The conventional explanation of how Yugoslavia ‘fell apart’ is that ethnic and religious tensions led to civil wars, necessitating the breakup of the country into a series of smaller states. The reality is that Yugoslavia was knowingly and willingly destroyed by NATO, with Al Qaeda playing a critical role in the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. This week we examine these wars, the true motives behind them, how the conflicts progressed through the 1990s and into the 2000s, and how the CIA along with British and American Special Forces used Al Qaeda jihadis as a strategic proxy force. We also look at the presence of the mercenary firm MPRI, who operated in the Balkans throughout this period.
After the diversions of the last two episodes we’re going to return to the story of Al Qaeda’s development in the 1990s and look at how what we’ve learned so far relates to the wars in the former Yugoslavia through the same period.
Inasmuch as anyone even discusses the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that accelerated that process, the conventional view is that a series of ethnic blood feuds between different factions resulted in the breakup of the country. While not entirely untrue, this simplification overlooks the fact that the wars in Yugoslavia were a manifestation of much deeper politics. In reality, the breakup of Yugoslavia was US and NATO policy, it was something they desired.
Because during the Cold War Yugoslavia was a non-aligned socialist country that didn’t sign up to either the Western or the Eastern blocs, and instead mostly focused on building a decent country for itself. They industrialised, with workers owning shares in the factories they built and ran. They maintained good international relations with a diverse range of countries and factions, and good economic growth. This helped unite the disparate Southern Slavic peoples and they intermingled and intermarried. However, during a few short years from around 1989 to 1996 all of that fell apart in a violent fashion. Yugoslavia is now several poor countries, deindustrialised, ravaged by neoliberal capitalism, and ethnically and religiously atomised. If you look at maps of Yugoslavia in the late 80s compared to the late 90s you can see how Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia began as ethnically mixed areas, especially Bosnia, but by the end there were distinct monocultural zones.
To understand more about the motives behind these policies I recommend Michael Parenti’s book To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia. I’ll play you a few minutes from a lecture he gave that summarises what his book covers.
So it was the desire of the major NATO countries to break up Yugoslavia into lots of little ethnic statelets. Hence we got a series of wars of independence, as these different nations broke away from the Federal state of Yugoslavia. We also got the war in Bosnia from 1992-95, where there wasn’t one single faction that wanted independence, so much as three distinct factions – the Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. Initially the Croats and Serbs fought together to try to unite Bosnia with Serbia and Croatia but Croatia then switched sides, partly because they were also engaged at the same time with their own War of Independence against the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army. As a result, Croats in Bosnia started fighting against the Serbs. Eventually this led to the Dayton accords which split Bosnia-Herzegovina into three zones, one Serbian, one Croat and one Muslim Bosniak.
What we can add to this picture is that while it was US and NATO policy to encourage the breakup of Yugoslavia there were other external powers who contributed. The Serbs were being backed by Russia, other Eastern Orthodox countries, and Israel. The Bosnian Muslims were being supported by the US and UK, and for a time by both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Croatia was supported by several Catholic countries. For the sake of our narrative we will focus on NATO and other support to the Bosnian Muslim Army and how that relates to Al Qaeda, but understand that for most of the 1990s Yugoslavia was subject to a lot of outside interference. Like Afghanistan, it became a battleground for major powers to work out their differences.
Al Qaeda’s Jihad in Bosnia
In 1991 Croatia and Slovenia withdrew from the Yugoslav Republic and in early 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina ratified a referendum declaring their independence. This was rejected and opposed by Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Serbian government of Slobadan Milosevic and the Yugoslav People’s Army, which led to violent clashes between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs. When Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence was granted international recognition, this developed into all-out war. Until the Dayton Accords in 1995, this conflict between Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia was very violent, and vicious. It also didn’t help that Croatia was initially on the side of Serbia but then changed its allegiances part way through the war to support the Bosnian Muslims.
