A Covert War in Bosnia

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

In March 1992 the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, provoking an attack on its capital, Sarajevo, by Bosnian Serb militias allied to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. The war that followed lasted for three years, killed 150,000 people and forced two million to flee their homes in what became widely known as a systematic programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

European governments, including the British government of John Major, were widely criticised for failing to halt the atrocities, which, while perpetrated by all sides, were principally conducted by Serb forces against Bosnia’s Muslim community. Yet Britain played a significant, if limited, covert role in the war, supplying arms to Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces and turning a blind eye to US arms supplies to, and military training of, these forces. Most importantly, Britain also acquiesced in, and may have covertly assisted, the movement of some Islamist militants into Bosnia as up to 4,000 volunteers went there to fight the Serbs; the militants were funded by al-Qaida, the Saudis and various Islamic ‘charities’, amidst a wave of solidarity around the Muslim world with the plight of their co-religionists. As a new generation of jihadis gained combat experience and developed new networks, Whitehall thus played a role in fomenting the third wave in the globalisation of terrorism, following the Afghan War and Pakistan’s surge into Central Asia.

Jihad in Europe

In April 1992, a month after the outbreak of the Bosnian War, Afghan resistance forces finally captured Kabul and overthrew its pro-Soviet regime. That same month a veteran of the Afghan War, Sheikh Abu Abdel Aziz, visited Bosnia, where he proclaimed himself the first amir of the Bosnian Arab–Afghans. Little is known of Aziz, except that he is believed to be a Saudi of Indian descent who had been inspired to fight in Afghanistan by Abdullah Azzam, the principal organiser and mentor of the Afghan jihadis who was killed in a bomb blast in 1989. Aziz established his first headquarters in the central Bosnian town of Travnik, 50 miles west of Sarajevo; other jihadi camps were set up at Mehurici, outside Travnik, and in the city of Zenica, also in central Bosnia. The camps were based on the Afghan model, providing intensive military and weapons training and religious indoctrination.

The Bosnian jihadi volunteers largely comprised Afghan veterans of mainly Saudi but also Pakistani, Egyptian and Yemeni origin, and they were joined by a younger group of disaffected, often unemployed European North African youths, mostly from Algeria and Tunisia. One was the Kuwaiti-born Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who within a few years would be masterminding the 9/11 attacks. Two Saudi volunteers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khaled al-Mindhar, journeyed to the Balkans in 1995; six years later they would hijack American Airlines flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon.

The Bosnian mujahideen were initially attached to and supplied by regular Bosnian military units, although they often operated as special units or as ‘shock troops’, or indeed independently of formal military control. The mujahideen undertook their first major combat operations in the summer of 1992 in north-central Bosnia, fighting ethnic Serb forces who had initiated an offensive against Muslims in the region. Ideological differences between the incoming jihadists and the local Bosnian soldiers led to the setting up in August 1993 of a separate mujahideen battalion consisting of non-Bosnians, led by Aziz, and attached to the Bosnian army’s seventh battalion. Although the mujahideen had an impact on the war’s progress, and won some significant battlefield victories, their overall military contribution was limited. Yet their value to the Sarajevo authorities went far beyond their direct impact on the battlefield: their presence in Bosnia had a symbolic value, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic seeing them as a political tool for obtaining funding and support for the war against Serbia from countries throughout the Muslim world.

As Sarajevo was besieged and surrounded by Serb forces for three years from 1992, and with Bosnian Muslims suffering numerous atrocities elsewhere, humanitarian aid flowed from various Muslim and non-Muslim organisations. But the financing for Bosnian jihadist activities came principally from Gulf businessmen and Saudi ‘charities’, acting as major conduits for sending aid and weapons, in violation of the arms embargo imposed on all sides in the war. Over the course of the war, public and private aid from Saudi Arabia to Bosnia amounted to around $150 million. Al-Qaida is also reported to have funded the mujahideen in Bosnia, and other al-Qaida operations in Eastern Europe, partly via the Advisory and Reformation Committee based in London. Bin Laden appears to have visited Bosnia several times between 1994 and 1998, having been issued with a Bosnian passport by its embassy in Vienna in 1993; he also had men and arms flown in from bases in Afghanistan. It is believed that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrrorist group, was assigned by Bin Laden to coordinate al-Qaida’s operations in Bosnia at this time.

