Shortly after 6 a.m. on a crisp morning in late November, 2014, the Roma neighborhood in the southern Bulgarian town of Pazardzhik woke up to an unusual sight. Paramilitary police in armored cars rolled through the muddy streets and heavily armed, masked agents raided nearby buildings, including the Ebu Bekir mosque.
A local imam, Ahmed Moussa, was the first to be taken into custody. By the end of the day, 26 people had been arrested in a joint operation by the State Agency for National Security (SANS) and prosecutors investigating the distribution of Islamist militant propaganda. Police searched more than 40 houses in the Iztok neighborhood and other locations for pro-ISIL propaganda.
A group of bearded men in the yard of the mosque expressed anger to reporters. “We don’t have anything to do with ISIL,” one man snapped. “I know them as much as I know you.” A piece of paper bearing an Arabic inscription was taped to his cap: “There is no other God but Allah” — a phrase used on ISIL militants’ black flags but also a pillar of the Islamic creed.
Seven months later, in July 2015, prosecutors submitted charges against 14 Muslim Bulgarian citizens — including Moussa — from Pazardzhik and nearby Plovdiv, Asenovgrad and Startsevo, accusing them of inciting religious hatred through their preaching and promoting war by spreading ISIL propaganda.
The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, obtained the indictment, which includes claims that Moussa and two others provided support to foreign jihadists who traveled to Syria.
Those indicted in the 2014 arrests are still awaiting trial. Last December, the presiding judge ruled the trial could not go ahead, citing an unclear original indictment and procedural violations. The prosecutor submitted an amended indictment to address the court’s concerns, and the trial is set to get under way again this year.
Three of the defendants in the case have accepted the allegations against them.
One made no statement about the charges. The others, including Moussa, have pleaded not guilty.
But Moussa and his associates are part of a broader story — about how Salafism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam that strictly adheres to traditions and practices from the time of the Prophet, gained a foothold among the Roma community in Iztok, an area where it previously had no traction at all.
For the past two years, Bulgaria has devoted considerable attention and resources to building a border fence to keep out refugees and migrants from the Middle East. But it has been building walls between its own communities for much longer.
Decades of neglect by Bulgarian society and institutions left many Roma feeling marginalized, creating fertile ground for religious fundamentalists, according to locals and experts in Roma communities and radicalization.
Moussa, a charismatic 40-year-old Salafist preacher, had been convicted for spreading religious hatred twice already.
Others charged by prosecutors following the 2014 raid are alleged members of Moussa’s inner circle. Most, like Moussa himself, received only primary education, are unemployed and organize religious activities in their own communities.
Moussa’s neighborhood, Iztok, lies in the heart of Pazardzhik yet feels separate from the rest of the town. The infrastructure is poor and there is no public transport. The majority of its population of 20,000 speak Turkish as their mother tongue. Bulgarian society generally regards them as Roma, although they often identify themselves as Turks or simply as Muslims.
Historically, they had not been devout believers, in part because religion was suppressed under communism. They practiced an idiosyncratic form of Islam that incorporated elements of Christianity and paganism.
“When we heard the cuckoo call, we believed that somebody would die. Those were the kind of beliefs we had,” one man from the community said. “That’s not Islam.”
As Abdullah Salih, the head mufti of the Pazardzhik region, put it: “They were born as Muslims. They would say they are Muslims but they didn’t act as Muslims in their everyday lives. They started learning since then.”
After the fall of communism in 1989, different religious groups found a responsive audience among the Roma population. Some Bulgarian Muslims traveled to Turkey and the Middle East to deepen their religious understanding. They brought back unfamiliar customs and rituals that created friction between new and old imams.
Before he became a standard-bearer of the new Islam in Iztok at age 20, Moussa had attended the local evangelical church. Court documents from his previous convictions sketch out his transformation. During a visit to Austria in the mid ’90s, he converted to Islam and attended a one-year course for imams in the Bulgarian village of Sarnitsa. His teacher, who had a religious degree from Saudi Arabia, introduced him to Salafist ideas.
Diagnosed with a combination of depression and schizophrenia in his youth, Moussa never got a license from the official Muslim authority in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, he turned his own home into a place of worship and started preaching. He later joined the Ebu Bekir mosque, built in 2002, with partial financial support from a Saudi foundation. He preached everywhere — in cafés and on the streets, at weddings and funerals. His ideas traveled to neighboring towns and migrant communities in western Europe via YouTube and Skype.