It also didn’t help that fighting alongside the Bosnian Muslim Army there were thousands of international mujahideen. Stop me when this sounds familiar. It’s a bit like how the mujahideen fought alongside the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. In fact, it’s virtually identical. The Bosnian mujahideen were largely funded by the Saudi High Commission – another phoney charity working with Al Qaeda – and the Iranians smuggled weapons through Turkey and Croatia to help arm both the mujahideen and the Bosnian Muslim army.
Evan Kohlmann’s book Al Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe makes explicit the connections between the mujahideen in Bosnia and the developing Al Qaeda organisation we’ve been studying. While Kohlmann is basically a neocon writing from a neocon point of view, his research is outstanding. His book focuses on the North African connections to figures like the Blind Sheikh, who from early 1992 onwards was using the Al Kifah and the MAK to recruit, indoctrinate and prepare young Muslim men to join the jihad in Europe.
Likewise Ayman Zawahiri sent his brother, Mohammed Zawahiri, to the Balkans in 1993 to make contact with Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of the new Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a commander in the Bosnian Muslim Army. Mohammed Zawahiri operated for several years throughout the Balkans under the cover of working for the International Islamic Relief Organisation – the phoney charity we looked at in the Bojinka episode, that was set up by Jamal Khalifa. Likewise, Bin Laden was granted a Bosnian passport and visited the country several times in the early-mid 1990s, so this all connects directly to the same people and organisations we’ve already examined.
Kohlmann argues against the idea that the Bosnian Muslim Army and the Bosnian Mujahideen were separate entities. He cites various cases of them fighting literally alongside one another, and characterises the mujahideen as effectively the Special Forces of the Bosnian Muslim Army. They were the true fanatics who would carry out extremely risky, even suicidal operations in order to strike against the enemy. He also draws connections with other prominent Islamist ideologues including Abu Qatada and Omar Bakri who would, shortly after the war was over, move to the UK to found Al Muhajiroun. That organisation, basically Al Qaeda in the UK, has been riddled with spies and informers since its inception.
Then there’s the bojinka connection. No one is at all sure where Ramzi Yousef came up with the name of his terrorist operation. The word ‘bojinka’ has been widely reported to be Serbo-Croatian meaning ‘boom’ or ‘big noise’ or ‘loud bang’. Though the word does not appear in either Serbian or Croatian dictionaries, it is quite close to the Croatian word ‘bočnica’ meaning ‘boom’. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told US interrogators that the word is not Serbo-Croatian but is, ‘a nonsense word he adopted after hearing it on the front lines in Afghanistan.’ Kevin Fenton of History Commons, an open-source history website, wrote that ‘bojink’ is an informal way of saying ‘Boeing’ in Slavic languages. John Berger of Intelwire has suggested yet another option, pointing out that in Croatian the word ‘soldiers’ is ‘vojnika’, which when written looks like this:
This could easily be pronounced ‘Bojinka’ by someone unfamiliar with Cyrillic lettering seeing it written on a crate, which may well be, as Berger suggests, ‘the best explanation I’ve seen so far – which isn’t saying all that much, I grant you.’
The CIA’s Arms Smuggling
So we have the Bosnian mujahideen and we know how that involves Al Qaeda, but we also have the US covert support for both the mujahideen and the Bosnian Muslim Army. The best source for this is a report compiled by the NIOD, the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation. They were looking into what happened at Srebrenica, when in July 1995 around 8000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered in an act of genocide by the Bosnian Serb army. The town of Srebrenica had been declared by the UN as a safe zone and was being protected by Dutch UN peacekeepers. Exactly how the massacre happened is still a matter of some dispute, but the NIOD’s report contains an extensive appendix on how covert operations exacerbated the conflict and helped provoke atrocities by the Serbs. You can read the entire appendix, but if you want a short version then there’s an excellent article by British academic Richard Aldrich.
