Last week, as one of his last acts in office, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech about Iran’s collaboration with Al-Qaeda. It was unfortunate that Pompeo did this at this time and in this way, with such blatant political intent, because the factual content of Pompeo’s speech was unassailable: the Islamic Republic’s long relationship with Al-Qaeda does stretch back about three decades, the killing of Al-Qaeda’s deputy Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri) in Tehran in August 2020 is demonstrative of a shift in the strategic positioning of the organisation away from Pakistan to Iran, and even the part of Pompeo’s speech that got the most pushback—about Tehran’s contact with the 9/11 killers—is not controversial and is not new.
Unmentioned in Pompeo’s speech was one of the crucibles that forged this relationship, and forged Al-Qaeda into something more than a regional menace, namely the Bosnian war of 1992-5. Thousands of foreign Sunni jihadists came into Bosnia in this period, many of them either with pre-existing links to Al-Qaeda or established links once they were in country, and this rag-tag army of mujahideen found itself benefiting from the role of the Iranian revolution in Bosnia, particularly the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—not yet led by Qassem Sulaymani—and the Intelligence and Security Ministry, often called Ettela’at for short and known at the time as VEVAK. Iranian veterans of this campaign recently boasted in public about it.
For a mix of good and bad reasons, the role of the jihadists in Bosnia, both the Qaedaists and Iran, is often downplayed, when not outright denied. The information on the role of Al-Qaeda and its linked and derivative allies in Bosnia is available in memoirs of the participants, and others have analysed the Iranian dimension and the transformative role the collaborative experience in Bosnia had on Al-Qaeda. Ronen Bergman, an Israeli investigative journalist with excellent sources among that country’s intelligence and security services—recently put to use for a comprehensive history of Israel’s assassination program—wrote a book in 2008, The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, which has a detailed section on the joint Iranian-Qaeda role in Bosnia.
ORIGINS OF IRAN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH AL-QAEDA
The Iran-Qaeda relationship appeared on the Israeli radar, by Bergman’s account, no later than 1995, after the effort of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), led by the current leader of Al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri, to assassinate Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia on 26 June 1995. In walking back the evidence of the attempt on Mubarak, Jerusalem traced the jihadi attack network to Sudan, and identified Rifai Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri), killed in Syria in April 2016, as the “operational commander”, and his field commander was Mustafa Hamza (Abu Hazem).
What the Israelis found, as Bergman explains, is that the usual historiography about the development of Al-Qaeda, which makes “only passing reference” to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Revolution deposing the Shah as “inspiring” Sunni Islamists to strive for their own theocracies, “is wrong”. The Iran-Qaeda relationship was well-established by the time the Israelis noticed it in 1995.
With Al-Zawahiri at the centre of the web, admired by the clerical regime in Iran and operating in Sudan under the protection of the Hassan al-Turabi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was the real power behind the throne of Umar al-Bashir’s regime, the Sunni Arab jihadists, many of them veterans of the struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Usama bin Laden specifically, had been linked up with Tehran.
“Bin Laden responded favorably to al-Zawahiri’s effort to get him to establish links with Iran, and the latter became not only his close friend but also his personal physician”, writes Bergman. “Bin Laden sent some of his senior aides to train in Iran and with the Hizballah in Lebanon. Imad [Mughniyeh] came to Khartoum to meet [UBL], and told him about the enormous effect of the suicide attacks against the Americans and the French in the early 1980s in Lebanon. From this point on, [Mughniyeh] became a major connection point between Iran and al-Qaeda.”
The 9/11 Commission Report confirms this meeting between Bin Laden and Mughniyeh in Sudan, probably in early 1992, and the transfer thereafter of Al-Qaeda jihadists to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon for training with Iran/Hizballah. “Hizballah supplied al-Qaeda with explosives instruction”, Bergman continues, “and Iran used Hizballah to provide bin Laden with bombs. Much of the al-Qaeda training was carried out in camps in Iran run by VEVAK”.
