Brendan O’Neill The Spectator 06 September 2003
Brendan O’Neill says the Bosnian war taught Islamic terrorists to operate abroad For all the millions of words written about al-Qa’eda since the 9/11 attacks two years ago, one phenomenon is consistently overlooked — the role of the Bosnian war in transforming the mujahedin of the 1980s into the roving Islamic terrorists of today.
Many writers and reporters have traced al-Qa’eda and other terror groups’ origins back to the Afghan war of 1979–1992, that last gasp of the Cold War when US-backed mujahedin forces fought against the invading Soviet army. It is well documented that America played a major role in creating and sustaining the mujahedin, which included Osama bin Laden’s Office of Services set up to recruit volunteers from overseas. Between 1985 and 1992, US officials estimate that 12,500 foreign fighters were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and guerrilla warfare tactics in Afghan camps that the CIA helped to set up.
Yet America’s role in backing the mujahedin a second time in the early and mid-1990s is seldom mentioned — largely because very few people know about it, and those who do find it prudent to pretend that it never happened. Following the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the collapse of their puppet regime in 1992, the Afghan mujahedin became less important to the United States; many Arabs, in the words of the journalist James Buchan, were left stranded in Afghanistan ‘with a taste for fighting but no cause’. It was not long before some were provided with a new cause. From 1992 to 1995, the Pentagon assisted with the movement of thousands of mujahedin and other Islamic elements from Central Asia into Europe, to fight alongside Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs.
The Bosnia venture appears to have been very important to the rise of mujahedin forces, to the emergence of today’s cross-border Islamic terrorists who think nothing of moving from state to state in the search of outlets for their jihadist mission. In moving to Bosnia, Islamic fighters were transported from the ghettos of Afghanistan and the Middle East into Europe; from an outdated battleground of the Cold War to the major world conflict of the day; from being yesterday’s men to fighting alongside the West’s favoured side in the clash of the Balkans. If Western intervention in Afghanistan created the mujahedin, Western intervention in Bosnia appears to have globalised it.
As part of the Dutch government’s inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, Professor Cees Wiebes of Amsterdam University compiled a report entitled ‘Intelligence and the War in Bosnia’, published in April 2002. In it he details the secret alliance between the Pentagon and radical Islamic groups from the Middle East, and their efforts to assist Bosnia’s Muslims. By 1993, there was a vast amount of weapons- smuggling through Croatia to the Muslims, organised by ‘clandestine agencies’ of the USA, Turkey and Iran, in association with a range of Islamic groups that included Afghan mujahedin and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah. Arms bought by Iran and Turkey with the financial backing of Saudi Arabia were airlifted from the Middle East to Bosnia — airlifts with which, Wiebes points out, the USA was ‘very closely involved’.
The Pentagon’s secret alliance with Islamic elements allowed mujahedin fighters to be ‘flown in’, though they were initially reserved as shock troops for particularly hazardous operations against Serb forces. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times in October 2001, from 1992 as many as 4,000 volunteers from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, ‘known as the mujahedin’, arrived in Bosnia to fight with the Muslims. Richard Holbrooke, America’s former chief Balkans peace negotiator, has said that the Bosnian Muslims ‘wouldn’t have survived’ without the help of the mujahedin, though he later admitted that the arrival of the mujahedin was a ‘pact with the devil’ from which Bosnia is still recovering.
By the end of the 1990s State Department officials were increasingly worried about the consequences of this pact. Under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accord, the foreign mujahedin units were required to disband and leave the Balkans. Yet in 2000, the State Department raised concerns about the ‘hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists’ who became Bosnian citizens after fighting against the Serbs, and who pose a potential terror threat to Europe and the United States. US officials claimed that one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants had sent operatives to Bosnia, and that during the 1990s Bosnia had served as a ‘staging area and safe haven’ for al-Qa’eda and others. The Clinton administration had discovered that it is one thing to permit the movement of Islamic groups across territories; it is quite another to rein them back in again.
Indeed, for all the Clinton officials’ concern about Islamic extremists in the Balkans, they continued to allow the growth and movement of mujahedin forces in Europe through the 1990s. In the late 1990s, in the run-up to Clinton’s and Blair’s Kosovo war of 1999, the USA backed the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbia. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post in 1998, KLA members, like the Bosnian Muslims before them, had been ‘provided with financial and military support from Islamic countries’, and had been ‘bolstered by hundreds of Iranian fighters or mujahedin …[some of whom] were trained in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan’. It seems that, for all its handwringing, the USA just couldn’t break the pact with the devil.
Why is this aspect of the mujahedin’s development so often overlooked? Some sensible stuff has been written about al-Qa’eda and its connections in recent months, but the Bosnia connection has been left largely unexplored. In Jason Burke’s excellent Al-Qa’eda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Bosnia is mentioned only in passing. Kimberley McCloud and Adam Dolnik of the Monterey Institute of International Studies have written some incisive commentary calling for rational thinking when assessing al-Qa’eda’s origins and threat — but again, investigation of the Bosnia link is notable by its absence.
It would appear that when it comes to Bosnia, many in the West have a moral blind spot. For some commentators, particularly liberal ones, Western intervention in Bosnia was a Good Thing — except that, apparently, there was too little of it, offered too late in the conflict. Many journalists and writers demanded intervention in Bosnia and Western support for the Muslims. In many ways, this was their war, where they played an active role in encouraging further intervention to enforce ‘peace’ among the former Yugoslavia’s warring factions. Consequently, they often overlook the downside to this intervention and its divisive impact on the Balkans. Western intervention in Bosnia, it would appear, has become an unquestionably positive thing, something that is beyond interrogation and debate.
Yet a cool analysis of today’s disparate Islamic terror groups, created in Afghanistan and emboldened by the Bosnian experience, would do much to shed some light on precisely the dangers of such intervention.