New Neighbours: Bosnia and Herzegovina's complex relationship with its settled foreign fighters
Background on the Bosnian War
The breakup of Yugoslavia proved a complicated and bloody affair, resulting in the establishment of 7 new nation-states and the deaths of over 100,000 people. The return of armed conflict to mainland Europe brought with it horrors unseen since the Second World War, including ethnic cleansing and mass displacement.
While the independence of Slovenia and Croatia was achieved in quick succession, Bosnia and Herzegovina's effort to separate itself from the rump Federation of Yugoslavia descended into an ethnic conflict. Bosniaks, the largest ethnic group in the country who are notable for their Islamic faith, rapidly found themselves the victims of nationalist violence perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs and Croats.
The Arrival of Foreign Fighters
The resulting bloodshed in Bosnia obtained the world’s attention, with much criticism being directed at European states for an arms embargo which disproportionately affected Bosniaks. In response, Muslims from across the globe travelled to Bosnia to help their coreligionists. Individuals including Imad Al Husayn and Fadil El-Hamdani were already living in the Balkans, the latter having married a Bosnian woman after studying engineering in Zenica.
These volunteers both served as aid workers and joined El Mudžahid, a unit of the Bosnian army established for foreign fighters. The relationship between Bosnians and these mujahideen fighters was complicated, as they had not been invited to fight in this Balkan conflict. Indeed, El Mudžahid was formed in part to control and manage these foreigners through the structure of the Bosnian army. Despite some uneasiness, these mujahideen fighters were granted Bosnian citizenship for their service, a decision which would have long-lasting consequences for the Balkan republic and its people.
The Post-war settlement
The signing of the Dayton Accords on the 14th of December, 1995, marked the end of the conflict and the beginning of Bosnia’s uneasy relationship with foreign fighters who chose to stay. The majority of El Mudžahid veterans chose to leave the Balkans, either returning home or moving to the EU. Such action was encouraged by the Accords, which ruled that all foreign fighters were to leave the Balkans within 30 days of their signing. Yet many remained in Bosnia, beginning families with local women, and forming religious communities.
These communities were a particular source of tension with the wider Bosnian population, for their interpretation and observance of Islam was far stricter than that of the general Bosniak population. Foreigners had also earned themselves a negative reputation during the conflict for their sexual escapades and war crimes against Serbian forces. Evidence of tension can be found in 2000 when around 60 mujahideen families were expelled from villages around Maglaj. These villages had been abandoned by Bosnian Serbs during the war, and as part of reconciliation efforts were supposed to be returned to their former owners. While there were minor scuffles the naturalised citizens and their families were excited, despite these properties having been “given” to them as a reward for their wartime service.
‘The War on Terror’ in the Balkans
Relations with ex-mujahideen fighters deteriorated further following 9/11, which again drew the world's attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Following the Bosnian war, radical Madrassas and communities were established across the Balkan republic to spread Salafism, a radical branch of Islam which the western world associates with Islamist terrorism (Li, 2016). Foreign fighters and foreign money were key in growing these communities. While many ex-mujahideen were not involved in the project, they all came under suspicion of plotting Islamist terrorist attacks on European soil.
International pressure led Sarajevo to amend the Law on Citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005, mandating the Citizenship Review Commission to investigate the citizenship claims made by ex-mujahideen fighters. Consequently, around 1,500 people were informed that their Bosnian citizenship was to be revoked, none having known that they were under investigation until the verdict was reached (Amnesty International, 2010).
In response many took legal action, citing that their right to a fair trial had been denied since they were not consulted or allowed to provide evidence. The failure of the Bosnian government to respect or uphold the rights of these men, especially only three years after becoming a signatory of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), was damaging to Bosnia and Herzegovina's reputation.
Those who contested their deportation were held in detention at an Immigration Deportation Centre in Lukavica, a location ill-suited for prolonged residency. As a result, families suffered years of uncertainty and separation, simply because of the international climate around Islamist terrorism. Others were less fortunate, for in January 2002 six El Mudžahid fighters originally from Algeria were illegally extradited to Guantanamo Bay. For seven years the ‘Algerian Six’ were unable to see their families and were eventually released by the US government due to insufficient evidence.
It is still unclear how many men were deported back to their country of origin, for while the Commission has reported that only five individuals left Bosnia, Amnesty International is aware of several others. For many returning to their country of origin was a dangerous proposition, as their involvement in the Bosnian war marked them as a security risk. Badreddine Ferchichi, originally from Tunisia, is among several men who have claimed to have been tortured upon his return to his native country.
Overall, the citizenship review has caused anguish for former foreign fighters and their families, souring relations between these individuals and the country that they fought to protect and now call home.
War Crime Trials
While the Bosnian government has been successful in locating former foreign fighters for deportation, they have been less able to locate those who committed war crimes.
A major element of achieving reconciliation within the Balkans has been through war crime trials, which seek to obtain justice and clarity for victims. This has proven difficult in relation to war crimes committed by foreign fighters, as so far only two native Bosnians have been held responsible.
The case of Rasim Delic is particularly illustrative of Bosnia’s ongoing relationship with foreign fighters, for the trial was unusual in that it occurred within Bosnia rather than at The Hague. The reason for this was that foreign fighters who wished to testify at the trial refused to leave Bosnia, fearing that the government would revoke their citizenship and deny them re-entry.
Delic had been the commander of the Third Corps of the Bosnian Army and was deemed to have had “superior criminal responsibility for the crimes of murder and cruel treatment” carried out by members of El Mudžahid. While Delic was sentenced to three years, those who had abused and murdered the Serbian soldiers escaped justice, failing to achieve actual justice or to resolve tension between Bosnian Serbs and the naturalised citizen community.
The trial did, however, have symbolic value - its occurrence within Bosnia granted the population greater access and ownership over the justice which was obtained. It also served propaganda purposes, with Serbians being able to cite the case as evidence that Bosniaks were not the sole victims of the conflict, while Bosniaks could retort that the crimes had not been committed by them but by vague foreign fighters.
Where things stand today
Following the climate of uncertainty and persecution that hung over former mujahideen fighters during the ‘War on Terror’, the Bosnian Government has since sought to make amends with its adopted citizens. In 2019, Imad Al Husayn (who now goes by Abu Hamza and is in his late 50s) was rewarded €9,000 in compensation for his wrongful detention and the hardship which both he and his family endured. Other cases have also been resolved, settling the citizenship question for many former fighters.
While these men may now enjoy their old age and the company of their families, many Bosnians are still grappling with the legacy of the decisions these men made three decades ago. Most notably there is now a new generation of Bosnian Mujahideen, though these men originate from the Balkans and fight elsewhere. These men, radicalised by forces and Madrassas established after the conflict, have fought in the Syrian Civil War and for Islamic State. As of 2019 twenty-five such fighters have been charged with terrorism-related crimes. The return of these fighters risks opening old wounds and re-energising concerns about jihadists hiding in the Balkans.
Yet at the same time, these men have also started families while on jihad, and the Bosnian government now faces the difficult choice as to whether to recognise their families and children as Bosnian citizens. Whether Sarajevo will be more accommodating of their citizenship, or successful in persecuting their crimes, only time will tell.
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William is a Master's student in Intelligence and International Security at War Studies Department - King's College, London. He researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.