“The feeling was that something really big was cooking [in Sudan], very different from what we had known so far,” a MOSSAD officer told Bergman. Saddam Husayn was also involved in this mix, though that is another story entirely. This was not a state sending terrorists abroad, so much as terrorists intermingling with a state and using it as a launchpad. MOSSAD started to give it the name “World Jihad”, says Bergman, “and, in late 1995, created a special desk to deal with it”. The CIA created its Bin Laden desk just before Bin Laden’s August 1996 Declaration of Jihad.
Sudan came under great pressure after the near-assassination of Mubarak: on the one hand, there was an intensification of the civil war domestically that left Khartoum more dependent on Bin Laden’s largesse to finance the war effort, and on the other hand the external pressure from the U.S.—the imposition of sanctions and the designation of Sudan as a state-sponsor of terrorism—made domestic defence more difficult. Sudan moved to expel Al-Zawahiri first, “despite the pleadings of the Iranians”, as Bergman notes. In December 1996, Al-Zawahiri would begin his very strange six-month sojourn in Russia. Bin Laden was evicted from Sudan to Afghanistan in May 1996, a move believed at the time to have blunted his capacities and which in retrospect looks like quite a serious error.
“Yet the link between Iran and the incipient al-Qaeda was strong, and independent of Sudanese hospitality”, Bergman records. “Iranian intelligence and bin Laden began moving the ‘refugees’ from Sudan to five other countries: Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Lebanon.”
A ‘SURPRISING’ FIND
During the Balkan war in the early 1990s, “Tehran’s interests converged with those of bin Laden”, Bergman writes. In early December 2001, when Israeli intelligence was briefed by Munir Alibabic, the former chief of Bosnian intelligence, “The MOSSAD man was surprised at the depth of Iran’s penetration into Alibabic’s vulnerable nation.”
That this came as a surprise to the Israelis at this late date is an indication of how poor was the circulation of the information about Iran’s role in Bosnia. This was not new, and Alibabic, among others, had hardly been quiet about it. In November 1997, as just one example, at a time when the CIA was panicked by the degree of Iranian influence over the Bosnian intelligence services, particularly the nasty secret police (known as the Larks) that had assassinated one of Alibabic’s colleagues who protested Iran’s influence and nearly killed another, Alibabic spoke publicly about what was going on, adding, “I don’t know why the Americans behave so naively”.
Apart from Izetbegovic’s politics, the U.S. and wider West had created the opening for Iran in Bosnia by imposing an arms embargo in the name of de-escalating the war as Jugoslavija collapsed that locked in the imbalance between Bosnia and a Serbian state that had hijacked the federal army. Bergman notes that Khomeini had once said his Revolution was not interested in “crawling like a worm [into other countries] but wish[ed] to enter through the front door, like an invited guest”. Khomeini would not live to see it, but with the demise of the Soviet Union, such possibilities became realities.
MOSSAD tracked the flow of money from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states through “charities” based in Vienna, Italy, and other neighbouring states; the money was soon converted into arms by the Sunni jihadists in Bosnia, 3,000 of them by Bergman’s estimates foreign fighters, and in time the middlemen were cut out and the “charities” shipped weapons directly into Bosnia. Simultaneously, British intelligence tracked two-hundred IRGC officers and an unknown number of Hizballah jihadists who made their way into Bosnia.
The Sunni jihadists at first fought as “disorganised militias”, Bergman notes, but they were quickly organised into the Mujahideen Battalion (or El-Mudžahid), part of Seventh Muslim Brigade within the Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina (ABiH). “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards took it upon themselves to train these recruits. Izetbegović named himself an honorary commander of the brigade”, writes Bergman. “The Islamic volunteers made a valuable military and moral contribution to the Bosnian army. They were trained; most of them were disciplined; and they inspired the local soldiers with their enthusiasm.”
During that time in Bosnia, Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda expanded, though it was tinged with suspicion. It entered a new phase after the Dayton Peace Agreement of August 1995 … The accord provided for the breakup of the foreign volunteer units, which was carried out; but Bosnia did almost nothing, until 9/11, to oust the mujahideen themselves from the country.
