SARAJEVO Bosnia introduced jail terms of up to 10 years on Tuesday for any citizen who fights in or recruits for conflicts abroad, seeking to curb departure of young Bosnians to Syria who could return to pose a threat at home.
Analysts say some young Bosnians have become radicalized to fight for global causes under the influence of foreign fighters or Mujahideen who came to help Bosnian Muslims fight Bosnian Serbs and Croats during the Bosnian 1992-95 war.
"This trend is the direct legacy of Mujahideen," said Vlado Azinovic, lecturer at the Sarajevo Faculty of Political Sciences and expert on terrorism.
Experts say that around 150 Bosnians were confirmed to have left for Syria over the past year, 15 of whom had been reported killed. Some took their wives and children with them, hoping to start a new life under strict Islamic rules.
Most Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, practice a moderate form of Islam. But some youths, particularly from rural areas, have in recent years adhered to the puritanical Sunni Muslim Wahhabi sect.
Governments estimate that several thousand Europeans have gone to Syria since the war against President Bashar al-Assad started three years ago. Britain and France have announced measures to counter the phenomenon which has also raised concern in other European Union countries.
Militant islamist groups have grown greatly in power and influence in the Syrian opposition in the last year, often clashing with other, non-sectarian groupings.
Bosnia's newly-approved penal law is designed to help prevent or decrease the number of young Bosnians going to fight in Syria.
"These people come back to Bosnia after certain time and engage in propaganda activities and encourage others to commit the same criminal acts," deputy Mirsad Djugum of the Party for Better Future (SBB) said while presenting his initiative in parliament.
Azinovic said the stricter penal code was not enough to tackle a complex issue of recruitment of foreign fighters among young Bosnians and there was a need for the engagement of the whole society, including the Islamic community and social workers.
Under U.S. pressure, most of the Mujahideen who came from Iran and Arab states were forced to leave Bosnia in the late 1990s but some remained after marrying Bosnian women and settling in mainly rural areas.
Azinovic said that his research showed that most Bosnians who have become Islamic fighters have lived in areas where Mujahideen settled during and after the war, such as the central town of Zenica.
Nobody knows the exact number of people who left Zenica for Syria but six men from the town were reported killed in fighting in the course of the past year.
A student from Zenica, who gave just his first name Amir, said he had learned from television news that his brother had left for Syria in April last year.
"We fear the worst, we are worried he might get killed," he said.
Amir said his brother was not a fighter and that he went to "help civilians attacked by al-Assad's forces".
"This penal code will not stop people going to Syria if they really want to," he told Reuters. "But it will influence them to think twice before they set off and will enable their parents to exert more influence on them."
(This story was corrected to clarify attribution in the tenth paragraph)
(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Ralph Boulton)