The U.S. and British embassies were shut down in Sarajevo on October 17 after receiving threats from Bosnian Muslims and their foreign co-religionists resident in Bosnia who profess outrage at the bombing of Afghanistan. “This step has been taken due to a credible security threat to the official U.S. presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina” a U.S. official told the Associated Press. American and British citizens working in Bosnia were also warned to take extra precautions. Bosnia is turning from a multicultural, multiethnic protectorate of the New World Order into an Islamic threat to Western interests.
By now, we have all heard that Osama bin Laden’s rise to near-mythical status in the Muslim world was initially facilitated by the support he and other fundamentalist Muslims received from the United States following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. But according to former CIA director Robert Gates, the U.S. intelligence services began to arm the mujahideen even before the Soviet intervention.
This has been confirmed by President Carter’s national security advisor at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who told the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur in January 1998 that Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul on July 3, 1979: “That very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention . . . We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” The policy, which Brzezinski called “an excellent idea,” was to create a “Soviet Vietnam,” and it entailed large-scale arming and training of Islamic fundamentalists, including volunteers from other Muslim countries.
Mistaken and shortsighted as this strategy turned out to be, it was (conceivably) justified by the dictates of the Cold War: Your enemy’s enemy is your de facto ally, if not a trusted friend. Blowback was a risk, but one at least arguably worth taking.
Over two decades later, it is necessary to rectify more recent mistakes of a similar nature. If the victims of New York are to be properly avenged and the military effort in Afghanistan is to be meaningful, the Bush administration should investigate the biggest unknown scandal of the Clinton years: that throughout the 1990’s. the U.S. government effectively aided and abetted bin Laden’s operations in the Balkans, long after he was recognized as a major security threat to the United States.
Throughout the war in Bosnia, voices in the West warned that neither the Christian Serbs nor the Croats would ever willingly live in the same state with Muslims who wanted to dominate them under the label of “multiethnicity.” The systematic portrayal of the Serbs as demons and the Bosnian Muslims as innocent martyrs in the cause of multicultural tolerance concealed the fact that the Bosnian war was primarily religious in nature. Before the first shots were fired, Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic proudly proclaimed in his “Islamic Declaration” that “there can be no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic societies and political institutions.” He warned his fellow Muslims that “the Islamic movement should and must start taking power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough not only to overthrow the existing non-Islamic power structure, but also to build a great Islamic federation spreading from Morocco to Indonesia, from tropical Africa to Central Asia.”
In the aftermath of September’s terrorist attacks, it has been revealed that a highly classified State Department report, prepared last year, warned that the Muslim-controlled portions of Bosnia have become a safe haven for Islamic terrorism. The report pointed out that hundreds of foreign mujahideen, who became Bosnian citizens and received passports after battling their Christian foes, present a major terrorist threat to Europe and the United States. They include hard-core terrorists, some with ties to Osama bin Laden, who were protected by the Muslim government in Sarajevo. The findings of the report were summarized in the words of a former State Department official: Bosnia-Herzegovina is “a staging area” for Islamic terrorists.
According to the Muslim-dominated government’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and Communications, there are roughly only 420 naturalized Arabs in Bosnia, but this figure is almost certainly incorrect. The true magnitude of the problem was revealed in a report in the European edition of the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes on September 30. Relying on Israeli intelligence sources, the report warned that “about 6,000 fighters in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia are ready to do bin Laden’s bidding if America strikes his camps elsewhere.” The same source argued that “a nucleus of bin Laden followers in the Balkans could balloon into an army of about 40,000 men,” mostly local Muslims from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania. Stars and Stripes pointed out that die Israelis have agents on the ground in the Balkans, and that their predictions “have proved frighteningly” accurate in the past.”
