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Looking Back at the Bosnian Mujahideen
A Brief History of the Yugoslav Wars
In 1980, the president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, passed away. In the lead-up to his death and especially since, many have posited that Yugoslavia was destined to disintegrate without Tito, arguing that his sole personality held the country together rather than the League of Communists or any shared ideology. What was a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional western Balkan nation of people with a broadly common culture and a bloody commingled history would violently break apart into seven separate states whose current bilateral relationships are often antagonistic and even edge towards renewed conflict.
Originally comprised of six socialist republics and two semi-autonomous provinces, all but one of the resulting states gained independence from Yugoslavia with varying degrees of violence, either in the form of direct conflict with the remnant Yugoslav government or in that of internal violence between different ethnic populations following secession.
Slovenia was the first to declare independence, which it gained after ten brief days of minimal fighting in 1991. North Macedonia remarkably seceded that same year without hostilities between themselves and Yugoslavia but experienced a brief yet deadly insurgency in 2001 which pitted ethnic Albanian guerrillas against Macedonian forces and still haunts the country today. Croatia also declared independence in 1991, following Slovenia, after armed clashes had already broken out between ethnic Croat and ethnic Serb populations. Croatia’s struggle to secede spiraled into four years of brutal fighting between Croat forces, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), and eventually Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) troops once the conflict spilled over into the neighboring Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ending in a détente between Croat and Bosniak forces in 1994 and official Croatian independence in 1995. The contiguous Bosnian War (1992-1995) was by far the most destructive and the bloodiest of the Yugoslav Wars, and it was succeeded by Kosovo’s war with Serbia (1998-1999), where we are likely to see renewed hostilities between Kosovo Albanians (Kosovars) and Kosovo Serbs at any contemporary moment, despite Kosovo gaining widely-recognized and NATO-backed independence in 2008. Only Montenegro separated from its union with Serbia without any concomitant political violence, following a referendum in 2006. However, growing divisions in Montenegrin society have signaled that perhaps even this small and mostly mono-confessional NATO country might not be spared political violence that is ultimately rooted in the breakup of Yugoslavia.
As for the Bosnian War, fighting between Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats, and Eastern Orthodox Serbs broke out in the spring of 1992 after Bosniaks and Croats voted for independence in a referendum boycotted by Bosnian Serbs. The latter, organized into armed units and led by now-convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić, occupied a majority of the country and began laying siege to the capital Sarajevo, committing massacres along the way in an effort to create a Serb republic, and arguably in retaliation for atrocities committed against ethnic Serbs. The war was in fact characterized by bitter fighting and war crimes on all sides. In 1995, following international shock and outrage at the Srebrenica massacre, NATO began an offensive air campaign against Bosnian Serb troops, escalating the alliance’s presence in the region by enforcing a no-fly zone, leading to a US-brokered peace deal between all three factions and an eventual end to the fighting.
At the height of the Bosnian War, outgunned and outnumbered, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović welcomed Muslim foreign fighters (mostly of Arab descent) to join the conflict, officially forming the Mujahideen Battalion in 1993, which at its peak grew to around 1,500 volunteer foreign fighters. The presence of these foreigners not only introduced a segment of Bosnian Muslims to stricter interpretations of Sunni Islam than the notably casual form of the religion that many Balkan Muslims are known to practice, but it also left behind the concept and legacy of global jihad, likely having much to do with the more than 300 Bosniaks who traveled to Syria and Iraq with intentions of joining the Islamic State around 2015.
