By Tam Hussein*
In late January 2016, Amer al-Hasani, 20, decided to travel to Greece with his friend Mirsad Bectašević, 29. They had met at the local mosque in a Gothenburg suburb in Sweden. Amer, a devout Muslim, had been involved in Islamic proselytisation and charity work there. The two had travelled to Copenhagen from Gothenburg crossing over from the magnificent Øresund bridge that links Southern Sweden’s Malmö to the Danish capital, Copenhagen. From Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport they boarded a flight to Athens. On arrival, Amer called his mother to let her know that he was well. They spent several days galavanting in Athens. Nothing of note happened except, that Bectašević bought two Bear Grylls machetes at a bargain price from an Airsoft store. According to him, he asked the lady if it was legal to carry such knives and she confirmed it. Then they travelled to Salonika, spending two days there, and on to Thrace to the sleepy fishing town, Alexandropoulis, close to the Turkish border.
Amer claims that they wanted to visit the surrounding villages from the town, and so they went to the bus station to buy two tickets to Peplos, a small village even closer to the border. It seemed like a straightforward affair. But the employee, got suspicious and made a phone call. According to Bectašević it was an instance of racial profiling pure and simple. After all they weren’t Swedes of the blond and blue eyed variety; they were swarthy types, of pure Invandrar- immigrant – stock that grew up in Sweden’s förort, the satellite conurbations around Stockholm or Gothenburg which is Sweden’s equivalent of ghetto if Sweden ever had one. But instead of boarding the bus, several policemen on motorcycles pulled up and gruffly took them away for questioning.
The press couldn’t help but jump on the arrest whether that be Sweden’s tabloid paper Aftonbladet or its broadsheet equivalent Svenska Dag Bladet. It made for great copy. After all, it’s not everyday you bag Mirsad Bectašević, the man who once plotted to blow up Western targets in the European mainland.
Moreover, these men were arrested around the same time as three Iraqi Kurds carrying British passports. The latter were caught with 200 000 rounds of ammunition trying to cross Greece’s porous border. The media also claimed that their arrest was intelligence led, apparently they had been under surveillance for several days as they made their way to Alexandropoulis and had intended to cross over to Turkey and then onto Syria as many foreign fighters do. In fact, I knew that SÄPO, Swedish intelligence, was keeping tabs on Bectašević when I met him in May, 2015.
After their arrest the two men were immediately separated. On the face of it, the prosecution had a relatively a simple case. To convict all you had to do was to prove that Bectašević the more experienced of the two, recruited the young and impressionable man in Gothenburg and then convinced him to go to Syria to join ISIS. But if the allegations of Amer, his brother, Mohammed, Bectašević and others who knew them are true, there seems to be grave problems from the very outset. One should add, that a request for comment from the Greek authorities have not been forth coming.
Bektašević was offered legal representation, one of the best according to him. He was interrogated by the police for forty eight hours, he was no doubt asked, where he was going. His response was that of a man used to interrogation, “I am exercising my right to travel”. Peplos is awfully close to the Turkish border isn’t it? He replies “even if we were going to Turkey we didn’t do anything illegal.”
The interrogators didn’t come up with much. Perhaps the interrogators took it as a given, perhaps it wasn’t from their line of inquiry but according to Bectašević they didn’t focus on why he had black police boots, a 5.11 tactical vest, one weapon sling he claimed to have forgot from his last visit to Syria in 2015. He says, “I had ‘ordinary stuff like T-shirts and jeans. Muslim clothes when praying. They took that as ‘evidence’”. The Greek interrogators focused more on his level of devotion and practice rather than his connections to ISIS or Syria.
Initially, he was charged with trying to supply a terror organisation with weapons. Now, it wasn’t 200 000 rounds of ammunition he was accused of supplying but the Bear Grylls machetes. One presumes that this unspecified terror organisation can’t get hold of such precious hardware anywhere else.
However, as to who he was affiliated to was unclear. At Bectašević’s hearing there seemed to be much confusion as to precisely what organisation he belonged to. The Greek prosecutor had even asked him, but the accused denied any affiliation. Bectašević only found out that he was accused of belonging to ISIS a month later. Some of these lawyers, he complained, didn’t even realise that ISIL and ISIS was the same organisation. Simply put the Greeks were not literate as to the various factions operating in Syria. After several months of languishing in Korydallous High Security prison, Bektašević claims he still hasn’t seen the evidence against him so that he can prepare his defence. The Swedish embassy have been in touch with the Greek authorities in March, 2016 however the results of that meeting still remain to be seen.
