The Bosnian war of 1992-1995 seems to have been largely forgotten about nowadays, but it continues to have large consequences for U.S. foreign policy and the war on terror.
Many fighters were radicalized during the conflict and in recent years have turned up in many war zones in Europe and elsewhere. In addition, the war attracted many radical Islamists from outside Bosnia, who got their first real taste of armed conflict.
Thinking back to the way the Bosnian war was characterized in the 1990s, this may be surprising. The most common rubric used to understand the conflict, at least in the U.S., was that it was a resurgence of an “ancient ethnic conflict.”
This phrase was always a bit misleading – the war also had roots in economic strife and the broader conflicts that accompanied the end of the Cold War – but contained a grain of truth.
Calling the Bosnian War an “ethnic” conflict was also misleading in another way. In the U.S., we are used to thinking of “ethnicity” as a concept somewhat analogous to “race.”
In other contexts, however, this slippery term is used to mean radically different things. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, it normally designates the language that a person or group speaks. In Bosnia, and in the broader Balkan region, it is used to describe religion.
Once this is realized, the Bosnian War becomes easier to understand as one of the first modern instances of conflict involving radical Islam. Though the war was reported as a struggle between “Serbs,” “Croats” and “Bosniaks,” in reality it was between Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslims.
Radical Islam in the 1990s
A certain portion of the Bosnian people have been Muslim since the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s. Until that point, the people of the remote region followed various forms of Christianity, some more mainstream than others, and some that were outright heretical. The fact that under the Ottoman Empire, Muslims paid less tax led many to convert to Islam in the period between 1500 and 1800.
The indigenous form of Islam in Bosnia was never particularly radical or fundamentalist. The country was remote even until recent times and managed to largely escape the homogenizing influence of Istanbul. As a result, though nominally Muslim, many in the country drank alcohol and continued to celebrate pre-Islamic festivals.
When Bosnia became part of communist Yugoslavia in 1945, all forms of religion were officially subdued. The regime was less oppressive than those in the Eastern Bloc, however, and did not destroy religious buildings or outlaw the celebration of religious practices. Many have seen the light suppression of religion as a way of suppressing other tensions in the country, in fact, rather than as an aversion to religion in itself.
This all changed during the 1990s war.
Although the conflict began as a national one, concerning Bosnia’s right to declare independence from Yugoslavia, it quickly took on religious significance.
Serbs – followers of the Eastern Orthodox church – living in Bosnia feared that a newly independent state would become an Islamic country.
For those who had declared independence, this was not the initial intention.
However, as the conflict widened, and became more bloody, many Muslims came to feel that they were fighting as much for their faith as for their right to self-determination.
During the civil war between 1992 and 1995, hundreds of foreign fighters, mostly Arabs, arrived in Bosnia to fight alongside their Muslim co-religionists against the Serbs.
Today, the authorities say there are about 3,000 Salafist fundamentalists in Bosnia, a fraction of the country’s 1.6 million Muslims. But the government adds that the number of Salafists is increasing.
Estimates of how many Muslim volunteers came to fight vary from several hundred to several thousand; what is certain is that the Bosnian Army incorporated them into a detachment called El Mujahid in August 1993.
They became notorious for being fierce soldiers, unafraid of even the most dangerous operations – but also for serious crimes against the Serb and Croat population.
Their crimes in the central Bosnia region have been the focus of two trials at the Hague Tribunal, in which three high-ranking Bosnian Army officials were found guilty of war crimes for failure to stop or prosecute murders and torture committed by the Mujahedin.
Balkans security expert Aleksandar Maric told BIRN that the Mujahideen fighters also brought with them “a new, radical view of Islam which found fertile ground to grow in Bosnia during wartime”.
The growth of the Wahhabi movement in the country is a direct consequence of their preaching, Maric believes.
“The Wahhabis continued to propagate this radical Islamic learning and they are very active today – which is why they are a potential threat to the security of the country and the region,” he said.
Bosnian security expert Vlado Azinovic also believes that the roots of Islamic militancy in the country and the fact that around 200 young men have recently gone to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria is a result of the ideology brought by Mujahideen fighters during the 1992-95 war.
