Bosnia, Hysteria Politics, and the Roots of International Terrorism

Since he was arrested in Belgrade last week, there have been miles and miles of newspaper commentary on Radovan Karadzic: on his bloody past; his role in Srebrenica; his bouffant; his limp handshake; his transformation from war leader to bearded hippy therapist. Yet perhaps the most interesting article – or at least the most unwittingly revealing – was a 374-word piece that appeared on the website of the UK Guardian on 25 July.

It was written by Inayat Bunglawala, Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and bĂȘte noire of Britain’s left-leaning “humanitarian militarists.” Pro-war commentators despise Bunglawala because he supports Hamas, sympathizes with Iraqi suicide bombers, and, just prior to 9/11, he was disseminating the writings of Osama bin Laden, whom he described as a “freedom fighter.”

In the ever-shrinking world of British dinner-party spats between humanitarian militarism on one hand and Islamism on the other, Bunglawala is considered the arch enemy of Britain’s laptop bombardiers, who believe you can liberate Third World countries by writing a few outraged newspaper columns and dropping a few hundred bombs.

Yet in his Guardian comment on Karadzic, Bunglawala found himself siding with one of his staunchest critics amongst Britain’s “muscular left.” Under the headline “Lessons from the past,” Bunglawala wrote: “I [have] finally managed to find something written by Martin Bright that I wholeheartedly agree with.” Bright is the political editor of the New Statesman and is associated with Britain’s liberal interventionist writers; he is also the author of a pamphlet titled “When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries,” which attacked the British government for having links with Bunglawala’s apparently “extreme” organization, the MCB.

What could Bunglawala and Bright possibly agree on? In Bunglawala’s words, they agree that British schoolchildren should be taught about Srebrenica “in the same way that they are taught about Auschwitz,” that Karadzic is evil, and that the Bosnian war was a lethal explosion of the Bosnian Serbs’ “deadly hatred” which followed their “relentless vilification of entire communities” (presumably the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats).

In short? Both Bunglawala, the anti-Western political Islamist, and Bright, the leftish sympathizer with Western military intervention, see the Bosnian conflict in precisely the same way: not as a bloody civil war in which all sides committed atrocities, but as an episode of Nazi-style Serbian rampaging against vilified communities, which was comparable in its horror to Auschwitz.

Bunglawala’s article was a fleeting but powerful reminder of a truth that is too often brushed under the carpet these days: namely, that both contemporary Western interventionism and contemporary radical Islamism have their origins in the Bosnian war. But back then, the “arch enemies” of the interventionism-vs-Islamism debate were allies. They took the same side (that of the Bosnian Muslims), propagandized wildly against the Serbs (whom they denounced as thugs, gangsters, dogs and even monkeys), demanded Western military assaults on Serb positions, and described the actions of the Serbs as uniquely barbaric, even Nazi-esque.

And both the Western militarists and radical Islamists were re-energized and moralized by their joint crusade against the Serbs in Bosnia. One might even argue that both of the major curses in international affairs today – the militaristic meddling of Western governments that pose as humanitarian and the occasional bloody attacks launched by al-Qaeda and others – spring from the anti-Serb hysteria of 1992-1995.

This goes way beyond a rare and polite agreement between Bunglawala and Bright. The capture of Karadzic is something that everyone from Bush to bin Laden will celebrate. Pretty much the only consensus that exists between the American military machine and the al-Qaeda network is that the Serbs are evil and deserving of punishment.

Following Karadzic’s arrest, Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who negotiated the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995, described him as “one of the worst men in the world, the Osama bin Laden of Europe.” This is darkly ironic, since in the early and mid-1990s Holbrooke and bin Laden were on the same side, united in a violent campaign against Karadzic and the rest of the Bosnian Serbs. Holbrooke must remember this; in an interview in 2001 he said the Bosnian Muslims “wouldn’t have survived” without the help of al-Qaeda militants.

Today’s humanitarian militarists and Islamic radicals are cut from the same cloth. In Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, they were close allies – propagandistic, moralistic and militaristic allies. During the Bosnian war, anywhere between 1,200 and 3,000 Arab Mujahideen, many of them veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, descended on Bosnia to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims. And their movement into Bosnia was facilitated by the new “humanitarians” in Washington.

In 1993 and 1994, the Clinton administration gave a green light to Iran, Saudi Arabia and various highly dubious radical Islamic charities to arm the Bosnian Muslims. Despite having denounced Iran as “the worst sponsor of terrorism in the world,” the Clinton administration told both Croat and Bosnian Muslim leaders that they should accept shipments of weapons, ammunition, antitank rockets, communications equipment and uniforms and helmets from Iran.

Washington also allowed “Islamic charities,” which really were radical Mujahideen-based organizations, to supply money and arms to the Bosnian Muslims. As the Washington Post reported in September 1996, US officials on the ground in Bosnia, who were motivated by “sympathy for the Muslim government and ambivalence about maintaining the arms embargo,” instructed other Western officials to “back off” and “not interfere” with these shipments from radical Islamists. One of the “charities” whose provision of funds and arms to the Bosnian Muslims was protected by American diplomats was run by Osama bin Laden.