The Saudi government was also the largest donor to the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), a private organisation managed by a member of the Sudanese National Islamic Front Party, which acted as a conduit for money and arms. Bin Laden is also believed to have provided funds to the TWRA, which, Western intelligence believed, used half of the $350 million it collected to purchase and transport weapons to the Bosnian mujahideen. The Clinton administration knew of the TWRA’s illicit activities but chose to turn a blind eye. In 1996, for example, a senior Western diplomat in Europe accused the US government of deliberately ignoring the TWRA’s violations of the arms embargo, but was told not to interfere since ‘Bosnia was trying to get weapons from anybody, and we [the Americans] weren’t helping much. The least we could do is back off’.

Iran was the first government to send covert arms supplies to Bosnia when, in September 1992, a Boeing 747 carrying small arms, ammunition, anti-tank rockets and communications equipment landed in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. This marked the beginning of the ‘Croatian pipeline’, a supply line to Bosnian forces in Sarajevo as well as to the Croatians. The Iranian arms shipments ran for around a year before being reduced in late 1993 due to increased conflict between the Bosnian Muslims and Croat forces. During this stage, the US turned a blind eye to the shipments. In April 1994, however, President Clinton, in high-level meetings in Washington, explicitly gave a ‘green light’ to further Iranian supplies to bolster the Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces. After this, senior Croatian and Bosnian Muslim ministers visited Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani in Tehran and drew up a tripartite agreement for arms supplies and humanitarian aid. The arms flow began again on 4 May 1994, and around eight flights a month subsequently took place that year, rising to around three a week by early 1995. US government estimates of the amount of Iranian equipment supplied varied from 5,000 to 14,000 tons from May 1994 to January 1996. It was then that the clandestine supplies halted again, after US ground troops were stationed in the region following the Dayton Accords that ended the war.

The US also directly supplied arms to Bosnian forces throughout the war. In February 1995, there was great agitation within the UN Protection Force in Bosnia when secret C-130 transport aircraft were seen making night-time air drops at Tuzla air base in eastern Bosnia – the so-called ‘black flights’. These were known to be covert US arms deliveries, conducted in collaboration with the Bosnian intelligence service and, probably, Turkey. Supplies included anti-tank guided weapons, Stinger surface-to-air missiles and communications equipment. Turkey proved to be the second most important arms supplier after Iran, playing a role in the Croatian pipeline from 1992. Pakistan also chipped in to arm Muslim forces, supplying sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles, airlifted by the ISI.

The covert Western role in helping to arm the Muslim forces in Bosnia has been most comprehensively exposed in a report by Professor Cees Wiebes of the University of Amsterdam. Wiebes’ analysis was part of an official Dutch enquiry into the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces while in a UN-designated ‘safe area’. The analysis involved years of information-gathering on the activities in Bosnia of various intelligence agencies. It showed that Whitehall decided to turn a blind eye to the US arms deliveries, the report noting that:

‘The UK Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) was … aware of the American secret arms supplies to the ABiH [Bosnian forces]. According to the British intelligence official, the DIS never made an issue of them, so as not to further damage the sensitive relationship with the US services … The DIS received a direct order from the British government not to investigate this affair. This was not permitted for the simple reason that the matter was too sensitive in the framework of American–British relations’.

This apparent British deference to the US is striking, once again confirming the degree to which Britain was now beholden to the US in covert operations. It is particularly noteworthy given the major disagreement, indeed animosity, between British and US planners over broad strategy during the Bosnian conflict, to the point where the Americans cut off some intelligence to the British. The US had a much more openly pro-Bosnian government position and was willing, in contrast to the British, to lift the international arms embargo to get more supplies to the Croats and Bosnians. Meanwhile, there was considerable US concern over the apparent sympathy of General Michael Rose, commander of the British forces in Bosnia, with the Bosnian Serb forces, whom he regarded as more interested in peace than the Bosnian government; Rose also regarded the conflict more as a simple ‘civil war’ than a case of aggression against an independent Bosnian state, and the US was secretly bugging his office, along with other UN commanders.

