Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

Pages 238-239 of the print edition (and pp. 256-257 of the PDF version) of The 9/11 Commission Report first released in July of last year reproduce the list of the 19 September 11, 2001 suicide hijackers—in terms of the immediate destructiveness, lives taken, the drama and the spectacle that accompanied these four near simultaneous events, and their conseqences for the early 21st Century, certainly the most successful terrorist event that comes to mind.

(Quick aside. Depending on how one classifies the August, 1945 nuclear-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is: As acts of war, as crimes of war, as crimes against humanity—or as terrorist events staged to punctuate the end of the Second World War and the beginning of a postwar era founded on the fact that one superpower, unrivalled in its weaponry and its global ambitions, was still standing. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki events killed several hundred thousands of people, and heralded the Nuclear Age; we still live beneath the ever-growing shadow that it casts. But in terms of the drama and the spectacle that accompanied them—or failed to, particularly in August, 1945—I believe they pale in comparison to the events of 9/11. If, ultimately, for no other reason than the targets in the latter case happened to be American. But I am open to rival views. Feel free.)

Looking over the 9/11 Commission’s list of the 19 suicide hijackers, I notice that at least two of them, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, both Saudis who perished on the American Airlines Flight 77 they helped crash into the Pentagon, had some experience serving on the Bosnian Muslim side of the wars over Bosnia and Herzegovina that ran for four years, from 1992 through 1995.

As the 9/11 Commission described it (p. 155/173):

Hazmi and Mihdhar were Saudi nationals, born in Mecca. Like the others in this initial group of selectees, they were already experienced mujahideen. They had traveled together to fight in Bosnia in a group that journeyed to the Balkans in 1995. By the time Hazmi and Mihdhar were assigned to the planes operation in early 1999, they had visited Afghanistan on several occasions.

Little paragraphs such as this one from the fifth chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report, “Al Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland,” have always intrigued me. By 1992, not only had the Soviet military long since withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan (in early 1989, as a matter of fact)—but both the Soviet bloc (in the fall of 1989) and even the Soviet Union itself (in late 1991) had ceased to exist as unitary entities. And yet, throughout the wars over Bosnian and Herzegovina, especially as these wars progressed into their second, third, and fourth years, the Clinton White House increasingly took the side of the Bosnian Muslims, which entailed taking the side of what the 9/11 Commission in one place described as “jihad, especially as practiced in the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russian-Afghan wars…” (Ch. 7, n. 9, p. 526/544).

Jihad as practiced in the Bosnia-Herzegovina wars. Sounds strange. Doesn’t it? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani man whom the 9/11 Commission called the “mastermind” behind the suicide hijackings and likely to live out the rest of his natural life in U.S. custody (unless “renditioned” to another state where torture is also practiced) served at least two tours of duty in the Bosnian theater. “In 1992, KSM spent some time fighting alongside the mujahideen in Bosnia and supporting that effort with financial donations,” the 9/11 Commission reported, matter-of-factly (p. 147/165). “KSM,” as the 9/11 Commission refers to him, was not only one of the major “terrorist entrepreneurs” within the Al Qaeda network. But, in the 9/11 Commission’s judgment, he was the “chief manager of the ‘planes operation’”—certainly one of the few individuals without whose knowledge and dedication 9/11 as we know it never could have happened. KSM also visited the Bosnian theater a second time, in 1995, “to join the Bosnia jihad,” we read (n. 5, p. 488/506). At least once, “KSM’s presence in Bosnia coincided with a police station bombing in Zagreb where the timing device of the bomb (a modified Casio watch) resembled those manufactured by KSM and [Ramzi] Yousef in the Philippines for the Manila air operation” (n. 9, p. 489/507). (Incidentally, the 9/11 Commission identifies the latter gentleman, Ramzi Yousef, like KSM a Pakistani national, as the “convicted mastermind of and co-conspirator” in the original attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, in late 1993—the second year of the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a list of everyone of import in the judgment of the 9/11 Commission, see the helpful Appendix B.)

Of course, The 9/11 Commission Report does not do any more than dip its toe into the substantial body of water that was the Bonsia jihad and the role of “foreign fighters,” or mujahidin, therein. However, at one point, the Commission did report that Al Qaeda kingin Osama bin Laden’s “impressive array of offices covertly provided financial and other support for terrorist activities.”