According to the findings of the Hague Tribunal, the first Mujahideen arrived in the summer of 1992 to the Travnik and Zenica areas, entering mostly through Croatia. Their arrival was mostly endorsed by the leadership of the Bosnian Army, as they also brought humanitarian aid from Islamic countries.
Some of them also had another goal, however.
Ali Hamad, a witness at the trial of Rasim Delic, a former Bosnian Army commander who was found guilty of some of the crimes committed by the Mujahideen, testified during his trial that he came from Bahrain in 1992.
Hamad said that the Mujahideen were ready to wage jihad or holy war against the Serbs and Croats.
“Some of the fighters were members of al-Qaeda and their objective was to create a base that would allow them to increase their base of operations,” he told the Hague court’s judges.
The president of an victims’ association called the Families of the Captured, Killed Fighters and Missing Civilians of Republika Srpska, Nedeljko Mitrovic, told BIRN that the crimes they committed against Serb prisoners on mount Ozren were “unspeakable”.
“In [the village of] Gostovici we had 51 fighters and more than a dozen civilians killed… While in [the village of] Stog, we discovered a mass grave with 21 bodies and 17 of them were decapitated. That is just on Ozren,” he said.
The Mujahideen fighters scared some of the Bosniak soldiers as well, some eyewitnesses said.
A 52-year-old Bosnian Army veteran, who asked to remain anonymous, told BIRN that during the war, after being released from a Serb prison camp in Prijedor, he arrived in Travnik and joined the military.
“I remember the Mujahideen were there but we all kept very far away [from them]… It was unnatural, they prayed before an attack that they would die… They wanted death for Allah. We were scared. None of us wanted death and none of us wanted anything to do with those fanatics,” he recalled.
By 1994, with numerous incidents of ethnic cleansing and other hideous crimes being reported in the press, the war began to attract foreign fighters.
These were Muslims who had fought in Afghanistan against the Russians and Saudi citizens eager to defend their faith against Christian extermination. They carried with them a much more fundamentalist, radical form of Islam than had been present in Bosnia until then.
The bitterness of the war was undoubtedly a factor in many young Bosnian men falling under the spell of these new ideologies.
In a pattern that we see repeated today everywhere from Yemen to Iraq, the horror of war seems to create a fertile breeding-ground for radical ideologies.
The Mujahideen and the Wahhabis
The wartime militancy of the Mujahideen lives on in today’s Wahhabis and Islamic radicals.
After the war, the El Mujahid unit was disarmed, but many of the former fighters stayed behind, taking citizenship based on certificates stating that they were part of the Bosnian Army.
According to media reports, more than 741 people connected to the Mujahideen received citizenship after the war.
They formed communities, usually in rural areas, where their teachings of Islam spread.
American scholar Leslie Lebl, who researched Islamism and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina, believes that the sole reason for the arrival of the Mujahideen during the war was to spread Wahhabi Islam in Europe.
“Saudis wanted to spread Wahhabism and that is why they funded the Mujahideen and that continued after the war. You could see all of a sudden, mosques were being built which were huge and they had no relation in size and style to the ones you normally see in Bosnia; this is all intentional and deliberate,” Lebl said.
Lebl believes that the problem is that some Bosniak leaders and clerics have Islamist connections and are supportive of the Wahhabis.
But the Islamic Community, the body that represents the country’s Muslims, was quick to distance itself from the recent Zvornik attack, which it described as “criminal” in a written statement to BIRN.
“This brutal attack obliges us to work to find the reasons for such actions, to heal war traumas, remove discrimination, unemployment and the marginalisation of returnees in Republika Srpska.
The fact that war crimes were committed in Zvornik against Bosniaks, and returnees were discriminated against, should never be used [as the justification] for new crimes,” the Islamic Community said.
After the War
At the close of hostilities in 1995, Bosnia was ruined.
Though the majority of the population was exhausted by the war, in the following decades Bosnian soldiers would turn up in almost every major conflict in Europe and Central Asia, from Chechnya to Ukraine.
Several factors drove this process.
The Bosnian war had created a generation of young men who had received extensive military training and had already built up combat experience. Many of this generation did not give up their weapons at the close of hostilities, and so the country contained a huge store of weaponry – everything from pistols right up to anti-aircraft missiles.
More pragmatically, economic opportunities in Bosnia itself were woeful. Even today, the country is one of the poorest in Europe, and the youth unemployment rate is 40%. Given these factors, it is not surprising than many young men who had fought in the 1990s war sought lucrative employment as mercenaries.