Of course, all of this might just be the Greek authorities knowing based on intel, that here they have a convicted terrorist, perhaps one that intends to commit future acts of terror, but they simply don’t have the requisite laws to deal with the likes of him. And so they throw anything at him to keep him locked up. The case of Mirsad Bectašević then, is the epitome of the liberal dilemma that the Greeks and indeed many Western countries are having to face up to. What does one do with the likes of Bectaševič and others like him, who may be working to undermine the security of the West or may not? And as such his case has important lessons for all European countries.
The case of Amer has not been treated in the same manner- that is he has not been given even a semblance of procedural justice. Is that because he is a Yemeni political refugee and not a Swedish passport holder? Does procedural justice not apply to the likes of him? His brother, Mohammed, 21, told me that in the first week of his arrest, intelligence officers beat him smashing his face against the table and tearing at his hair. They asked him why he was in Greece and where he was going as I did over the phone. He must have repeated the same thing he said to me, “I am here on holiday.” They said he had to admit that he was part of ISIS and belonged to a cell in Eastern Europe that was planning to launch an attack in the West. They were going to get that out of him no matter what. Greece, they said, is a democracy, when Amer, retorted that they were breaking their own principles, they laughed and replied that people think Greece is a democracy but it’s not. He had to admit he belonged to ISIS or else. But Amer did not admit it.
According to his brother, they brought in a girl who tried to seduce him, just like they do in interrogations in Egypt, whilst all the time they were hoping to film him perform a sex act. The brother believed that the security services could use the film to black mail him with it. But Amer is devout, and he repelled her advances. Next one man threatened him with anal rape if he did not testify against Bectašević. All the time, he could not get access to his legal counsel, apparently they replied only after a month. More recently Bectašević told me that Amer was being forced “to sign some papers in Greece [sic] it was around five…eight people there and they forced him to sign some papers. He didn’t even understand what it was.”
This was also confirmed by his brother who said that they have been appealing to the Swedish embassy for assistance. The embassy replied that the matter is out of their hands there has however, been some contact between the embassy and Amer in prison. Amer has told me that now the Greek authorities are applying psychological pressure on him in Volos young offenders prison. He feels that he is in limbo. His brother is worried sick about his health as he suffers from a childhood throat condition that requires an operation.
Admittedly, the case of these two men are not as straight forward as it seems. The Greek authorities are dealing with a crippling economic situation, with the movement of people escaping Syria on a biblical scale, and so the rights of two men, one having a previous conviction for terrorism don’t really figure on its list of priorities. Arguably, Islamist terrorism is something that the Greek judiciary doesn’t have to deal with much. Yet, overlooking the case of these men could have an immense impact; for Bectašević is no small figure in Jihadi circles and is looked up to by those inclined to Salafi-Jihadism in Gothenburg. He, after all, has impeccable credentials in this regard.
Some inconsistencies of the testimonies and the difficulty of this author to verify their accounts aside, the whole case hinges on three points. The first, is the figure of Bectašević himself and his previous convictions. Secondly, his relationship with Syria and thirdly, the fractious politics of Syria’s Islamist rebels.
Prima Facie evidence
On the face of it, Bektašević is a man who holds views that are antithetical to Western ideals. He is an out and out Islamist of the radical variety, there is no shadow of a doubt in that. That started at a young age. The Swedish national from Serbia’s Sanjaki community, the minority Muslim community, became devout following his father’s death in 1994. He moved to Gothenburg, Kungälv where he spent his formative years. During the 80s and 90s Sweden was a popular destination for the Post-Yugoslav nations. A combination of factors, faith, the various Islamic ideological currents at the time, the legacy of conflict in Bosnia, as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made him adopt a radical interpretation of his faith. There are also some allegations that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for instance the fact that he met Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, but these allegations have been rubbished by Bectašević, as he told me: “I always made travels with my own passport and they [authorities] know I never was in the Middle East back then.”
