Saturday, October 30, 2010

New York Court Rejects Awal Bank Petition for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

A New York bankruptcy court has rejected a petition for limited Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by Bahrain-based Awal Bank, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s embattled Saad Group owned by Saudi billionaire Maan al-Sanea. The court’s decision offers temporary relief to creditors who stood to be left high and dry if the court had ruled in favor of Awal’s request, which would have allowed the troubled bank to keep information confidential and would have exempted it from creating a U.S. creditors committee

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper however kept the door open for Awal to repetition the court provided it the bank agreed to establish such a committee. Groper told David Molton of Brown Rudnick LLP, the lawyers for Awal’s Bahrain Central Bank appointed administrator, Charles Russel LLP, that the committee was needed as a watchdog because US courts do not appoint administrators.

Groper suggested the request be resubmitted by Nov. 1, the deadline for the U.S. Trustee, which oversees U.S. bankruptcies, to seek candidates for a creditors committee. Alisdair Haythornthwaite of Bell Pottinger Middle East (UAE), speaking on behalf of Charles Russel said the administrator intended to follow the judge’s advice and reapply for Chapter 11 protection. Awal had argued that a U.S. creditors committee would duplicate proceedings in the Cayman Islands and the Middle East involving the bank’s largest creditors.

Awal Bank’s request for Chapter 11 came little more than a year after it had filed for Chapter 15 bankruptcy in the same court. Chapter 15 bankruptcy seeks to protect companies from U.S. litigation while they reorganize in a non-U.S. court. Molton told the court that Awal Bank needed Chapter 11 protection to help it recover what it called “avoidable” transfers out of the estate prior to bankruptcy.

Defaults on loans last year by Awal Bank as well as Saudi conglomerate, Ahmad Hamad Al-Gosaibi & Brothers Co. set off a bitter legal battle on three continents between the two groups that are related by al Sanea’s marriage to a daughter of the Ghosaibi family. Gosaibi has accused Al-Sanea in court filings on three continents of siphoning off $10 billion from his in-laws.

Awal’s Chapter 11 court filing suggested that it would it file a reorganization plan or opt for liquidation in Bahrain rather than the United States. Even though the court papers kept reorganization on the table, the Chapter 11 filing suggests that liquidation is the more likely option. According to its court filing, Awal has assets valued at most at $100 million and liabilities of more than $1 billion. Under Bahrain law, the administrator has until the summer of next year to decide whether to liquidate Awal or return it to its owners.

Assuming that the bankruptcy filing was made with the consent of the Bahrain Central Bank, the filing suggests that Bahrain has decided that Awal is beyond salvation and should be liquidated. In its filing, Awal asserts that after payment of the administrators and other immediate expenses, it will not be able to compensate its unsecured creditors, who number somewhere between 60 and 100 and include: Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, AlGosaibi Money Exchange, Bank of Montreal, Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank, Bayerische Landesbank, Boubyan Bank, Calyon Corporate and Investment Bank, Commercial Bank of Kuwait, Commercial Bank of Qatar, Commerzbank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Fortis Bank, Gulf International Bank, HSBC, HSH Nordbank AG, JP Morgan, Kuwait Finance House and The International Banking Corporation.

Al-Gosaibi is seeking to recover $9.2 billion in lawsuits in the Cayman Islands against al-Sanea and Awal subsidiaries. The lawsuits were stayed after al-Sanea challenged the Cayman court’s jurisdiction, and an appeal of that decision is set to be heard in November. In July, New York State Supreme Judge Hon. Richard B. Lowe dismissed a lawsuit Al-Gosaibi had filed against Awal and al- Sanea, on grounds of that court being an improper forum. Court proceedings involving Awal are also ongoing in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Britain.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy Boomerangs in Yemen, Somalia

By James M. Dorsey

World Politics Review

U.S. and European efforts to stabilize Yemen and Somalia are boomeranging. Rather than weakening militants in both countries, Western counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies are fueling radicalism and turning wide swathes of the population against the West.

With little real effort to economically and politically stabilize the two countries, U.S. military and security support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the embattled head of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, exacerbates local fault lines and strengthens deep-seated anti-Americanism.

