A few weeks have passed since Prince Sultan bin Salman stepped foot in Bosnia and Herzegovina on behalf of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The visit itself and the warm welcome from Bakir Izetbegovic, the Chairman of the Presidency, reflects sustained commitment to bilateral relations between Sarajevo and Riyadh. Renewed ties between Saudi Arabia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are particularly intriguing in light of recent dealings and negotiations. Trade malpractices and links to terror financing have cultivated dubious relations between the two predominantly Muslim states.
Historically the two countries have had close ties as Saudi Arabia helped BiH during the 1990s war and has since maintained financial support to help lift BiH out of post-war poverty. Additionally, Sarajevo and other Balkan states have supplied Saudi Arabia with Yugoslav arms. However, these seemingly independent bilateral relations have been associated with the creation of a network in place to funnel money to Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East, specifically ISIL.
The network begins with King Salman, who was the former Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia Herzegovina (SHC) and brought in aid to support Bosnians during the war. The money raised was also used to buy weapons and counter the U.S. trade embargo that disadvantaged the Bosnian army during the war. Evidence began to appear in 2001 after NATO found that the SHC and other Saudi backed charities in Sarajevo had various terrorist materials linked to Al Qaeda operations.
SEERECON found $100 million dollars was unaccounted for in BiH out of $800 million that was provided by the Saudi government. Authorities have speculated that the missing amount may have supported terrorist groups. One Al Qaeda defector confirmed these suspicions by noting the funneling of money from King Salman to the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), a Bosnian relief agency in Vienna, that supported Al Qaeda operations in Bosnia. There remain Salafist-led mosques in Bosnia that work to spread extremism and Saudi-funding through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for storage of the 17,000 tons of arms still in BiH. Saudi ambassador to Bosnia Hani bin Abdullah Mominah noted the states $1 million dollar donation for ammunition storage a few months ago.
Furthermore, Bosnia has played its role in the support of extremism by vicariously providing arms and passage for extremists to Syria and Iraq. Through a breach in international legal agreements on arms trade, two major US and Saudi funded supply lines of Yugoslav arms have ended up in Syrian rebel groups’ hands. Most arms from the Balkan states are going to the Middle East with Saudi Arabia being the number one buyer. Balkan Insight and the Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that 1.2 billion euros have been agreed to in the trading of arms since 2012, and 829 million euros of that was made specifically with Saudi Arabia. BiH alone approved 52 million euros in the export licenses to Saudi Arabia in 2016. BIRN and OCCRP utilized “Arms export data, UN reports, plane tracking, and weapons contracts” to outline how munitions were sent and used to embellish civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
BiH is a signatory to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty of 2014 (ATT) which makes illicit trading and diversion of arms to extremist actors committing war crimes and other atrocities against the law. Inherently, this puts BiH and neighboring Balkan states in a precarious position when their arms end up with ISIL affiliates in Syria. Preventative measures are supposed to be taken to ensure arms arrive and are used within the negotiated manner through end-user certificates. However, in 2016 the UK refused two British based brokers licenses to mediate the Bosnia-Saudi deal, ultimately failing to notify BiH of suspicions that the Bullets headed from Sarajevo to Riyadh would end up in the hands of proxies in Syria and Yemen. BIRN found the UK stating that Saudi Arabia was in fact not the “intended recipient” based on documents they gathered due to a Freedom of Information Request sent to the Department of International Trade.
The organized network and movement of arms into the hands of proxy groups in the Middle East is extensive, but opaque. Not only are Bosnian arms ending up in the hands of extremist groups, BiH also provides a space through which many fighters migrate to the Middle East from areas such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Europe. It is difficult to see an end to either the migration of extremists through the Balkans or the halting of exports from BiH to the Middle East due to the economic success that has resulted from it. That said, human rights organizations and states such as the Netherlands and Norway have set a standard by applying pressure to and discontinuing illicit trade deals.