Bin Laden’s “network,” as the 9/11 Commission described it (p. 58/76)

included a major business enterprise in Cyprus; a “services” branch in Zagreb; an office of the Benevolence International Foundation in Sarajevo, which supported the Bosnian Muslims in their conflict with Serbia and Croatia; and an NGO in Baku, Azerbaijan, that was employed as well by Egyptian Islamic Jihad both as a source and conduit for finances and as a support center for the Muslim rebels in Chechnya. He also made use of the already-established Third World Relief Agency (TWRA) headquartered in Vienna, whose branch office locations included Zagreb and Budapest. (Bin Ladin later set up an NGO in Nairobi as a cover for operatives there.)

Zagreb and Sarajevo: Capitals of two of the three major threaters of war over the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The third, the province of Kosovo in southern Serbia, is never mentioned in any significant way in connection with the 9/11 hijackers or their financial and logistic partisans. Nor does The 9/11 Commission Report anywhere mention the Bosnian-Muslim enclave of Tuzla—and in particular, Tuzla Air Base, something of a legend of the wars for the numerous “black flights” in and out of it as the years went by. They are missing a story of major import thereby. And so are we.

As the American establishment stumbled all over itself these past 45 months to explain the hows and the whys of September 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission eventually came around to the story that

The United States emerged into the post–Cold War world as the globe’s preeminent military power. But the vacuum created by the sudden demise of the Soviet Union created fresh sources of instability and new challenges for the United States. President George H.W. Bush dealt with the first of these in 1990 and 1991 when he led an international coalition to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Other examples of U.S. leaders’ handling new threats included the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program to help contain new nuclear dangers; and international involvement in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. (p. 340/358)


Just as we did in the Cold War, we need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously. America does stand up for its values. The United States defended, and still defends, Muslims against tyrants and criminals in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world, the extremists will gladly do the job for us. (p. 377/395)

Quite frankly, I have no idea what the hell these establishment Americans are trying to peddle to us in passages such as these.

But I smell a rat. Lots of rats.

The 9/11 Commission Report (as posted section-by-section at the Government Printing Office’s website)
The 9/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton et al., Official Government Edition, July, 2004

To learn more about these not-so-strange bedfellows, I strongly urge readers to take a look at Cees Wiebes’ superb Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992 – 1995 (London: Lit Verlag, 2002-2003). Particularly Wiebes’ fourth chapter, “ Secret arms supplies and other covert actions,” and two sections therein:

Sect. 3, “Secret arms supplies to the ABiH: the Black Flights to Tuzla
Sect. 5, “The deployment of mercenaries, advisers and volunteers

Selling the Bosnian Myth to America: Buyer Beware,” LTC John E. Sray, U.S. Army, Foreign Military Studies, October, 1995

Richard Norton-Taylor, “US used Islamists to arm Bosnians: Official Dutch report says that Pentagon broke UN embargo,” The Guardian, April 22, 2002 [See below]
Richard J. Aldrich, “America used Islamists to arm the Bosnian Muslims: The Srebrenica report reveals the Pentagon’s role in a dirty war,” The Guardian, April 22, 2002 [See below]

Postscript (July 7): For a powerful analysis of the historical nexus that for (let us say) the past 15 years has existed between (a) the U.S.-dominated NATO-bloc, particularly following its liberation from containment by the old Soviet bloc after the collapse of the Soviet bloc (1989) and, indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself (late 1991), on the one hand, and on the other (b) the material and ideological exploitation of the wars over the breakup of Yugoslavia, but especially their phony moralistic exploitation by Western commentators, perhaps the highest expression of which was Christopher Hitchens’ late 1995 assertion that these were wars “between all those who favor ethnic and religious partition and all those who oppose it”—moralizing that is still ongoing, even today—then I strongly urge you to check out:

The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre,” Edward S. Herman, ZNet, July 7, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): Am excerpting here one subsection of Cees Wiebes’ book, Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992 – 1995 (London: Lit Verlag, 2003), pp. 207-208. Beneath this, two articles from the April 22, 2002 London Guardian.