The backfiring of Western policies is compounded by a one-size-fits-all approach and a failure to address local grievances. To be sure, the Saleh and Ahmed governments are as much a part of the problem as they are part of the solution. This, and differences between the goals of Western nations and those of their regional allies, complicates efforts to embed security and military policy within initiatives to improve the population's economic lot and enhance good governance. Nonetheless, the incentive to get the policy right is compelling: Together Yemen and Somalia control key oil-export routes through the Gulf of Aden; mounting instability in both countries threatens regional stability in the oil-rich gulf and surrounding resource-rich African nations.

Western policy assumes that ungoverned spaces fuel instability and provide oxygen to al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and to al-Shabab in Somalia, rather than viewing both countries as territories with alternative power structures that, if properly engaged, could potentially further Western interests and undermine support for the militants. A recent Chatham House report (.pdf) concludes that "no amount of international support can compensate for the TFG's lack of internal legitimacy," a shortcoming clearly illustrated by the desertion of TFG military recruits to al-Shabab. By contrast, the emergence of stable forms of local government in Somalia based on reconciliation among clans calls into question assumptions that a lack of central-government control in Yemen must necessarily result in tribal safe havens for AQAP.

Western policy assumptions also fail to adequately distinguish between AQAP's global ambitions, which were demonstrated by the failed Christmas 2009 bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner, with al-Shabab's continued focus on regional, rather than Western targets. For instance, al-Shabab's twin attacks in June on soccer fans in Kampala, which killed 74 people, were aimed to persuade Uganda to withdraw its troops from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. Western policymakers also see Somali refugees as potential jihadist recruits, ignoring the fact that most of those who have fled the country did so to escape the Islamists.

The Obama administration earlier this year took a step toward expanding its regional focus beyond piracy to address the emergence of lucrative networks engaged in human trafficking as well as the smuggling of arms, drugs and fuel. To move against these networks, which often operate with the connivance of government and security officials, the administration imposed sanctions on Yemeni and Somali arms merchants with close government ties, coupled with increased efforts to strengthen the coast-guard capabilities of Yemen and Somaliland, a self-declared republic in northwest Somalia. Yet, such actions are likely to have limited effect as long as they fail to similarly align the interests of the Yemeni navy, controlled by the Defense Ministry, and the coast guard, reporting to the interior minister. They must also guarantee that these forces are complemented by an effective customs service and ensure that Somaliland anti-piracy efforts move beyond targeting only those activities that threaten the interests of government ministers.

The threat posed by misguided Western policy extends beyond the borders of Yemen and Somalia into their extensive diaspora communities. Yemenis and Somalis increasingly see the U.S. and Europe as aggressors seeking to exclude domestic actors, rather than enhancing their ability to resolve local issues and build a system that provides greater accountability. The Somali community in the United States is proving to be a fertile al-Shabab recruiting ground, while Somali-Americans constitute the largest contingent of U.S. nationals suspected of joining al-Qaida affiliates. Britain's MI5 Director-General Jonathan Evans warned last year that terrorist plots hatched in Somalia and Yemen pose an increasing threat to U.K. security.

Increasingly, Yemen and Somalia demonstrate the need for finding and supporting creative measures that involve the private sector and civic groups in efforts to deradicalize individuals and groups. Such measures do exist. One campaign backed by FIFA, soccer's world body, and local Somali businessmen has shown success at luring child soldiers away from the jihadists with a program whose slogan is "Put down the gun, pick up the ball."

Another key to a successful policy is to align Western interests and those of regional allies. In Yemen, a division of labor between the U.S. and the U.K. has emerged, whereby Washington focuses on security and London on economic issues. However, Saudi Arabia, Yemen's single largest donor, has no clear Yemen policy and simply wants to keep the country afloat. In their new book, "Yemen On the Brink," the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Marina Ottaway and Christopher Boucek caution, "Without strong pressure to address the systemic challenges facing the country, it is extremely doubtful that the Yemeni government will make any serious efforts to curb corruption, improve governance or address political grievances, which are directed against the government itself. As long as donors remain divided, there can be no such pressure on the government of Yemen."

