area locals working in the Marca Trevigiana were taken in for questioning. However, according to the Labunista labourer in Italy, “they were all released because [the police] found that they were not bad. The police apologized and told them that if they want to find answers to who are the terrorists they have to check many people, and to search from the roots.” One of the Macedonian Muslims even discovered, though it was not made clear when, that the Italian police “had planted a listening device in his car and he had been driving around for two years with it there without knowing about it.”

According to a Croatian newspaper report published at the same time as the ANSA article, DIGOS seized “more than 1,800 guns smuggled in from the Turkish city of Istanbul” on November 29, 2006. The report also pointed to a failed 1995 plot to poison Italy’s water supply, speculating that the Italian police action was motivated by fears of a similar large-scale threat.

There is no question that since the Iraq war, which Italy supported heavily, terrorism has become a major concern for Rome. Ironically, however, if Italian state security is perceived as operating in a heavy-handed fashion, with blanket arrests of foreigners, it might only increase the mistrust of the Balkan migrants- and push some of them towards those very radical activities that are being combated.


The backlash of the West’s war on terror is being felt, even in dusty Balkan backwaters such as Labunista

2004-2009 Back Archives