ST. LOUIS — St. Louis’ Bosnian community is reeling after the indictment of six Bosnian immigrants, three of them from the city, for allegedly sending money and military supplies to fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, including one from St. Louis.
“We are shocked by this,” said Murat Muratovic, who hosts a weekly Bosnian-language radio program in St. Louis. “We are just sad about it. That our people who survived the war and came here to seek a better future in life [could do this].”
Of the accused, Armin Harcevic and married couple Ramiz Hodzic and Sedina Hodzic lived in St. Louis County. Of the other three, Mehida Salkicevic and Jasminka Ramic lived in the Chicago area, and Nihad Rosic lived in Utica, New York.
They are accused of soliciting funds for and sending money and military supplies to fighters associated with radical groups, including Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIL. They are also accused of sending money to the families of fighters in Syria and Iraq who are from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.
The St. Louis area is home to the country’s largest Bosnian population — estimated at some 70,000 people, which makes it one of the largest Bosnian communities in the world outside the Balkans. The city is also home to many Muslim Kosovars who fled brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Bosnians in St. Louis are largely credited with rebuilding dilapidated neighborhoods in southern St. Louis after they arrived. Many are now business owners, and the community makes up a vital part of the region’s economic and social fabric.
A Bosnian from St. Louis who allegedly fought for ISIL was among those the six are accused of supporting.
Enver Kunic, a Bosnian imam in St. Louis, told Al Jazeera he has met the Hodzics, who have three children, but did not know them well. “They sometimes come to my mosque,” he said. “When they come to our community, they are acting like normal, like everybody else. They just come to pray and finish praying and go home.”
Bosnians in St. Louis and throughout the rest of the United States have expressed shock that members of their community could be associated with ISIL and are distancing themselves from the accused, saying their alleged actions are un-Islamic and against the values of the Bosnian people.
“If they did this, they’re just three people,” Kunic said. “Not whole Bosnian community. They cannot judge whole Bosnian community.”
In a statement released Sunday, the Islamic Community of North American Bosniaks condemned the actions of the accused. “All of our communities stand united in condemnation of terrorist activities and terrorism overall,” the statement said. “Muslims from all corners of the world find in Islam a faith that teaches good character and devotion, not one that calls towards hatred of any kind of injustice to another human being.”
Some Bosnians in St. Louis fear there could be an Islamophobic backlash against the community, worrying that their homes, businesses and mosques could be targeted.
“We don’t want to be seen as [associated with] them,” Muratovic said. “People just want to live their lives like any other Americans, and they don’t want to be accused of something they don’t even think about. People don’t think about this. They think about how to survive day by day.”
“If they did it, they should get the punishment for it,” said Dzemal Bijedic, a Bosnian police chaplain with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “And all the Bosnians in St. Louis and the United States — we don’t support terrorism or any terrorist groups. We condemn any terrorist act committed.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office issued the indictment last week; it was made public Friday evening after five of the suspects were arrested. Rosic is still at large and is out of the country. The Hodzics made their first appearance in a federal court in St. Louis on Friday evening.
The six defendants are accused of having knowingly raised funds for and sent money via PayPal and Western Union transfers to Abdullah Ramo Pazara, whom the indictment describes as “a Bosnian native who immigrated to the United States, became a naturalized citizen and resided in St. Louis, Missouri … before leaving the United States on or about May 28, 2013.”
Bosnian news websites reported last year that Pazara may have been killed while fighting the peshmerga in Syria near the border with Turkey. He is not listed as a defendant in the indictment. He traveled from St. Louis to Zagreb, Croatia, the indictment says, then to Bosnia-Herzegovina and eventually to Syria.
The indictment also says they sent Pazara military tactical gear — including rifle scopes and combat boots — using the U.S. Postal Service. The money and items were all sent via third parties in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The accused are said to have used Facebook to communicate with one another.
The indictment also accuses Ramiz Hodzic of trying to board a Norwegian Airlines flight in New York to join Pazara as a fighter in Syria. And Hodzic and Rosic are accused of conspiring to kill and maim people in a foreign country.
A Bosnian news organization published photos of individuals whom Bosnians in St. Louis identified to Al Jazeera as Hodzic and his children.
If found guilty, the defendants can face up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $250,000 for each count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, according to the Department of Justice. Hodzic and Rosic can face life in prison for conspiring to kill or maim people in a foreign country.
William Woods, head of the FBI’s St. Louis office, said in a statement that the indictment “epitomizes the FBI’s commitment to disrupting and holding accountable those who seek to provide material support to terrorists and terrorist organizations.”
It is estimated that more than 300 people have left the western Balkans to become ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq, according to a report from the West Point U.S. military academy. It is believed there may be as many as 100 people from the United States who have left the country to become ISIL fighters.
After the FBI raid Friday night in St. Louis County, Larry Sorth, the property manager at the complex where the Hodzics lived, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “This is just a shock.” He and his wife described the couple as friendly.
As the news spread over the weekend, members of St. Louis’ Bosnian community took to social media, calling the accused “losers” and “idiots.” One man wrote, “Shame on them.” Another said, “I just don’t understand it. They gave us a new start here, and this is how some repay the [U.S.]. I’m outraged.”
“Bosnians are not terrorists,” Bijedic said. “We want justice. We want to live peaceful.”