International donors have already begun to use badly needed foreign assistance as leverage to force the Yemeni government to address the issues fueling radicalism. At a meeting earlier this year, they demanded that Yemen clearly explain how aid will be managed before monies are transferred. But such aid must also be coherently designed and integrated if it is to provide a perspective of change to significant chunks of the population and, with it, an alternative to militant Islam.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oil Deposits Fuel Tension in Eastern Mediterranean

Oil and gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean are notching up tension in a region that already has its fair share of pernicious disputes. Rival communities on the divided island of Cyprus as well as Turkey and arch enemies Lebanon and Israel are racing to stake their claims in what is one of the world’s newest oil frontiers.

The deposits may be minor compared to those of the oil-majors in the Gulf, but for small nations in the eastern Mediterranean they promise to be substantial. Yet, rather than providing an opportunity to enhance stability through economic cooperation, the discoveries are raising the specter of renewed conflict as the parties strike deals to start exploration.

Complicating matters is the fact that the deposits are all in international waters, historically a reason to call in the gun boats in the absence of a production-sharing agreement. The potential threat is heightened by the fact that Israel and Lebanon are locked into a state of war while Turkey backs its Turkish Cypriot brethren in their communal dispute with the majority Greek islanders. While Israel and Lebanon have warned that their economic rights in the eastern Mediterranean could constitute a casus belli, Turkey and the two Cypriot communities have so far steered clear of military threats in their perennial disputes over oil and gas.

Tension is nonetheless mounting with last week’s Turkish announcement that it is about to start exploring for oil off the coast of northern Cyprus, the breakaway Turkish Cypriot states that hosts an estimated 40,000 Turkish troops. For its part, the internationally recognized government of Greek Cyprus is negotiating oil exploration deals with Lebanon.

For now, Israel may be the party laughing all the way to the bank. Lebanon has yet to achieve agreement with Cyprus and Syria on its economic boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Israel has completed preliminary exploration on the back of an agreement with Cyprus and is preparing to begin extracting black gold. Lebanon will no doubt assert that Israel is drilling in Lebanese territory, but will need years to prove its claim and given Israeli military superiority is unlikely to be able to do much about it.

Nonetheless, the race for resources will only complicate efforts to reduce tension in a region that already has sufficient flash points.

Dutch Jihadist Recants

A key figure in one of militant Islam’s European networks has joined the ranks of a small but important number of jihadists who have had a change of heart and are calling on their brethren to abandon violence.

Writing from the Vught maximum security prison in the Netherlands, Jason Walters, a leading member of the Hofstad Group that police say was responsible for the 2004 killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, declared that “the ideals that I once honored have been lost and I have come to realize that they are morally bankrupt.”

Walters’ letter, published in Trouw, a Dutch daily, offers a window into the mind of a man who had dedicated his life to propagating militant Islam through violence; it contributes to understanding why some adopt terrorism and what prompts them to reconsider.

The son of an African-American father and Dutch mother, Walters converted to Islam at age 16 and in 2003 made his way to Pakistan from where he returned to boast that he could "disassemble a Kalashnikov blindfolded and put it back together again." Accused of plotting to kill controversial Dutch parliamentarians Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsh Ali, Walters resisted arrest in 2004 in a 14-hour siege during which he threw a grenade at police.

Unlike the recantations of jihadist ideologues such as Sayyid Imam al-Sharif who employed Islamic theology to explain their change of heart, Walters who is serving a 15-year sentence, denounces a basic tenant of his former worldview that holds that in a world of believers and infidels, the infidels seek to destroy the believers. It is a view Walters now describes as “a childish and coarse simplification of reality” that ignores the complexity and many nuances of which reality is rich.”

Analysts say Walters’ letter, or review document as he describes it, is likely to spark debate in militant Islamist circles and serve as an important tool in efforts to counter jihadists in Europe.

A Rarely Told Story: Muslims Save Jews

A Jewish community synagogue in Missouri is focusing attention on a rarely told story about Muslims who saved Jews amid controversy in the United States over plans to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York and mounting anti-Muslim fervor in Europe.