The core of bin Laden’s Balkan network is composed of the veterans of the El Moujahed brigade of the Bosnian-Muslim army. The brigade was established in 1992 and comprises volunteers from all over the Islamic world whose passage to Bosnia was facilitated and financed, at least in part, by bin Laden’s network. The unit was distinguished by its spectacular cruelty to Christian prisoners, remarkable even by the Balkans’ unpleasant standards. In 1993, the members of the brigade decapitated 26 Serb prisoners on Mount Ozren with an ax, to the chants of “Allahu-akbar.” The gruesome spectacle was videotaped and circulated not only in Bosnia but throughout the network of Islamic centers and stores and internet sites in the Western world. El Moujahed was the nursery from which an international terrorist network grew and ultimately stretched from the Middle East to North America.
In the wake of September’s terrorist attacks, it was reported that Muslim authorities had issued a Bosnian passport to Osama bin Laden at the Bosnian embassy in Vienna in 1993. The Izetbegovic government thus facilitated the movement of the man who had, by that time, already acquired a reputation as a dangerous terrorist. Another beneficiary of Bosnian citizenship and passport was Abu Zubeida, a Palestinian from Gaza and one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants. He was in charge of contacts with other Islamic terrorist networks and sent recruits to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. He arranged training for unsuccessful bomb plots in Canada and Jordan at the turn of the century and a recently foiled suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in Paris.
Under the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war, all Islamic volunteers who fought with the Muslim government’s army were supposed to leave the country. Several hundred, however, took over the Serbian village of Bocinja Donja, near the industrial city of Zenica in central Bosnia, and provided instruction to local Muslim forces in terrorist activities. They first attracted attention on December 18, 1995 when a car bomb prematurely exploded in Zenica. It was apparently meant for American troops stationed nearby, as revenge for the sentencing of Sheik Omah Abdel Rahman in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing.
Two months later, in February 1996, SFOR units raided the training center of the Bosnian government’s secret police (AID), located near Fojnica, and several people were arrested. Instructors from the Middle East were teaching AID officers to disguise bombs as toys and ice-cream cones.
In March 1996, in the northern French city of Lille just before a summit of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, French police discovered a car packed with explosives. Their investigation led them to a house in the industrial city of Roubaix. After a gunfight, the house exploded when the munitions inside caught fire. Four charred bodies were found, but two men managed to flee. One was killed and the other was wounded in a gun battle later that day. In their car, police found rocket launchers, automatic weapons, ammunition, and grenades. They also recovered an electronic organizer containing coded telephone contacts, nearly a dozen of them in Bosnia. The ringleader was identified as a French convert to Islam named Caze, who had fought on the Muslim side in Bosnia. The first known terrorist cell linked with the Muslim safe haven in Bosnia and operating in the West was revealed. It was composed of nine men who attended a local mosque, most of whom had received military training at the El Moujahed compound near Zenica. All of their weapons were smuggled home from the Bosnian war.
That the government in Sarajevo was sympathetic to Islamic militants is not surprising. The facts of the ease were known to the American media but seldom allowed into the open. Three months after the Lille incident, the Washington Post confirmed that “the Clinton administration knew of the activities of a so-called Relief Agency which was, in fact, funneling weapons and money into Bosnia to prop up the Izetebegovic Muslim government in Sarajevo.”
The following year, the Bosnian connection resurfaced following the bombing of the Al Khobar building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reported on June 26, 1997, that several suspects had served with Bosnian Muslim forces and were linked to Osama bin Laden. From that point on, the United States and its allies complained periodically and ineffectively to the Muslim authorities in Sarajevo about the continued presence of the mujahideen in Bosnia. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times (October 7), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—a zealous champion of the Bosnian-Muslim cause—personally appealed to Alija Izetbegovic to oust suspected terrorists or rescind their Bosnian passports. The effort by top State Department aides continued through the last days of file Clinton administration:
Izetbegovic declined the appeals . . . [and] argued that many had married Bosnian women, had taken up farming and were legal citizens . . . Although Izetbegovic stepped down in October 2000, many hard-liners remain in Bosnia’s bureaucracy and they are suspected of operating their own rogue intelligence service that protects Islamic extremists, military and intelligence sources said.
