Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Bosnian Connection

The civil war that inspired both liberal hawks and Islamist jihadis

In a recent Vanity Fair feature, Christopher Hitchens bemoaned the transformation of London into “Londonistan.” He wrote about Finsbury Park, a shabby, multicultural corner of the capital, where the old sights of Irish immigrants staggering from dingy pubs and Greeks trying to hawk kebabs have been replaced by young Muslim men sporting beards and women cloaked in the black hijab.

Then there is the notorious Finsbury Park mosque. Abu Hamza al-Masri, the hook-handed, one-eyed former Mujahi-deen of the Afghan-Soviet War, was the imam there until his arrest and imprisonment in 2006 for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. The 7/7 bombers were inspired by Hamza’s rancid rhetoric. Other visitors to the mosque included Richard Reid, the failed shoe-bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-Moroccan found guilty of being the “20th hijacker” of 9/11.

For Hitchens, the transformation of this once lively mixed suburb into a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, where the “the scent of Algeria … now predominates along the main thoroughfare,” is symptomatic of a broader shift in British society. “How did a nation move from cricket and fish-and-chips to burkas and shoe-bombers in a single generation?” he asks.

Hitchens also revisits the curious case of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. As British as they come, he was brought up in a leafy suburb in northeast London, where he was privately educated, and later attended the London School of Economics. Now he is in prison in Pakistan for orchestrating the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. According to Hitchens, Sheikh’s shocking journey, from burying his head in books at the LSE in the early 1990s to crudely removing the head of an American writer in Pakistan in 2002, shows the lethality of the radical Islamist bug sweeping the British Isles.

Yet Hitchens omits one important fact about Sheikh. You see, Hitchens and Sheikh—the celebrated journalist and the imprisoned murderer—share a striking feature. Both were radicalized by the same issue: the civil war in Bosnia of 1992-95, and both were set on their current political trajectories by their deep sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims and their loathing of the Bosnian Serbs. Indeed, while they may have ended up worlds apart, with Hitchens writing pro-interventionist articles for the American press and Sheikh a crazed killer in Pakistan, one might argue that, politically, they are cut from the same cloth.

Sheikh was radicalized not by some ranting cleric with a chip on his shoulder but by a film made by a mainstream British charity about the suffering of Bosnian Muslims. After seeing the film during the student-organized “Bosnia Week” at the LSE in 1992, he decided to make his way to Bosnia and fight with the Arab Mujahideen who had traveled from far and wide to take up arms alongside the Bosnian Muslim Army. It was in Bosnia that Sheikh fell in with Kashmiri militants, later following them to Pakistan-ruled Kashmir and into a life of terrorism that culminated in Pearl’s murder.

Hitchens experienced his conversion at the same time. Where the 1992 images of Bosnian Muslim suffering transformed Sheikh into a Mujahideen, they turned Hitchens—who until then had been a leftist opposed to Western military intervention—toward neoconservatism. As Hitchens said in an interview in 2004, “I first became interested in the neocons during the war in Bosnia. That war in the early 1990s changed a lot for me. That’s when I began to first find myself on the same side as the neocons.”

In 1992, as Sheikh was preparing to leave for Bosnia and take up arms against the Bosnian Serbs, Hitchens began agitating for American action against them. One went to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslim Army, the other called for the arming of the Bosnian Muslim Army and the military punishment of its opponents in the Bosnian Serb camp. The explosion of civil war in Bosnia in 1992 turned both into military interventionists who decided to declare war against what they considered “evil.”

Hitchens’s and Sheikh’s shared starting point is not a one-off. Many of today’s liberal hawks, who call for war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, were on the side of the militants during the Bosnian conflict. Indeed, back then the pro-interventionist Left and al-Qaeda were allies. Both groups backed the Bosnian Muslim Army and demonized the Bosnian Serbs as savages. Liberal hawks, including Hitchens, did it with propaganda; al-Qaeda did it by deed. But both the black-and-white worldviews of the Left neocons and the bin Ladenites were forged in the fires of the Bosnian war.