Temple Emmanuel in Creve Couer, a small town in St. Louis County, is hosting an exhibition that explains why predominantly Muslim Albania emerged from World War Two as the only European country to boast a larger number of Jews than it had housed prior to the Holocaust.

The exhibition tells the virtually unknown story through the pictures of fine art photographer Norman H. Gershman, who on visits to Albania and Kosovo found some 150 Muslim families who had taken part in the rescue of Jews under Nazi occupation. It is a story of Muslims who risked their lives to live by a code of faith and honor they call Besa and that saved the lives of more than 2,000 Albanian Jews and Jewish refugees.

Besa, says Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a St. Louis University neurologist and Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis spokesperson, is Albanian for the Islamic code that requires Muslims to endanger their own lives if necessary to save the life of those seeking asylum; it is code that remains a moral law in Albania that supersedes religious differences and blood feuds.

Emmanuel Temple Rabbi Justin Kerber says his community is hosting the exhibition because “at this time of tension over Islam, there is so much more to understanding Islam."

Gershman’s pictures tell a lifetime of stories. "I did nothing special. All Jews are our brothers," says a man portrayed in the exhibition, who was among those hid Jews from the Nazis. A leader of the Bektashis, a primarily Balkan and Turkish Muslim sect that blends Shiite and Sufi concepts, recalls an Albanian prime minister secretly ordering during the German occupation that “all Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, and all will live as one family."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Saad-owned Bahrain Bank Files for Bankruptcy

In a move that is likely to leave creditors high and dry, Awal Bank BSC, a Bahrain-based subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s embattled Saad group, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a New York bankruptcy court. The filing comes little more than a year after the bank sought US court protection from US creditors and is in line with recommendations made in a report by Ernst & Young.

According to its court filing, Awal Bank has assets valued at most at $100 million and liabilities of more than $1 billion. Bahrain’s central bank last summer appointed an administrator for Awal Bank, owned by Saudi billionaire Maan al-Sanea, after it had defaulted on loans in a sequence of defaults that has sparked a bitter legal battle across continents between Al Sanea’s Saad Group and Saudi conglomerate Ahmad Hamad Al-Gosaibi & Brothers Co. Under Bahrain law, the Bahrain central Bank-appointed administrator has until the summer of next year to decide whether to liquidate Awal bank or return it to its owners.

Assuming that the bankruptcy filing was made with the consent of the Bahrain Central Bank, the filing suggests that Bahrain has decided that Awal Bank is beyond salvation and should be liquidated. In its filing, Awal Bank asserts that after payment of the administrators and other immediate expenses, it will not be able to compensate its unsecured creditors, who number somewhere between 60 and 100 and include: Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, AlGosaibi Money Exchange, Bank of Montreal, Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank, Bayerische Landesbank, Boubyan Bank, Calyon Corporate and Investment Bank, Commercial Bank of Kuwait, Commercial Bank of Qatar, Commerzbank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Fortis Bank, Gulf International Bank, HSBC, HSH Nordbank AG, JP Morgan, Kuwait Finance House and The International Banking Corporation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Turkish-Syrian Cooperation Sparks Crackdown on PKK

Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has expressed surprised at the speed at which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyeb Erdogan is pushing cooperation between the two erstwhile enemies, one a member of NATO, the other Iran’s closest ally and a supporter of militant Islamic groups.

Close cooperation between Turkey and Syria, which almost went to war a decade ago because of Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), is fueling mounting concern in Western capitals about a newly-found Turkish foreign policy focus on the Arab and Islamic world.

But closer ties with Syria have already produced results for Turkey: Syria is cracking down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been waging an intermittent guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey since the early 1980s that has cost some 40,000 lives. Syrian authorities have arrested hundreds of Kurds in recent months on suspicion of ties to the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Erdogan paid a visit to Damascus this week to discuss cooperation between the two countries with Iran and Iraq in a bid to persuade them to join the crackdown on the Turkish Kurdish militants. Turkey has rewarded Syria with trade and tourism agreements and the lifting of visa requirements for Syrian nationals travelling to Turkey.

Stepped-up Turkish-Syrian cooperation comes as the Turkish parliament discusses extending the government’s mandate to conduct cross-border raids on PKK bases in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq. Turkey has vowed to continue its fight against the militants despite the declaration in September of a unilateral ceasefire by the PKK.

