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Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
05SOFIA1729
2005-10-11 14:08:00
SECRET//NOFORN
Embassy Sofia
Cable title:  

ISLAM AND ISLAMIC EXTREMISM IN BULGARIA

Tags:   PTER  PGOV  ASEC  SOCI  PINR  BU 
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This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
						S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 SOFIA 001729 

SIPDIS

NOFORN

STATE FOR EUR/PGI (LREASOR/IWEINSTEIN), EUR/ACE (SKUX),
EUR/PPD (VWALKER), S/CT (MNORMAN), DS/DSS/ITA, AND EUR/NCE
(BRANDON).

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/06/2015
TAGS: PTER PGOV ASEC SOCI PINR BU
SUBJECT: ISLAM AND ISLAMIC EXTREMISM IN BULGARIA

REF: A. STATE 144222

B. COPENHAGEN 1220

C. SOFIA 1681

D. SOFIA 1504

Classified By: Ambassador John R. Beyrle, reason 1.4 (b) and (d).

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 SOFIA 001729

SIPDIS

NOFORN

STATE FOR EUR/PGI (LREASOR/IWEINSTEIN), EUR/ACE (SKUX),
EUR/PPD (VWALKER), S/CT (MNORMAN), DS/DSS/ITA, AND EUR/NCE
(BRANDON).

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/06/2015
TAGS: PTER PGOV ASEC SOCI PINR BU
SUBJECT: ISLAM AND ISLAMIC EXTREMISM IN BULGARIA

REF: A. STATE 144222

B. COPENHAGEN 1220

C. SOFIA 1681

D. SOFIA 1504

Classified By: Ambassador John R. Beyrle, reason 1.4 (b) and (d).


1. (S) SUMMARY: Bulgaria's large Muslim community is
predominantly moderate and traditional, though both foreign
and indigenous Islamic extremists are active in the country.
Bulgaria's government is officially tolerant, but Muslim
minorities and their problems are often ignored by central
authorities. Moderate central Islamic institutions are
nearly bankrupt and cannot afford to pay salaries to imams or
fund moderate religious education. Islamic institutions at
every level are financially dependent on loosely-monitored
foreign Islamic foundations, some of which promote Islamic
extremism. Extremist activity in Bulgaria includes
fundraising, logistical support to terrorist operations, and
the recruitment of Bulgarian Muslims. Rampant unemployment,
weak moderate Islamic institutions, and a history of
discrimination enhance the vulnerability of Bulgarian Muslims
to extremist exploitation. Reftel C provides an overview of
U.S. and GoB actions to counter extremism in Bulgaria. END
SUMMARY

--------------
Islam in Bulgaria
--------------


2. (U) Bulgaria has one of the largest indigenous Islamic
communities in Europe, with over 900,000 Muslims constituting
approximately 13 percent of the country's population. The
Muslim community consists of three traditional groups --
Turks, Muslim Roma, and ethnic Bulgarian Muslims ("Pomaks").
There is also a small Muslim immigrant community that dates
back to 1960s Arab-Bulgarian student exchanges.


3. (C) Ethnic Turkish Muslims are the country's largest
minority group, constituting approximately 7 percent of
Bulgaria's population. They are concentrated in southeastern

Bulgaria along the Turkish border and near the towns of
Razgrad and Shumen in northeastern Bulgaria. The compact
distribution of Bulgaria's Turkish population has facilitated
the continued use of the Turkish language and a strong sense
of communal identity. Ethnic Turks faced harsh
discrimination from Bulgaria's former communist government,
including a failed attempt in the mid-1980s to force them to
adopt ethnic Bulgarian names. Despite this, Bulgarian Turks'
strong sense of communal identity and relative economic
prosperity has made them less receptive to foreign Islamic
influences than other Muslim communities.


4. (C) Muslim Roma comprise the second largest group of
Muslims in Bulgaria. The majority are so-called "Turkified"
Roma ) descendents of Roma who converted to Islam during the
Ottoman Empire. These communities speak Turkish, practice
Islam, and identify as Turks, but are generally not accepted
by the mainstream Turkish community in Bulgaria. Because of
the complicated questions of identity surrounding this
community, census data do not provide a clear picture of
their numbers, but sociologists estimate them at between
200,000 and 400,000. Muslim Roma form a majority in urban
Roma ghettoes such as Pazardzhik, Stolipinovo, and Hadjihasan
Mahalla. Though Roma throughout Bulgaria face persecution
and ethnic discrimination, conditions in these communities
are particularly bleak. Most residents lack functioning
schools or work opportunities, and many do not have access to
electricity or heat in winter. Reftel D discusses political
issues surrounding the Roma community in Bulgaria. The
extreme social marginalization and lack of opportunity faced
by Muslim Roma in these communities may increase their
susceptibility to recruitment by Islamic extremists.