However, deference to the US may not be the correct or only explanation for why Britain didn’t challenge the US arms deliveries. There is evidence that Britain was itself covertly supplying arms to both the Muslims and Croats in the early 1990s. Operation Clover, a US intelligence-sponsored plan with a $5 million budget involved at least one British covert operative. Delivering weapons required a convoluted method, since Croatia and Bosnia were under an international arms embargo. So, according to one source, Britain turned to Monzer al-Kassar, the arms dealer linked with terrorists who was a British agent involved in secret supplies to the Iranians in the 1980s. Al-Kassar was now being described as a ‘Syrian drug trafficker, terrorist and arms trafficker’ by a US Senate investigation into the financial scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, in which al-Kassar was involved. It is not known precisely what weapons the British agreed to provide to Croatia, but it has been reported that in early 1992, 27 containers of Polish arms and ammunition were secretly supplied by al-Kassar to Croatia, on a false end-user certificate which designated Yemen as the destination. The operation in Croatia may have continued into the second half of the 1990s, alongside a similar one to arm the Bosnians, though no details on this have emerged.

The US also secretly arranged for regular Bosnian Muslim and Croatian forces to receive military training, in late 1994 contracting a private company, Military Professional Resources Incorporated, which was staffed by retired American generals and intelligence officers. Moreover, one former Bosnian mujahid told the media that in the winter of 1993 14 Americans claiming to be former special forces helped train Arab and Bosnian fighters near the town of Tuzla; this involved at least 8 Sudanese Islamic militants being trained in ‘insurgency warfare’. The foreign mercenary team was led by Abu Abdullah, a former colonel in the US military. Whitehall also appears to have turned a blind eye to this training; it seems inconceivable that officials did not know of it.

According to Bosnian Muslim military intelligence sources, Britain was also one of the main channels through which foreign jihadists entered Bosnia, while London hosted several financers and recruiters for the cause. Moreover, it appears that Britain, along with the US, actively encouraged foreign jihadists to go to Bosnia. Washington’s secret alliance with Iran and the Bosnian Muslims meant that it allowed mujahideen fighters to be flown in; Richard Holbrooke, the US’s chief peace negotiator in the Balkans, later noted that the Bosnian Muslims ‘wouldn’t have survived’ without this help and called it a ‘pact with the devil’. Furthermore, former Indian intelligence officer B. Raman has noted that ‘according to reliable estimates, about 200 Muslims of Pakistani origin living in the UK went to Pakistan, got trained in the camps of the HUA [Harkat ul-Ansar, the Pakistani terrorist group] and joined the HUA’s contingent in Bosnia with the full knowledge and complicity of the British and American intelligence agencies.’ Raman notes that ‘the CIA asked the ISI to divert part of the dregs’ of the HUA to assist the Muslims, and that the first group of militants entered Bosnia in 1992. The contingent was organised by the ISI, funded by Saudi intelligence and armed by Iranian intelligence, while leadership and motivation were provided by serving and retired officers of the ISI and Turkish intelligence.

By this time the Arabs of Afghan vintage had already started creating mayhem around the world and so these intelligence agencies wanted to avoid the use of Arabs; for this reason, ‘they turned to Pakistanis, particularly Pakistanis living in the UK and other countries of West Europe. Thus began the radicalisation of the Muslim youth of Pakistani origin living in West Europe.’ In late 1994 there were also reports that militants arriving from overseas were being accompanied into Bosnia by US special forces equipped with high-tech communications equipment and were intending to establish a command, control, communications and intelligence network to coordinate Bosnian Muslim offensives.

One British citizen of Pakistani origin who joined the HUA during the Bosnian War was Omar Saeed Sheikh, the London School of Economics (LSE) student who, as outlined in the previous chapter, would later kidnap several foreigners to try to secure the release of HUA leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, and who would later be accused of complicity in 9/11. In Bosnia during Easter 1993, Sheikh took part in a humanitarian mission by an organisation called Convoy of Mercy, which delivered relief supplies to the beleaguered Muslim civilians but which also, according to Sheikh, provided clandestine support to the Muslim fighters. However, Sheikh himself never made it into Bosnia due to fatigue, instead meeting a HUA activist who persuaded him to join the group.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf states in his autobiography:

‘It is believed in some quarters that while Omar Sheikh was at the LSE he was recruited by the British intelligence agency MI6. It is said that MI6 persuaded him to take an active part in demonstrations against Serbian aggression in Bosnia and even sent him to Kosovo to join the jihad. At some point he probably became a rogue or double agent.’

