Why Bosnia Matters

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An exhumed grave of victims of mass murder in Srebrenica. (Photo: Adam Jones/Creative Commons)
An exhumed grave of victims of mass murder in Srebrenica. (Photo: Adam Jones/Creative Commons)

Croatian war criminal Slobodan Praljak killed himself by drinking poison in court last week after his guilty verdict was upheld. His conviction and death brought back into the limelight the violent break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which set the stage for the modern jihadi movement.

The Bosnian war saw the U.S. and its allies make mistakes that left thousands of Muslim civilians dead, undermined Western legitimacy and enabled the consolidation of the (then nascent) jihadi movements that went on to wage war against the West around the world.

What Happened?

The war was a three-way conflict fought in Croatia and Bosnia between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. Despite the involvement of NATO forces, under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, Western powers did not prevent ethnic cleansing. Serbian and Croatian forces killed or expelled Bosnian Muslims living within Serbian and Croatian enclaves inside Bosnia.

Praljak, along with five others Croatian leaders, was convicted for participating in the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosnian Muslims which took place during the 1990s. Most notoriously, Serbian forces under General Ratko Mladic killed 8,000 Bosniak men and boys over a four-day massacre in the town of Srebrenica, the worst massacre on European soil since the Holocaust.

Why Does it Matter?

More than 25 years later, that conflict still impacts Muslims around the world. Besides radicalizing an entire generation, it also remains an open grievance for many. Any successful attempt to tackle questions of how radical Islam came to be so powerful has got to be honest about this war. Here are three reasons Bosnia still matters.

1.It showed the impotence of international institutions to prevent war crimes

An estimated 100,000 people were killed during the war, mostly Bosnian Muslims. They were killed in UN Safe Zones and while a no fly zone was being enforced by the United States. Evidence has recently come to light that the U.S. and its European allies knew that the Serbian military intended to overrun Srebrenica, and that the Serbians planned to make the Bosnian Muslims “vanish completely.”

Yet they elected to do nothing since they regarded the UN safe zones as “untenable” and worth sacrificing to get peace. The head of military planning for the UN even requested reinforcements for the Dutch peacekeeping force tasked with guarding Srebrenica. This request was overruled by the United States.

These horrific events underscored for millions of people worldwide that the West could not be trusted to save people when they were under threat.

2.It Radicalized a Generation

Of course terrorism is a choice. All the grievances in the world cannot make someone kill innocent people, which is not a logical response.

However, images from the Bosnian war have been used by radicals as part of their recruitment strategy since that time. They were widely broadcast at the time across the Muslim world and caused widespread anger. Islamist turned counter-extremist Maajid Nawaz recalls in his book Radical that images from the Bosnian civil war were shown to members during group meetings, with the intention of radicalizing the ideologically driven youth.

3.It Created the Beginnings of the International Jihadi Movement

Aside from the ideological impact of the Bosnian war in providing ample propaganda for a generation of jihadi recruiters, the war also saw the jihadi movement create networks and build institutions.

“There is a war between the West and Islam,” Aimen Dean, a Saudi Arabian volunteer who fought in Bosnia in 1994 and later went on to be a British spy against Al Qaeda told the BBC. “Bosnia gave the modern jihadist movement that narrative. It is the cradle.”

He joined a group called the Mujahadeen Battalion, which mobilized Muslims to come to Bosnia to fight against Slobodan Milosovic. They carried out reprisal attacks against Croatian Catholics who had murdered Muslims.

At it’s greatest strength, towards the end of the war, the battalion comprised some 1,500 men.

The networks created during that war were expanded and became more sophisticated as they switched to other theatres later. But they were forged in Bosnia, where they learnt a lot about how to organize. Now fighters from Bosnia travel to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS. Bosnian jihadist networks also fought in Chechenya against the Russians and in Afghanistan.

Two of the 9/11 hijackers were veterans of the Mujahadeen Battalion, as well as the murderer of American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl.

The Bosnian debacle undermined trust in American leadership and gave ammunition to those peddling a narrative of a Western war against Islam. If radical Islam is to be defeated, we need to engage honestly and constructively with past foreign policy mistakes.


Timeline of Events:

May 1980 — Communist President of Yugoslavia Josip Tito dies

May 1986 — Serbian Nationalist leader Slobadan Milosevic comes to power

June 1991 — Croatia and Slovenia declare independence. The Yugoslav national army invades Croatia.

November 1991 — Croatian areas of Bosnia establish self-administration as Herzog-Bosnia. Croatian forces intervene to protect these areas.

September 1991 – Macedonia declares independence

March 1992  — Bosnia-Herzegovinia declares independence. Serbs within Bosnia declare independence in Serb majority areas within Bosnia as Republika Srpska.

April 1993 – UN Security Council 816 imposes a no fly zone over Bosnia

July 1995 – 8,000 Bosnian Muslims are massacred in Srebrenica by Serbian forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic.

November 1995  – Dayton Peace Agreement brings conflict to a close

March 2006 – Slobodan Milosevic dies of natural causes while awaiting trial for war crimes.



Radical Islam in Bosnia: The Forgotten War

How Many US Soldiers Have Died Fighting Terrorism?

Why Radical Islam Isn’t a Partisan Issue


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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