Nevertheless, his radical politics resulted in prison. He was convicted for his part in a terrorist plot in Sarajevo on 19th October, 2005 alongside others. In May, 2015 Bectašević told me that he had his Damascus moment whilst being interrogated by an FBI officer. He had told the FBI officer that Democracy was his religion and had been relying on Sh. Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi’s teachings. The officer dismissed the assertion, replying that it was just politics. The response threw him off balance, he had been so reliant on Maqdisi’s authority that he didn’t see the absurdity of the argument. He decided, from then on, to never blindly follow what other people had said and would find out for himself. Damascus moment or not, in January 2007, he received fifteen years for plotting to attack all those nations that were involved in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent the last period in Sweden in isolation. The sentence was the longest for terrorism in Swedish history. And it was also one of the biggest plots that was foiled in main land Europe especially after the Madrid bombings in 2004.
Perhaps more importantly for us in the age of social media, Bectašević’s online activity heralded in the era of Cyber-Jihad. Using his avatar Maximus he was in contact with Salafi-Jihadis all over the world, more specifically with Jihadi forums such as at-Tibyan, the forum for the dissemination of Jihadi texts in the English speaking world. It was also through this internet forum that he came in contact with Younes Tsouli, a Moroccan man from an elite family, known by his avatar Irhabi 007. According to a source who knew him in prison, Tsouli who arrived in the UK on 9/11, became radicalised after the failure of the anti-war rallies in the UK to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tsouli’s IT skills had been immensely important in disseminating AQIM propaganda to the wider world. It was through Bectašević’s avatar that was uncovered after his arrest that led to Tsouli and his associates being raided in West London. For the Greek authorities then, it seems tempting to just throw the keys away based on Bectašević’s past. He does fit the profile of an ISIS supporter
Moreover, there are other pieces of evidence. One being Bectašević’s previous connection to Syria. After his release in 2011, Swedish media reported that Bektašević was convicted of firearm’s violations linked to Gothenburg’s criminal underworld and spent a further spell in prison. Swedish media linked him to Muhammed Jouma, considered to be an al-Shabaab middle man. Bectašević though maintains that he met Jouma a few times in the local mosque in Gothenburg and that the former just sits at home idly, the only connection being that he wanted to use Jouma’s address for correspondence. He didn’t like the media intrusion on his mother’s home and so he regularly changed his correspondence address.
Bektašević did get involved with criminality due to a shortage of funds. He kept his prayers up in secret and adopted the name Micke. But the criminal underworld and his rise in it didn’t sit well with his conscience, in the end and after his arrest for arms possession he decided to leave it.
Then, Swedish media reported that he was fighting in Syria. Bektašević has revealed that the Arab Spring and the events in Syria had a profound impact on him. He believes alongside many other Muslims in the Ummah, a pan-Islamic concept of fraternity based on faith. Tyrants were falling left right and centre in the Muslim heartlands and it grabbed the imagination of the world let alone Islamists like him. He felt that he had a duty of care towards Syrians and so he wanted to go to Syria to help in whatever way he could. Syria plays an important role in the end of time narratives in Islamic tradition, no less in the Salafi-Jihadi discourse. Abu Musab al-Suri for instance, mentioned Syria as one of the key territories that would be crucial to the revival of the Muslim Ummah.
In the end it was a dream that pushed him towards Syria. Dreams do play an important role in Islamic eschatology and though Bektašević didn’t give it too much importance the dream came to pass. He got a passport, the Turks let him through and he boarded an eighteen hour bus to Hatay and crossed over to Syria.
Photographs emerged from his Facebook page of him in Taftanaz where he donned military fatigues and carried arms. I posed this question to him recently and his response was the following:
“The picture with hat and came [camouflage] dress is worn was in Atmah [sic]. So no fighting place. The other one with Kalash was from Taftanaz [Idlib] at home of one friend. So not a fighting place. It is not illegal to carry arms. I was there to assist ordinary people from giving food to protecting hospitals. Prior to arriving to Syria, Atmah there was a car bomb placed outside the hospital in Atmah. After that incident they needed some to guard.
It is easy to equate anyone who was in Syria in 2013 to be fighting with ISIS but as any specialist in foreign fighters will tell you this is simply not the case. Amarnath Amarsingam a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism says:
“So, what is clear from my interviews with some fighters is that 2013 was a time of flux. Many fighters at the time switched allegiances from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra shortly after Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s letter became public – around June 2013. Many fighters at the time were unclear about whether the Zawahiri letter was real and whether it was to be believed. Zawahiri was talking about, in essence, respecting the border between Iraq and Syria. Many fighters believed that Zawahiri would never say this. It was a time when many fighters moved back and forth, shifted allegiances and so on. So, it’s not accurate to say all muhajireen were with ISIS in 2013. In fact, I spoke with several fighters who switched precisely during this period when they saw ISIS’s excessive takfirism. As one fighter told me, when he saw ISIS members turning against other mujahideen, he took that as God’s guidance – a message from God about which group was on the right path and which group wasn’t.”