The Mujahedin in Bosnia

The greatest tension was caused by the participation of Muslims from Western Europe and the Middle East in the ABiH. ‘Approximately 4000 Mujahedin, supported by Iranian special operations forces, have been continually intensifying their activities in central Bosnia for more than two years’, according to the American Lieutenant Colonel John Sray, who was an intelligence officer in Sarajevo from April to August 1994.[15] There are no reliable figures on the number of mercenaries or volunteers in Bosnia, Srpska and Croatia. Neither is anything known about their effectiveness. According to Bosnian-Serb sources, in the Muslim-Croat Federation there were more than 1300 fighters, including those of Kurdish, Algerian and other Arab origin. This group was said to be centred around Zenica. The MIS considered the number mentioned to be exaggerated.[16] Like the author Ripley points out, there was no joint Muslim command and the rival Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and Malaysian-back groups all operated according to their own agendas.[17]

Mercenaries of non-Yugoslav origin were involved from the outbreak of the armed conflict. An active group was the Mujahedin. These were non-Bosnian, Islamic-fundamentalist fighters from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the names of Jihad, Fis, Hamas and Hezbollah were linked with the Mujahedin in Bosnia. Sray estimated the number of Mujahedin fighters at 4000; in April 1994, the CIA arrived at the conclusion that there were approximately 400 fighters.[18] In 1994, the UN put the number [19] at 450 to 500, and in 1995 at approximately 600. American estimates, however, spoke of 1200 to 1400. A BVD report from late 1995 likewise gave an estimate of only 200.

This group withdrew from the control of the Bosnian authorities, both politically and militarily. There were unconfirmed reports of control by authorities of the countries of origin, by Islamic-fundamentalist terrorist organizations and by criminal organizations.[20] The Mujahedin formed part of the 4th, 7th and 8th Muslimski brigade, stationed around Zenica in central Bosnia, and took part in the activities of several paramilitary units, such as the Black Swans. They fell under the responsibility of the ABiH 3rd and 7th Corps. Furthermore, there were approximately 25 other Muslim factions and units active in Bosnia, which also included women.[21]

These groups were supplied by the ABiH, but operated decentrally as special units or shock troops. Many ABiH sources, according to an internal UNPROFOR report, considered their military value to be limited. Nonetheless, the UNPROFOR intelligence staff followed their movements closely. The UN estimated their number in the summer of 1995 to be no more than 1500 fighters.[22] Military experts were, according to the BVD, of the opinion that because of their small number, the threat from these Mujahedin should not be overestimated.[23]

Furthermore, the population was not particularly enthusiastic about the fighters and appeared to be indifferent to their religious propaganda. The Bosnian government appeared to have less antipathy to the Mujahedin. President Izetbegovic especially appeared to see the fighters as ‘a conduit for funds from the Gulf and Middle East’.[24] Within the framework of the Dayton agreement, the Mujahedin fighters should have left Bosnia before 13 January 1996.[25] In October, UNPROFOR concluded that the numbers had declined to between 700 and 800. The presence of the Mujahedin was used by the Croats in particular to delay the process of reconciliation and normalization. The number of clashes with the local population around Tuzla increased, and the risk to the British UNPROFOR units was deemed to be significant. According to the ABiH, radical elements within the 7th Muslimski Brigade were responsible. The mood deteriorated after a British soldier killed a Mujahedin fighter. According to UNPROFOR, the US pressure on Izetbegovic was stepped up strongly to force the Mujahedin out of Bosnia.[26] Janvier also appealed to the UN in New York to step up pressure on the Bosnian and Croatian ambassadors.[27] Iran did continue to support Izetbegovic, and in the autumn of 1996 they donated another $ 500,000 to his election campaign. Only at the end of 1996 did the US government get its own way, and Bosnia severed the military and intelligence links with Iran.[28]

[15] John Sray, ‘Selling the Bosnian Myth’, Foreign Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, October 1995 and MoD, CRST. Netherlands Army Crisis Staff, Bastiaans to Brantz, 11/07/94.
[16] MoD, MIS/CO. No. 2694, Developments in the former Yugoslav federation, no. 02/94, 08/09/92. See also; Andrew Hogg, ‘Arabs join in Bosnia battle’, intelligence service The Times, 30/08/92.
[17] Ripley, Mercenaries, p. 57.
[18] James Risen, ‘Iran gave Bosnia leader $ 500,000’, Los Angeles Times, 31/12/96.
[19] UNNY, DPKO, Coded Cables UNPOROFOR. De Lapresle to Annan, Z-1371, 07/09/94; UNNY, UNPROFOR, Box 88039. DFC to Brigadier Baril, 03/11/94.
[20] Archives BVD, BVD Report The Mujahedin in Bosnia, 29/01/96.
[21] For an overview of most paramilitary factions and the role of mercenaries and volunteers, See: MoD, MIS/RNLA. Supintrep no. 29417/4/040794, 04/07/94.
[22] UNNY, DPKO, File #87303. G-2 to COS, 07/01/95 and UNGE, UNPROFOR, Janvier to Annan, Z-1623, Mujahedin in Bosnia, 08/09/95.
[23] Archives BVD, BVD Report The Mujahedin in Bosnia, 29/01/96.
[24] UNGE, UNPROFOR. Janvier to Annan, Z-1623, Mujahedin in Bosnia, 08/09/95.
[25] Archives BVD, BVD Report The Mujahedin in Bosnia, 29/01/96.
[26] UNGE, UNPROFOR. Akashi to Annan, Z-2024, Update on Mujahedin in Bosnia, 31/10/95.
[27] UNGE, UNPROFOR. Janvier to Kittani, Z-2040, Mujahedin Activities in Bosnia, 03/11/95.
[28] Barry Schweid, ‘CIA: Bosnia has broken military, intelligence ties with Iran’, Associated Press, 31/12/96; James Risen, ‘Iran gave Bosnia leader $ 500.000’, Los Angeles Times, 31/12/96 and James Risen, ‘Report of Bosnian Spy Network stirs concerns in U.S.’, Los Angeles Times, 06/02/97.