Moussa quickly became an authority for some people in the neighborhood, who still say he is a good man. He would “scatter his heart to give it to the poor,” one woman said. Over a decade, and under his leadership, his followers gradually changed their appearance, customs and habits. They abandoned their Bulgarian names for Arabic ones. (Moussa himself was previously named Angel Stoyanov.) They began celebrating Muslim festivals instead of national holidays, or even their own birthdays. Men grew long beards, and started to keep their hair short and wear long robes. Women covered themselves with burqas.
Moussa preached both online and offline, with ISIL flags on display in the background. He repeatedly told his followers that it was every Muslim’s duty to join the so-called Islamic State, according to witness testimony cited in his indictment.
An anonymous witness quoted in the document claims that Moussa required his followers to collect money for ISIL fighters during Ramadan. He also stands accused of spreading religious hatred with a book containing Wahhabi ideas, widely seen as one of the most hardline and intolerant strains of Islam.
The prosecution charged the other defendants with spreading religious hatred by using social media to share photos and videos of ISIL fighters, executions and religious chants calling for military jihad. Investigators found photos of the defendants posing with flags and merchandise like hats, T-shirts and key rings associated with the militant group. According to the indictment, their Facebook profiles featured them pointing with an index finger to the sky, a sign widely used by ISIL supporters.
Moussa and two of his closest followers from Pazardzhik, Stefan Alexandrov (known as Suleiman) and Angel Simov (known as Airi), have also been accused of providing logistical support to three jihadists who went on to fight in Syria: Said Husejinovic, a 33-year-old French citizen of Bosnian origin; Murat Ayyildiz, a 38-year-old Turkish citizen with a German residence permit; and Izudin Crnovrsanin, a Serbian citizen aged 26.
Husejinovic and Ayyildiz are still fighting for ISIL. Crnovrsanin was arrested in Serbia in March 2014 on terrorist charges, according to SANS.
Two of these men visited Pazardzhik on their way to Syria in November 2013. Both Husejinovic and Crnovrsanin stayed in Moussa’s house and their visits overlapped. Ayyildiz visited Alexandrov’s home in the summer of 2014.
At least 332 foreign fighters from western Europe and the western Balkans passed through Bulgaria en route to Syria and Iraq between the start of 2013 and June 2015, although not all made it to the battlefields, SANS said in a statement.
The prosecutor in charge of the case declined a request from BIRN to interview Moussa, who remains in custody awaiting trial.
It is not yet clear who will act as Moussa’s legal representative when the trial begins. Harry Haralampiev, his lawyer in two previous trials, expressed skepticism about the claims that the preacher harbored jihadists.
“If this is true, then I ask the rhetorical question: Why didn’t the authorities arrest these people who were traveling through Bulgaria? Why didn’t they arrest and extradite them immediately?”
Haralampiev described Moussa as a complex man. “He has a magnetic influence over his community,” he said. “He lacks rationality, but paradoxically that’s what makes him a leader.”
People in Iztok say that Moussa’s followers, estimated to number between 300 and 500, keep their distance from others in the neighborhood.
Zoya Simeonova, who manages a local council-run community center, recalled the day a group of children showing up at the door. “They told me that they wouldn’t come to the community center any more because they’re Muslims,” she said. “That’s when I realized that kids are being kept away from public institutions.”
Sasho, a 50-year-old man, offered another example as he sat outside the kebab shop and café he runs in the center of Iztok on a warm summer day. “You see,” he blurted out, pointing a finger at the patrons of a neighboring café. “Those with the beards won’t come and sit at my place.”
According to Sasho, people from Moussa’s community only frequent his Muslim competitor’s café: “They don’t communicate with others anymore.”
Other Muslims in Iztok share Sasho’s view, and reject Moussa’s interpretation of Islam. “I can’t live like they used to live a thousand years ago,” said Yashar Angelov, a 55-year-old clerk who works at the town hall in Pazardzhik. I prefer that strain of Islam that corresponds with contemporary life.”
Moussa had a positive impact on the community in some ways, Angelov says; people gave up drinking and taking drugs, for example. But many cut themselves off from the rest of the community, and Angelov lost many friends.
Relations between the small Christian congregation in Iztok and Moussa’s followers are strained. In a fast-food place filled with the noisy conversation of construction workers at lunch, Yanko Angelov, the son of a local evangelical pastor, lifted his T-shirt to reveal a pistol in his waistband. He has carried the gun for protection since he and his father, a pastor, were attacked in 2005. Four years ago, he says, a group of Muslim men from Iztok beat another pastor and his friend with bats and iron pipes.
Angelov is convinced the attacks were religiously motivated. In police records they appear as “crimes against public order and peace.” Conflicts between evangelicals and the “Talibans,” as he called them, are common in Iztok.
In and around Iztok, some locals suggest the reasons Moussa’s followers embraced Salafism are not primarily religious.
