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Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (1)

March 22, 2008


Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad

By John R. Schindler

Zenith Press (2007), 368 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Note: Owing to length, the following review is being published in two parts.

Part one, which follows below, appears on March 22, 2008. Part two will appear on March 29, 2008.

Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad is by far the most significant and insightful book yet written about the presence of foreign mujahedin in Bosnia during the 1990s, and the role they and their sponsors played in globalizing the jihad that had been created during the Soviet-Afghan conflict, which was winding down just as Bosnia was on the verge of civil war.

The pre-eminent position of this work on the Bosnia bookshelf owes both to the comprehensive and balanced treatment of events presented therein, and also to the fact that the author, John Schindler, was formerly the National Security Agency’s Balkan expert analyst. This fact has undoubtedly caused many people to be very nervous about what the author, now Professor of Strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Newport, Rhode Island, has to say.

And well they should. For unquestioning supporters of the former Izetbegovic government in the West, the darker side of that government and its connections to global terrorism, organized crime and human rights abuses against fellow Bosnians makes for chilling reading. To be fair, many were fooled by Izetbegovic and his SDA party’s rhetoric of human rights and democracy, but many others, especially Western leaders, were in a position to know the truth.

Nevertheless, they unfailingly supported, to the point of military intervention, an individual who was personally collaborating with Osama bin Laden, an individual whose vision for a future Bosnia was radically different from that supported by the West. The result of this suicidal policy would manifest itself most vividly on 9/11, but also in many other terrorist attacks and attempted attacks around the world. Today, though it seldom makes the news, Western security agencies still have their hands full dealing with the terrorist and extremist networks strengthened and developed — this time, on Western soil — by the Bosnian jihad.

Some Caveats

Schindler begins by summarizing his book as both “a challenge and corrective” to the existing record on Bosnia, noting that his findings will be to some “revealing, to others heretical, to others dangerous” (p. 7). Indeed, the author pulls no punches in describing how specific parties, most of all the late Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and his inner cadre, were directly responsible for bringing the jihad to Europe, using all means at their disposal, including a highly successful public relations campaign that concealed their real long-term goal — an Islamic state in Europe — behind a facade of devotion to democracy and a multi-ethnic Bosnia. However, says Schindler, for wartime Western journalists in the grips of “groupthink,” the “Islamic role of Sarajevo’s government was the great unmentionable” (p. 8).

Nevertheless, the author unabashedly relates that before joining the NSA, he had fervently believed the Bosnian official propaganda, adding that deep down he had “wanted Sarajevo’s version of the truth to be reality.” However, after joining America’s most secretive spy organization, and gaining access to a treasure trove of intelligence documents, Schindler discovered that “it turned out that pretty much everything I thought I knew was simply wrong — or worse, a hazardous half-truth” (p. 11).

Despite this intimate knowledge, the author takes care to make some disclaimers. The first is that the book “is not an insider’s exposˆšÃ‰Â¬Â© of the shortcomings and failures of the U.S. government though there is ample evidence herein that demonstrates how short-sighted and ultimately destructive much American policy in the Balkans was” (p. 11).

The second is that the book does not divulge precious secret documents: “the reader will search in vain for leaked documents or purloined secrets in these pages,” he says in the introduction. In the end, is remarkable that Schindler was able to do such a thorough job in telling the story, even without recourse to such files. However, he states his confidence that in the end his book “will be confirmed and amplified” when the US government someday declassifies its “impressively full archive of intelligence about the Bosnian war and the Balkan jihad” (p. 11).


The ten chapters of Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad chart a roughly chronological, though overlapping course from the history of Bosnia in Ottoman times to the ongoing aftershocks of the Bosnian jihad, in the form of recent terrorist plots and attacks in far corners of the world. Although very dense and packed with an array of data, Unholy War becomes, after a relatively slow initial chapter, a real page-turner that never loses its essential focus and sense of urgency.

Chapter one is a historical overview of the development of Islam from Ottoman times to the modern day. It is a useful account that overturns modern views of the Ottoman treatment of Christians, and which places the wars of the 1990s in their proper historical context, in other words, showing the contrasting views that the various peoples of Bosnia had about the past, and how these views shaped their fears and hopes for the future.

The second and third chapters present a brief, but necessary departure into the role of the media and propaganda in fueling and prolonging the war in Bosnia, and about how well the Izetbegovic government was able to conceal its tacit goal of forming a Muslim state. It is as good an account as any about this key element of the war, and thus comes as a bonus feature in a book otherwise occupied with the military and intelligence aspects of the war. The end of the third chapter also provides interesting details on the Clinton administration’s often misunderstood role in the crisis.