5. (S) Approximately 200,000 Pomaks (ethnic Bulgarian
Muslims) live in the western and central Rhodope Mountains of
southern Bulgaria. Pomak society is village-based and is
distinguished by traditional dress and conservative religious
views. Repeated historical attempts by Christian Bulgarians
to forcibly assimilate them are resented by many Pomaks, who
view strict observance of their religion as an important mark
of identity. The closure of loss-making state enterprises
and collectivized farms in the 1990s has led to massive
unemployment among Pomaks. Poor infrastructure and isolation
have inhibited investment, and agricultural reforms have led
to lower commodity prices for many farmers. Many Pomaks have
been forced to seek work abroad, and it is common for Pomak
men to support their families through seasonal labor.
Nevertheless, many Pomaks continue to live in grinding
poverty. The role of Islam in Pomak society has become more
important in recent years as communities have turned to
religion in the face of these challenges.


6. (S/NF) Pomaks have received far more money and attention
from foreign Islamic groups than have Turks and Muslim Roma,
in part because of their fair-skinned European appearance.
According to another U.S. government agency, the desire of
terrorist organizations to attract "European-looking" Pomak
recruits has been a principal motive of Islamic NGO activity
in Pomak regions of Bulgaria. The poverty, isolation, and
social marginalization of Pomak communities have made some
members receptive to exploitation by such groups. A
Bulgarian Pomak, Toni Radev (AKA Milenov) is known to have
participated in the 3/11 terrorist attacks in Madrid.


7. (S) Immigrants are an increasingly influential part of the
Muslim community in Bulgaria. The first wave appeared in the
1960s in the form of Arab students (chiefly Syrians,
Lebanese, and Palestinians) studying at Bulgarian
universities. Those who married Bulgarians were allowed to
stay and became well-integrated members of Bulgarian society.
Some have become influential business leaders, while others,
particularly Syrians, have been linked to Bulgarian organized
crime groups. A second wave of Muslim immigration to
Bulgaria has taken place since the fall of Communism.
Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians have been represented,
but an increasing number of immigrants and refugees have come
from countries such as Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Overall, the number of immigrants from the Arab and Islamic
world living in Bulgaria has more than tripled from 5,438 in
1992 to approximately 17,000 in 2004. Of these 85 percent,
or roughly 14,500, are Muslim. The bulk of these immigrants
are male, with an average age of 37.8. Roughly half are
Syrian, with significant numbers also coming from Lebanon (14
percent), Iraq (10 percent), and the Palestinian territories
(8 percent).


8. (S) A 2005 anthropological survey of Muslim immigrants in
Bulgaria estimated that between 2 and 8 percent (roughly
300-1100 immigrants) hold Wahhabi or other fundamentalist or
extremist beliefs. According to the study, the "core"
members of this group are also among the approximately 400
Muslim immigrants who preach and recruit in the local Muslim
community. These missionaries are heavily represented among
the estimated 2 percent of Muslim immigrants (roughly 300)
who live and work in urban Roma ghettos.

--------------
Extremism in Bulgaria
--------------


9. (S) Bulgaria's participation in US-led action in Iraq and
Afghanistan has increased its profile as a potential target
for Islamic terrorist groups. Currently, however, such
groups appear to view Bulgaria principally as a fundraising
center, transit point, and logistical base for carrying out
attacks in other countries. Extremist operations in Bulgaria
are facilitated by official corruption, ties to organized
crime, and strong traditions of Muslim hospitality to foreign
guests, particularly in the rural Pomak communities of
southeastern Bulgaria.


10. (S/NF) According to U.S. and Bulgarian intelligence,
extremist groups operating in and through Bulgaria include
Islamic terrorist organizations such as Al Qa'ida,
Ansar-al-Islam, Hizballah, and Chechen rebels. Extremists
linked to Al Qa'ida routinely transit Bulgaria between cells
in Western Europe and the Middle East. Hizballah draws
supporters from Bulgaria's expatriate Arab community, many of
whom support the organization financially with profits from
legal businesses, smuggling of drugs and stolen cars, and
human trafficking. Chechen extremist groups are supported in
Bulgaria by the smuggling and drug trafficking activities of
local Chechen organized crime gangs, while secular Kurdish
groups such as the KGK (formerly PKK) also raise funds in
Bulgaria through vehicle theft, narcotics, and arms
trafficking.