One element of these operations was the flying in of mujahideen. Another was the secret arms supplies. As I mentioned, Iran was smuggling in weapons to support the Bosnian Muslim Army and in 92-93 the CIA and US government knew about this and did nothing to stop it. In 93-94 they actually took over the smuggling route themselves, and expanded on it, using military C-130s to drop arms, equipment and supplies at Bosnian air bases. US Special Forces on the ground scouted drop sites and helped unload the cargo when it arrived.
Also deeply involved were the Cengic mafia family, who basically ran Bosnian intelligence. They provided logistical support to the Iranian smuggling operations and worked closely with the Third World Relief Agency, another dodgy Islamic charity run out of Sudan, partly funded by Bin Laden. Hasan Cengic, the son of the head of Bosnian intelligence, has been said to be a business partner of renowned Russian mobster Viktor Bout, and some reports say he financed the 9/11 plot.
Understand: while all this was going on there was an arms embargo on the region, supposedly to try to prevent the situation getting more violent. But the CIA knew all about the phoney charities and Al Qaeda’s involvement, as a 1996 intelligence report makes clear. The US military were flying in fighters and arms and had Special Forces on the ground helping to run things. In 1994 the British introduced ‘observers’ – in reality Special Forces from the SAS and SBS. The US government even provided American military clothing to the Bosnian Muslim Army, and according to Kohlmann’s book some of these uniforms were worn by the mujahideen. The idea that some jihadis from Afghanistan were running around Bosnia dressed in US military combat gear – ridiculous. But still true.
All of which led up to Srebrenica in July 1995, which provided the excuse for Operation Storm the following month. This was a Croatian Army offensive in Krajina which ultimately expelled hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the region and helped bring an end to the Bosnian war. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister and Bilderberg attendee, called it ‘the most efficient ethnic cleansing we’ve seen in the Balkans’. This, combined with NATO bombing of Serbs, ultimately led to the Serbian government letting Bosnia go, and in 1995 the Dayton Accords were signed which carved up Bosnia into Bosniak, Croat and Serb territories. They are called the Dayton Accords or the Dayton Agreement because they were negotiated at a US Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio.
The ‘Liberation’ of Kosovo
After the Dayton Agreement was signed the US began a $500 million Train and Equip Program to beef up the Bosnian army. This is the other side of these instability operations using radical insurgencies – these days usually Islamic insurgencies – that after the chaos private contractors make enormous sums to help ‘restabilise’ the country. This helped ensure that the Bosnian Serb Army, who militarily outnumbered the Bosnian Muslim Army and were better equipped, were brought into a balance. Naturally, this was achieved by growing the smaller army, not reducing the larger one.
Richard Perle at the time headed up the Acquisition Support Institute, who hired MPRI – Military Professional Resources Incorporated. MPRI had trained and prepared the Croatian Army for Operation Storm, so they were the natural choice for operating in the region. In July 1996 a State Department cable documents fears that MPRI and the Train and Equip programme were destabilising relations between the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. Despite this, the operation continued.
As 1996 progressed tensions turned into violence in Kosovo – a province within Serbia mostly populated by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovo Liberation Army or KLA had developed out of the Bosnian Muslim Army, who were secretly supplying them with weapons. MPRI, the British SAS and American Special Forces teamed up to provide training and support to the KLA – who to be clear were mostly not ethnic Albanian Kosovars. They were much more like the Bosnian mujahideen, a local branch of an international gang, involved in drugs and weapons smuggling as much as anything else. Despite being closely involved with the Albanian mafia, some of the KLA leaders even had the phone number of NATO General Wesley Clarke.
If you can find a copy there’s a great BBC documentary called Moral Combat: NATO at War. There are clips out there that have pretty terrible audio but the documentary shows:
Damning evidence of how the Clinton administration set out to create a pretext for declaring war against the Milosevic regime in Serbia by sponsoring the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), then pressed this decision on its European allies.
This went on for several years, with the CIA getting involved in 1999, before the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, supposedly to protect the Kosovars. The documentary shows how the head of the cease-fire monitoring force (the Kosovo Verification Mission) was William Walker – a diplomat who was involved in Iran Contra and the war against the leftists in El Salvador and probably a CIA asset. It seems the whole monitoring effort was a sham to provide cover for covert support to the KLA – even as they were being listed and delisted and then listed against as a Designated Terrorist Organisation.
