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  • Al Qaeda:The Balkans Connection
  • Charles V. Peña (bio)

In October 2004, Yossef Bodansky—then the director of the congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare—claimed that the bombers of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad the prior year were trained in Bosnia. According to Bodansky, "There is a terrorist network in Bosnia, composed of several well-trained and connected groups, which are directly or indirectly responsible to . . . Osama bin Laden."1 The Balkans are home to over 6 million Muslims—making up 70 percent of Albania's population, 40 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina's, 17 percent of Macedonia's, and 19 percent of Serbia and Montenegro's2 —so it is not unreasonable to assume that al Qaeda would attempt to use the cover of those populations to hide, operate, and recruit. At least some of the Muslim fighters in the Balkans are believed to have trained in al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan. But does that constitute an al Qaeda presence in the Balkans and a terrorist threat?

As is the case with most things in the Balkans, the answer is not entirely clear. Tracing any potential al Qaeda connection in the Balkans, however, starts by looking past bin Laden to Alija Izetbegovic, a Bosnian Muslim who was president of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1996 to 2000. A political autocrat who was hailed by Bosnian Muslims as the "father of the nation," Izetbegovic's manifesto, the Islamic Declaration, is the first link in any chain that might connect the Balkans to al Qaeda. When the declaration was first published in 1970, Izetbegovic asserted that "there can be neither peace [End Page 65] nor coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions"3 and that "the Islamic movement must and can take over political power as soon as it is morally and numerically so strong that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic power but also to build up a new Islamic one."4 While not explicitly calling for violent jihad, these sentiments are not far from bin Laden's rhetoric.

The connection between Izetbegovic and bin Laden was more than just rhetorical. After Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in February 1992, the United States and the European Union recognized Bosnia's newly declared independence, and Izetbegovic apparently had gambled that the international community would send a peacekeeping force. But when it didn't, a civil war broke out almost immediately, with Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav army forces taking control of large areas of Bosnia. Subsequently, Izetbegovic took refuge in a besieged Sarajevo surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces. With the Western countries sitting on the sidelines, Izetbegovic looked to the Islamic world for help, and the new Bosnian government received money and arms from a number of Muslim countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya.

Along with arms and money came an influx of hundreds of foreign fighters, many of them mujahedin from Afghanistan who had fought against the Soviets. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Osama bin Laden visited Bosnia in 1993 and met with Izetbegovic.5 According to Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc. and one of the few Western journalists to interview bin Laden,

In the early nineties the overseas conflict with the greatest import for al Qaeda was the war in the former Yugoslavia between the Serbs and the largely Muslim Bosnians. While the Bosnian conflict never took on the dimension of the Afghan jihad, between 1992 and 1995 hundreds of Afghan Arabs were fighting in Bosnia, particularly in the region around Zenica. A Vienna-based charity linked to bin Laden, Third World Relief [End Page 66] Agency, funneled millions of dollars in contributions to the Bosnians. Al Qaeda trained mujahideen to go and fight in Bosnia during the early nineties, and bin Laden's Services Office also maintained an office in neighboring Croatia's capital Zagreb.6

Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna believes "up to 4,000 foreign mujahedin fought against the Serbs" and that "the mujahedin also became heavily involved in welfare organizations bringing relief to the Bosniak population as a whole."7

The Dayton Peace Accord signed in November 1995 sought...