For some, however, the motivation was different. They had been radicalized during the 1990s, and as each new war sprang up between 1995 and today – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Georgia – it was not hard for them to see a pattern. Each war was being fought against Muslims by a vastly larger, Christian country. It’s not surprising that some saw themselves as fighting the Crusaders.
The Problem Today
Young people in Bosnia continue to be radicalized today.
The reasons for this are partly domestic, and partly international, but neither shows any sign of decreasing anytime soon.
Radicalization in Bosnia today follows a pretty clear pattern.
The country remains largely agricultural, and the mountains that make up most of the landscape mean it contains thousands of isolated villages.
The ongoing economic problems in the country lead to young people in these villages feeing increasingly disillusioned with the ideology of the country at large, and this makes them prime targets for those wishing to radicalize them.
The war of the 1990s not only radicalized many people, it also forced many to become refugees.
While the majority went to Canada, Norway and Sweden, some moved to the Gulf States or the Middle East.
There, some wholly adopted forms of radical Islam such as Wahhabism and are now returning to their home country to “spread the message.”
The way this is done is analogous to the process of radicalization in the rest of Europe, such as in the UK or France
. It is not hard for recruiters to point out that many of the wars of the past two decades were fought against Muslims by large foreign powers and to “explain” this is because they are trying to eradicate Islam.
Young men, especially, are then drawn into “defending” their faith against these powers.
In Bosnia today, that includes both the embassies of foreign powers and the state itself, which is nominally secular.
Given this ongoing process of radicalization, it is not surprising that recent years have seen a sharp increase in incidents of religiously-motivated terrorism, or that the Bosnian government is increasingly worried about such movements starting a full-scale revolution.
Security expert Aleksandar Maric claimed that Bosnian security reports suggest that there are a number of camps in the country used to train men to fight abroad.
“There are camps in Bocinja, Mehurici near Travnik, Gluha Bukovica and in Pogorelica. We believe there are others which are more difficult to locate and they are run by sleeper cells.
The fact so many fighters from Bosnia go abroad to fight, the Wahhabi threats, the terrorist attacks, all are indicators that an organised terrorist system exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina because security operations are not coordinated and data is not shared within the country and the region,” he said.
He said that it was alarming that the Wahhabi movement was not under proper surveillance by the Bosnian security services.
“We do not even know the exact number of these radicals, but on top of the Wahhabi movement there are individual, smaller terrorist cells which are not exposed and which only recruit and train operatives and serve as a connection to send fighters abroad, but these structures can also be used for domestic terrorist attacks,” he said.
He said it was time for the security services in the various parts of the politically and ethnically divided country to work together.
“The security system is flawed and it needs to do much more to prevent and respond quickly. Security agencies should share data, identify potential perpetrators from that group and check reliably and act to thwart new terrorist actions,” he proposed.
What This Means for the U.S.
Radicalized Muslims from Bosnia continue to fight as mercenaries in wars throughout the world. Bosnia is a small country, so the actual numbers of these radical Islamists are quite small. For this reason, I would never advocate planning U.S. foreign policy specifically around them.
Instead, what the story of Bosnia should teach us is a more abstract process of historical re-appraisal, in order to better understand the ways in which our foreign policy comes back to haunt us.
Bosnia is particularly instructive in this regard because of the following paradox: During the Bosnian war, the U.S. and NATO were on the side of Muslims. In supporting Bosnia’s right to independence, NATO bombers provided military assistance to radical Islamists, among others.
The situation is analogous to that of Afghanistan, where the U.S. was happy to support radicalized Muslims in the fight against the USSR, only to find that after the war this assistance, albeit coupled with an ideology that had been useful at the time, came to cause huge problems.
My plea, here, is two-fold. The first realization that those planning U.S. foreign policy need to make is this: supporting radical Islamists only leads to this ideologies growing, and ultimately causes more problems than the short-term battlefield advantage justifies.
The second is that the Bosnian War needs to be remembered and re-appraised in order to broaden our historical perspective on radical Islam. By digging down into the actual causes of the war, and by recognizing the radicalization that accompanied it, we might come to realize that we have been fighting radical Islam for longer than we previously thought.