This provided the pretext to bomb the shit out of Serbia and help take down Milosevic. All anyone really remembers about the Yugoslav wars is that the Serbians were bad, Milosevic was a war criminal. No doubt, Serbian troops committed some atrocities and Milosevic was not a kind and gentle man, but he was the democratically elected leader of a coalition government, not a psychotic dictator.
Once the Kosovo-Serbia war was resolved by NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia, the KLA rebranded themselves the NLA, the National Liberation Army in Macedonia. They had most of the same personnel and almost the exact same logo and operated in much the same fashion – as a destabilising guerrilla force. This time MPRI’s role was to train the Macedonian army, to fight against the same people MPRI had been training only a year or two earlier. This went on for several years, and helped draw Macedonia into this conflict that was rolling across the entire region.
However, one incident in particular illustrates that MPRI were also still involved with training the KLA/NLA. In late June 2001, the NLA had captured the town of Aracinovo near Kopje. Within days the Macedonian forces had them surrounded, and could have done with them as they pleased had NATO not intervened, promising to disarm them, return the town’s status to peaceful and deliver the prisoners to internment camps in Kosovo. The Macedonians withdrew, NATO shipped the 500 or so guerillas out of the town on buses, gave them back their weapons and sent them on their way. The principal motive behind this move appears to be to keep secret the identities of 17 Americans among the guerilla force – MPRI instructors.
Why did this happen and why does no one give a damn?
Two questions I want to offer some answers to before we close out this episode – why did this happen and why does no one give a damn? It is curious how ignorant people are of what happened in the Balkans, and indeed how Yugoslavia became ‘the Balkans’. Most people, even here in Europe, simply haven’t a clue what happened and why. These were the bloodiest, most disruptive wars in Europe since World War 2, but this is largely ignored, especially by the liberal consensus. One particularly popular blog article that was widely circulated after the Brexit vote and after Trump got elected repeatedly the old fallacy that there hasn’t been a war in Europe since the EU was created. You hear this argument that the EU has somehow been a force for peace, and that the rise of nationalism is eerily reminiscent of the run-ups to both World Wars. In reality there have been a number of wars in Europe in the period the EU has existed, fascism has never gone away, and nationalism has consistently remained part of the popular political dialogue. But the liberal consensus, itself something of a myth, simply ignores these truths.
This is in part because the wars in the Balkans took place in South-East Europe, which as far as the major European nations are concerned might as well be Afghanistan. The North-Western domination of Europe is partly a function of the EU, partly of NATO (both headquartered in Brussels in North-West Europe) and partly just something that goes back centuries. So for posh, bourgeois bloggers wringing their hands about Trump and calling him Hitler, the Balkans wars don’t count. So that’s why no one gives a damn, because the truth is most people don’t know the difference between a Croat, a Bosnian and a Serb and don’t give a fuck who we bombed. Or even think it was a good thing.
Why did this happen? In part it was revenge against Yugoslavia for daring to be a non-aligned socialist country that actually got itself together. NATO doesn’t like them, it had a long history of overthrowing their governments or bombing their people. This process accelerated the breakup of Yugoslavia and ensured that no one nation could dominate the resulting Balkanised region. This meant they were individually powerless to resist both overt international capitalism in the form of the Trans-Balkan oil pipeline, and covert international capitalism in the form of the illegal smuggling of weapons, drugs and sex slaves. These days the Balkans is one of the world centres for these sorts of activities. This is what Parenti calls the Third-Worldization of Yugoslavia, and he’s right. It was turned from a stable, peaceful, multi-ethnic multicultural socialist state with a good standard of living into a bunch of poor, mutually resentful micro-states with no ability to resist the machinations of NATO and international capitalism. And if you ask me, that’s a fucking tragedy.