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Bosnia: The Mujahedin Unmasked

Recent book fills important gaps in what we know about the mysterious foreign fighters.
By Merdijana Sadović
Most of the mujahedin fighters who arrived to fight alongside government forces during the Bosnian war knew virtually nothing about the country.



“They joked about how at the beginning they didn’t know if Bosnia was in South America, North America, Europe or Australia,” said Evan F Kohlmann, an expert on terrorism and adviser to the American government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.



The revelation is contained in a little-publicised book – “Al Qaeda in Bosnia: Myth or Reality?” by Vlado Azinovic – which tells more about the mujahedin and their role in the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995 than any of the recent Hague tribunal trials in which they have featured, the latest being the prosecution of Bosnian army general Rasim Delic.



In the book, Radio Free Europe, RFE, editor Azinovic conducts interviews with journalists, politicians and FBI agents to provide an account of who the mujahedin were and how they came to Bosnia – some of the biggest mysteries of the bitter conflict.



The part played by the mujahedin has come under particular scrutiny in the Delic case, which closed last week as judges retired to consider a verdict.



Delic has been prosecuted for failing to prevent or punish crimes committed by the El-Mujahid detachment, which was meant to be subordinated to the 3rd Corps of the Bosnian army, ABiH, during the war. Members of the unit are alleged to have slaughtered and abused dozens of Croat and Serb prisoners between 1993 and 1995.



The Delic case, like others before it, examined the degree to which the Bosnian army exercised command responsibility over the mujahedin, but left a lot of questions about the group unanswered.



WHO WERE THE MUJAHEDIN?



According to Azinovic’s account, the mujahedin movement which first came to Bosnia in 1992 grew out of the contingent of foreign Muslims who fought alongside Afghan resistance forces in their ten-year war against Soviet occupation.



“They were Arabs… mainly from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Jordan,” said Kohlmann.



During the 1979-1989 war, Arab and other foreign Muslims fought as part of the Afghan mujahedin, supported by the United States and other powers, which supplied weapons and general equipment.



The struggle against the Soviets attracted thousands of volunteers, mainly from Arab countries, and their governments also supplied financial support. Saudi Arabia played a prominent role, and one of the mediators in bringing Saudi money and volunteers to Afghanistan was the then little-known Osama bin Laden.



When the Soviet army eventually withdrew, Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, an influential leader and recruiter of “Afghan Arabs”, declared the end of an era in which the political will of world superpowers dominated



Azinovic explains in his book that the triumph in Afghanistan was seen as the first phase of a global fight for the establishment of Islamic states - the international jihad.



HOW DID THE MUJAHEDIN ARRIVE IN BOSNIA?



The breakout of the Bosnian war in spring 1992 proved timely for many followers of Azzam’s ideas – they used the sufferings of Muslim people there as a pretext to come and fight, said Azinovic.



“Bosnia happened to come about at a propitious time,” said Kohlmann, noting that in 1989, Azzam was killed along with his two sons when his car exploded in Peshawar.



“The leaders of the movement were shattered. The Pakistani government decided that the jihad was over and they didn’t want foreign mujahedin fighters in their country any more, so they kicked them out in 1993,” he said.



Kohlmann explained the series of events in 1992 and 1993 which brought the mujahedin to Bosnia.



“You had a period where the mujahedin are going from their naissance stage in Afghanistan under the watchful eye of Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden to the stage where they are going into the international jihad action, moving beyond the borders of Afghanistan – exactly what Bin Laden had always dreamed of,” he said.



“And so the first place they came to was Bosnia.”



At first, the Sarajevo authorities were unsure why these foreign fighters had come, said Azinovic. Bosnian intelligence and authorities believed that mujahedin were brought into the country against the will of the Sarajevo-based government, and with the assistance of western security agencies.



According to him, some mujahedin were suspected of doing intelligence work, while others were thought to be trying to strengthen Islamic sentiment and ideology in Bosniak-held territories.



Bosniak member of the state presidency, Haris Silajdzic, who was Bosnia’s minister of foreign affairs at the time, said Muslim fighters arrived without an invitation.



“There were 600 to 700 of these people and most of them had arrived with honourable intentions to help Bosnia,” said Silajdzic.



“However, let me make this clear – nobody invited them, they arrived on their own.”



Kohlmann, who has researched the arrival of Afghan veterans in Bosnia, said there are documents from al-Qaeda as well as from Bosnian secret services which point to the same conclusion.



“Generally, at the beginning [the mujahedin] came on their own and have not been drafted – definitely not by somebody from Bosnia,” said Kohlmann.



