Bosnian General Convicted for Jihadist Crimes

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 24 January 2021

Sakib Mahmuljin [image source]

This week, Bosnia’s war crimes court convicted Sakib Mahmuljin, the General in charge of the state military unit that organised and controlled the foreign jihadi-Salafists, many connected to Al-Qaeda, who came to fight for the Bosnian government during the war in the early 1990s. Mahmuljin’s conviction for overseeing torture and murder by the jihadists highlights an aspect of the Bosnian war that is often left out of accounts.

BACKGROUND

Bosnia had declared independence from Jugoslavija on 3 March 1992 under president Alija Izetbegović and his Party of Democratic Action (SDA), dominated by members of the Young Muslims, an Islamist group formed in the 1940s. Bosnia immediately came under attack from Slobodan Milošević’s Serbian regime, which had seized control of the remnants of the Jugoslav National Army (JNA) and then set about raising proxies from among the Bosnian Orthodox population, most prominently the semi-regular Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), led by Ratko Mladić, but many other more irregular militias, too.[1] A war raged for the next three-and-a-half years, killing 100,000 people.

The formal position from Milošević, as the claimed successor to Tito at the head of a federal Jugoslav republic, was that he was suppressing a secessionist rebellion in Bosnia. In reality, Milošević understood he could not recover all of Bosnia, so was willing to settle for annexing the areas in the east where the population was majority-Serbian Orthodox, and “ethnically cleansing” the non-Orthodox populations, to create a “Greater Serbia”. The pattern was set early on with the terrible atrocities at Zvornik.

The United Nations arms embargo on all of former Jugoslavija was ostensibly a humanitarian measure to prevent escalation in the war. To the extent the embargo was effective, it locked in the imbalance between the JNA and Sarajevo; in practice it was violated on all sides.[2] The primary actor to assist the Bosnian government in breaking the arms embargo was Iran, which acted with U.S. complicity to move $200 million-worth of weapons into Bosnia, along with operatives from the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Intelligence Ministry (then-known as VEVAK). The Iranians infiltrated the Bosnian state deeply, especially the security sector, and took de facto control of the up to 5,000 foreign Sunni jihadists and 3,000 local jihadi-Salafists fighting for the government.

The VRS took over the Potočari refugee compound in eastern Bosnia on 11 July 1995—with the Dutch U.N. forces simply standing aside. The women and children were separated out and about 23,000 of them deported into government-held areas over the next thirty hours. Meanwhile, about 2,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically slaughtered, execution-style, and another 5,000 or so were killed over the next few days by shellfire and small-arms fire after they broke out of the compound and tried to flee through the forests and mountains of Srebrenica.

The massacre at Srebrenica, ruled by The Hague tribunal for former Jugoslavija to be an act of genocide, triggered the decisive NATO aerial intervention, Operation DELIBERATE FORCE (30 August to 20 September 1995), which altered the balance on the ground against the Serbs sufficient to have them agree to a peace deal, the Dayton Accords, initialled in the U.S. on 21 November 1995 and signed formally in Paris three weeks later.

MAHMULJIN’S CONVICTION

Mahmuljin was arrested in December 2015, though released on bail, before the indictment was confirmed in February 2016 and the trial began a month later, on 23 March. Mahmuljin was tried before Bosnia’s war crimes court, which was created in 2005 to ease the burden on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Mahmuljin was convicted for violations of the laws and customs of war as set down in the Geneva Conventions on four counts: against the wounded and sick; inhuman treatment; mistreatment of prisoners of war (POWs); and crimes against the civilian population. Mahmuljin’s sentence—ten years in prison—was handed down on 22 January 2021; he might appeal.

The court’s decision related to Mahmuljin’s role, as commander of the Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina (ABiH), in “failing to prevent“ the torture and murder of fifty-three Serbian Orthodox prisoners, some of them POWs (a number of them ill and/or wounded) and some civilians, between July and October 1995 in the areas of Vozuća and Zavidovići in central Bosnia. The murders, sometimes carried out by beheading, were the work of Odred El-Mudžahid (The Mujahideen Detachment), which was under the direct command of the Third Corps that Mahmuljin had led since September 1994.

Lest it be assumed that Mahmuljin is being convicted on command responsibility grounds, the court ruling is quite clear about his personal involvement: “[Mahmuljin] did not do anything to prevent the [massacre by Odred El-Mudžahid], even though he had information that members of this detachment were preparing to commit the crime, and after the crime was committed he did nothing to punish the perpetrators of the crime.”

