Mujahedin in Bosnia
by Marko Attila Hoare
Esad Hecimović, Garibi: Mudžahedini u BiH 1992-1999, Fondacija Sina, Zenica 2006, pbk, ISBN 9958-9141-0-7, 298 pp.
The role of Islamist volunteers, or mujahedin, in the Bosnian war of 1992-95 continues to inspire controversy up to the present day. This is thanks to the tangential involvement of Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda and in light of their subsequent terrorist outrages in New York, Washington, Istanbul, Madrid, London and elsewhere, rather than due to any more genuine interest in what went on in Bosnia. Those interested in the topic are fortunate already to have at least one excellent book on the subject: Evan Kohlmann’s Al Qaeda’s jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian network (Berg, Oxford and New York, 2004), which serves to refute the outlandish claims made by the more propagandistic writings of Saul Shay, Yossef Bodansky, Srdja Trifkovic and other Islamophobes. The appearance of another informed account of the activities of the mujahedin in Bosnia, Esad Hecimovic’s ‘Garibs: The Mujahedin in Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1992-1999’, is therefore welcome; Hecimovic confirms many of Kohlmann’s conclusions while adding valuable material of his own.
‘Garibs’ means ‘foreigners’, and refers to the Islamist volunteers or missionaries who arrived in Bosnia during the war, not just to fight for the Muslims against the Serbs and Croats, but to propagate a fundamentalist version of Islam to the secular or moderately religious native Bosnian Muslims. Hecimovic’s book, which is really a collection of short articles, traces the story of both the foreign Islamist volunteers and the native Bosnian Muslims who came under their influence, from the height of the Bosnian war and the armed conflict with the Croats, through the subsequent battles against the Serbs, the Dayton Peace Accord, the low-intensity local conflicts between Muslims and Serbs and Croats that followed the peace, up to the Western-backed efforts to dislodge the foreign muhahedin from Bosnia in the context of the escalating conflict between the US and its allies and the international Islamist movement. Bin Laden makes an appearance early in the book; in light of his declared policy of assisting Muslims world-wide wherever they were under attack, be it in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan or anywhere else, in August 1992 he sent his envoy Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl from Khartoum to Europe in August 1992. Arriving in Zagreb via Budapest, al-Fadl met and conferred with other Islamist radicals including Abu Abdel Aziz ‘Barbaros’, the first commander of the foreign mujahedin in Bosnia.
This al-Qaeda mission had the blessing of bin Laden’s Sudanese hosts; another Islamist activist close to the Sudanese regime, Al-Fatih Ali Hassanein, headed the Vienna-based ‘Third World Relief Agency’ (TWRA) which made regular financial contributions to the beleaguered Bosnian government. The Islamists penetrated into Bosnia by working through Islamic humanitarian front organisations such as the TWRA and the Benevolence International Foundation. Yet they were only one element among many in the global Islamic movement of solidarity with the Bosnian Muslims, who were supported by Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shiite Iran and secular Turkey alike. Hecimovic’s book confirms what a non-story the supposed Al-Qaeda presence in Bosnia really was: the presence of perhaps a couple of thousand foreign mujahedin in Bosnia, brought about by the activities of a loose international Islamist movement of which al-Qaeda was merely an element, may have made a small contribution to the Bosnian Army’s ability to resist its Croat and Serb enemies, but it contributed nothing, or very little, to bin Laden’s ambitious plans for jihad in Europe.
No glorious jihad
Those reading this book in the hope of finding evidence in support of the wilder conspiracy theories concerning al-Qaeda and the Bosnian Muslims will be disappointed. Whatever ambitions some of the foreign Islamist zealots may have had when they arrived in Bosnia, they ended up, following the end of the Bosnian war in the autumn of 1995, engaged in the more humdrum business of clashing with international relief workers and preventing the return of non-Muslim refugees to their homes in Central Bosnia. Some of these radicals did move on from Bosnia to continue the jihad elsewhere in Europe, and Hecimovic charts their sorry story of dispersal and pursuit by the police in France, Germany and other European countries. The start of a glorious global jihad this was not.
The theme of the difference in outlook between these foreign Islamic radicals and the native Bosnian Muslims is a familiar one, and Hecimovic confirms that the division went all the way up to the highest level. He quotes Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in April 1995 denouncing to his followers the aggressive ideology of the foreign mujahedin, on the grounds that ‘Islam is not a state religion in Bosnia, nor can it be; furthermore, it should not be. Only week people and weak doctrine seek a protected, privileged position. And Islam is a strong doctrine, a live religion; according to some, today the only living religion in the world. Instead of privileges, Islam in Bosnia needs three things: freedom, conditions for activity and the dignity of your calling. The first two need to be guaranteed by the state, and this last by you.’ (p. 47). Among the foreign Islamist values that were wholly alien to the Bosnian Islamic tradition represented by Izetbegovic was anti-Semitism; Hecimovic cites the foreign mujahedin on repeated occasions denouncing world Jewry as well as the US - which was seen to be pro-Serb - but this found no echo among Izetbegovic and his supporters.
Nevertheless, the foreign mujahedin did attract converts from a minority of local Bosnian Muslims; it was both the foreigners and their local recruits who spearheaded attacks on non-Muslim - primarily Croat - civilians, churches and government offices and individuals in the years following Dayton. Thus, while the foreign mujahedin failed to attract any Bosnian Muslims to the global jihad, they succeeded in catalysing the efforts of a hard-line minority among the locals to resist the reconstruction of multinational coexistence in Bosnia. The foreign and locally recruited mujahedin engaged in terrorist attacks, but these were not spectacular actions on the model of the Bali, Istanbul, Madrid and London bombings, but more prosaic assaults on local Croats – essentially a low-key continuation of the Muslim-Croat war of 1993-94 by other means. The foreign mujahedin who engaged in these crimes appear to have been quite content with their modest purposes; the grand dreams of bin Laden and others of global jihad against the US and its allies were not necessarily shared by the ordinary Islamist foot-soldiers who took up the Bosnian Muslim cause as they saw it.
This is a densely written, at times obscure, but expert and informative compilation of information and case-studies about the mujahedin in Bosnia; it should be read by anyone seeking a more realistic treatment of the subject than that provided by the hysterical propaganda tracts that have unfortunately clouded our understanding.