The Turkish refusal and the raids are straining relations between Turkey and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and threaten to undermine Turkish efforts to normalize relations with the Iraqi Kurds and ensure stability on its southeastern border.

U.S., Europe Press GCC States on Yemen Membership

By James M. Dorsey

World Politics Review

The United States and Europe are pressuring oil-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC) to forge closer ties with Yemen in a bid to link the fight against al-Qaida to tangible economic benefits for the Arab world's poorest nation.

U.S. officials say the Obama administration recently conveyed to GCC leaders Yemen's reiteration of its 10-year-old request for GCC membership. The officials believe that U.S. and European endorsement of the request will prompt GCC leaders to respond more favorably when they meet in Abu Dhabi in December.

The U.S. and Europe are exerting pressure against the backdrop of an increasing number of attacks in Yemen on foreign diplomats and nationals. Suspected operatives of al-Qaida's Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), last week fired a rocket at a British embassy vehicle in the capital San'a. Employees of Austrian energy giant OMV were injured in a separate incident. The attacks on foreigners follow scores of incidents targeting Yemeni military and government officials. AQAP has killed some 100 Yemeni security and intelligence personnel in recent months in hit-and-run attacks launched by assassins on motorcycles using grenades and AK-47s.

The GCC's vested interest in ensuring stability in Yemen coupled with the Gulf's reliance for its security on the U.S. -- and to a lesser extent Europe -- militates in favor of the GCC moving beyond its repeated rejections of Yemen's aspirations. Gulf states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, see their security threatened by AQAP as well as the Yemeni government's intermittent war against tribal rebels in the north and its fight with secessionists in the south.

The GCC, in a prelude to closer relations, has admitted Yemen to several of its institutions, including its councils of health, education, sports and culture ministers. GCC members also contribute substantially to funding of the Yemeni government's payroll. The GCC agreed last month at a meeting in New York of the Friends of Yemen, which groups 22 nations concerned about the growing strength of jihadists in the country, to open an office in San'a that would "help all donors to plan, coordinate and deliver assistance to Yemen more efficiently." GCC members have held back billions of dollars in aid pledged to Yemen because of concerns that the country would not be able to absorb the funds, and also due to widespread Yemeni corruption -- a weak argument for Gulf states that have transparency issues of their own.

A political marriage between the Gulf states and Yemen is likely to prove difficult for the conservative GCC members. In many ways, Yemen and the GCC states have little in common beyond geography and their Arab identity. Yemen is a republican democracy, at least in name, that ousted its royals in the 1960s; GCC members are all authoritarian monarchies that have forgotten that they once wallowed in the same abject poverty Yemen suffers today. Gulf leaders, particularly in Kuwait, have never really forgiven Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for his support of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces reversed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Yemeni officials concede that in order to persuade the GCC, the government will have to improve the security situation, narrow the economic divide with the Gulf states and significantly reduce the country's addiction to qat, a plant stimulant consumed by a majority of Yemenis that is classified by the World Health Organization as a drug.

In lieu of granting Yemen full membership, the GCC is likely to look at ways of improving employment prospects for Yemenis. Yemen's economic problems were exacerbated in the early 1990s when Saudi Arabia expelled some 1 million Yemeni workers in retaliation for Yemen's support of Saddam. The expulsion deprived Yemen of badly needed remittances that were often invested into small and medium-sized enterprises that constitute the backbone of the Yemeni economy. GCC member states are discussing allowing Yemeni workers to return -- a move that segments of Gulf society, concerned about the high number of foreign, non-Arab workers in their countries, would welcome.

Twenty years on, many Yemeni workers lack the employment skills that Gulf states now require. One way GCC states may seek to compensate for that would be to grant Yemenis access to the same professional and technical training available to Gulf nationals. GCC states are also likely to fund job-creation programs in Yemen. A report commissioned by the Yemeni government recently estimated that Yemen needs to create 4 million new jobs in the next 10 years. A Saudi delegation visited Yemen this weekend as part of a project to develop Yemeni educational programs, prepare Yemeni trainers and help the government draft regulations for the Higher Yemeni Technical Institute, which is funded by the Islamic Development Bank and South Korea.