Mahmuljin’s defence lawyers had argued that he “had no effective control over [El-Mudžahid] unit”, a common trope in apologetic accounts of the relationship between the Izetbegović government and the jihadists. Indeed, it is often said that the regular Bosnian Army was virtually at war with the jihadists in its efforts to control them. This is not true.

IRAN, MUJAHIDEEN, AND AMERICA

The Bosnian government’s adoption of the jihadists into its chain of command was not simply happenstance and exigency. Before the creation of El-Mudžahid, Izetbegović had overseen the creation of several local Islamist units under the Third Corps—the Seventh Muslim Brigade, the Ninth Muslim Liberation Brigade, the Fourth Muslim Light Brigade—that were his pet political projects, an expression of the ideal Muslim army as he saw it. And the fact these units—and so much of the rest of the Bosnian security apparatus—ultimately came under the control of Iran was something less than accidental as well.

During an SDA rally in September 1990, Izetbegović addressed himself to an adoring crowd chanting in favour of Saddam Husayn, who had just been defeated in Kuwait, and waving placards with Ruhollah Khomeini’s face on them, the ayatollah having died a year earlier. A soon-to-be ex-friend, understanding the political damage this would do with the outside world, asked, “By God, Alija, why are you doing this?” The answer was ideological conviction. Izetbegović had published his Islamic Declaration in 1970, and then, like so many Islamists, been greatly inspired by Khomeini’s Islamist Revolution in Iran in 1978-9. It was at the effort by Izetbegović and his inner circle to make contact with the Iranian Embassy in Belgrade that the Jugoslav regime drew the line and put them all on trial in 1983.

Iran moved in quickly with weapons, money, and men after the war began in 1992, as did the jihadi-Salafists, many of them from Egypt, connected to Islamic Jihad (EIJ) led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s current leader, the lynchpin of the alliance between Sunni jihadists and the Iranian theocracy. Al-Zawahiri had been instrumental in setting up the meeting in Sudan in early 1992 between Usama bin Laden and Imad Mughniya, the IRGC officer in military command of Hizballah, that forged a relationship that lasts from that day to this between Al-Qaeda and Tehran.

A little while ago, Iran came clean about this in a couple of media items. First, there was Saeed Ghasemi, a retired IRGC officer, giving an interview in which he said: “We were side by side with Al-Qaeda. The members of Al-Qaeda learned from us. … From all over the world, mujahideen poured into Bosnia, and there was a new development. Muslim jihadi units were established.” And then a report in “semi-official” media on the first “martyr” in Bosnia, Rasul Heydari (Majid Montazeri), killed in 1994 while working as a “diplomat” in Bosnia, the Quds Force’s “first serious battlefield”, providing “logistical support” to the jihadi “volunteers” and even sending some of them to Iran for training.

The irony is that from April 1994, when the U.S. decided to help Sarajevo break the arms embargo, it did so by in effect working through Iran, and, by extension, at one level removed, with the Sunni jihadists:

The evidence surfaced in a hitherto unnoticed section of the official [2002] Dutch report into the 1995 Srebrenica massacre [entitled, ‘Intelligence and the War in Bosnia, 1992-1995’] … Arms bought by Iran and Turkey and financed by Saudi Arabia were flown into Croatia initially by the official Iranian airline, Iran Air, and later in a fleet of black C-130 Hercules aircraft.

The report says that mojahedin fighters were also flown in, and that the US was “very closely involved” in the operation … The operation was promoted by the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, which was cautious about using Islamist groups as a conduit for arms, and about breaching the embargo. When the CIA tried to place its own people on the ground in Bosnia, the agents were threatened by the mojahedin fighters and the Iranians who were training them.

Several years ago, an Iranian official said of the U.S.’s policy in Iraq—airstrikes in support of Iranian militias against the Islamic State—that it was “very similar to what happened in Bosnia,” where Iran was “fighting on the ground … while the airstrikes [were provided] by the United States”. He was not wrong.

A snapshot of this—and of the extent of Iran’s control of the Bosnian state—was given when the CIA would-be station chief “H.K. Roy” (not his real name) arrived in Sarajevo in July 1995:

By the time I showed up … [t]he Iranians were dug in, thanks in part to the secret influence of the White House. … Iranian influence in Sarajevo was palpable. Mujaheddin wandered the empty streets … Soviet-made vehicles bearing license plates and other symbols of Iranian private relief organizations were omnipresent, and some were involved in conducting surveillance of our vehicles. The Iranians considered Bosnia their backyard, and the few Americans present were not welcome.

