From Syria to Bosnia: Memoirs of a Mujahid in Limbo

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Abu Hamza, a Syrian national who fought to protect Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, now languishes in an immigration detention center outside Sarajevo. (Photo: The Advocacy Project / Flickr)

When foreign fighters rally to the cause of a rebel army locked in a local conflict,  this is bound to draw in competing agendas and identities even among putative allies. And these cleavages may persist long after the fighting ends.

“Upon arrival,” according to one account, “foreign mujahedin settled in various locations and did not form a homogeneous entity.” Eventually, “local Muslims started to join the foreign mujahedin,” coalescing into a unit known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion. Still, “notwithstanding instances of participation in combat alongside each other, it appears that [the different] groups were anxious to maintain their distinct identities. There were religious and ideological differences between [locals and foreigners], which resulted in occasional violent clashes.”

Despite their differences, according to this account, locals continued to be attracted to the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion for its “stricter regimental discipline, greater degree of organization, superior equipment and combat morale, religious dedication, and the material benefits” bestowed by “many organizations and individuals from the Islamic world.”

If you are thinking this is Syria, think again. This is Bosnia, 1993: different country, different war, same story. It is now common knowledge that Western intelligence agencies actively facilitated the flow of foreign fighters—who were being funded and trained, mother of all ironies, by Saudi Arabia and Iran—into Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth simply “Bosnia”).

One of those fighters was Imad al-Husein, aka Abu Hamza al-Suri, a Syrian national. When war broke out in Bosnia, Abu Hamza was a medical student in what was then the Socialist Republic of Croatia, Yugoslavia. He enlisted in the ranks of the mujahedin on the other side of the border with the help of a U.S.-registered but Saudi-funded non-profit called the Benevolence International Foundation, which covertly channeled funds and equipment to foreign fighters in Bosnia. Abu Hamza joined the jihad for a spell in 1992-1993 and again in 1994-1995, with a stint in between organizing papers and logistics for the fighters coming in and out of Bosnia under the cover of Benevolence International.

For any of today’s foreign fighters hoping to start anew in Syria after the war, however, Abu Hamza’s case offers a cautionary tale about the limits of solidarity.

After the war, a number of foreign fighters decided to begin a new life in Bosnia. Many married local women and started families. For his part, Abu Hamza married a Bosnian widow he had met while distributing aid at a refugee camp in Croatia and settled down in the northeastern Bosnian village of Donja Bočinja. Fluent in the local language, Abu Hamza often spoke to local media interested in the village’s new residents. Despite disputes with Serbian returnees over house ownership, the community seemed to be slowly making the transition to peaceful civilian life.

The September 11th attacks changed all that. In the new international environment of the “War on Terror,” Bosnia passed a series of new laws that resulted in the foreign fighters being deprived of their Bosnian citizenship. They faced two choices: either leave voluntarily or be deported. According to Abu Hamza’s daughter, his legal odyssey began shortly after September 11th. First stripped of his Bosnian citizenship in 2001, Abu Hamza was finally arrested in October 2008 pending a possible deportation to his country of birth, Syria.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled against Abu Hamza’s deportation to Syria, given the country’s poor human rights record and the deterioration of the situation there. But he remains locked up at the immigration detention center in East Sarajevo under the supervision of the State Agency for Foreigners. Neither he nor his legal representatives have been allowed to access the specific charges brought against him. All Abu Hamza knows is that he has been declared a threat to national security. His life in legal limbo seems set to continue indefinitely.

I sat down with Abu Hamza in the visiting room of the immigration center to discuss his experience as a fighter during Bosnia’s civil war, his life in detention, and the current war in Syria.

Bosnia, 1993-95

When did you join the fight on the side of the Muslim forces during the civil war in the 1990s?

At the time, I was a medical student at the University of Rijeka, in Croatia. I had wanted to join the jihad in Afghanistan, but logistics had come in my way. However, Bosnia was next door to Croatia. I had heard that several aid agencies were helping foreign fighters to enter Bosnia, so I start asking around. Many refused, until I found a Syrian man named Abu Mahmoud, who headed a Saudi agency based in Zagreb, Benevolence International. In June or July 1992, I can’t recall exactly, we met in Rijeka, where he had come to pick up a big shipment of seaborne humanitarian aid. Once I told him my desire to join the jihad in Bosnia, he promised he would send someone to help me enter the country. And so it happened that, on September 15th, 1992, I set off on my way to Tešnja, close to Jablanica, where the foreign mujahedin had their training camp in and around an abandoned school compound.