The fourth and fifth chapters take a closer look at the arrival of foreign mujahedin, and the foreign powers that facilitated their presence, with the sixth chapter providing especially interesting data on the role of the United States. After chronicling the role of the Muslim government and mujahedin in the war, through its end in 1995, the remaining chapters go on to give a fantastic array of details on the intimate connections of Bosnia’s ruling party with organized crime and international terrorism- with the final chapter providing a good round up of known (and lesser-known) terrorist arrests and incidents that occurred following the war, with a direct link to Bosnia.

Unlike other authors who seem determined to retain the image of the entirely “Good Muslims” of Bosnia despite uncomfortable facts indicating a radical element within the country, Schindler maintains that the inroads religious extremists made during the 1990s is bearing fruit still, in the form of radicalized mosques, preachers, organizations and publications, all targeting a small but young and voluble Muslim population in Bosnia.

Inside the “Multicultural’ Ottoman Empire

Schindler’s opening chapter provides a brief history of the role of Islam up until the breakdown of Yugoslavia. He contends that an awareness of this history is necessary for an understanding of why Christian Serbs and Croatians were so concerned with the vision for Bosnia espoused by Alija Izetbegovic and his inner circle in the SDA party. Contrary to what revisionist historians have argued, life was not exactly a party for non-Muslims in the empire, and fear of returning to such a status of servitude played a strong, yet largely unreported role in motivating the wars of the 1990s, in which the Serbs and Croats of Bosnia considered themselves to be undertaking a broadly defensive campaign, not an offensive one as is often alleged.

Following failed incursions in the late 14th century, the expansionist Ottoman Empire finally succeeded in subjugating Christian Bosnia in 1463. As classic jihadis, the Ottomans divided the world into two spheres: the House of Islam (Dar-al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar-al-Harb). While monotheists like Christians and Jews were technically classed under the latter, “they were in no sense a protected minority…  under Ottoman rule [they] were not citizens and had no rights as modern Westerners understand the term” (p. 21). In this light, it was not hard to understand why conversion to Islam became a popular option.

Making up a class of subjects known as the dhimmi, Christians and Jews paid considerable taxes, and had “to wear proof of payment, a parchment or seal on their person, on pain of death, an obvious public stigma” (p. 22). “Lifelong humiliation” marked their existence, and the dhimmi were not allowed to testify against Muslims in court, leaving the latter free to commit crimes against them.

Other degrading restrictions included having to dismount from one’s horse whenever a Muslim passed by, and a prohibition on building houses or churches larger than Muslims.’ Intermarriage was allowed only in the case of a Muslim man and non-Muslim woman. Most resented of all was the devshirme, or “blood tax” which Ottoman sultans imposed to replenish their corps of elite converted Christian warriors, the janissaries.

“At a fixed date, every father had to gather his sons in the main square of the local village and allow the authorities to select the best to be sent away, in most cases never to be seen again; resistance brought instant death, and some fathers disfigured sons to prevent their enslavement” (p. 23).

Nevertheless, more forgiving modern scholars have regarded this practice, which went on in Bosnia for three centuries following the conquest, “not as child kidnapping but as a sort of Ottoman affirmative action program to assist non-Muslims, including discussions of its “benefits’ for Bosnia, and for the person who supposedly wanted their sons to get into the program” (pp. 23-24). While Schindler admits that there was the rare example of a janissary elevated to a high position, who then helped his home area from afar, “this was the exception that proved the rule.” (Although not mentioned in the book, it is also important to note the Ottoman practice of child slavery did not end due to the development of more enlightened rule, but because over time the janissary corps became too powerful, an internal security threat that had to be purged).

The rub was that in Bosnia, more so than in other parts of the empire, strategic geography made the social role of Islam more ferocious. Contrary to today’s “Western apologists,’ states Schindler, Bosnian Islam “was considered unusually harsh from the outset, as it faced Christian Europe, in the guise of Habsburg Croatia, on its northern border and lived in fear of losing its precarious status on the extended Ottoman frontier” (p. 24).

Continuity and Change: The Habsburgs, War and the First Yugoslavia

By the 19th century, when the empire was in terminal decline, more Western-friendly voices within called for reforms- which “were met with fierce resistance” from Bosnian Muslims; “jealously guarding their privileged socioeconomic status,” they “proved willing to resist reform with force.” In fact, for exactly the opposite reasons as in Christian provinces of the empire, Bosnian Muslims staged rebellions throughout the 19th century specifically to maintain their privileged status over the allegedly inferior non-Muslim populations, whose shoddy treatment led them to revolt as well.

Mutual hatreds increased throughout the century. Schindler quotes a British diplomat in Sarajevo as saying, in 1860, that Christian hatred of Muslims was intense and motivated by the “oppression and cruelty” they had experienced for centuries. “For them no other law than the caprice of their masters existed.” Despite attempts at reform, ingrained and systemic resistance on the local level meant that the lot of Christians was generally not improved (p. 26).