It is widely known that the Mujahi-deen first emerged during the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s, when they were armed and trained by American, British, Pakistani, and Saudi intelligence. Less well reported is the fact that Western forces later facilitated the movement of Mujahideen into Bosnia. Some 3,000 Islamic militants descended to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims. The Clinton administration, which encouraged the arming of the Bosnian Muslim Army by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and various dubious Islamic charities, helped to open a gateway.

The similarities between the positions of the newly emerging liberal hawks and the line taken by al-Qaeda militants were striking. Both insisted that this dirty civil war was a defining battle. As the British author Philip Hammond argues, hawkish journalists in the liberal Western press depicted the war as “a simple tale of good versus evil.” Likewise, in his book Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network, Evan Kohlmann describes how Mujahideen who fought in Bosnia believed there was a “clear divergence between good and evil” and understood the conflict “in terms of an apocalyptic, one-dimensional religious confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Many Western writers and thinkers cheered the Bosnian Muslim Army (BiH), and the U.S. surreptitiously armed and trained it in 1994 and 1995. At the same time, Mujahideen formed a Battalion of Holy Warriors used as a vanguard in assaults on Bosnian Serb positions. According to a UN communiqué of 1995, the battalion was “directly dependent on BiH staff for supplies” and for “directions” during combat with the Serbs. In short, Western hawks and the “military humanitarians” of the Clinton administration were abetting a military outfit that had numerous Mujahideen members right through to 1995.

Many of the Mujahideen who fought in Bosnia would relate that they were inspired to do so by the saber-rattling reports of Western journalists. Some may even have been moved to Holy War by Hitchens. In Kohlmann’s book, Mujahideen reveal that they ventured to Bosnia because they read newspaper coverage of the “genocide” and the “camps used by Serb soldiers systematically to rape thousands of Muslim women.” Noam Chomsky has said there was a “religious fervor” about Bosnia in Western media and political circles in the early ’90s, with both political leaders and journalists demonizing the Serbs as uniquely wicked. The Mujahideen can be seen as a physical manifestation of this fervor and were, for all intents and purposes, the shock troops of the Western liberal prejudice of the age.

How did two polar opposite forces—Western liberals and Eastern Holy Warriors—come to be on the same side in the Balkans 15 years ago? I believe that both camps adopted Bosnia as a special cause in response to their own crises of direction and legitimacy. In his book Divided Europe, Adam Burgess explains why the liberal Left was so fervent about punishing the Serbs: “Deprived of the traditional staples of left-wing politics [after the Cold War], the search for an alternative became increasingly pronounced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The left embraced new causes. It is in this context that sense can be made of the readiness of the left to embrace the anti-Serbian ‘cause’ with less restraint and qualification than even the rest of society.”

The Mujahideen also embraced the anti-Serbian cause because they had lost direction. In the early ’90s, Afghanistan was becoming bogged down in civil war after the withdrawal of the Soviets, and governments in the Middle East and North Africa were persecuting veteran Mujahideen as they returned from the Afghan theater. Bosnia was a godsend (or perhaps an “Allah-send”) for the Mujahideen. The civil war occurred at a “propitious” time for the “stranded foreign fighters,” writes Kohlmann. For both Western leftists and the Mujahideen, Bosnia became a refuge from their harsh realities—a place where they could fight fantasy battles against evil to make themselves feel purposeful and heroic, rather than having to face up to the problems in their movements.

The Bosnia experience had a transformative effect on both. It made some on the Left pro-interventionist, and it turned some Mujahideen from religious nationalists, as they had been in Afghanistan, into self-described cross-border warriors against evil. It is striking how many al-Qaeda attacks were facilitated or carried out by veterans of the Bosnian jihad. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, architect of the 9/11 attacks, fought in Bosnia, as did two of the hijackers. One of the main suspects in the Madrid train bombings trained in Bosnia. (He, too, was inspired to go there by Western media coverage.) The foiled “millennium plot” to blow up the Los Angeles airport in 2000 was overseen by individuals with connections to Bosnia, as were the 1998 African embassy bombings.

Liberal hawks and al-Qaeda have no moral equivalence whatsoever. The hawks are merely misguided whereas al-Qaeda is murderous. Yet both camps view world affairs in simple terms in which everything is reducible to a clash between good and evil. Maybe that is because both were forged during that most moralized of wars—Bosnia.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked-online.com.



The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here