At my arrival, there were about 15 Arabs there for training, mostly Saudis, but also Kuwaitis, Algerians, Tunisians, and another Syrian. As I knew the local language, I was assigned to translating for the Arab fighters and to liaising and coordinating with our allies: the Territorial Defence Force (Teritorijalna Odbrana, the precursor to the Bosnian Army) and the Croatian Defence Council (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane, the army of the self-proclaimed Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia). At the time, our main focus was to recruit Bosnians over 18 years of age and give them a 40-day training, before being sent to the front. We were not the only foreign mujahedin though. Others were based in Mehurići, under the leadership of a Saudi sheikh named Abdul Aziz, who had fought in Afghanistan and went by the nickname of Barbarossa, due to his long hennaed beard.

Did you stay in Bosnia until the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which effectively ended the war?

At the beginning of 1993, I returned to Croatia. At this point, I could cross the border easily, since I had acquired a counterfeited card, whereby I was passing as the aid coordinator of Abu Mahmoud’s agency. The agency workers in Rijeka were excellent at forging IDs, documents, and passports: I even saw some of the mujahedin with UNHCR cards. In Croatia, I used the aid agency as a cover for logistics: we would do everything, from facilitating the crossing of fighters into Croatia and then on to Bosnia with fake documents; to the evacuation of injured mujahedin from Bosnia to get treatment in Croatia or in a third country; to organizing the shipment of food and weapons to the fighters in Bosnia.

The weapons business was the trickiest, as the Croats demanded the exact equivalent of everything we were taking into Bosnia: for each bullet reaching the mujahedin, one bullet had to be given to the Croatian border guards – and it became more expensive with time. The majority of the weaponry was bought from some Croatian generals, who were running a profitable business smuggling military hardware via Hungary and even selling the army’s own equipment. In Bosnia, we mostly dealt with Serb generals, in a perfect example of what is commonly called a war economy.

Then, in 1994, I returned to Bosnia and operated out of Zenica, where what was by now known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion (Katibat al-Mujahedin al-Ajanib) had its logistical base. In reality, the foreign fighters never represented more than 20 percent of the Battalion, with the rest being made up of Bosnian men, for a grand total of 1,500 fighters.

What was your role in the Battalion?

Our military leader was Abu al-Maali, an Algerian national who left Bosnia a few years after the end of the war. However, the top leader was Anwar Shaaban, who headed the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan. I kept my position as coordinator, plus I joined reconnaissance expeditions to spy on the Bosnian Serbs stationed at Vozuča. In this period, the Battalion engaged the Serbs around Zavidović and liberated a big area of territory, managing to reopen the road from Tuzla down to Zenica, through Vozuča, Zavidović, and Žepće.

Legal limbo

Why are you being detained now?

This is the question I always ask myself: what did I do to deserve to be here? You see, there have been no charges brought against me. This is due to the fact that, after 11 September 2001, new laws were introduced in the Bosnian legal system, whereby some proofs could be held secret for reasons of national security. I think one of those laws is the Aliens Act of 2008. My lawyer and several NGOs have tried to obtain the list of accusations, but to no avail. The result is obvious: I am here and I don’t know why. Probably, I am here because I am a Muslim and I am committed to Islam.

I read the decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concerning your case. What do you make of it?

The Europeans are very smart. On the one hand, they saved my life, as the court order prevented my extradition to Syria. On the other, they didn’t solve my problem. This way, they did just enough to ensure my basic human rights, namely my right to life, but fell short of guaranteeing my right to freedom. Legally speaking, the ECHR ruled only on one of the allegations of violations that my lawyer submitted on my behalf to the court. This concerned article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which specifies that one cannot be tortured. Thus my deportation to Syria was blocked.

However, as for the other appeals on article 5 (legality of my detention) and article 8 (right of a family to live together), no decision was taken. In effect, the ECHR has handed over to the Bosnian authorities the right to detain me indefinitely. This is done for reasons unknown to me, my lawyer, or my family, as these laws allow for secret evidence to be held against you. And here I am in this legal limbo.

