Bosnian mujahideen were foreign Muslim volunteers who fought on the Bosnian government side during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. They started to arrive in Bosnia with the aim of helping their "Muslim brothers" against the "Serbian aggressors". Once hostilities broke out between the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ABiH) and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), they also participated in battles against the HVO alongside ABiH units.
Some of them were humanitarian workers (such as Abu Hamza, one of the leaders), and some of them were common criminals escaping the law of their native countries, but most of them were just fighters. The number of volunteers is still disputed, from around 300 to 1,500 or even more. According to the Radio Free Europe research there are no precise statistics dealing with the number of foreign volunteers, but the number of passport or other official document requests towards Bosnian institution by foreign volunteers, can serve as a rough approximation. According to that approximation there were 400 foreign volunteers during the Bosnian war.
They came mostly from North Africa, the Near East and the Middle East. When scenes of devastation and war crimes began to air on BBC television broadcasts, many British Muslims were shocked that such horrific events could take place in the context modern Europe without any Western intervention. It gave sudden and unexpected credence to the calls of violent radicals who suggested it was time for Muslims to start taking their personal security into their own hands. Dr. Zaki Badawi, the principal (at that time) of the Muslim College in London, acknowledged in early 1992, "Bosnia has shaken public opinion throughout the Muslim world more deeply than anything since the creation of Israel in 1948."
Secret discussions between Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević on the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina between Serbia and Croatia were held as early as March 1991 (known as Karađorđevo meeting or Karađorđevo agreement). Following the declaration of independence of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs attacked different parts of the country. The state administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina effectively ceased to function, having lost control over the entire territory. The Serbs wanted all lands where Serbs had a majority, eastern and western Bosnia. The Croats and their leader Franjo Tuđman also aimed at securing parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina as Croatian. Bosnian Muslims, the only ethnic group loyal to the Bosnian government, were an easy target, because the Bosnian government forces were poorly equipped and unprepared for the war.
On September 25, 1991 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 713 imposing an arms embargo on all of former Yugoslavia. The embargo hurt the Bosnian Army the most because Serbia inherited the lion's share of the former Yugoslav People's Army arsenal and the Croatian army could smuggle weapons easily through its ports.
At the outset of the Bosnian War the Serb forces attacked the Bosnian Muslim civilian population in Eastern Bosnia. Once towns and villages were securely in their hands, the Serb forces - military, police, the paramilitaries and, sometimes, even Serb villagers – applied the same pattern: Bosniak houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down, Bosniak civilians were rounded up or captured, and sometimes beaten or killed in the process. Men and women were separated, with many of the men detained in the camps. The women were kept in various detention centres where they had to live in intolerably unhygienic conditions, where they were mistreated in many ways including being raped repeatedly. Serb soldiers or policemen would come to these detention centres, select one or more women, take them out and rape them.
Meanwhile, Croat forces started their first attacks on Bosniaks in Gornji Vakuf and Novi Travnik, towns in Central Bosnia on June 20, 1992, but the attacks failed. The Graz agreement caused deep division inside the Croat community and strengthened the separation group, which led to the Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosniak civilians. The campaign planned by the self-proclaimed Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia's political and military leadership from May 1992 to March 1993 which was launched the following April, was meant to implement objectives set forth by Croat nationalists in November 1991.The Lašva Valley's Bosniaks were subjected to persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, deliberately discriminated against in the context of a widespread attack on the region's civilian population and suffered mass murder, rape, imprisonment in camps, as well as the destruction of cultural sites and private property. This was often followed by anti-Bosniak propaganda, particularly in the municipalities of Vitez, Busovača, Novi Travnik and Kiseljak.
Foreign mujahideen arrived in central Bosnia in the second half of 1992 with the aim of helping their Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) coreligionists to defend themselves from the Serb and Croat forces. Mostly they came from North Africa, the Near East and the Middle East. On 13 August 1993, the Bosnian government officially organized foreign volunteers into the detachment known as El Mudžahid in order to impose control and order. Initially, the foreign Mujahideen gave food and other basic necessities to the local Muslim population, deprived many necessities by the Serb forces. Once hostilities broke out between the Bosnian government (ABiH) and the Croat forces (HVO), the Mujahideen also participated in battles against the HVO alongside ABiH units.
The foreign mujahideen actively recruited young local men, offering them military training, uniforms and weapons. As a result, some local Bosniaks joined the foreign mujahideen and in the process became local Mujahideen. They imitated the foreigners in both the way they dressed and behaved, to such an extent that it was sometimes, according to the ICTY documentation in subsequent war crimes trials, "difficult to distinguish between the two groups. For that reason, the ICTY has used the term "Mujahideen" (which they spell Mujahedin) to designate foreigners from Arab countries, but also local Muslims (ie Bosniaks) who joined the Mujahideen units.