The Guardian (London)
April 22, 2002
SECTION: Guardian Foreign Pages, Pg. 14
HEADLINE: US used Islamists to arm Bosnians: Official Dutch report says that Pentagon broke UN embargo
BYLINE: Richard Norton-Taylor

US intelligence agencies secretly broke a UN arms embargo during the 1991-1995 war in the former Yugoslavia by channelling arms through Islamist jihad groups that Washington is now hunting down across Europe and Asia, according to evidence from the Netherlands.

The evidence surfaced in a hitherto unnoticed section of the official Dutch report into the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that led to the fall of the Dutch government and the resignation last week of its army chief.

The Dutch report reveals how the Pentagon formed a secret alliance with Islamist groups in an Iran-Contra-style operation. US, Turkish and Iranian intelligence groups worked with the Islamists in what the Dutch report calls the “Croatian pipeline”. 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 which was in flagrant breach of the embargo. British secret services obtained documents proving that Iran also arranged deliveries of arms directly to Bosnia, it says.

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 their Iranian trainers.

The UN relied on American intelligence to monitor the embargo, a dependency which allowed Washington to manipulate it at will.

Last month, the US seized a number of Muslims in Bosnia whom it claimed had links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. They were arrested in defiance of the Bosnian courts.

The contents of the section of the Dutch report entitled Intelligence and the War in Bosnia, 1992-1995, are revealed in an article in today’s Guardian by Richard Aldrich, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham and a leading expert on intelligence operations.

He also reveals that the secret services of Ukraine, Greece and Israel were busy arming the Bosnian Serbs. 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, the Bosnian capital, Prof Aldrich says.

“Subsequently, the remaining population who could not escape was perplexed to find that unexploded mortar bombs landing in Sarajevo sometimes had markings in Hebrew,” he writes.

Both the UN and the Dutch government distanced themselves from the secret services, depriving themselves of a crucial tool during the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.

The operation also raises the increasingly urgent issue of how to monitor intelligence agencies, Prof Aldrich says.

“While oversight and accountability is developing on a national basis, this is not remotely matched by international cooperation (between the agencies).”

The Guardian (London)
April 22, 2002
SECTION: Guardian Leader Pages, Pg. 16
HEADLINE: Comment & Analysis: America used Islamists to arm the Bosnian Muslims: The Srebrenica report reveals the Pentagon’s role in a dirty war
BYLINE: Richard J Aldrich

The official Dutch inquiry into the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, released last week, contains one of the most sensational reports on western intelligence ever published. Officials have been staggered by its findings and the Dutch government has resigned. One of its many volumes is devoted to clandestine activities during the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. For five years, Professor Cees Wiebes of Amsterdam University has had unrestricted access to Dutch intelligence files and has stalked the corridors of secret service headquarters in western capitals, as well as in Bosnia, asking questions.

His findings are set out in “Intelligence and the war in Bosnia, 1992-1995”. It includes remarkable material on covert operations, signals interception, human agents and double-crossing by dozens of agencies in one of dirtiest wars of the new world disorder. Now we have the full story of the secret alliance between the Pentagon and radical Islamist groups from the Middle East designed to assist the Bosnian Muslims – some of the same groups that the Pentagon is now fighting in “the war against terrorism”. Pentagon operations in Bosnia have delivered their own “blowback”.

