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3rd Feb 2023

Bulgaria breaks Islamist propaganda network

  • Police arrested eight men near Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city (Photo: dimnikolov)

Bulgaria, a transit country for the so-called foreign fighters traveling to and from Iraq and Syria, is in the process of dismantling a radical Islamist propaganda network of its own.

Police near the country’s second biggest city of Plovdiv, some 130 kilometres southeast of Sofia, arrested eight men on Tuesday (31 March) on charges of belonging to a group that ”spread an antidemocratic ideology and war propaganda”.

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The arrests were made in poor Roma neighbourhoods of Plovdiv and the near towns of Asenovgrad and Pazardzhik.

The authorities have issued a European arrest warrant for two other suspects, the State Agency on National Security said. It did not say which EU states these suspects were supposed to be staying in.

They come on top of the arrests of 27 similar suspects in the area on the same charges on last November 25 that included Ahmed Musa Ahmed, a local Muslim leader in Pazardzhik.

A court in Pazardzhik sentenced him to one year in jail last March after finding him guilty of preaching radical Islam. He appealed the verdict and didn’t immediately start to serve his term.

Ahmed was handed a three-year suspended sentence in 2005 for having been part of an outlawed group that opposed the secular state and called for the establishment of a caliphate, a religion-based Islamic state.

Evidence that investigators found in the latest two rounds of arrests included T-shirts with the logo of the so-called Islamic State that controls vast swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and Facebook statuses urging Muslims to join it.

Bulgaria, a 80-percent Christian Orthodox country of 7.2 million, is home of some half a million of ethnic Turks all of whom are Muslim, about 400,000 Roma who are partly Muslim, partly Christian, and a smaller minority of Bulgarian-speaking Muslims, the so-called Pomaks.

Neighbouring Turkey is a major transit route for European jihadists who travel to Iraq and Syria or return after having fought there.

EU chief anti-terrorist coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has repeatedly said that Iraq and Syria jihadists are likely to switch to land routes to get to their countries of origin in the EU, with the EU tightening flight security in the wake of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks earlier this year.

Bulgaria, which along with Romania wants to join the EU Schengen free-travel zone, has beefed up policing of its 259-kilometre land border with Turkey and is building a barbed-wire fence tens of kilometres long to stem migrants, mainly from war-torn regions in the EU's southern neighbourhood.

The detainees in the Plovdiv area are locals. It was not immediately clear whether they had any links to the migration flows.

According to Bulgarian security officials, the local Muslims are moderate Sunni and are not likely to radicalised.

After decades of Communist-imposed atheism and campaigns to change their names to Slavic ones, the Muslim minorities in Bulgaria have taken advantage of the religious freedom that democracy restored.

New mosques and religious schools have mushroomed in their areas, some of them being funded by Saudi Arabia and other oversees foundations. Dozens of young locals have travelled to receive religious education in Arab countries.

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