In 1999, this connection attracted further attention when U.S. law-enforcement authorities discovered that several suspects who have visited or lived in Bosnia were associated with a terrorist plot to bomb targets in the United States (including the Los Angeles International Airport) on New Year’s Day 2000. Among them was Karim Said Atmani, a former roommate of Ahmet Ressemi, who was arrested at the Canadian-U.S. border in mid-December 1999 with a carload of explosives. The Canadian authorities deported Atmani to Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 18, 1998, supposedly without knowing of his alleged participation in terrorist activities throughout Europe. Ressmi decided to continue the plot alone. When he was captured, American officials tried to track down Atmani, but Bosnian officials denied that he had been deported there. Investigators later learned that Atmani had been issued a new Bosnian passport six months earlier. Atmani was finally arrested this year and awaits sentencing on terrorism charges in a French jail.
Another Bosnian veteran, a Palestinian named Khalil Deck, was arrested in Jordan in late December 1999 on suspicion of involvement in a plot to blow up tourist sites. Another Bosnian citizen, Hamid Aich, lived in Canada at the same time as Atmani and worked for a charity associated with bin Laden.
An Algerian with Bosnian citizenship, described by a U.S. official as “a junior Osama bin Laden,” tried to smuggle explosives in 1998 to an Egyptian terrorist group plotting to destroy V.S. military installations in Germany. The shipment included military C-4 plastic explosives and blasting caps. The CIA intercepted the shipment, foiling the attack. The Algerian was Abdelkader Mokhtari—also known as Abu el Maali—a self-styled “community leader” in the village of Bocinja. U.S. intelligence established that el Maali was the leader of the group. Washington tried to force his deportation by suspending a military-assistance program in 1999. Only when Washington threatened to stop all economic aid did Izetbegovic agree to deport El Maali. He was back in Bosnia within a year, moving in and out of the country freely. According to sources close to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia, he is now believed to be in Afghanistan with bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group.
Mehrez Amdouni, another veteran from Bosnia, was arrested in September 1999 in Istanbul, where he arrived with a Bosnian passport. It has been confirmed that Ahmet Ressemi had ties with Said Atmani, his colleague from the El Moujahed brigade. The New York Times Magazine reported on February 6, 2000, that, “last year, sources in Jordan say, the Mukhabarat, the intelligence service, alerted the C.I.A. to at least three plots by Bosnian-based Islamic terrorists to attack U.S. targets in Europe.”
While an elaborate Islamic terror network was developing in Bosnia, Osama bin Laden was busy looking for fresh opportunities in the Balkans. During the NATO war against Serbia, in May 1999, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe warned that, if American troops went into Kosovo, they would be fighting alongside a terrorist organization known to finance its operations with drug sales—including some to the United States. Inhofe was one of the few legislators to complain that, by joining hands with the KLA, the United States would also become partners with Osama bin Laden.
Six months before the NATO bombing, the Jerusalem Post reported that Bosnia was the first bastion of Islamic power in the former Yugoslavia, but Kosovo promised to be the second (Steve Rodan, “Kosovo seen as new Islamic bastion,” September 14, 1998). The Albanians had been provided with financial and military support from Islamic countries, the report continued, and they were bolstered by hundreds of mujahideen from Albania. “US defense officials say the support includes that of Osama Bin Laden,” and the Defense Department confirmed that bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization supported Muslim fighters in both Bosnia and Kosovo. The report quoted sources in Washington as saving that the Clinton administration was fully aware of the Islamic militants’ activities in Bosnia and Kosovo but had looked the other way: “The administration wants to keep the lid on the pot at all costs . . . Needless to say, the Europeans have been quite upset by this.”
The usually well-informed Israeli paper correctly sensed a shift in U.S. policy that facilitated bin Laden’s activities. In early 1998, the State Department had listed the KLA as an international terrorist organization that supported itself through drug profits and loans from terrorists like bin Laden. By the end of that year, however, the policy had been reversed.
