Hours after the deadly Berlin truck attack, Bulgaria's interior minister admitted that 'terrorists' are travelling through the country in a bid to attack targets in western Europe. The statement only fuelled fears that the Islamic State has already infiltrated Bulgaria.
Next to cafes and restaurants a small mosque stands on the edge of the pedestrian zone at the southeast Bulgarian town of Haskovo. Another mosque, much more interesting and important, rises a few meters away, down the maze of twisty little streets. This is the oldest standing mosque in Bulgaria, dating back to the fourteenth century, when the Turks conquered the country.
Muslims and Christians have lived together peacefully for centuries in this quite town. But two years ago, totally unexpectedly for the majority of the locals, it made headlines around Europe over an alarming report.
A Congoese-born Belgian citizen, 27, was rushed to the local hospital after suffering wounds while fighting in Syria and managing to reach the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
The story - covered in the media in Belgium, but apparently deliberately ignored by local journalists– showcased why the exodus of Syrian refugees to Europe has fueled worries over the scale of threat posed by returning jihadists.
A year later concerns were exacerbated by the refugee crisis sweeping Europe. Bulgaria, situated on one of the three primary refugee migration routes, emerged as a transit point for jihadist fighters from both sides.
Unfortunately, weeding them out can be tricky.
Bulgaria – key land transit route
Much of the fears have been driven by the fact that ISIS has clearly stated its plan to send jihadists to Europe amid the refugee wave. Fighters with valid documents from EU countries can enter and exit without being detected, and ISIS has reportedly seized hundreds of Syrian blank passports.
As a result, European jihadists could be returning amid the wave, and fighters from Syria and Iraq could be sneaking into Europe under humanitarian cover and using doctored documents.
Imran Khawaja, who was pictured posing with a severed head in an ISIS stronghold, travelled from Bulgaria in his cousin's taxi after making the crossing last year.
And French terror suspect Fritz-Joly Joachin - linked to the Charlie Hebdo gunmen Cherif and Said Kouachi - was also arrested in Bulgaria near the border crossing.
Of course, Bulgaria is neither the first nor the last land route for them.
But as European and Turkish airports titghtened controls, Bulgaria turned into an important land transit route for ISIS fighters, who try to take advantage of the desperation of the refugees and to achieve their fanatical ideas.
At the same time Bulgaria is an easy route used by radicalized European Muslims or European jihadists to move from Europe to Turkey and then across the border into Syrian territory, controlled by the Islamic State.
“What we are witnessing is a clear-cut case of using Bulgaria as a launching pad, a logistics center, a transport corridor. This is the role for Bulgaria in ISIS plan. An area behind the front line, where a network of military units and establishments operate to back up the front line,” Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, from the nationalist Patriotic Front, comments.
“I think this is one of the reasons why Bulgaria has not been mentioned in ISIS recent propaganda videos, calling on Muslims living in the Balkans to either emigrate to the Islamic State or launch attacks where they are.”
According to the MEP, ISIS is very careful in the way it creates its public image and the messages it sends to the world.
“Every word is very precisely targeted. There is nothing accidental.”
ISIS propaganda – targeting Bulgarian Muslims
Meanwhile ISIS propaganda machine is operating at full speed in Bulgaria, targeting the Bulgarian Muslim population, according to one of the most respected experts on Islam in the Balkan country.
Mohamed Khalaf, an Iraqi-born journalist and correspondent in Bulgaria of a Kuwaiti newspaper, fled his homeland during the rule of Saddam Hussein. He married in Bulgaria and now teaches at Sofia University. He also serves as an unofficial adviser to several Bulgarian politicians.
"Bulgarian authorities don't want to publicly admit that Bulgaria has already been infiltrated by ISIS reps. I know that the propaganda of the Islamic State targets primarily and exclusively the Bulgarian Muslim population – out of seven million Bulgarian citizens there are some 1.5 milliin Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Muslim Roma and ehtnic Bulgarians who embraced Islam, the so-called Pomaks.”
Mr Khalaf finds the direct link between ISIS and their traget groups in Bulgaria particularly disturbing.
“The Muslim population in Bulgaria is poor and very open to radicalization. Fears that terrorism may be breeding among its civilian population are very well justified,” according to him.
The Arab community in Bulgaria is another main cluster of people, who are not only vulnerable to ISIS-linked radicalization, but are already allegedly part of its structures, including links to people involved in recruitment, radicalization activities or people who have fought in Syria, said Khalaf.
"It is a very well known fact for the Arab community in Bulgaria, for example, that the Iraqi owner of a doner kebab restaurant in Sofia, right opposite the immigration office in the center of the city, runs an organized group for smuggling refugees. For the right amount of money he can get anyone from Bulgaria to as far as Norway. In this way ISIS fighters can easily slip into Western Europe. But nobody from the police or the authorities is doing anything,” said the university teacher.
General Ivan Boyadzhiev, security expert, former chief secretary at the Interior Ministry (1995-1997), claims that in Bulgaria there are cells of radical Islamists, which can be activated at any moment.
“They use Bulgaria as a gateway to Western Europe. I am absolutely sure that the flow of refugees increases the risk of radical Islamists being inserted among the those who are fleeing war or are pure economic migrants.”
“The process started three years ago when the refugee crisis hit Bulgaria. Ever since then we have been warning that ISIS cells in Europe and Bulgaria in particular are ready to do anything for their idol. Europe just sleepwalked into this crisis.”
According to Mr Khalaf the European Union and the local authorities are weak against the criminal networks that make profit smuggling the refugees and migrants, so that all kinds of terrorists can and do pass through Bulgaria.
“I also know that many Bulgarian authorities and border police are “partners” of the smugglers. I know this for sure because I have had many meetings with ambassadors of EU Member states here and they have confirmed this for me. The corruption in Bulgaria is very high and the ethical principles are low.”
Bulgarian criminal networks best known for smuggling guns and drugs have now shifted to smuggling migrants, Mr Khalaf claims.
“There is no doubt that ISIS terrorists are crossing Bulgaria, in and out. ISIS managed to spread its fighters across Europe, the Balkans too, this is their main strength. The problem is that the Bulgarian authorities can detain only those about whom they have received a notice by their EU partners.”
In his opinion ISIS made a breakthrough in Bulgaria through the Roma gypsy minority.
Even prior to the Paris attacks, Mr Khalaf has been warning for months that ISIS will inflict terror in Europe as the group has evolved in its reach and organizational ability, with increasingly dangerous hubs in European countries.
“The Paris attacks were part of a larger campaign by the Islamic State. Following Paris attacks, the terrorists overcame an important psychological barrier – now they are confident they can now act in Europe just as they act in Syria or Baghdad. Also they achieved another major goal – spreading panic among Europeans.
“There will be more attacks in European countries soon. But the lone-wolf attacks are not the major problem Western officials should be concerned about. ISIS key plan includes coordinated, high-casualty attacks, not lone wolfs."
The gloomy predictions are now turning into reality.