Some one thousand of the foreign volunteers remained there after the war. Some were in the cities and villages; others established their own new communities, taking in hundreds of local supporters and building an infrastructure based solely in Sharia. In the village of Bocina, for example, the mujahideen settled in the homes of Christians who had been driven out, and instituted a strict religious regime, closer to that of Taliban-controlled villages in Afghanistan than to anything in twenty-first-century Europe.
To this day, Bosnia is an ideal location for the activities of Iranian intelligence and Osama bin Laden. … The networks set up by the Revolutionary Guards in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Albania, continuously initiate attempts at terrorist operations and supply shelter to wanted terrorists. Among those who have found refuge there are the wife and son of Sabri al-Banna, better known as Abu Nidal …
Hiyam al-Bitar, Abu Nidal’s wife, moved to Bosnia in 1998. In that year, the Swiss attorney general and public prosecutor Carla del Ponte ordered a secret investigation into an account in a Zurich bank, where some $15 million had been deposited under the name of Hiyam al-Bitar. Del Ponte suspected that the money came from Iran, and was to be used to fund terror operations. The Swiss were about to issue an international warrant for the woman’s arrest, but at the last moment, astoundingly, she received Bosnian citizenship. Bosnian law forbids the extradition of its citizens to other countries.
Abu Nidal’s son-in-law, Adnan Buzar al-Banna, also wanted by Switzerland, is the deputy head of the Careva mosque, one of Sarajevo’s most important houses of worship. The chief imam at that mosque was, according to Bosnian testimonies, responsible for particularly cruel atrocities against the Serbs.
An indictment submitted in 2003 against three former senior officials of Bosnian intelligence (AID), including its former chief Bakir Alispahic, and two of his top aides, describes how they are alleged to have arranged the citizenship for Nidal’s wife. The three are also charged with maintaining illegal links with the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, selling secrets to Tehran, and planning terror operations.
Munir Alibabic tried to clean house when he took over AID by ordering a transparent investigation into his predecessor’s links with Iran. The central event was the February 1996 raid on Pogorelica camp, just north of Sarajevo, which had been designed to look like a ski lodge, but where in fact Bosnia’s intelligence chiefs had set up a terrorist training camp in collaboration with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. The one-hundred-page report Alibabic commissioned and the testimony of the NATO- and United Nations-flagged forces who carried out the Pogorelica raid is astonishing:
Inside this hut there were classrooms and a large armory containing explosives, pistols, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, and ammunition. Some of the bombs found there were concealed in plastic playthings, such as toy cars and helicopters and ice-cream cones. A glass jar of beans had a detonator activated by pressure under the lid. It was a simple device—water was added to the beans so that they would swell up and activate the charge. The weapons and ammunition were many and varied, ranging from Russian AK-47s with regular rounds to rifles with telescopic sights and silencers, explosive dumdum bullets, and unmarked magazines, so that their owners could not be traced.
In a file on one of the tables were plans for kidnapping a Serbian liaison officer in the UN Building in Sarajevo. There were photographs of the building, which was guarded by French UN troops, as well as detailed sketches of escape routes and defenses inside the building. Also found in the hut were cardboard models of houses and buildings, used as instructional aids in the planning of attacks on civilian targets.
The reaction was classic from Izetbegovic’s government. “At first, the Bosnian authorities denied that all this meant that the hut in Pogorelica served as a school for terror”, Bergman notes. “They maintained that it was a legitimate espionage training facility for government agents. But piles of documents in Farsi, photographs of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the fact that three Iranians were caught there, indicated otherwise. One of the Iranians carried a diplomatic passport.”
Bergman says that Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s current leader, was acting during this period as “the chief go-between for that organization and Iran. According to information gathered by NSA and Mossad, he travelled to Iran several times after the war in Bosnia, as the guest of Security and Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian and the chief of Iranian operations abroad, Ahmad Wahidi.”