Musharraf’s accusation is clearly explosive but is severely undermined by the fact that Sheikh could only have joined the jihad in Kosovo very late in 1999 (when the war was over) since he was in jail in India from 1994 until December 1999 after being arrested for the kidnapping mentioned above. Whether Sheikh was recruited by MI6 remains unclear, yet there is evidence that Sheikh became an agent of Pakistan’s ISI, as discussed further in Chapter 15.

Among the other Britons who volunteered for the Bosnian jihad was Abu Hamza, later the notorious imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, establishing it as an administrative centre for jihadist activity overseas. An Egyptian, Hamza had been granted citizenship in Britain in 1986, and had gone on the hajj to Mecca and met Abdullah Azzam in 1987. In 1990 he met wounded mujahideen from Afghanistan in London while volunteering to provide medical treatment to them, paid for by rich Saudis, and in 1991 he emigrated with his family to Afghanistan. It was there in 1993 that Hamza lost both hands and an eye in an explosion, while in 1994 he set up his own organisation in Britain, the Supporters of Sharia, with a view to ‘supporting the Mujahideen’ around the world and bringing sharia law ‘to the whole of mankind’. The following year, Hamza made three trips to Bosnia, using a false name, and worked as a relief worker with an aid convoy carrying food, clothes and medical supplies. Once inside Bosnia, Hamza left the relief workers and sought out the mujahideen, spending most of his time with the Algerian factions, advising them, he later claimed. Hamza returned to Britain in late 1995, one of the hundreds of Britons returning from the conflict who entered the country without any questioning from the British authorities.

Another Briton who for two years went back and forth from Britain to Bosnia, carrying supplies for the cause, was Abu Mujajid al-Brittani, a recent university graduate. Al-Brittani first went to Bosnia in 1993, ostensibly to transport food and medicine to Muslims in central Bosnia, but this was a cover for support activities for the jihad. Al-Brittani travelled the length of Britain to raise money for the cause and increase awareness among Muslims, again with impunity from the authorities. He was killed in combat in 1995.

Few details have emerged on Britain’s covert involvement in the dispatch of jihadists to Bosnia. There was also little mention of the Bosnian mujahideen in the British parliament at the time; when there was, the government downplayed any concern. In February 1994, for example, Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg was asked what information he had on the activities of the Bosnian Muslim seventh brigade and curtly replied: ‘The brigade is believed to be near Vitez in central Bosnia. We understand that it mainly consists of Bosnians displaced by the war. There are foreign volunteers but it is not possible to give precise information about their countries of origin.’

Supporting both sides?

British policy towards the Bosnian war is difficult to pin down precisely. In his academic dissection of British strategy, Brendan Simms of Cambridge University has noted that ‘British mediators deferred to the Serbs, bullied the Bosnians and did all they could to sabotage US plans for military intervention.’ He writes that Yugoslav leader Milosevic’s claim that Lords Hurd, Carrington and Owen gave him a green light to prosecute the war, ‘comes as no surprise’. More than any other country, according to Simms, Britain obstructed all international efforts to come to Bosnia’s military aid and instead championed the international arms embargo, which mainly had the effect of penalising the government in Sarajevo. Simms also writes that although Bosnian government forces committed atrocities, ‘these were essentially reactive and quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from the systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing waged by the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs.’ Britain therefore bore considerable responsibility for a proportion of the tens of thousands of deaths.

However, Simms’ book says little about the mujahideen or Britain’s covert policies. When these are factored in, a more confusing picture emerges. Although Britain was formally opposed to the lifting of the arms embargo on the Bosnian government, it acquiesced in Iranian–US supplies to it and covertly supplied some of its own arms, as we have seen. Although Britain acquiesced in British Muslims going to fight in Bosnia, the British army’s detachment to the UN protection force, UNPROFOR, also had several confrontations with the jihadists. Along with the US, London exerted pressure on the Izetbegovic government to expel the mujahideen after the Dayton Accords of December 1995. Indeed, the SAS is then believed to have conducted raids on training camps in which many mujahideen were killed.