When I talked to one of your daughters, I seemed to understand that the only way to get you out of this situation would be for Bosnia to transfer you to a third country. Would that be a solution?

Look, if you had a sick dog, whose illness is infectious, would your neighbour take it as a present from you? Obviously not. By the same token, all countries that have been approached by the Bosnian authorities have refused to take me. I know for a fact that requests were sent to Holland, Lithuania, Cyprus, Croatia, and Saudi Arabia: some refused right away; others asked for more information, and then refused. I was personally told this by the second in command at the State Agency for Foreigners.

So what next?

To me, it looks like a game of “nerve wrestling,” so to speak. Perhaps they expect me to do something stupid, so that they can confirm to the public their theory that I am a danger to national security. For now, I have appealed to the ECHR once again: after the court’s ruling, the state of Bosnia had 12 months maximum to resolve my situation. As you can see, I am still detained here. So, on July 9th, 2013, the very day one year had elapsed since the sentence, we submitted a new appeal. In the meantime, I keep playing a game I have not chosen: every three months, I am brought in front of a court of law; I ask to be put under a milder supervision regime, so that I can stay with my family; the judge refuses; and I am brought back to the immigration center.

From where you stand, what would you like to say to the Bosnian authorities? After all, you have risked your life fighting for the state that is now detaining you, with no apparent charges.

In this regard, there is a big difference between Abu Hamza the man and Abu Hamza the Muslim. As a man, I cannot even start describing how angry and disappointed I am at the treatment I have been reserved. And I keep asking myself: why are they doing this to me? However, as a Muslim, who believes in Allah and that everything is in His hands, I can only thank God and abandon myself to His will.

Still, Bosnia is showing to the world that it has the appearance of a state, but lacks any essence of it. There seems to be very little respect for human rights or for the rule of law, which are the standards by which a country is judged. If I could, I would suggest that Bosnians think hard about their future. History shows that this country faces war and massacres every few decades. Who will come to the people’s help in the future, if this is the treatment that is reserved to them?

Syria, 2013

What do you think about the current situation in your country of birth, Syria?

First of all, when the so-called Arab Spring started at the end of 2010, many Arab brothers who shared my cell at the immigration center expressed their hopes that the revolution would spread to Syria. Even at the time, my answer was always the same: if this starts in Syria, it won’t calm down and be solved easily. My reasoning was based on history: I participated in demonstrations against Assad’s father in the 1980s. What was his response in Hama? He flattened the city. Assad the son will flatten the whole of Syria before relinquishing power.

Now, the Syrian people can only be ruled in one of two situations: either under the iron fist of a dictator, or under the beneficent hand of a just ruler. In concrete terms: either Assad or Umar bin Abdul Aziz, one of the Omayyad caliphs who was known for his even handedness. In Syria, it seems to me that the United States and Europe encouraged the Syrian people to rise against the dictator, promising to support them. When they did, the Western powers withdrew their support: I wouldn’t call it betrayal, as much as fooling a whole people.

Would you support Western military intervention in Syria to topple the government?

I don’t think that Western intervention would solve anything in Syria. Like in Iraq, the Syrian people would start fighting the occupier, making the situation even more explosive. The solution is easy: Assad understands only the language of force, like Gaddafi. And like Gaddafi he will have to go. Assad’s strength derives from his air force and ballistic missiles: if the West were sincere in its support to the Syrian revolution, it would have supplied fighters with weapons to counter that, such as anti-aircraft missiles. The reality is that the West doesn’t want Assad to go, as they haven’t found a substitute for him in Syria who would guarantee Western interests in the country.

You appear to suggest that Assad has been serving Western interests in Syria. But what seems to be stopping Western powers from supplying such weapons to the opposition is the fact that they may fall into the hands of radical groups, especially those linked to al-Qaeda.

I believe that the Western media has whipped up paranoia about al-Qaeda in order not to intervene in Syria. The proof of the pudding can be found in Mali: all this media frenzy about al-Qaeda in the country. The French send in a few thousand soldiers, and al-Qaeda evaporates. For instance, in the 1990s, al-Qaeda could count on between 300 and 500 fighters, never more than 1,000. Do not confuse al-Qaeda as a group with al-Qaeda as an idea: the first is very limited, the second is all over the world. Whether we want it or not, the idea of jihad has now taken root.

