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George Bogdanich Headshot

Bin Ladin's Balkan Hosts -- A Missed Opportunity

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For very understandable reasons, congressional leaders and policy makers are questioning whether Osama bin Ladin was sheltered by a branch of the Pakistani government, either the ISI intelligence service or Pakistani military, when it was learned he was living in an exclusive neighborhood in a town dominated by military facilities near the capital Islamabad.

But this would not be the first time US policy makers allied themselves with foreign leaders who sheltered or actively collaborated with Bin Ladin. After the terrorist mastermind was pushed out of Saudi Arabia in the early 1990's, he became a key supporter of Bosnia's Muslim wartime President Alija Izetbegovic whom the US was supporting in a three sided civil war. In many ways, Bosnia was the birthplace of al-Qaeda's pan-Islamic strategy which, for the first time, united Shiite terrorists from Iran and Lebanon in a common effort with Sunni terrorists Bin Ladin had recruited from mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan in the fight to oust the Soviet Army. The US had supported the Afghan mujahedeen fighters in this earlier conflict, but Bin Ladin was not well known then, and his anti American views had not crystallized yet. After the US set up a military base in Saudi Arabia, however, Bin-Ladin openly declared war on the US.

It should have raised serious concerns, however, when the Bosnian embassy in Vienna, Austria issued Bin Ladin and other terrorists Bosnian passports in 1993. Bin Ladin and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri traveled to Bosnia and deployed a murderous unit of mujahedeen fighters in Zenica which ravaged Bosnian Serb villages. Iranian terrorists were also recruited and formed their own unit in Izetbegovic's army.

While direct evidence of recent involvement of the Pakistani government intelligence with Bin Ladin has yet to emerge, his collaboration with Bosnia's government during the bloody civil war of 1992-95 was well known to American intelligence, if not the general public. There were regular detailed reports about Bin Ladin's activities in Bosnia by Yossef Bodansky, Director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and a Bin Ladin biographer. The National Security Agency's senior Balkan analyst John Schindler was well aware of Bin Ladin's collaboration with the Bosnian government which he later detailed in his book Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa'ida and the Rise of Global Jihad explaining the seminal role of Bin Ladin's Bosnian interlude in his worldwide attacks on American interests.

US policymakers, however, kept silent about Bin Ladin's activities in the Balkans. Public knowledge of his activities would have led to uncomfortable questions for the Clinton administration about why the US was supporting a leader with close ties to Bin Ladin at a time when the US was presenting itself as the honest broker in Bosnian peace efforts. As a result, Bin Ladin's collaboration with Izetbegovic was not mentioned in daily state Department briefings for reporters. Then US envoy to the UN Madeleine Albright used the threat of a veto to block proposed resolutions condemning atrocities and violations of UN mandates by the Bosnian Muslims, leaving the false impression that only the Serbs were guilty of wartime abuses.

Eventually, by 1994, reporters learned on their own that Bin Ladin was meeting personally with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in his office. Renate Flottau, a respected correspondent for the German weekly Der Spiegel, told an interviewer for the German language version of a documentary I was working on that she ran into Bin Ladin in the Bosnian president's waiting room on two occasions. When Flottau later asked Izetbegovic what business he had with his tall Saudi visitor, Bosnia's American-backed president quickly sought to downplay the significance of his meeting with the head of the emerging terrorist network.

The Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia required the Bosnian government to expel Bin Ladin's Mujahadeen fighters, but many remained in place. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is reported to have complained bitterly that Izetbegovic failed to carry out his pledge to remove the remaining terrorists even after Bin Ladin's network bombed the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. It was surely no surprise to US intelligence, however, when the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report noted that two of the hijackers that attacked the World Trade center had fought in Bosnia with Bin Ladin's forces.

US policy makers would have been well served to remember the warning against "entangling alliances" from George Washington famous farewell speech, instead of pursuing misguided short term goals in Bosnia. Had they done so, we might not have needed to wait until 2011 to end Bin Ladin's global jihad.