They quickly attracted heavy criticism from people who claimed their presence was evidence of violent Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. The foreign volunteers became unpopular even with many of the Bosniak population, because the Bosnian army had thousands of troops and had no need for more soldiers (especially controversial ones who could undermine their reputation as a defending army), but for arms. Many Bosnian Army officers and intellectuals were suspicious regarding foreign volunteers arrival in the central part of the country, because they came from Split and Zagreb in Croatia, and were passed through the self-proclaimed Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia without problems, unlike Bosnian Army soldiers who were regularly arrested by Croat forces.
According to general Stjepan Šiber, the highest ranking ethnic Croat in Bosnian Army, the key role in foreign volunteers arrival was played by Franjo Tuđman and Croatian counter-intelligence underground with the aim to justify the involvement of Croatia in the Bosnian War and the crimes committed by Croat forces. Although Izetbegović regarded them as symbolically valuable as a sign of the Muslim world's support for Bosnia, they appear to have made little military difference and became a major political liability.
The first mujahideen training camp was located in Poljanice next to the village of Mehurici, in the Bila valley, in Travnik municipality. The mujahideen group established there included mujahideen from Arab countries as well as some Bosniaks. The Mujahideen from Poljanice camp were also established in the towns of Zenica and Travnik and, from the second half of 1993 onwards, in the village of Orasac, also located in the Bila valley.
The military effectiveness of the mujahideen is disputed. However, former US Balkans peace negotiator Richard Holbrooke said in an interview that "I think the Muslims wouldn't have survived without this" help. At the time a U.N. arms embargo diminished the Bosnian government's fighting capabilities. Holbrooke called the arrival of the mujahideen "a pact with the devil" from which Bosnia still is recovering.
Although it is alleged that there were a number of mujahideen units in the Bosnian government army (mostly by Serb and Croat propaganda as well some anti-Muslim Western authors and media outlets), the ICTY found that there was just one unit called El Mujahid. It was established on 13 August 1993, by the Bosnian Army, which decided to form a unit of foreign fighters in order to impose control over them as the number of the foreign volunteers started to increase.
According to Predrag Matvejević, a notable Italian and Croatian modern prosaist who analyzed the situation, the number of Arab volunteers who came to help the Bosnian Muslims, was much smaller than the number presented by Serb and Croat propaganda.
According to the ICTY verdicts, Serb as well as Croat propaganda was very active, constantly propagated false information about the foreign fighters in order to inflame anti-Muslim hatred. After the takeover of Prijedor by Serb forces in 1992, Radio Prijedor propagated Serb nationalistic ideas characterising prominent non-Serbs as criminals and extremists who should be punished for their behaviour. One example of such propaganda was the derogatory language used for referring to non-Serbs such as uch as mujahideen, Ustaša or Green Berets, although at the time there were no foreign volunteers in Bosnia.
Another example of propaganda about Islamic holy warriors is presented in the ICTY Kordić and Čerkez verdict for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia leadership on Bosniak civilians. Gornji Vakuf was attacked by Croatian Army (HV) and Croatian Defence Forces (HVO) in January 1993 followed by heavy shelling of the town by Croat artillery. During cease-fire negotiations at the Britbat HQ in Gornji Vakuf, colonel Andrić, representing the HVO, demanded that the Bosnian forces lay down their arms and accept HVO control of the town, threatening that if they did not agree he would flatten Gornji Vakuf to the ground.The HVO demands were not accepted by the Bosnian Army and the attack continued, followed by massacres on Bosnian Muslim civilians in the neighbouring villages.Although Croats often cited it as a major reason for the attack on Gornji Vakuf, the commander of the British Britbat company claimed that there were no Muslim holy warriors in Gornji Vakuf and that his soldiers did not see any.
Relationship to the Bosnian government army
The question whether the mujahideen were controlled by the Bosnian government is contentious. According to the ICTY indictment of Rasim Delić, Commander of Main Staff of the Bosnian army (ABiH), after the formation of the 7th Muslim Brigade on 19 November 1992, the El Mujahid were subordinated within its structure. According to a UN communiqué of 1995, the El Mujahid battalion was "directly dependent on Bosnian staff for supplies" and for "directions" during combat with the Serb forces. The issue has formed part of two ICTY war crimes trials against two former senior officials in the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the basis of superior criminal responsibility. In its Trial Chamber judgment in the case of ICTY v. Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kubura the Trial Chamber found that
"the foreign Mujahedin established at Poljanice camp were not officially part of the 3rd Corps or the 7th Brigade of the ABiH. Accordingly, the Prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the foreign Mujahedin officially joined the ABiH and that they were de jure subordinated to the Accused Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kubura.
It also found that
"there are significant indicia of a subordinate relationship between the Mujahedin and the Accused prior to August 13, 1993. Testimony heard by the Trial Chamber and, in the main, documents tendered into evidence demonstrate that the ABiH maintained a close relationship with the foreign Mujahedin as soon as these arrived in central Bosnia in 1992. Joint combat operations are one illustration of that. In Karaula and Visoko in 1992, at Mount Zmajevac around mid-April 1993 and in the Bila valley in June 1993, the Mujahedin fought alongside ABiH units against Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat forces."