A recent report (.pdf) by a London School of Economics researcher suggested that stabilizing Yemen was a key GCC interest because the country's problems potentially foreshadow problems that could emerge elsewhere in the Gulf. "Yemen is the canary in the coal mine. It is an indication of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the author of the report. "The challenges to government authority in southern and northern Yemen demonstrate how existing socio-economic discontent and regional marginalization can fracture and fragment social cohesion. Similar fissures and unequal patterns of access to resources exist in the GCC states and could become transmitters of conflict in the future."

The United States and Europe share GCC concerns about Yemen's lack of good governance. Getting the GCC to assume responsibility for helping Yemen ensure that its development aid is put to proper use will have the added advantage of focusing Gulf attention on transparency issues within the GCC itself.

Militant Islam gains ground in the Balkans

By James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

It's feared that some Muslim charities could encourage Wahhabism
A recent online music video featuring Macedonians praising Osama bin Laden has fueled fears that Southeastern Europe could be emerging as the latest breeding ground for homegrown Islamist militants.

It has also focused attention on Muslim charities active in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and European Union member Bulgaria since the wars in former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Many of those charities are funded by oil-rich Saudi Arabia and propagate Wahhabism - the kingdom's austere and puritan interpretation of Islam.

A majority of Wahhabis favor peaceful proselytizing of Islam while Saudi King Abdullah has been seeking to soften Wahhabi practices as part of his reforms in the kingdom. Militant groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, the Taliban and jihadists in Somalia have however embraced significant elements of Wahhabism as part of their ideology.

Jasmin Merdan, a young Bosnian who wrote a book after disassociating himself from Wahhabis groups in Bosnia, warned that "they express their convictions with violence, introduce anarchy in mosques and preach intolerance." Women in the Albanian city of Skadar have reportedly started covering their heads or wearing the niqab, a full body covering that hides everything but the eyes, in newly found religiosity.

The video posted on YouTube is one of several produced by home grown jihadists in the Balkans and circulating in the region. "Oh Osama, annihilate the American army. Oh Osama, raise the Muslims’ honor," a group of Macedonian men chant in Albanian on the video. "In September 2001 you conquered a power. We all pray for you." Similar songs calling on Southeastern European Muslims to join the jihad have been produced in Bosnian.

Governments and security forces fear that that increased Wahhabi activity will produce committed jihadis that could destabilize already fragile nations in southeastern Europe and, in the case of Bulgaria - where one sixth of the country's 7.6 million people is Muslim - produce a pool of jihadists whose EU passports would grant them easy access to Western Europe and allow them to blend into society.
Bulgaria seen as potential breeding ground

Bulgaria is the only EU member whose Muslim population are not recent immigrants. Most Bulgarian Muslims like those elsewhere in the Balkans are descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Three ethnic Albanian brothers from Macedonia were convicted to life in prison in 2008 on charges of plotting to attack the US Army's Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. A fourth member of the group from Kosovo was sentenced to five years in jail.

Across the Balkans, minority Wahhabi groups seek to convert mainstream Islam to their more militant interpretation through the operation of cultural centers, mosques, schools and at times by battling for control of majority Muslim organizations and community-owned property. A majority of the region's Muslims are secular and analysts caution against overstating the Wahhabi threat.
"It should not be ignored, but neither should it be exaggerated," said Hajrudin Somun a former Bosnian ambassador to Turkey and history professor at Sarajevo's Philip Noel-Baker International University.

The analysts say militant Islam is gaining ground on the fringe of a more general return to religion in the Balkans. Several thousand Orthodox Christian Bulgarians demonstrated in Sofia recently demanding that religious instruction be made compulsory in schools - a demand supported by mainstream Muslim organizations.
Muslim organizations are believed to have spent large amounts of money over the last decade to build some 150 new mosques and educational centers in predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria. A minority are believed to promote Wahhabism.