They were instead spurred into action by international reporting on the Bosnian war, he said.



“They had seen media reports about the situation in Bosnia and they believed that genocide against Muslims was taking place there, so they took that as a reason for a new jihad,” he added.



Yet, in his book, Azinovic notes that international investigations conducted after the war determined that certain Sarajevo officials, as well as some foreign humanitarian organisations, backed the mujahedin’s arrival.



Kohlmann recalled that as the war dragged on, international opinion turned against the Serbs and became largely supportive of the Muslim side. At this time, a recruitment drive began in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and mosque representatives and other recruiters started sending individuals to fight in Bosnia.



“It’s true that not all of these people were brought in with the knowledge of the Bosnian government,” he said.



HOW STRONG WERE THEY?



Azinovic said it is unclear how many foreign Muslim volunteers fought alongside the regular Bosnian army during the war. He cites local estimates which suggest there were around 3,000 of them.



According to Esad Hecimovic, a reporter with Sarajevo-based weekly Dani, there are no reliable records to give an idea of mujahedin numbers.



Records show that some 400 foreign fighters contacted with local authorities at that time, for example to get passports and other personal documents endorsed. There are also documents containing lists of members of the El Mujahed detachment, a more formal unit whose status as part of the Bosnian military remains disputed.



“However, this sort of evidence is unreliable because the majority of these people did not reveal their real identity to military or civil authorities. Therefore we don’t know how many of them were there or who they were,” said Hecimovic.



But while the number of the mujahedin in wartime Bosnia is still a mystery, said Kohlmann, there is very little doubt about their role there – to help counter what began as the superior military might of the Serbs.



“The Serbs had the larger numbers of troops, they had better equipment, they had both the technological advantage and also, in some way, the propaganda advantage,” he said.



“The Bosnian military needed a boogieman, they needed somebody to scare the living daylights out of the Serbs and the Croats; they needed someone to make the Serbs and the Croats rethink their strategy of trying to take parts of Bosnia.”



According to Kohlmann, the mujahedin proved fearless on the battlefield.



“When you are confronting a superior force…you need hardcore, well-trained fighters; guys that aren’t afraid to die in combat; that would run straight into the line of enemy fire; that would dance across the minefield – do things that Bosnian soldiers would never, ever do,” he said.



Yet according to Silajdzic, the Bosnian army did not need the extra manpower supplied by the mujahedin.



“We didn’t need people, we needed weapons. But these people arrived anyway, and they evidently harmed the image of Bosnia,” he said.



The mujahedin, said Kohlmann, soon gained notoriety, “Within just a few days, or few weeks of being in combat in Bosnia they really made a name for themselves. Not as those great conventional fighters, but rather as those who are probably predisposed to commit war crimes on the battlefield.”



As evidence of their brutality, Kohlmann said that when Serb soldiers killed two foreign Muslim fighters during the war, among their belongings, they found photos of mujahedin holding the severed heads of Serbs.



“They were actually taking these heads and they were collecting them in boxes to take back with them,” added Kohlmann.



“This was not even so much a jihad at the beginning as it was a human safari.”



MUJAHEDIN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BOSNIAN ARMY



A number of trials in The Hague, including that of Delic, have looked at the extent to which foreign Muslim combatants were subordinate to the Bosnian military command after the creation of the El Mujahed detachment. The Delic indictment lists a number of war crimes attributed to this unit.



When they first arrived, the mujahedin irregulars do not appear to have been under the control of the Bosnian army.



“For the most part, these folks were independent units; they were fighting alongside Bosniaks, in some cases they were fighting alongside Bosnian military units,” said Kohlmann.



“But it would be a stretch to say that in the first year of the war they were closely commanded by anyone in the Bosnian military.”



At first, the foreign fighters established camps in central Bosnia, said Hecimovic, using remote mountain locations away from prying eyes, “It was only some time in April of 1993 that they took over a building in Zenica (Bosnia’s third largest city) and established their main headquarters there, after their armed forces had driven out units of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO).”



In the late summer of 1993, the Bosnian military tried to gain control over the mujahedin by integrating them more closely into the army. They established the El Mujahed detachment, consisting mainly of foreign Muslim fighters, which was intended to serve under the direct command of the Bosnian army's 3rd Corps.



The question of who had de facto control over the El Mujahed detachment is central to the Delic case. Prosecutors maintain the general had authority over them, while the defence argues they reported only to militant Islamist groups, like al-Qaeda, outside the country.



A judgement date for the trial has not yet been set.



Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s international justice/ICTY programme manager.



Vlado Azinovic is an RFE editor and IWPR contributor.

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