However, the ICTY Appeals Chamber in April 2008 concluded that the relationship between the 3rd Corps of the Bosnian Army headed by Hadžihasanović and the El Mujahedin detachment was not one of subordination but was instead close to overt hostility since the only way to control the detachment was to attack them as if they were a distinct enemy force.
War crimes investigation
It is alleged that mujahideen participated in a few incidents considered to be war crimes according to the international law. However no indictment was issued by the ICTY against them, but a few Bosnian Army officers were indicted on the basis of superior criminal responsibility. Both Amir Kubura and Enver Hadzihasanovic (the indicted Bosnian Army officers) were found not guilty on all counts related to the incidents involving mujahideen.
The judgments of Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kabura concerned a number of events involving Mujahideen. On June 8, 1993, Bosnian Army attacked Croat forces in the area of Maline village as a reaction to the massacres committed by Croats in nearby villages of Velika Bukovica and Bandol on June 4. After the village of Maline was taken, a military police unit of the 306th Brigade of Bosnian Army arrived in Maline. These policemen were to evacuate and protect the civilians in the villages taken by the Bosnian Army. The wounded were left on-site and around 200 people, including civilians and Croat soldiers, were taken by the police officers towards Mehurici. The commander of the 306th Brigade authorised the wounded be put onto a truck and transported to Mehurici. Suddenly, a number of mujahideen stormed the village of Maline. Even though the commander of the Bosnian Army 306th Brigade forbade them to approach, they didn't submit. The 200 villagers who were being escorted to Mehurici by the 306th Brigade military police were intercepted by the mujahideen in Poljanice. They took 20 military-aged Croats and a young woman wearing a Red-Cross armband. The prisoners were taken to Bikoci, between Maline and Mehurici. 23 Croatian soldiers and one young woman were executed in Bikoci while they were being held prisoner.
The ICTY indictment of Rasim Delic, also treats incidents related to mujahideen during the summer of 1995, such as the murder of two Serb soldiers on 21 July 1995 as part of Operation Miracle, the murder of a Serb POW at the Kamenica prison camp on 24 July 1995, and events related to 60 Serb soldiers captured during the Vozuća battle that are missing and presumed to have been killed by foreign volunteers.
After the war
The foreign mujahideen were required to leave the Balkans under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accord, but many stayed. Although the US State Department report suggested that the number could be higher, a senior SFOR official said allied military intelligence estimated that no more than 200 foreign-born militants actually live in Bosnia, of which closer to 30 represent a hard-core group with direct or indirect links to terrorism.
In September 2007, 50 of these individuals had their citizenship status revoked. Since then 100 more individuals have been prevented from claiming citizenship rights. 250 more were under investigation, while the body which is charged to reconsider the citizenship status of the foreign volunteers in the Bosnian war, including Christian fighters from Russia and Western Europe, states that 1,500 cases will eventually be examined.
Following the end of the Bosnian War and, especially, after the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center, the links between the Mujahideen, Al Qaeda and the radicalization of some European Muslims has become more widely discussed. In an interview with US journalist Jim Lehrer former US peace envoy to Bosnia Richard Holbrooke states:
There were over 1,000 people in the country who belonged to what we then called Mujahideen freedom fighters. We now know that that was al-Qaida. I'd never heard the word before, but we knew who they were. And if you look at the 9/11 hijackers, several of those hijackers were trained or fought in Bosnia. We cleaned them out, and they had to move much further east into Afghanistan. So if it hadn't been for Dayton, we would have been fighting the terrorists deep in the ravines and caves of Central Bosnia in the heart of Europe.
Evan F. Kohlmann writes that
Some of the most important factors behind the contemporary radicalization of European Muslim youth can be found in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the cream of the Arab mujahideen from Afghanistan tested their battle skills in the post-Soviet era and mobilized a new generation of pan-Islamic revolutionaries.
He also notes that Serbian and Croatian sources about the subject are pure propaganda based on their historical hatred for Bosniaks as Muslim aliens in the heart of Christian lands.
Some authors suggested that the United States fully supported Muslim militants including current and former top al-Qaeda members.
According to the Radio Free Europe research Al-Qaeda In Bosnia-Herzegovina: Myth Or Present Danger, Bosnia is nothing more related to the potential terrorism than any other European country.
Juan Carlos Antúnez in his comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of Wahhabism in Bosnia, written in 2007 has noted that:
Different articles appearing in local and international mass media have commented about the role of Bosnia-Herzegovina in different issues related with international terrorist networks. Most of this information is unconfirmed. The substance of follow-on media coverage is variously both true and false. Terrorist cells are no less likely to be present in Bosnia-Herzegovina than in any other state. Bosnian Serb and Serbian media outlets regularly misappropriate such reporting, and the information is generalized to the point of suggest that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a significant threat to ethno-national security because it allegedly harbours foreign Islamic terrorists. This is nationalist propaganda that deliberately obscures the facts in two areas: first, the symptoms of global security threats are confused with the causes of Bosnian state weakness; and second, deliberate state-level support to terrorism rather than the weak state’s inability to police itself. The terrorist phenomenon in B-H is no more developed, and the risk of a terrorist attack is not higher than in other parts of the world.