Following massacres of Christians from 1875-1877, and the Russo-Turkish War in Bulgaria that resulted in the Treaty of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarians invaded Bosnia. Their action “met with fierce resistance” from Muslims, who feared losing their privileges; however, time would show the Habsburgs to be timid rulers, their desire to preserve “stability on the Balkan frontier” and avoid Muslim revolts leading them to keep intact repressive laws: “the colonial authorities never challenged Islam’s place in Bosnia’s social, economic and political life.”

Ironically, the Austro-Hungarian colonial rulers “actually strengthened Islam by establishing the Reis ul-ulema as the chief cleric for Bosnia in 1882, selecting the mufti of Sarajevo as the first to hold the powerful post… Habsburg bureaucrats built large numbers of religious schools and buildings for Muslims, and even constructed government buildings in the Moorish style (pp. 27-28). Incredibly, under the Habsburgs Islamic education actually became a requirement for Muslims.

However, it was, according to Schindler, the general improvements and expansion of education enacted by the colonial power that proved its undoing; the “creation of a new literate class,” aided the development of anti-Habsburg thinking. However, whereas Bosnia’s Christians were easily able to define themselves as Serbs and Croats, the Muslims “had no nationality in the modern sense. Their Islamic universalist worldview was shattered by the Ottoman collapse, leaving a void.” Many educated Muslims thus “found the ideology of Pan-Islamism attractive, seeing it as an alternative to Western ideologies” (p. 28).

Nevertheless, with the arrival of World War I, Bosnian Muslims were by and large enthusiastic to join the Austro-Hungarians in fighting the hated Serbs, and “Bosnian units, staffed disproportionately by Muslims, proved to be the most reliable element in the Austro-Hungarian military.” A Habsburg attempt to round up suspected Serbian spies in the midst relied heavily on the mostly Muslim Schutzkorps, which was especially efficient at rounding up enemies “real or imagined” (p. 29).

With the end of the war, revenge attacks from Christians occurred, but the rule of newly created Royalist Yugoslavia “turned out to be less harsh and vindictive than Muslims had expected… Belgrade, like Vienna before it, turned out to be mainly interested in stability, and had no desire to cause turmoil by inflaming Muslims passions” (p. 30). Yet with the development of “an overcentralized and corrupt bureaucracy” favoring Serbs from Serbia proper, resentment increased among Muslims, Croats and even Bosnian Serbs; Muslims adopted an “accommodation strategy,” Schindler argues, one which they “would practice for decades to come, as the best way to serve Muslim interests and defend their rights” (p. 30).

Post-Ottoman Islam in Bosnia

Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad continues with the author’s succinct tracing of the development of the modern Islamic movement in Bosnia. He demonstrates that there is clear continuity, for anyone who wishes to see, between the religious values and ideals of Ottoman times and the ambitions of modern Bosnian leaders. Further, key events of the 1920’s and 1930’s elsewhere in the Islamic world would be perceived as an exact blueprint for Bosnia some 60 years later.

This continuity involved the exposure of young Bosnian zealots to the wider Islamic world and developments there. Bosnian students frequently studied abroad; “particularly influential were those who had studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the leading Islamic university.” Here in Egypt, another former Ottoman possession, the post-war generation would be profoundly influenced by the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) by Hassan al-Banna, a young student opposed to perceived Western decadence taking root in his homeland. The Brotherhood was a secret society “dedicated to establishing a Pan-Islamist government, a restored caliphate, based on the Koran and shari’a. It advocated the rule of Islam over the individual, the family, society, and the state” (pp. 31-32). The Muslim Brotherhood sought to infiltrate the civil and military administrations with sympathizers to the Islamist cause, and unleashed terrorist and paramilitary attacks on officials it opposed.

By the late 1930’s, admiration for the Brotherhood had spread far and wide, and in Bosnia its methods and goals were “essentially copied” by a group of mostly teenage radicals, who in March 1941 formed their own society, the Young Muslims (Mladi Muslimani), “on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.” The “practical achievement of Islam” was their political ambition, and they opposed not only non-Muslim authorities but also local Muslim ones, whom they viewed as “stodgy at best [and] corrupt at worst” (p. 32).

In 1943, the Young Muslims, “collaborators with the Nazis from the beginning of Bosnia’s occupation,” would encourage their religious kin to join the Waffen-SS Handschar division to fight for the Nazis against the Serbs. While the war was raging, Young Muslims such as Nedzib Sacirbegovic and Alija Izetbegovic (who would be forced unwillingly into Partisan uniforms the next year) were agitating against things like Western films that they perceived as being un-Islamic (p. 36). With the new Communist rule following the war, they continued subversive publications, and both men served brief jail terms starting in 1946.

