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Experts Debate the Influence of Islamism During the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995


The role of the mujahadeen, or holy warriors, in Afghanistan during the 1980’s has become well known in the six years since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. But some Balkan analysts say that in the 1990’s Bosnia served as a “crucible for the global jihad” led by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization.

John Schindler, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, is the author of a new book, Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qaida, and the Rise of Global Jihad, in which he argues that Bosnia played an identical role in the global jihad as did Afghanistan a decade earlier. Daniel Nelson is the author of six books, including The Balkan Imbroglio. Mr. Nelson, whose association with the former Yugoslavia extends over 35 years, disagrees with Mr. Schindler that radical Islam played a “formative role” in the creation of the Bosnian conflict of 1992 to 1995.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Encounter Program, Mr. Schindler says he wrote his book because information on the link between Bosnia and the global jihad was virtually unknown in the United States. In it he traces the growth of al-Qaida from a “South Asian terror problem” into a global threat, and he says it was in Bosnia that al-Qaida “metastasized into a global jihad organization.” Mr. Schindler says he holds former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic as the person most responsible that the Bosnian War of 1992-95 unfolded in the “horrible way that it did.”

Daniel Nelson, who is also president of Global Concepts and Communications, an international consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia, and senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington, says that, although former President Izetbegovic was unquestionably a “savvy politician” who was also corrupt, these characteristics were “even more true” of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. To suggest that there was an “organic linkage” between what happened in Bosnia with the events of 9/11, Mr. Nelson insists, is a gross exaggeration.

In the case of the February 1994 marketplace massacre in Sarajevo, in which many Bosnian Muslim civilians lost their lives, Mr. Schindler says that – contrary to television reportage – the Serbs were not the responsible party. He suggests that that it was “probably a Muslim effort to kill their own citizens to gain sympathy, which they did on numerous occasions as part of a broader strategy to induce Western intervention in the war.” But Daniel Nelson calls that claim “absurd” and “beyond the pale.”

John Schindler identifies the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs as the “turning point in the war.” It was, he says, primarily an act of “revenge,” which had its origins in “Muslim atrocities against Serbs.” He furthermore blames the tragedy mainly on the Izetbegovic government in Sarajevo, which he says used it to gain Western intervention. But Daniel Nelson calls Srebrenica “planned mass murder” and an instance of “genocide,” and he argues furthermore that revenge is “no exoneration for mass murder.”

Regarding the role of “Islamism” in Bosnia, John Schindler identifies Iran and Saudi Arabia as “influential players” in shaping the political and cultural scene in the 1990’s. Daniel Nelson disagrees that Bosnia is an “Islamicist” state today, and he says that Mr. Schindler “greatly over-exaggerates” the effect of Bosnia as a linchpin for the Islamicist global movement.

John Schindler's claims are extraordinary and reflect a keen debate inside the National Security Agency in the period after 9/11. Both he and Daniel Nelson were privy to classified materials, but came to opposite conclusions.

For full audio of the program Encounter click here.

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