Concerning your first point, the only resistance Assad has put up in his life has been for the preservation of his chair: the fight to keep power. He is a worse sell-out than Gaddafi, who revealed all the secrets of his country’s nuclear weapons program to the Americans in exchange for his political survival. Assad has given UN inspectors even more information than they were asking for. The same can be said for Hezbollah. In the 1990s, I remember reading with my own eyes a report written by some advisers to Osama bin Laden who had been sent to Lebanon to explore the possibility of cooperation with Hezbollah. I quote from it: “Hezbollah is a group that defends Israel’s Southern border.” As [former CIA chief] William Casey said in regard to [former Panamanian dictator and erstwhile U.S. ally] Manual Noriega: “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

As a former mujahid yourself, what do you think of all those jihadists that have flocked to Syria to fight against the Assad regime?

I regret having to say this, but with all due respect to our mujahedin brothers, they have shown short-sightedness and lack of vision everywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Syria, passing through Iraq. Our experience as foreign fighters in Bosnia, despite many mistakes, was different in that the majority of the Arabs fighting here were living in Europe, and brought with them a more open perspective. Thus, we integrated into Bosnian society rather than fighting against the Bosnian Muslims, whereas the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fights against Syrian groups. We tried to be like the first muhajirin, the “immigrants” who left Mecca for Medina with the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon Him), and who lived in harmony with their host society.

In my view, this short-sightedness within al-Qaeda traces back to the second half of 1990s, when Osama bin Laden came under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who hailed from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organisation. EIJ was a proponent of the takfiri trend [of accusing other Muslims of apostasy], which quickly became central to al-Qaeda ideology. Before that, the first Emir who had organised the transfer of mujahedin to Afghanistan, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam—who is the only one who has my allegiance; I never pledged it to Osama bin Laden—propounded instead a vision that we may describe as “understanding the factual evidence,” or understanding the environment you are in. Namely, foreign fighters should adapt to their host society, respect it, and speak in a language and ideology that conform to it. Likewise, Sheikh Azzam would never even dream of declaring the House of Saud apostates, as Osama bin Laden did: you have to know your relative strength and, especially, your limits.

If you could, then, what would you say to the foreign mujahedin now in Syria?

Very simply, I would ask: why did you come to Syria? What are you doing here? Let me clarify. The idea of jihad in Syria was nourished and encouraged by the local mosques the same way it had been in the 1980s, well before foreign fighters came to the country. Afterwards, [Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad] al-Golani and his group joined in. But wasn’t there already a jihad in Syria? These people have come in and declared themselves Emirs, leaders. The question then arises: what is the difference between you and Assad? If you enforce your Islam with the power of the Kalashnikov, the people will acquiesce for fear of retaliation, as they did for 40 years under the boot of the Baath party. However, this situation is obviously untenable–and the people will eventually rise up.

In Bosnia, we instead came in as aids, to help the fight on the side of the Muslims. We declared allegiance to [then Bosnian President] Alija Izetbegović and put ourselves at his service, despite the fact that the Afghan mujahedin had declared him an apostate. In other words, we came to aid a society and adapted our message and language to the local community, instead of imposing our views on it. If the mujahedin did the same in Syria, the Syrian people would welcome them with open arms. Ahrar al-Sham, for instance, has adopted a centrist model from the beginning, thus avoiding conflict with the people.

According to reports in the local media, some of these foreign fighters are coming from Bosnia. How do they manage to reach Syria?

You have to understand these people’s doctrine. As I have already mentioned, the jihadist idea is now widespread, and someone may be ready to sell a kidney to get the money to travel to Syria. The way it happens is quite simple: if a young man wants to fight jihad, he asks someone in the community for money, or collects money within his group of friends. In reality, reaching Istanbul from Sarajevo won’t cost you more than 200 euros. With modern technology, it is very easy to agree beforehand with middlemen to be picked up at the airport and then transferred to Syria.

If you had one last wish, what would that be?

I would go to fight in Syria, perhaps with Ahrar al-Sham, because they are 100-percent Syrian. And I would not repeat the same mistakes we made in Bosnia: it must be said that some of the brothers looked down upon the local population. That should never happen again. As Sheikh Abdullah Azzam showed, the right way is to apply his “understanding of the factual evidence”: always know where and with whom you are, and behave accordingly, with respect.

Franco Galdini is a freelance analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. Until recently, he was the political and media analyst at the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.