The KLA’s rehabilitation in Washington went hand-in-hand with its growing links with Islamic radicals. The Sunday Times of London reported on March 22, 1998, that Iranian Revolutionary Guards had joined forces with Osama bin Laden to support the Albanian insurgency in Kosovo, hoping “to turn the region into their main base for Islamic armed activity in Europe.” Bv November, the same paper confirmed that bin Laden’s terrorist network in Albania was regularly sending units to fight against Serbs in Kosovo. The paper pointed out that bin Laden’s Albanian operation dated back to 1994, when it was established under the guise of a Saudi humanitarian agency. In those early days, bin Laden’s group enjoyed the support of then premier Sali Berisha (also an American “asset” at that time), and the main KLA training base was later established on Berisha’s property in northern Albania.
Correctly sensing that the anti-Serb course of the Clinton administration would lead it to tolerate his activities in Albania and Kosovo, bin Laden issued a communiqué in August 1998 listing Serbia among “the worst infidel nations.” The communiqué faxed to Knight-Ridder from bin Laden’s supporters in London and translated from Arabic, boasted of “great victories” in Bosnia and Kosovo. As the United States was putting pressure on Belgrade to accept the Clinton administration’s terms in Kosovo, the Times of London reported (November 26, 1998) that the Islamic fighters who had “created havoc in the war in Bosnia” were moving on to Kosovo. The links between Osama bin Laden and the KLA were facilitated by the chaotic conditions in neighboring Albania, the Times went on, allowing Muslim fighters to settle there, often under the guise of humanitarian workers.
“They were terrorists in 1998 and now, because of politics, they’re freedom fighters.” a top U.S. drug-enforcement official complained to the Washington Times in May 1999. By that time, the NATO bombing was in full swing, however, and the mujahideen were once again American allies. According to the Washington Times,
The reports said bin Laden’s organization . . . has both trained and financially supported the KLA. Many border crossings into Kosovo by “foreign fighters” also have been documented and include veterans of the militant group Islamic Jihad from Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Many of the crossings originated in neighboring Albania and . . . included parties of up to 50 men.
Bin Laden has become an integral attachment to KLA operations. It is not surprising, therefore, that he has established a presence in Macedonia, the latest victim of flawed U.S. policy. The Washington Times reported on June 22 that the NLA (the KLA subsidiary in Macedonia) was largely—but not exclusively—dependent on the drug trade: “In addition to drug money, the NLA also has another prominent venture capitalist: Osama bin Laden.” The sum supplied was estimated at between six and seven million dollars over six months.
The net result is that American and other foreign peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Macedonia are in real and present danger from attacks by Albanian Muslims. According to Israeli intelligence sources, any Balkan movement against America would be coordinated by Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian deputy to bin Laden. According to Stars and Stripes (September 30), “al-Zawahri was in Tirana, Albania, to organize such a force. It would draw upon members of the Albanian underworld as well as Islamic extremists there and in Kosovo.” The source insists that Osama’s followers are not Arabs but “Muslims living in the area” (i.e., Albanians). One U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Stars and Stripes that Albanian locals confirmed that forces loyal to bin Laden are camped in the hills.
In the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington, it is certainly desirable, and perhaps even possible, for the United States to devise an effective antiterrorist strategy. This cannot be done, however, unless there is a change in the policy that breeds terrorism. A decade of American covert and overt support for the Muslims in the former Yugoslavia has been a foreign-policy disaster, detrimental to peace in the Balkans and to American interests. Its beneficiaries are Osama bin Laden and his coreligionists in Sarajevo, Tirana, Pristina, and Tetovo. If we are to take the “war on terrorism” seriously, the mistakes of the past need to be recognized and rectified. The Bush administration should investigate the facts of this case, name the instigators of such policies in Washington, and ensure that none of them remain in any positions of responsibility. Once they are removed, it will be possible, at last, to recognize that the Balkan policy of successive U.S. administrations—the policy that made bin Laden’s entrenchment in the Balkans not only possible but inevitable—was fundamentally flawed and requires urgent revision.