December 7, 2008
Bosnia and global jihadBy Leslie S. Lebl
These two books document the steady advance of radical Islam in Bosnia and the Balkans. They explain its role during and after the Bosnian war and argue that Bosnia was a key way station in the development of globalized jihad. They offer a welcome corrective to the usual narrative of a disintegrating Yugoslavia in which the primary danger came from Serbian aggression -- and one in which the international community's interventions, particularly in Bosnia, produced multiethnic democracy.
The nomination of Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State brings back memories of the time when Bosnia represented the primary foreign policy success of her husband's administration. The United States and its NATO partners saved a Muslim minority from genocide at the hands of the Serbs; kept the country from being divided up between Serbia and Croatia; and established peace after several years of a bloody war.
Thirteen years later, the landscape looks a little different. The recent apprehension of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic raised hopes that Bosnia was on the verge of societal reconciliation. While the apprehension was a step forward, such reconciliation is unlikely as long as another, long-festering problem remains unaddressed: the ever-growing influence of radical Islam in Bosnia. For years this trend has been an open secret; while perceptive observers have reported on it, most of Western government, media and academe have averted their eyes from the threat.
That is not the case for regional journalist Christopher Deliso, whose The Coming Balkan Caliphate traces the spread of radical Islam throughout the Balkans, a process greatly stimulated by the Bosnian war. Nor does it apply to Naval War College professor John Schindler, author of Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa'ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad.
Both authors argue that Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic misled the West, presenting himself, his party and his government as secularized and devoted to a multiethnic democracy, when in fact he was intent on establishing an Islamic state. Not only did their policies and actions ensure continued resistance from Serbs, Croats and non-radical Muslims, but they made Bosnia the ‘missing link' in Al Qaeda's trajectory. And the United States, through its decisive role in support of Izetbegovic, boosted the cause of global jihad.
The role of Izetbegovic
Schindler and Deliso agree on their portrayal of Izetbegovic. Perceived by most Western observers as the embattled leader of victimized, multiethnic Bosnia, Izetbegovic in fact had a lifetime of well-established Islamist credentials. Just before World War II, he founded a Muslim youth society modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood, with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Europe. During the war, he served as a recruiter for the infamous SS Handzar Division, known for killing and looting unarmed Serbs.
Izetbegovic subsequently authored the Islamic Declaration which, along with his attempt to establish ties with the Islamist Khomeini government, landed him in jail for five years in the 1980s. The Declaration does not appear to have been translated in English in its entirety and as a result few Americans have read it. Here are some excerpts:
Reading this, one would never guess that Bosnia was a secular, Westernized province in Yugoslavia in which the Muslims formed a minority. As Bosnian political analyst Nebojsa Malic puts it, according to Deliso, "Izetbegovic's vision of Bosnia was not a multi-ethnic democracy, but a multi-caste hierarchy of the kind that existed under the Ottoman Empire, the memories of which were still fresh at his birth in 1925."
Under the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslims lived a subordinate, precarious existence. They could practice their faith in private and were ‘tolerated' by the sovereign as long as they submitted to Ottoman power, never mentioned the Koran or the Prophet, and never criticized Islam. They did not, however enjoy same rights as Muslims and, if they broke the rules, lost the sovereign's protection and put their lives at risk.
The Croats and Serbs knew their Ottoman history as well as the Muslims and read the danger signals accurately. In addition, there were other reasons to suspect Izetbegovic's motives, in particular his repeated efforts to establish ties to the radical Islamic regimes in Libya and Iran as well as with more traditional Muslim countries like Turkey.
Schindler provides a useful summary of Izetbegovic's actions before and after the 1992 declaration of Bosnian independence. These included trips in 1991 to Libya, Turkey and Iran. In Turkey, Izetbegovic asked that Bosnia be admitted to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a Saudi-backed forum which includes all Muslim countries - an obvious measure of his contempt for Bosnia's multi-ethnicity. In Iran, he asked Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for help if hostilities broke out. The reported response: "As of now, the state budget of Iran will be projected as if Iran had two million more inhabitants than it currently has."
In November of that year, Izetbegovic's new political party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), at its first party congress purged the top leadership of non-Islamists. Several weeks later, the Young Muslims emerged from the shadows to hold their first-ever congress; some of their guests of honor were SDA leaders.
These facts help to explain, if not to excuse, the subsequent actions of Bosnian Serbs and Croats. Schindler notes that, in May 1991, Bosnian Serb leader and future indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic challenged Izetbegovic to "renounce his Islamic Declaration in public and declare that he will not establish an Islamic state in an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina." That never happened.