Although I was cognizant of the Iranian threat in Sarajevo, I, like most people, was more concerned with surviving the daily wartime hazards in the city. The Iranians were a threat, to be sure, but they were a secondary threat under the circumstances. … [Then] the head of the Bosnian security service showcased me to the bearded Middle-Eastern man, … the head of Iran’s intelligence office in Sarajevo. … The Iranian intelligence chief had asked his Bosnian colleague to bring me into the office so that the Iranian could see the CIA’s new chief in the flesh. He wasn’t just looking me over out of professional curiosity.

I discovered that the Iranian intelligence man was in fact planning an operation to kidnap, torture, interrogate, and kill me. It was nothing personal. In the Iranian’s eyes, I was a high-payoff target of opportunity. It’s not every day that a lone CIA officer shows up and declares himself in true name to a security service controlled by Iran. … The next morning I conferred via secure satellite phone with my superiors in Washington. We all agreed that the prudent thing to do under the circumstances would be to get out of Sarajevo as quickly as possible.

This was easier said than done since Roy had to consider, in devising his exfiltration plan, that “the Bosnian Interior Ministry was under the control of the Iranian intelligence service” and they had his telephone lines bugged, his car surveilled, and spies in his office. In the end, Roy and his colleague made a direct run for it, driving out of Sarajevo in a two-car convoy to Vienna. “If the Iranians gave chase, we were prepared to do battle with them”, Roy wrote, having made his colleague “promise me that he’d shoot me before letting any bearded fanatics haul me off for one of their notorious torture sessions,” such as had happened with William Buckley, the CIA’s chief in Beirut.

The U.S.’s policy had other unintended consequences. For example, it was partly the “black flights” into Tuzla, the U.S. C-130s dropping weapons to Bosnian Muslim (or Bošniak) forces commanded by Naser Orić, that precipitated the VRS attack on the U.N. outpost in Potočari in July 1995. To the Serbs, these weapons deliveries—and the attacks they enabled by Orić’s men, including infamous atrocities like that in Kravica on Orthodox Christmas Day 1993—made nonsense of Potočari’s designation as a protected refugee camp.

In December 1995, a vast (relative) force of 60,000 NATO troops was sent to Bosnia under Operation JOINT ENDEAVOUR to enforce the peace reached at Dayton. Despite assurances from Sarajevo that the Iranians had been side-lined and the foreign fighters expelled (see below), NATO was soon to discover this was not so at the Pogorelica camp, north of Sarajevo, in February 1996, where the Iranians were training foreign Sunni militants in terrorist tactics, including with bombs in toys. In response, Sarajevo denied then obfuscated the Iranian role in the country—a pattern that would hold ever-afterward.

In the insular world at the top of the SDA government, Mahmuljin became one of the in-group after the war, taking the post of deputy defence minister in December 1996, and holding the post until the spring of 2001. This was a period when most of the foreign jihadi-Salafists in Bosnia were naturalised. Some 12,000 Bosnian passports are estimated to have gone missing during the war; some were used in the naturalisation process that, with Saudi and other Gulf money pouring in to Wahhabi missionaries, helped Islamist extremism put down local roots in Bosnia, and others were discovered in the hands of jihadists further afield as the War on Terror got going, from Europe to Afghanistan, where the skills passed on by Iranian trainers had enabled Al-Qaeda to become truly global.

 

 

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NOTES

[1] Among the Belgrade-sponsored irregulars in Bosnia, they were generally either militant Orthodox brigades—some of them foreign, notably from Greece, where the veterans went on to form neo-Nazi outfits like Golden Dawn—or they were groups that were more like criminal gangs in nature, such as the Serb Volunteer Guard (SDG), better known as “The Tigers”, led by Željko Ražnatović (Arkan). There was considerable overlap between the religious and mafia groups, of course.

[2] In terms of the states assisting Serbia evade the arms embargo, Greece, Israel, and Ukraine were all involved: “MOSSAD, Israel’s secret service, was particularly active, concluding a substantial arms deal with the Bosnian Serbs at Pale in return for the safe passage of the Jewish population of Sarajevo”. Given Israelis’ involvement, it is quite surprising how late they discovered the Iranian and Sunni jihadist role in Bosnia.

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