The Bosnian connection

Observations on terrorism. By <strong>Brendan O'Neill</strong>

According to the 9/11 commission report, Iran allowed at least eight of the "muscle hijackers", the young men, most of them Saudis, who barked instructions and wielded box- cutters on the flights of 11 September 2001, to travel across Iranian territory to Afghanistan between the preceding October and February. The report does not cite this as evidence that the Iranians had prior knowledge of 9/11. But that has not stopped some commentators from drawing conclusions. "Did we invade the wrong country?" asked Charles Kraut-hammer in the Washington Post.

A longer-term link between Iran and 9/11 is being ignored. Between 1992 and 1996 Iran illegally armed the Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, flying in military advisers and mujahedin fighters to take on the Serbs. At least two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, trained and fought in Bosnia as part of Iran's operation. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described by the 9/11 commission as the "principal architect of the 9/11 attacks", also honed his jihadist skills in Bosnia and financed some of the mujahedin operations there.

UN Resolution 713, adopted on 25 September 1991, ruled that member states must suspend "the delivery of all weapons and military equipment to Yugoslavia". Yet in 1992 and 1993 Iran armed the Bosnian Muslims, using Boeing 747s to fly weapons, ammunition, anti-tank rockets, communications equipment, uniforms and helmets to Zagreb airport. In late 1993, roughly 30,000 soldiers were armed and equipped by Iran, and by Turkey.

The Bosnian Muslims stopped receiving arms near the end of 1993, when there was heightened conflict between Muslims and Croats. But after the federation of Croatia and Bosnia was formed in March 1994, the Clinton administration, according to Professor Cees Wiebes of the University of Amsterdam, author of Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-95, gave "a green light to the arms supplies from Iran to Croatia". This opened the floodgates. According to the US House Republi- can policy committee, in a statement of 26 April 1996, "eight flights a month packed with thousands of tons of arms and ammunition either originating in Iran or purchased and shipped with Iranian backing" arrived in Zagreb. Not only that, but Iran "stationed from 3,000 to 4,000 revolutionary guards [mujahedin] in Bosnia". Mujahedin forces set up training camps: some were financed by Osama Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Under the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, the foreign mujahedin units were required to disband and leave. Yet in 2000, the State Department raised concerns about "the hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists" still in Bosnia. In October 2001, Bosnia's interior minister, Muhamed Besic, said that scores of Bin Laden's associates were trying to flee Afghanistan with the intention of "seeking refuge among militant sympathisers in Bosnia". America discovered that it is one thing to give the "green light" to the movement of such forces but quite another to rein them in again.

The link between Iran and 9/11, via Bosnia, is not a directly collaborative or operational one. The link goes deeper than that. It appears that the Bosnia operation, supported by Bill Clinton, played a vital role in globalising the mujahedin mentality, just as western intervention against the Soviets in Afghanistan helped to create it. Many Arabs, as the journalist James Buchan put it, were left stranded in Afghanistan "with a taste for fighting but no cause". Bosnia provided some of them with a new cause.

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of Spiked (www.spiked-online.com)

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Exodus: the great British migration