In the 1980s Washington’s secret services had assisted Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. Then, in 1990, the US fought him in the Gulf. In both Afghanistan and the Gulf, the Pentagon had incurred debts to Islamist groups and their Middle Eastern sponsors. By 1993 these groups, many supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia, were anxious to help Bosnian Muslims fighting in the former Yugoslavia and called in their debts with the Americans. Bill Clinton and the Pentagon were keen to be seen as creditworthy and repaid in the form of an Iran-Contra style operation – in flagrant violation of the UN security council arms embargo against all combatants in the former Yugoslavia.

The result was a vast secret conduit of weapons smuggling though Croatia. This was arranged by the clandestine agencies of the US, Turkey and Iran, together with a range of radical Islamist groups, including Afghan mojahedin and the pro-Iranian Hizbullah. Wiebes reveals that the British intelligence services obtained documents early on in the Bosnian war proving that Iran was making direct deliveries.

Arms purchased by Iran and Turkey with the financial backing of Saudi Arabia made their way by night from the Middle East. Initially aircraft from Iran Air were used, but as the volume increased they were joined by a mysterious fleet of black C-130 Hercules aircraft. The report stresses that the US was “very closely involved” in the airlift. Mojahedin fighters were also flown in, but they were reserved as shock troops for especially hazardous operations.

Light weapons are the familiar currency of secret services seeking to influence such conflicts. The volume of weapons flown into Croatia was enormous, partly because of a steep Croatian “transit tax”. Croatian forces creamed off between 20% and 50% of the arms . The report stresses that this entire trade was clearly illicit. The Croats themselves also obtained massive quantities of illegal weapons from Germany, Belgium and Argentina – again in contravention of the UN arms embargo. The German secret services were fully aware of the trade.

Rather than the CIA, the Pentagon’s own secret service was the hidden force behind these operations. The UN protection force, UNPROFOR, was dependent on its troop-contributing nations for intelligence, and above all on the sophisticated monitoring capabilities of the US to police the arms embargo. This gave the Pentagon the ability to manipulate the embargo at will: ensuring that American Awacs aircraft covered crucial areas and were able to turn a blind eye to the frequent night-time comings and goings at Tuzla.

Weapons flown in during the spring of 1995 were to turn up only a fortnight later in the besieged and demilitarised enclave at Srebrenica. When these shipments were noticed, Americans pressured UNPROFOR to rewrite reports, and when Norwegian officials protested about the flights, they were reportedly threatened into silence.

Both the CIA and British SIS had a more sophisticated perspective on the conflict than the Pentagon, insisting that no side had clean hands and arguing for caution. James Woolsey, director of the CIA until May 1995, had increasingly found himself out of step with the Clinton White House over his reluctance to develop close relations with the Islamists. The sentiments were reciprocated. In the spring of 1995, when the CIA sent its first head of station to Sarajevo to liaise with Bosnia’s security authorities, the Bosnians tipped off Iranian intelligence. The CIA learned that the Iranians had targeted him for liquidation and quickly withdrew him.

Iranian and Afghan veterans’ training camps had also been identified in Bosnia. Later, in the Dayton Accords of November 1995, the stipulation appeared that all foreign forces be withdrawn. This was a deliberate attempt to cleanse Bosnia of Iranian-run training camps. The CIA’s main opponents in Bosnia were now the mojahedin fighters and their Iranian trainers – whom the Pentagon had been helping to supply months earlier.

Meanwhile, the secret services of Ukraine, Greece and Israel were busy arming the Bosnian Serbs. Mossad was especially active and concluded a deal with the Bosnian Serbs at Pale involving a substantial supply of artillery shells and mortar bombs. In return they secured safe passage for the Jewish population out of the besieged town of Sarajevo. Subsequently, the remaining population was perplexed to find that unexploded mortar bombs landing in Sarajevo sometimes had Hebrew markings.

The broader lessons of the intelligence report on Srebrenica are clear. Those who were able to deploy intelligence power, including the Americans and their enemies, the Bosnian Serbs, were both able to get their way. Conversely, the UN and the Dutch government were “deprived of the means and capacity for obtaining intelligence” for the Srebrenica deployment, helping to explain why they blundered in, and contributed to the terrible events there.

Secret intelligence techniques can be war-winning and life-saving. But they are not being properly applied. How the UN can have good intelligence in the context of multinational peace operations is a vexing question. Removing light weapons from a conflict can be crucial to drawing it down. But the secret services of some states – including Israel and Iran – continue to be a major source of covert supply, pouring petrol on the flames of already bitter conflicts.

Richard J Aldrich is Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham. His The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence is published in paperback by John Murray in August.

Leave a comment