11. (S/NF) U.S. intelligence sources have also noted official
Iranian efforts to radicalize the Muslim community in
Bulgaria, particularly Pomaks. These efforts have included
attendance of Iranian diplomats at Pomak community meetings
and official Iranian encouragement of attempts to form a
religiously based Pomak political party. "Vafka" and "Evet",
two Iranian-backed NGOs, were reported to be active among
Muslim immigrant communities in Bulgaria, but have not been
linked to Islamic extremism.

--------------
Islamic Foundations
--------------


12. (S/NF) Since the 1990s, foreign missionaries and
international Islamic NGOs have been active in the country,
some espousing Wahhabism and other extremist ideologies.
These Islamic foundations are concentrated primarily among
Pomak and Muslim Roma communities, both of whom are more
socially marginalized and economically vulnerable than the
larger ethnic Turkish minority. There has been little
effective regulation of foreign donations, but large sums
have been spent on mosque construction, the establishment of
religious schools, and scholarships for Bulgarian children to
study in countries such as Jordan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and
Saudi Arabia. Currently, there are three legally registered
Islamic NGOs active in Bulgaria.


13. (S/NF) Taiba (Taibah), supported by donations from Saudi
Arabia, was registered in 1995 as a successor to two NGOs
(Dar al-Irshad and Al Waqf al-Islamiyya) which were closed by
the GoB in 1994 for supporting Islamic extremism. Bulgarian
security services report that the organization's objective is
to radicalize Bulgaria's Muslim population, in part by
encouraging central institutions such as the Muftiship to
become financially dependent on its contributions. The
founder of Taiba, Abdurahman Takan, was expelled from
Bulgaria for illegally preaching against the state. Post
reporting indicates that businesses linked to Taiba operate
as fronts for financial transfers to extremist groups in the
Middle East, and that Taiba director Hussein Odeh Hussein abu
Qalbain has been linked to planning attacks against Coalition
forces in Iraq.


14. (S/NF) Neduwa (Neduba, Neoua, Nedlae), also supported by
Saudi donations, was registered by a Syrian citizen in 1994.
It finances religious camps and workshops and sponsors
pilgrims for the Hajj. Neduwa has been linked to an
unregistered Islamic school in the Pomak town of Surnitsa
that has been dubbed a "Taliban madrassa" by the Bulgarian
press.


15. (S/NF) Al-Waqf al-Islamiyya, banned in 1994, was allowed
to re-register in Bulgaria in 2002 under the terms of a new
law on religions. It is financially supported by a Dutch
organization of the same name and is linked to the Muslim
Brotherhood, the banned NGO Irshad, and an unregistered NGO
known as Al Manar.


16. (S/NF) Information on unregistered and informal Islamic
NGOs is more difficult to obtain, but the largest such group
is known as Igase (Igassa, Al-Hayat Al-Igathata). Igasse
functions as the Bulgarian branch of the Saudi-based
International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). Post
reporting has suggested possible links to the Muslim
Brotherhood, Al Qa'ida, and other extremist groups.


17. (S) Islamic foundations are suspected to be involved in
the financing of two new Islamic publications that appeared
in 2005. The publications, "Ikra", based in the town of
Madan; and "Miosiolmanska obshtestvenost" ("Muslim
Community"), published by the "Union for Islamic Development
and Culture" in the town of Smolyan, have quickly gone from
primitive newsletters to sophisticated periodicals with
impressive production quality. While there is no indication
that they espouse extremism, the shady origins and unclear
financing of these publications has raised suspicions that
they are funded by foreign Islamic groups.

--------------
Institutional Challenges
--------------


18. (S) The Bulgarian government follows an official policy
of equality and social inclusion; however, progress is
hampered by longstanding prejudice, lack of funds, and
political infighting. Bulgaria's Muslim community is led by
the Office of the Chief Mufti of Bulgaria, which operates
through a system of regional muftis. The Chief Mufti's
Office promotes a moderate version of Islam, but its
authority has been damaged by a lack of funding and a
recently resolved legal battle between two claimants to the
title of Chief Mufti. The Muftiship does not effectively
control the activities of foreign religious foundations. In
fact, it relies on donations from abroad for the bulk of its
budget and often competes with foreign donors for influence
at the local level.