Jihad Comes to Bosnia
The Bosnian War saw many atrocities against Muslims. Civilians were expelled from their long-time homes, mass murders occurred, and women were raped in groups. Mosques were destroyed and their minarets toppled. Despite some measures by the international community, the atrocities continued. The suffering of Bosniaks spoke to many Muslims around the world, who saw the conflict as one between their coreligionists and armies of marauding Christians. According to jihadi foreign fighters, they were defending Muslims against the infidel Christian Serbs and did not want to turn away while their brethren were being persecuted. Serb and Croat forces were accused of carrying out a new “crusade” with the complicity of western countries. The West itself was accused of being indifferent because the victims were “just Muslims”. This view was presented repeatedly at political rallies. The UN arms embargo on all Yugoslav territories hobbled the ability of the new Bosnian army (ABiH) to defend Bosniak citizens, while Bosnian Serbs were being supplied with arms by the JNA. The tragedy in Bosnia was compared to the 1492 Reconquista of Muslim Spain and the ongoing plight of Palestinians.
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Despite all sides of the war having experienced atrocities against their people, it seems that Muslims suffered the most, and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre is the most notable example of this suffering, in which between 7,000 and 8,000 Muslim boys and adult males were summarily executed and buried in mass graves.
Throughout the ABiH there were religious advisors, and amongst the mujahideen, “assistants for morale and religious affairs”, giving religious instruction to the fighters. As early as 1992, Muslim fighters killed in the war began to receive the label “šehid,” or martyr. And in 1994, a seminar was held in which the speakers presented “Islam as the spiritual force of the defense” of Bosnia. This notion was expected to bolster the Bosniak fighting spirit and constitute the primary motivation for Muslim soldiers.
Scholar John R. Schindler says that President Izetbegović’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA) had a measurably successful war-time policy project that sought to “re-Islamize” Bosnia’s Muslims. “While most Muslims remained relatively secular, the religious-minded had become more so, and some of them had evolved into militant Islamists of a kind almost unknown in prewar Bosnia.” Irrespective of this policy’s success, Muslim Bosnia still retains much of its religiously relaxed qualities. Nonetheless, the fact that Bosnia had more foreign fighters per capita than any other European country who traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq in the 2010s remains an interesting data point to be considered in the context of the 1990s Bosnian War. Schindler further asserts that the Bosnian Muslim leadership’s political causes had long aligned with deepening the Islamic piety among the nation, a cause which arguably found tremendous breathing room during the 1990s war.
Overall, the foreign mujahideen made up approximately 1% of the ABiH’s fighting force. Yet questions concerning the impact of foreign fighters’ presence in Bosnia during its Muslim population’s struggle for survival and statehood still exist, not only as they concern the nature of Bosnia itself, but as they concern both the phenomenon of European foreign fighters in the Middle East, and perhaps of more immediate importance to western analysts, the issue of battle-hardened Europeans returning as combat veterans from foreign battlefields to home countries on the European continent. Schindler asserts that Al-Qaeda formed a firm and even lasting network in the country by the war’s end. Many have cast doubt on this notion, however. In Vlado Azinović’s 2007 book, Al-Qaeda in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Myth or Present Danger?, he argues that Bosnia “is an ideal breeding ground for militant ideologies, while Wahhabism provides extreme, yet simple, answers to almost every challenge that arises from Bosnia's post war reality.” Contrary to lower figures that put the number of mujahideen who fought in Bosnia at around 1,500, Azinović estimates their numbers to be between 3,000-4,000 and says of the few hundred that remained after the war, dozens of these are likely still living in Bosnia. Another figure estimates that a total of 5,000 foreign fighters joined the war in Bosnia, but this presumably includes those foreigners who fought on the Serb and Croat sides as well, such as the Greek Volunteer Guard who were present at Srebrenica on the Serb side.
The Bosnian Mujahideen
When the Soviet-Afghan War ended in 1989, the Soviets had been defeated by a guerrilla army with several foreigners in its ranks. The Arab veterans that fought the Soviets there wanted to continue their now-global mission of jihad. The news coming from Bosnia was a sign of God for these veterans. Propaganda from Bosnia brought Arab and European Muslims together to relieve their brothers. Most of these fighters came from the Arab world, although some came from Western countries like France and Germany. Many Arab fighters saw Bosnia as a support base for the jihad they were fighting or hoped to fight in their home countries. They ran guns from Bosnia, using Europe as a road, in order to get weapons to countries like Algeria. Others found the prospect of fighting in Bosnia far more attractive than the realities awaiting them back home.