“The main problems in this neighborhood are social and economic ones,” said Yashar Sali, the imam at the town’s central mosque and the face of “official Islam” in Pazardzhik. “If they lived a normal life, they wouldn’t care about those different streams [of Islam],” he said, claiming people from Iztok had been abandoned by the state and subjected to “economic genocide.”
As Bulgaria switched to a market economy in the 1990s, its Roma population was among the hardest hit. The state-run factories and agricultural cooperatives that had employed many in the community were shut down, leaving them jobless. Cutbacks in health and education spending had particularly damaging effects in the rural and isolated communities in which many Roma live.
Roma people currently have limited access to hospitals, schools, kindergartens, social services and public transport. According to the 2011 census, 60 percent of Roma over 15 years old are economically inactive. At least two generations of Roma have grown up practically illiterate and in deepening poverty.
Anthropologist Antonina Jeliazkova, head of a Sofia-based non-governmental organization that works with minority communities, said it’s no surprise people in Iztok sought a new identity. “They want to feel a part of something bigger, something that breaks down the walls of their ghettoization.”
Yanko Mishev, head of the trustees of Iztok’s Ebu Bekir mosque, claimed employers are prejudiced against people from the community and less likely to give them jobs. “Pazardzhik is the most racist town,” he said over Turkish coffee after Friday prayers.
We spoke shortly before the start of the holy month of Ramadan and Iztok was waiting for the Gastarbeiter — those who work in Germany and other western European countries — to return for the holiday.
He estimated that more than half the neighborhood’s inhabitants work abroad. “If you meet any young men on the streets, they’ll be gone in a month,” he said.
Work in Germany offers some Roma an economic lifeline but as the official investigation into Moussa and his group suggests, can also create dangerous connections. According to a witness, Angel Simov, one of the defendants, met the Turkish man he allegedly helped travel to Syria while they worked together in Germany.
In Cologne in 2001, Moussa himself got in touch with the Germany-based Turkish radical Islamist organization Kalifatsstaat (Caliphate state) and agreed to spread its ideas, according to court documents. German authorities banned the group in December of that year.
A representative of a German security agency told BIRN it was aware of Moussa, his group, and its ties to Germany, but could not provide any more information.
More than 5,000 Bulgarians live in Cologne, including migrant workers from Pazardzhik. Groups of them hang around the corner of Hansemann Street and the tree-lined Venloer Street in the Ehrenfeld district. They meet there at 6 a.m., when trucks collect them for construction work, and again in the evening, to smoke cigarettes after a long day of work.
Rujdi Zakir, a small and talkative man from Pazardzhik, works at a coal plant in Cologne. A member of Ahmed Moussa’s congregation, he angrily denounced Bulgarian politicians and national media, accusing them of stirring up conflict by demonizing the imam and his followers. “They say we’re from the Islamic State. Yes, my wife wears a burqa but how does that make her a terrorist?” he asked.
In Germany, he said, no one tried to divide people by ethnicity or religion.
Eliza Aleksandrova, a Bulgarian who runs a center for Muslim women in Cologne, expressed a similar view. Aleksandrova helps families from the Pazardzhik community find jobs and start German language courses. “German society is open to differences and that’s why they have a shot at starting a normal life here,” she said. She has been following the news about the investigation into Moussa and his followers with dismay, convinced the Bulgarian authorities overstated the problem because they know and understand little about religion, especially Islam.
Ivelina Karabashlieva, a Bulgarian expert in preventing radicalization, is concerned about the implications of putting Moussa and his followers on trial. She worked in the same field in the Netherlands, but Bulgaria lacks a comprehensive approach, she said. “Bulgaria should invest in prevention. You can’t change mind-sets with convictions,” Karabashlieva said.
The state needs to offer an alternative to ISIL propaganda, she said, meaning teachers have to be prepared to discuss the issue with their pupils and know how to spot early signs of radicalization. Social workers and local council officials should be trained in the basics of Islam and Salafism to understand what is dangerous and what is not.
Wandering through the dirty streets of the Roma neighborhoods in Pazardzhik and Plovdiv, Asen Kolev stopped frequently to chat. As a health mediator, his job is to connect local people with state medical services. It gives him a good sense of the public mood.
Ever since the arrests of Moussa and his followers, he said, the community has desperately been waiting for some kind of gesture from the authorities to help relieve the tense situation. Maybe a few new streetlights. Or a small festival for the kids. A sign that someone from the local leadership cares about these people. But there has been nothing.
Zornitsa Stoilova is a journalist and editor at the Bulgarian business publication Capital Weekly. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, a program supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.