What is important to realise in 2013 then, is that the groups and factions had not fully crystallised in the way they have now. There were and still are, small battalions that may subscribe to Islamist ideology but are independent of any proscribed battalions. In fact, Amer al-Deghayes, who insists that he is part of such a battalion, says he met Bectašević in April 2013 in Kassab, Northern Syria, and likened him to a freelancer. He states that Bectašević was in fact against ISIS adding “he disagreed with them ever since I met him in April 2013.”
Moreover, in a statement obtained from Sawarim as-Sham a battalion affiliated to Failāq as-Shām or the Sham Legion, a moderate Islamist front, states that Bectašević entered the freed territories to render humanitarian aid and “was not with any organisation designated as a terrorist”. Abu Ahmed Khaled an official with a charity Jami’ya Nūr al-Insāniya, also told me that he was doing aid work in the border areas and was a “a friend of the Syrian people”.
In any case whatever Bectašević was up to in Syria which could have been a mixture of aid work and fighting, he returned to Sweden and in May, 2015 we met. He had agreed to meet me because he was aware of my work on Syria. We met in a coffee shop close to T-Centralen, Stockholm. We spent a good couple of hours drinking coffee while he told me off-record his life story. We were in discussions over writing a book and possibly a documentary. This is something that many radicals, jihadists and Islamic pentitos tend to do; writing books is a lucrative venture. I was not allowed to divulge any of the details of the conversation because- that would break one of the principal tenets of journalism- protecting your source and confidentiality. However recently, I do not quite know how, he contacted me from Korydallous High Security prison and gave me permission to divulge the details of this meeting. I informed him that what his allegiances and mindset are presently I do not know, but I could certainly reveal the details of what I saw when I met him. Over the following weeks I managed to contact Amer al-Hasani, family members and friends to verify the story. And I felt that I had an ethical duty to reveal it, not as an advocate for Bectašević or Amer, but rather to expose wrong doing and to highlight the difficult challenges that men such as Bectaševic and his ilk present to the West.
The crucial point that the case rests on is this: does Bectašević belong to ISIS? Bektašević denies this as he told me:
“They accused me of being in this organisation because I have my address in Sweden, with one guy who left the country to Syria to join ISIS. After one month, I rent (sic) myself into this address where he lived in. But he didn’t live there, man. He rent it out. He’s married with three kids, he lived in a totally other place. So they claim I am with this organisation because I have an address with this guy.”
The man he is referring to is Mikael Skråmo, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Sweidi. Mr. Skråmo converted to Islam in 2005, studied Islam and Arabic. According to Per Godmundson, a blogger for Svenska Dagbladet, Skråmo became a radical preacher and an open supporter of Anwar Awlaki, an al-Qaeda ideologue and US citizen killed by a US drone. That then is the link. Ahmed Abbassi, a childhood friend from Kungälv says that he would regularly list his address in various flats even though he was always living with his mother because he wanted to avoid press intrusion.
Bektašević further told me speaking against Islamic State:
“There are so many reasons why I am against this group. Foremost is religiously. This group is known for blowing up Muslims in mosques. They are fighting other Muslims. They are fighting people they should not fight. They are not protecting borders which they should protect. In fact they are attacking…already freed areas that the Muslims have freed from the Tyrants and still they are continuing this things and this is one of the reasons. Secondly, I am against them attacking other countries Europe or whichever country it can be in Europe. I am against it. This is not what I am for or what I stand for.”
A similar view was held by Amer too. Recently Abbasi says that Bectašević has dissuaded several young girls from joining ISIS and that if he had an opportunity he would fight them harder than he would fight Assad.
At the time of my meeting with him in 2015, Bectašević was vehemently against ISIS and was jousting with ISIS fanboys and tweeps on social media. Further, this author can confirm that at the time that we met he held a similar position to what he has told me recently; that is he considered ISIS to be little more than ‘highway men’ or Khawarij, a heretical sect in Islam famous for extremism and banditry.