Meanwhile, Izetbegovic was building a dense network of ties to countries like Iran and to Islamic charities, mosques and ‘humanitarian' organizations that funneled funds, arms and materiel to the Muslims during the war. At home, in the second half of 1991 the SDA set up its own military force, the Patriotic League, trained and equipped by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Envisioned as a 30,000 man force, the League was never particularly effective, and was eventually combined with other units of the predominantly Muslim Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The SDA's efforts to set up its own intelligence service had more success. The Muslim Intelligence Service, or MOS, was set up in Vienna in 1991 with a primary goal, according to Schindler, "to ensure the dominance of Izetbegovic's inner circle of Islamists." That it did, with the help of the large sums of money moving through various Islamic networks, until the United States demanded that it be closed down after Dayton. Shortly thereafter it was re-created under another name.
Deliso and Schindler recount the mixed signals of Izetbegovic, and note that he excelled in telling each audience what it wanted to hear. What they do not say is that, in so doing, Izetbegovic was following in the well-developed tradition of takiyya, in which a Muslim is allowed to lie to infidels if it protects Muslims or helps to spread Islam. From that perspective, what Izetbegovic did was honorable - unfortunately, the West fell into the trap.
Al-Qaeda and the jihadis
Western analysts and politicians worried during the war that, by its secret collusion to help Iran supply arms to the Muslims, the United States had allowed one of its mortal enemies to gain a foothold in Bosnia. Certainly, Izetbegovic felt much closer to the Iranians and their ‘pure' Islamist revolution than he did to the Saudis, who did not practice what they preached. More than a decade later, the Iranians retain a considerable presence in Bosnia but keep a low profile. More visible, and well-described in these books, are organizations linked to the Saudis and the Gulf States.
The war in Bosnia soon became the prime recruiting tool for global jihad. Ed Husain describes in The Islamist how he, like many others, was radicalized by graphic videos of horror inflicted on the Bosnian Muslims. Indeed, the war in Bosnia came at a fortuitous juncture. Many jihadis had fought in Afghanistan. When the war against the Soviets ended in 1992, their choices in Afghanistan were poor. Staying there risked embroiling them in internecine, Muslim-on-Muslim conflicts; not only was this not jihad as they saw it, but they were outsiders. Some went home, but others couldn't because of legal charges or the risk of repression. For many of those who could re-enter it, civilian life was boring and meaningless. Bosnia as the next front in global jihad was irresistible.
Schindler presents considerable evidence to support his contention that Al Qaeda, including Bin Laden himself, "played the dominant role in getting the international component of the Bosnian jihad off the ground in 1992." This includes the personal engagement of Bin Laden. He was residing in Sudan at the time but apparently traveled to Bosnia and was, at one point, sighted in Izetbegovic's antechamber by two Western journalists (although it seems unlikely that Izetbegovic would have kept such an important contact waiting).
Schindler also traces the SDA's ties, especially those of close Izetbegovic associate Hasan Cengic, to the various Islamic charities and ‘humanitarian' organizations active in Bosnia. Before and during the war, Cengic served on the board of directors of the Third World Relief Agency, an organization with links to both the Saudi government and Al Qaeda that served as a conduit for funds and jihadis entering Bosnia.
Deliso, like most other observers, assembles much of this data, but does not connect the jihadis directly to Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda. He does, however, trace other Al Qaeda connections that spread throughout the Balkans but were particularly noticeable in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.
While Al Qaeda provided much of the leadership, the foot soldiers of the jihad came from many countries and groups. The Egyptian Islamic Group and Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIS) supplied the largest contingents, although Hezbollah was also present, as were Muslim youth and some converts from Europe.
The jihadis had their first armed engagement in fall 1992. Thus, by June1993, when the Saudis asked Clinton to take the lead in providing military assistance to Bosnia, the links to Islamist groups and jihadi fighters were already in place. U.S officials were not responsible for these developments but can be criticized for either ignoring or underestimating them.
Initially, jihadi contributions were minimal, but by the end of the war they had become feared assault troops. Their experiences in Bosnia gave them a new set of war-fighting skills, much as appears to have happened in Iraq ten years later. Jihadi savagery served more than just military purposes, however. Such actions as decapitations of non-Muslims were understood by all the participants as a return to Ottoman times and to classical Islam.
The end of the war by no means meant the end of Islamist influence in Bosnia. Despite efforts by the U.S. government to dislodge them, after the Dayton Accords and again after 9/11, some jihadis remained in country, often marrying Bosnian girls or being granted Bosnian passports by the Izetbegovic government. Shortly after 9/11, NATO forces raided the offices of the Saudi High Commission in Sarajevo, thwarting a terrorist attack on the U.S. and British embassies. A number of individuals were arrested and subsequently deported for alleged terrorist activity. Meanwhile, representatives of Islamic charities and other organizations continued to Islamicize Bosnia, and to use it as a point of entry into Europe. Sadly, as Deliso and Schindler note, U.S. efforts after September 11 to shut down these organizations failed.