However, despite initial restrictions, Islam in Communist Yugoslav Bosnia became more welcoming in the 1960s, by which time the Young Muslims had long resumed their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, “via secret meetings in several countries,” guaranteeing a flow of “contraband Islamic literature” into Bosnia (p. 40). As Schindler aptly notes, the ameliorated relationship between the state and Islam also was due to Tito’s newfound prominence as head of the Non-Aligned Movement, which involved keeping good relations with numerous Muslim countries. Remarkably, markers of Islam actually increased under the Communists, with 800 new mosques being built in Bosnia between 1950 and 1970- meaning that there were “more houses of worship and imams in 1970 than there had been before the Communists came to power” (p. 41).

Nevertheless, the Young Muslims were not satisfied with either the Communists or the state-friendly Islamic leadership they allowed, and led by Izetbegovic they continued to bide their time and plot in the shadows for a future Islamic state. Despite the development of an irreligious intelligentsia, “in nonurban parts of the country Islam retained much of its traditional hold on the population” (p. 42). Plus, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were able to gain access to Europe through studying in Yugoslavia. One of the most fateful arrivals for the future would be that of Fatih al-Hasanayn from Sudan in 1964; this medical student would became a close ally of Izetbegovic’s over the next two decades, and a major organizer of foreign funding for the Bosnian war effort in the 1990s.

Izetbegovic himself drew inspiration not only from the Muslim Brotherhood, but also from Pakistan (the model of an ideal state in his famous manifesto, The Islamic Declaration) and revolutionary Iran. The victory of the ayatollahs in 1979 captivated Bosnian Muslim Islamists: in 1982, Izetbegovic and longtime associate Omar Behmen established contact with Tehran through the Iranian Embassy in Vienna.

However, the Yugoslav security services soon discovered this channel and its purpose, and in March 1983 Izetbegovic and his colleagues were arrested and put on trial, a venue which gave him an ideal opportunity to present himself as a dignified and unfairly accused political dissident. Although in the trial he attested that “Islamic society without an Islamic government is incomplete and impotent,” the experience did win Izetbegovic support from critics of Communism who did not see his specific worldview as a possible future threat. Nevertheless, Izetbegovic was sentenced to 14 years in jail, Behmen to 15 years, and 10 for “the only youthful member of the group,” 27 year-old radical cleric Hasan Cengic, who would become an instrumental figure in the war effort.

The remainder of Schindler’s first chapter chronicles the fast-developing events leading to the destruction of Yugoslavia, the most important of which in Bosnia was the rise of the SDA (Stranke demokratske akcije, Party of Democratic Action); “what it represented, what it stood for, was an enigma from the start, and has remained so, precisely as [party leader] Izetbegovic wished it to be” (p. 47). This theme of Izetbegovic as the inscrutable and enigmatic politician who would often voice contradictory positions and bewilder even his close allies is one of the author’s major ones, which appears throughout the book and which is cited as part of the reason why the crafty old former Young Muslim would be able to essentially fool the West throughout his long tenure about the depth of his party’s devotion to Pan-Islamism, not to mention its major involvement in organized crime and with the world’s most wanted terrorists.

The importance of the author’s initial historical approach to the modern conflicts is amplified when he discusses the reconciliation of newfound political pluralism with Izetbegovic’s “Ottomanophilia,” that is, his desire to return Bosnia’s non-Muslims to their dhimmi status; in the SDA leader’s own words, a revived caliphate was “the practical conclusions taken from the Islamic recognition of Christians and Jews which comes straight from the Koran” (p. 49). Bosnia’s Croats and Serbs were understandably horrified by such rhetoric. In a refreshingly frank approximation that thanks to the media was not heard back when it might have influenced Western policies, Schindler notes:

“in American terms, this would be tantamount to a white Southern politician who publicly extolled his slave-owning ancestors while running for office on a platform calling for a return to antebellum values and practices. The opinions of African-Americans in such a scenario would be easy to predict, and rather like how non-Muslims in Bosnia viewed the rise of Izetbegovic” (p. 49).

However, not even most Bosnian Muslims wanted such a society, and the ability of the SDA zealots to muscle their way into power, eliminate all opposition, and chart a decidedly anti-Western course for Bosnia is one of the most remarkable aspects of the Yugoslav Wars, according to the author. Even though the SDA had strong support among the rural Muslim communities which had more than urban populations retained their traditional Ottoman ways, and even though it took a majority of the Muslim vote in the November 1990 election, it received less cumulative votes than did the popular and secular Muslim politician, Fikret Abdic. However, “in a background deal that has never been explained” writes Schindler, “the victor stepped aside and permitted Izetbegovic to assume the Bosnian presidency, setting the stage for tragedy” (p. 53).


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