There are many gaps in our understanding of this period, but the most likely explanation for these apparent contradictions is that different parts of the British state were pursuing different, and clashing, agendas, with the secret services involved in the covert arms supplies and the dispatch of the jihadists. One media report mentioning Britain’s arming of the Croats and Muslims noted that ‘the Conservative government was trying in vain to create a balance of power with Serbian forces.’ And according to Wiebes, the British view in the war was that ‘there were no good guys and no bad guys’; MI6 had a non-interventionist view and its ‘motto’ was to ‘stay out as long as possible’. It seems likely that the mujahideen were seen as a proxy tool for parts of the British state to help create this ‘balance of power’. If so, this is a policy with some historical precedents, notably the 1948 Arab–Israeli conflict in which Britain saw Arab forces as helping to create some kind of balance in the region to serve ongoing British interests, as we saw in Chapter 2. As in that war, British policy in Bosnia was also incoherent, in effect supporting both and neither sides as such. It is also possible that the British intelligence services saw Bosnia-bound British Muslims as a source of intelligence on the war. MI6 was certainly active in recruiting agents during the conflict, and is known to have run operatives at various levels, including in Izetbegovic’s Cabinet.

To the extent that Britain helped promote the Bosnian jihad, its policy contributed to the profound consequences the war had on the development of global terrorism. For one thing, some of the money raised to ostensibly help the suffering Bosnian Muslims may have been diverted to help fund the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993, among other terrorist targets: for example, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind sheikh involved in the bombing, had links with the TWRA, one of the jihad’s principal funders. Bosnia also further radicalised some in the Pakistani diaspora, a process begun under General Zia’s military regime in the 1980s. Abu Abdel Aziz, the commander of the mujahideen forces in Bosnia, appears to have had links with the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) group; Aziz may have attended, or at least sent recorded messages to, the annual LET convention in Pakistan to inspire jihadists, and he may also have been involved in assisting jihadists in Kashmir. Also, after the war, Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia flooded into the Muslim areas of Sarajevo, building mosques and establishing a deeper presence. A decade on, in late 2007, analysts were noting that Islamic militants in the country were involved in criminal activity, exerting a rising influence over young Bosnians who were gathering increasingly around the growing Wahhabi movement in the country.

Most importantly, a new generation of jihadists had received military training and combat experience to take back to their home countries, notably terrorists of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) who proceeded to conduct numerous unspeakable atrocities in a brutal civil war. After Bosnia, many mujahideen veterans showed up in leadership positions in jihadi groups from the US to Europe, North Africa to the Middle East, Chechnya to Kashmir. US journalist Evan Kohlmann notes that the deployment of Islamist militants in Bosnia occurred at an early stage of the al-Qaida movement, and that the experience had long-lasting effects on the group: the Bosnian jihad enabled militant cells from different countries to connect and draw together in a new continent – Europe. Bosnia’s geographical position meant it was a good jumping-off point for the expansion of terrorism into Britain, Italy, France and Germany. It was the metro bombings in Paris in July 1995, towards the end of the Bosnian War, which marked the beginning of Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe.

In addition, there were now ‘numerous Islamist terrorist facilities’ in Bosnia, ranging from schools to operational bases, that had been set up by the Bosnian government under the cover of humanitarian organisations. Thus, by the summer of 1995, ‘the Islamist infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina had already constituted the core of a new training centre for European Muslims.’ This included the first organised deployment of suicide bombers, involving at least a dozen Bosnian Muslims who had graduated from training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the spring of 1995. By the end of the war, the US was pressing the Bosnian government to expel the mujahideen prior to the arrival of NATO peacekeeping troops, as required of it by the Dayton Accords. To evade this, the Izetbegovic government simply issued thousands of Bosnian passports and other paperwork to members of the foreign battalion – up to 400 are believed to have settled in Bosnia, many of them marrying local women. With valid documentation, lingering groups of mujahideen were able to operate without significant interference from the UN, the US or NATO. Many of the most dangerous elements were also protected by religious and political hardliners at senior levels in the Bosnian government.

Leave a reply