For many years observers believed that the Islamists would make little headway there. Indeed, in a 2006 poll, over 70% of Bosnian Federation TV viewers said they believed Saudi fundamentalism was a threat to Muslims and to Bosnia. However, the fact that the majority of Bosnian Muslims oppose it does not mean that radical Islam has not made significant inroads there.
Deliso describes the efforts of the Bosnian religious establishment, starting in 2006, to combat Wahhabism, but sees them as ineffectual in opposing the well-funded Saudi challenge. Schindler's assessment is equally pessimistic, based on such indicators as the participation of the Islamic Community of Bosnia in the 2006 protests against the Danish cartoons, as well as the re-opening of sharia (Islamic law) courts, which had been closed down in 1946.
Nor are the present-day links to the jihadi past restricted to Bosnia. Both authors cite the numerous links between Bosnia and all kinds of terrorist acts: the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the GIS attacks in France in the mid-1990s; the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington; or the Madrid train bombings of 2004.
The links are not just personal; e.g., someone who fought in Bosnia later carries out a terrorist act in Europe. Rather, the links included planning, organization, and exploitation of networks set up during the war. As Deliso points out, the first suicide bombing in Europe, in 1995 in Rijeka, was organized and prepared in Bosnia. Indeed, the attempted attack on the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II was hatched in the Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca.
In 2007, Bosnia was described as one of Al Qaeda's transit points, where sympathizers help to hide agents and provide financial support or false documents. In May 2008, Bosnian TV reported allegations that Izetbegovic insider Hasan Cengic had personally signed a money transfer connected to the 9/11 attacks.
Both authors use numerous sources to detail these links; Schindler in particular refers to documentation and testimony from court cases. Neither is breaking new ground in telling the story of Bosnia's role in the global jihad. That is what makes it even more astounding that so little of this material has filtered into public perceptions of Bosnia and its role in global jihad.
The Western response
So just who was responsible for the arrival of jihad in Bosnia? Deliso states that the jihadis "would never have reached Bosnia in the first place had it not been for the Clinton administration's determination to defeat the Bosnian Serbs at all costs." As shown above, that accusation ignores the numerous initiatives undertaken before the war's start by Alija Izetbegovic, as well as the powerful forces behind establishing a new front for the global jihad after the Soviets left Afghanistan.
That said, there is no doubt that, when the United States finally did intervene, its actions promoted the spread of jihad. The question is why this obvious fact is buried so deep.
Schindler offers some useful and balanced perspective on U.S. policy (although it is not clear how his experience as a U.S. intelligence official relates to his knowledge of Bosnia). Schindler believes that the core of the problem lies in the way the Bosnian war was framed. The West saw its intervention as supporting a just cause, in a role like that of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The true parallel, he argues, is to U.S. support for jihad in Afghanistan. Once the Muslim cause was identified as the ‘just' one, it became impossible to perceive, let alone admit, the truth. Anyone interested in pursuing this tangled tale would do well to read Unholy Terror. While much of its data has appeared elsewhere, it offers a well-written, ‘one-stop shop' on events in Bosnia and their importance to the United States.
Deliso's analysis, which is more densely written, is flawed at several points by his knee-jerk criticism of both U.S. sins of omission and commission, leaving it unclear what precisely he thinks the United States should have done differently - if anything. He is more convincing when he talks in general about the West's motivations with regard to radical Islam. He recounts a tale told by a Texan soldier in Kosovo about people trying to capture baby alligators in a Texan lake for pets, only to be confronted with a "‘big, mean-lookin' mama alligator...And if you're in a nine-foot boat and there's a twenty-foot gator comin' at you - boy, you're fixin' to lose!"' In Deliso's view, this explains the West's problem in the war on terror in the Balkans. "It cannot go after the little gators, for fear of the big gators. As for the big gators, their snapping jaws have to be appeased with hand-outs. As if to make up for this failure, the West has simply dropped its nets..."
Deliso's book tracks the progress of radical Islam elsewhere in the Balkans, sometimes intertwined with developments in Bosnia, at other times independent of them. As is the case with other books on the Balkans, it takes patience to dig through the details. Every country is different, tempting one to throw up one's hands in despair and walk away. But, for any serious analysis of the threat posed by radical Islam, Deliso's regional perspective is essential.
The perspective presented in these two books will be difficult to advance in the new Obama administration, given that it contradicts the long-standing interpretation of actions taken by many of the same people in previous years. In any administration, that would be a tall order.
Leslie S. Lebl, Principal of Lebl Associates, is a Fellow at the American Center for Democracy. A former career foreign service officer, she blogs on foreign policy issues at leslielebl.blogspot.com.