Analysts say that radical Islam has gained ground in southern and northeastern Bulgaria where militant Islamists, according to former Bulgarian chief mufti Nedim Gendzhev, are seeking to create a "fundamentalist triangle" in areas of Bosnia, Macedonia and Bulgaria's Western Rhodope mountains.

Fears of increasing radicalism

Bulgarian authorities last year arrested a mayor and a village teacher in the south of the country on charges of preaching radical Islam. In 2003, authorities shut down several Islamic centers because they were financed by Saudi-funded Muslim groups believed to have links to militant Islamic organizations and "to prevent terrorists getting a foothold in Bulgaria." Some analysts estimate that 3,000 young Muslims have graduated from militant schools still operating in Bulgaria; it was not immediately clear what they went on to do following their graduation.

Relations are tense between Muslims and Serbs in BosniaThe threat posed by the Wahhabis is a major bone of contention in tense relations between Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia, which so far has successfully neutralized Wahhabi influence by controlling the appointment of imams in mosques and teachers at Islamic educational institutions and employing law enforcement.

Some Bosnian Wahhabis, estimated to number 3,000, are former foreign fighters who married Bosnian women and stayed in the country after the Bosnian war that ended in 1995. Bosnia recently stepped up its fight against militancy and organized crime to meet an EU requirement for visa-free travel for Bosnians and closer ties with the bloc.

In early September, Bosnian police uncovered a cache of weapons and detained a third suspect as part of their inquiry into a June bomb attack that killed one policeman and injured six others. The attack on a police station in the town of Bugojno was one of the most serious security incidents in Bosnia. Police arrested the suspected mastermind and an aide shortly after the blast.

Bosnia tries to crackdown on militants

Boris Grubesic, a spokesman for the Bosnian prosecutor's office, told reporters in mid-September that prosecutors were investigating several people from Bugojno and Gornja Maoca on suspicion of Wahhabi ties, terrorism and human trafficking.

In February, Bosnian and EU police raided Gornja Maoca and arrested seven men described as Wahhabis because of their beards and shortened trousers. Police said they were detained for suspected illegal possession of arms and threatening the country's "territorial integrity, constitutional order and provoking inter-ethnic and religious hatred."

Gornja Maoca was home to some 30 families who lived by strict Shariah laws, organized schooling in Arabic for their children outside the state system and opposed the primacy of Bosnia's mainstream Islamic Community. Nusret Imamovic, the town's self-proclaimed Wahhabi leader, endorsed suicide attacks on the group's Bosnian language website, saying they should be launched only in "exceptional circumstances." The site features statements by al-Qaeda and Islamic groups fighting in the Caucasus and celebrates suicide bombers as joyful Muslims.

Serbian officials say 12 alleged Wahhabis convicted last year to prison terms of up to 13 years for planning terrorist attacks, including on the US Embassy in Belgrade, had close ties to their brethren in Gornja Maoca. One of the convicted, Adnan Hot, said during the trial that Imamovic was one of only three Muslim leaders that he followed. Four other Wahhabis were sentenced in a separate case to jail terms of up to eight years on charges of planning to bomb a football stadium in the southern Serbian town of Novi Pazar.

In Macedonia, Suleyman Rexhepim Rexhepi, head of the official Islamic Religious Community (IVZ), recently called on the government and the international community to crack down on increasingly influential Wahabbi groups. Rexhepi is locked into a bitter battle with Ramadan Ramadani, the imam of the Isa Beg mosque in Skopje, that has caused a rift in the country's Muslim community.

Ramadani accuses Rexhep of financial msmangement and is seeking his ouster. He organized a petition signed by thousands of his followers supporting his bid for leadership of the community after Rexhepi banned him from organizing prayers. Ramadani denies that Wahhabis are active among Macedonian Muslims who account for roughly one quarter of the population as well as allegations that the pro-bin Laden music video was played in mosques he controls.

A Ramadani associate, radical Kosovo imam Sefket Krasnici, shocked Macedonians, when he recently denounced Mother Teresa, a native of Skopje whom many consider a saint, during a sermon in the Macedonian capital. "She belongs in the middle of Hell because she did not believe in Allah, the prophet and the Koran ... Even if she believed in God her belief was incomplete, with deficiencies. God does not accept such worship," Krasnici said.