The US-protected supply line between the Middle East and Bosnia, through which both Iranian elements and radicals sent money and guns, also encouraged Mujahideen to make their way into the Balkans. Along with the flow of radical Islamist weaponry, there followed the movement of radical Islamist warriors.

Once inside Bosnia, these Mujahideen, many of them fresh from the bloody battlefields of Afghanistan, fought with the Bosnian Muslim Army at a time when it was being supported politically and militarily by Washington and vast numbers of Western liberal commentators. In 1994 and 1995, Washington surreptitiously supplied the Bosnian Muslim Army with weapons and training, even though it had hundreds of Mujahideen in its ranks. The Mujahideen formed a battalion of holy warriors which was, according to Evan Kohlmann, author of Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network, directly answerable to then Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic.

In other words, America armed and trained a military machine that was using Mujahideen as “shock troops.” As the United Nations said in a communiquĂ© in 1995, the period of America’s secretive arming, the Mujahideen were “directly dependent on [the Bosnian Muslim Army] for supplies.” Washington helped to create the gateway between the Middle East and Bosnia, protected the supply of funds to Bosnia by bin Laden and others, and secretly armed a Bosnian army that kept the Mujahideen in paid employment (otherwise knowing as warmongering) after the Afghan-Soviet war came to an end.

If the radical Islamists who flooded Bosnia were militarily backed by Washington, they were propagandistically inspired by the Western liberal media.

The similarities between the positions of the liberal hawks in newsrooms across America and Europe and the line taken by al-Qaeda militants were striking. As the British author Philip Hammond argues, hawkish journalists in the Western press depicted the war as “a simple tale of good versus evil.” Likewise, 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.” Western journalists labeled the Serbs “thugs” and “gangsters”; the Independent newspaper in Britain even published a cartoon showing them as monkeys. The Mujahideen labeled them “dogs” and “infidels.”

Indeed, many of the Mujahideen who fought in Bosnia were inspired to do so by simplistic media coverage of the sort written by liberal-left journalists in the West. Many of the testimonies made by Arab fighters reveal that they first ventured to Bosnia because they “saw US media reports on rape camps” or read about the “genocide” in Bosnia and the “camps used by Serb soldiers systematically to rape thousands of Muslim women.” Holy warriors seem to have been moved to action by some of the more shrill and unsubstantiated coverage of the war in Bosnia.

In his book Landscapes of the Jihad, Faisal Devji argues that contemporary jihad “is more a product of the media than it is of any local tradition or situation and school or lineage of Muslim authority… [The] jihad itself can be seen as an offspring of the media, composed as it is almost completely of preexisting media themes, images and stereotypes.” The jihad in Bosnia was in many ways a “product of the media” – many Mujahideen were inspired to fight by media “images”, and they executed their violent attacks against media “stereotypes”: wicked Serbs.

Most strikingly, perhaps, both Western liberals and the Eastern Mujahideen ventured to Bosnia in response to their own crises of legitimacy, and in search of a sense of purpose. As Adam Burgess says of sections of the Western left in his book Divided Europe: “Deprived of the traditional staples of left-wing politics, the search for an alternative became increasingly pronounced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The left embraced new causes such as environmentalism, which were traditionally associated with a more conservative orientation. 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.”

Similarly, the Mujahideen embraced the anti-Serbian “cause” because they too had lost direction. In the early 1990s, 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 returning from Afghanistan and wiping out radical Islamic groups. For both Western liberals (governments and thinkers) and the Mujahideen, Bosnia became a refuge from these harsh realities, a place where they could fight fantasy battles against evil to make themselves feel dynamic and heroic instead of having to face up to the real problems in their movements and in politics more broadly.

Bosnia had a key transformative effect on both the Western liberal establishment and the Arab Mujahideen. It was the conflict that made many in the West pro-interventionist, convincing them that the “international community” must ignore sovereign norms and intervene around the world to save people from tyranny. And it transformed the Mujahideen from religious nationalists – who during the Afghan-Soviet war possessed “no global blueprint transcending their individual countries” – into global warriors against “evil,” who also, like their humanitarian paymasters, began to care little for old-fashioned ideas about sovereignty. It is after Bosnia that we see the emergence of international networks of Islamic militants.

In Bosnia, both Western elements and radical Islamists became super-moralized, militarized, internationalized. As a result of their joint war against the “evil” of the Serbs, they began to conceive of themselves as warriors for “good” who did not have to play by the old rules of the international order. Post-Bosnia, Western governments, backed by numerous commentators, launched “humanitarian” wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – and Islamic militants who trained in Bosnia were involved in the African Embassy bombings of 1998, the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

There is nothing so bitter as a conflict between former allies. We should remind ourselves that much of today’s bloody moral posturing between Western interventionists and Islamic militants – which has caused so much destruction around the world – springs from the hysterical politics of “good and evil” that was created during the Bosnian war. No doubt Karadzic has a great deal to answer for. But the West/East, liberal/Mujahideen demonization of Karadzic and the Serbs, and through it the rehabilitation of both Western militarism and Islamic radicalism, has also done a great deal to destabilize international affairs and destroy entire communities.

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.