Of course, there are limitations, Bectašević can be dissimulating. It doesn’t exclude the fact that his thoughts may have evolved into that of an ISIS supporter, neither does it exclude the possibility that the two men were planning to go to Syria. But even if we assume that none of the allegations the men make are true, that he and indeed Amer are ISIS supporters, it should not exclude them from receiving a fair trial and recourse to due legal process which clearly has not occurred in Greece. The Greek authorities have not responded to requests for comment and may quite understandably, go with its natural instinct which is to bury this case, to do a Trump and throw the keys away. After all many Muslim countries such as Egypt lock up men for lesser crimes than that of Bectašević’, but Egypt of course never prided itself on the Rule of Law. In fact, Rule of Law is something most people admire about the West, even hardened Islamists. And it is adherence to this idea that should be the driving force in dealing with foreign fighters, returnees, and terrorists.
The situation you don’t want to be in is the place where Amer’s mother cries every night pleading to God for justice. For that ancient refrain is not what Democracy is meant to provoke. God is not meant to give justice in Democracy. In fact, the whole point of a liberal democracy is that the Rule of Law is meant to be above God and such pleas for God’s justice should be redundant. It is after all, Lady Justice the personification of the Greek deity Lady Themis that stands as the symbol of justice not Jesus, God or any other religious symbol from the West’ rich Christo-Judeaic heritage. The Rule of Law is so basic that Locke, Rawls and Aristides N. Hatzis from the philosophy department at the University of Athens, says:
“In a liberal democracy there is a personal domain protected by negative rights. This domain should be shielded not only from an authoritarian government but also from a democratic majority (Danford, 2000, pp. 159-172). This domain should be under the protection of the rule of law and its most powerful institutional weapon:” The constitution. Let’s call this the liberal principle.”
In some way, many like the al-Hasani family, being political refugees from an illustrious tribe in Southern Yemen, believe in it even more so than Westerners do. An indignant Mohamed al-Hasani mentioned that Greece was a signatory to European Convention of Human Rights. He expected that they would respect Article 3 – the right to be free of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and of course Article 6, the right to a fair trial. And yet, if the allegations are true, the Greek judicial system has failed in this regard. It is worth noting that it is this that ISIS uses to lambast the West; it does not even uphold its own fundamental values; why else does ISIS dress up its victims in the orange jumpsuits that they wore in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? And so it proposes that the Rule of Law is hypocritically applied in the West.
Moreover, al-Hasani and especially Bektašević’s treatment does have consequences. The way he is treated will confirm a narrative that there is one rule for Muslims and another rule for the rest. Otherwise those who incline towards this narrative will probably echo Bektašević’s feelings:
“I am in a situation where nobody cares if I’m guilty or not. People who know me and my position against DAESH are quiet and I am here for nothing facing a sentence in a screwed up UFO land…
I have never supported the so called IS, contrary I have been against their actions. I don’t hide that I support the Syrian Jihad but in Syria you have good groups who put themselves under the Shariah not like IS who act like they are above the Shariah. If I would receive a conviction for being part of IS it would not be a conviction based on proofs rather it would be a political one.”
What is clear is that justice and fairness is key. If the Greeks vis-a-vis the West does not want to fuel a grievance narrative that many Muslim demagogues utilise to rail against the West, judicial process is crucial this after all is what Europe is about.
The Greeks and indeed all European countries must not overlook the various factions and groups that exist with in Syria’s rebel milieu and its dynamic in a constantly changing environment. This case will show whether the Greek authorities can manage to be just, fair and respectful of all the values and principles that it subscribes to. If they fail, the level of Bektašević’s celebrity in Jihadi circles will increase and might become a propaganda tool for those who say that the West does not have the ability to be just.
On a final note, the treatment of Amer al-Hasani, whose political ideas are yet unformed and if true, is shocking. It shows us what happens when we throw away the legal rule book, one becomes exactly like those tyrants that Salafi-Jihadis have been speaking against for three decades, one becomes as despotic as Sisi’s Egypt or Assad’s Syria. Perhaps the saddest most surprising thing about the post 9/11 world is the sheer fragility of Western ideals. Perversely in the name of protecting those values it holds so dear it has discarded them so quickly. It poses the question how is it that so few terrorists could shake the faith of so many men so easily?
This article was published at Syria Comment. All photos are via Syria Comment.