The Balkans’ Mujahedin
The wars in the former Yugoslavia are not a field of study known for having spawned objective and dispassionate literature. Perhaps no topic is more controversial than the role of Al Qaeda in the Balkans in the 1990s.
(the complete review, covering several books, can be downloaded here (PDF, 277 kilobyte).)
This much is known: Several thousand foreign mujahedin from the wider Islamic world fought on the Bosnian Army’s side during the 1992-1995 war, and Al Qaeda was closely involved in their transport and activities there. Almost everything else is highly contested.
Sensational claims have been made that the Bosnian government itself was closely linked to Al Qaeda, and that Bosnia’s wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic, was personally an ally of Osama bin Laden and shared his ideology. Some argue that Bosnia formed a stepping stone via which Al Qaeda transported its jihad from Afghanistan to Europe, aided by the Clinton administration. And there are even those who contend that the Bosnian jihad laid the groundwork for Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in New York and elsewhere.
The literature on this topic is divided between works of investigative journalism that seek to describe the phenomenon of the foreign Islamist presence in Bosnia, and political polemics that endorse wilder claims. Those seeking to confirm negative stereotypes about Islam and Bosnia can find authors that tell them what they want to hear. The rest of us can be grateful to those authors who have probed deeper.
Evan Kohlmann’s Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe was the first serious work to address the topic of the foreign mujahedin in Bosnia and specifically Al Qaeda’s role in the war. Kohlmann is a freelance international terrorism consultant from the United States who has worked with the FBI, the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, and NBC News. He is not a Bosnian specialist as such, and his book is more a chapter in the history of the international jihadi movement rather than of one of the former Yugoslav war. He approaches the topic with no political agenda regarding the Bosnian conflict, which is what renders his book so convincing.
Kohlmann’s work is both an analysis and a narrative account of the international Islamist involvement in Bosnia, providing detailed factual information and historical background. It does not do the book justice to reduce it to its conclusions. But in a nutshell, Kohlmann’s case is that members of the international Islamist movement, including Al Qaeda, were very interested in the Bosnian war and actively intervened in it. He argues that Al Qaeda (though not necessarily all the Islamic radicals involved in the war) hoped to use Bosnia as a base for operations against the United States and its allies in Europe.
The United States was not involved in the transport of the mujahedin to Bosnia, and in fact looked askance at their presence there, while the Islamists for their part tended to view the United States as pro-Serb. In the end, the Islamists’ plans for Bosnia as a jihadi base were greatly disappointed. Their agenda diverged from that of the Bosnian government and army, which increasingly found themselves at odds with the mujahedin. Very few local Bosnian Muslims were attracted to what the mujahedin were offering, and when they were, it was generally because of their bravery and prowess in battle, and never because they wanted to participate in an international jihad.
Kohlmann does, nevertheless, claim that Bosnia was a crucial step toward Western Europe for Al Qaeda. It is the only major claim that I found unsubstantiated, though in subsequent commentary on the subject he has elaborated that Bosnia’s importance lay in the fact that it acted as a meeting place, bringing various jihadi elements and individuals together. This may be so, but the case that Bosnia made a fundamental difference to the emergence of this network, or that this network would have looked substantially different today had the Bosnian war not occurred, remains unconvincing.
This caveat aside, Kohlmann’s excellent book is the best introduction for the English-language reader. His conclusions about the politics of the mujahedin and their role in the Bosnian war have essentially been confirmed by Esad Hecimovic’s superb work of investigative journalism, Garibi: Mudzahedini u BiH 1992-1999 [“Garibs: The Mujahedin in Bosnia Hercegovina, 1992-1999”]. Hecimovic, a veteran Bosnian journalist, provides more of the local Bosnian context to the story of the mujahedin than Kohlmann. (...)