Foreign fighters that arrived in Bosnia created a brigade and named it “El Mudhzahid” in order to serve as a volunteer force under the ABiH. The brigade was first led by Abd el-Rahman al-Dawsary (aka “Barbaros,” meaning Red Beard). He was then succeeded by a Libyan, an Algerian, and finally an Egyptian. They were headquartered in Zenica, about an hour’s drive outside of Sarajevo. The brigade was disbanded after the Dayton Agreements in 1995, prompting its fighters to spread out around the world, although some remained in Bosnia. Their presence was appreciated by many Bosnians, in the midst of the government’s failure to stop the carnage, although they were also accused of sullying the images of Bosnians in the West and criticized for committing war crimes. By October 1994, Saudis were the most represented nationality in the ranks of El Mudzhahid, followed by Egyptians and Algerians.
There were two waves of mujahideen traveling to the Balkans. The first was in the summer and fall of 1992, with Arabs coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The second wave took place after the Mecca pilgrimage in 1994. These were part of a group prepared by radical preachers from the Arabian Peninsula. The first lot of mujahideen came from Libya, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Algeria, and Sudan. Then, an organized group of fanatical volunteers arrived in Bosnia. They hailed from well-known Koranical schools in the Arabian Peninsula.
Among the famous jihadists that fought in Bosnia was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Another was Amer Azizi, the mastermind of the Madrid Train Bombings in 2004. Two of his assistants, Saud al-Otaibi and Abdel Karim al-Meyati, also fought in Bosnia. Yet another important veteran was Egyptian UK-based preacher, Abu Hamza al-Masri, a spiritual father of the London 2005 bombers. Bin Laden’s bodyguard, Abu Jandal (real name Nasir al-Bahri), fought in Bosnia as well. 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Midhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were themselves veterans of the Bosnian war.
The rather long list of famous jihadists who fought in Bosnia includes: Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, a deceased al-Qaeda member; Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Daniel Pearl; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was involved in the USS Cole bombing; the mastermind of this attack, Jamaal al-Badawi, also fought in Bosnia; Mahmud Salim, who took part in the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania US embassy bombings; Zakiur-RehmanLakhvi, one of the terrorists of the 2008 Mumbai attacks; Reda Seyam, a German-Egyptian member of the Islamic State, who held the highest position for Germans; Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, al-Qaeda terror mastermind in Saudi Arabia who was responsible for attacks on westerners there, including the murder of US citizen Paul Johnson, worked as a trainer in Bosnia; Abu Anas al-Shami, lieutenant to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; Al-Qaeda in Iraq commander, Abu Ibrahim al-Tunisi, also fought in Bosnia.
Much has been said and written about the Bosnian mujahideen, their impact on the country, and their implications for the future of foreign fighters traveling from and back home to European countries. Furthermore, the notable roster of notorious jihadists who traveled to Bosnia during the war continues to be a topic of discussion among terrorism analysts. It does, however, appear that early fears of radicalized Bosnians traveling home from foreign battlefields in the Middle East only to commit a terrorist attack in Europe have so far been overblown. In fact, since 2015, the few instances of terrorism perpetrated by known Muslim extremists have all targeted local authorities. The perpetrator of the 2015 Zvornik attack, which killed a Bosnian Serb police officer and injured another, though known Islamic extremists associated with Bosniak veterans of the war in Syria, might have had personal motivations for the attack rooted in the violence of the 1990s. As it turns out, his father was one of the civilians massacred by Serb forces outside of Zvornik in June 1992.
 Byman, Daniel. Road Warrior: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad (Oxford University Press, 2019), 41.
 Schindler, Robert R. Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad, (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007), 277.
 Ibid, 15.
 Byman, Daniel. Road Warrior: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad (Oxford University Press, 2019), 46.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 54.