19. (S) The Muftiship has faced a continual funding crisis
since the collapse of communism. In a recent meeting with
Embassy political and public affairs officers, Deputy Chief
Mufti Vedat Ahmed estimated that the Muftiship receives
roughly 100,000 BGN (USD 62,500) annually from the
government, most of it directed to the restoration of
historic mosques. The Muftiship receives a similar amount of
income from "Wakaf" community property, and is forced to
finance the rest of its budget through donations from the
Bulgarian Muslim community and foreign donors. Housed in a
run-down building on the outskirts of downtown Sofia, the
Muftiship commands few resources and little political
leverage. It cannot afford to pay salaries to Bulgaria's
estimated 1050 local imams and hodjas and has little
enforcement capacity to combat extremist influences in the
country's 1300 mosques.


20. (S) Other Muslim institutions at the national level
include the Higher Islamic Institute in Sofia and three
officially recognized Muslim secondary schools in the cities
of Shumen, Russe, and Momchilgrad. These institutions are
moderate and receive some educational materials and guest
instructors from Turkish Islamic authorities (the Dianet).
Bulgarian law allows for optional religious education in
public schools, but according the Deputy Chief Mufti Ahmed,
Islam is currently taught in only 35 public schools in
Bulgaria, nearly all in Pomak regions. Some local officials
report that they are reticent to implement religious
education for fear of feeding tension between students of
different faiths.


21. (S) Unfortunately, Islamic educational institutions
suffer from the same funding issues that affect the Chief
Mufti's Office. The GoB does not recognize the Higher
Islamic Institute or Islamic secondary schools as public
institutions and does not allocate any funds for them.
Funding woes are a major reason why over one third of the
seats in Islamic secondary schools go unfilled. As
Bulgaria's moderate Islamic institutions atrophy, more Muslim
Bulgarians have come to rely on unregulated Islamic education
promoted by foreign foundations, both in local mosques and
abroad.


22. (S/NF) The Internet is an increasingly important medium
for radical and moderate Bulgarian Muslims alike. While
mainstream websites such as www.islam-bg.net are the most
popular, lesser-known websites advertised by word of mouth
connect Bulgarian Muslims to extremist Islamic ideology.
During a recent visit to a mosque in the Pomak town of
Dospat, the local hodja told us that without curricular
support from the Muftiship, he is forced to obtain training
materials for children's religious classes from the Internet.
He proceeded to show slickly produced Bulgarian-language
videos on the dangers of Satanism and achievements of Islamic
science. He declined to provide specifics on where he had
downloaded the videos, but indicated that similar materials
were propagated by Islamic extremist groups "who promote
suicide."

--------------
Returnees ) A Potential Wild Card
--------------


23. (S/NF) Only recently have Bulgarian students begun to
return from long-term study in the Arab world in significant
numbers. Exact figures on the number of students
participating in such programs are not available, but they
are believed to number in the hundreds. Their return has
sparked fears of links to terrorist groups and other
extremist organizations. The returnees' espousal of
"classical" Arab-influenced Islam has also led to cultural
clashes with community elders over issues of religious
doctrine and local cultural traditions.


24. (S/NF) Mainstream Pomak imams in the central Rhodope
region have told us that they routinely ban returnees from
preaching in their mosques and submit them to informal
monitoring by community members. With the encouragement of
Bulgarian security services, moderate imams also make an
effort to track foreign visitors to their regions. In many
cases, these returnees reject local mosques entirely,
choosing instead to pray at home or set up alternative houses
of prayer. Some towns in Pomak areas of the Rhodope
Mountains have become "two mosque villages", with new,
foreign-financed mosques competing for worshippers with more
traditional places of worship.


25. (S/NF) Bulgarian and U.S. intelligence services share a
concern that Bulgarian Muslims returning from religious study
abroad could form a network of detached extremist cells that
would be difficult to monitor and secure.


--------------
CONCLUSION
--------------

26. (S) COMMENT: Islamic extremism in Bulgaria is a very real
concern, and the U.S. Mission is engaged in extensive efforts
to monitor and combat extremism (Reftel C). Despite this
fact, the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian Muslims are
moderates who are not receptive to radical ideology.
However, among certain sub-groups, Islamic extremism could
potentially thrive on the lack of strong, adequately funded
moderate Islamic institutions and the alienation of Muslim
youth through discrimination and lack of opportunity.


27. (S) Numerous USG-financed programs currently promote
ethnic integration and opportunity among Bulgaria's Roma
minority. Post requests the Department's assistance in
supporting these programs and expanding them to address the
urgent needs of Pomaks and ghettoized Muslim Roma. The
influence of Islamic extremists in Bulgaria will also be
curtailed if the GoB can be persuaded to subsidize Islamic
education, return disputed "Wakaf" properties, or otherwise
lessen the financial dependence of central Islamic
institutions on foreign Islamic organizations. END COMMENT


BEYRLE