From Bosnia to Guantanamo

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 23, 2016

War cemetery in Sarajevo (personal picture, July 2011)

War cemetery in Sarajevo (personal picture, July 2011)

It was announced on Thursday that Guantanamo inmates Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed as-Sawah and Abd al-Aziz Abduh Abdallah Ali as-Suwaydi had been transferred to Bosnia and Montenegro respectively. Sawah’s path to jihadi-Salafism allows a window into the Bosnian jihad, a much-underestimated factor in shaping al-Qaeda, its offshoots, and the wider Islamist movement. In that story is an examination of the role certain States have played in funding and otherwise helping the jihadists. It also leaves some questions about whether emptying Guantanamo of its dangerous inhabitants is the correct policy.

Early Life

Tariq as-Sawah from his Guantanamo file, 2008

Tariq as-Sawah from his Guantanamo file, 2008

Sawah is an Egyptian who was arrested in Afghanistan in late 2001 and is an “admitted member of al-Qaida,” according to his leaked Guantanamo file from 2008. Sawah became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood at his high school in Alexandria, from which he graduated in 1975. Between 1975 and 1981, Sawah attended Alexandria University and attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology.

In late 1981, Sawah was arrested in the dragnet that followed the assassination of Egypt’s ruler, Anwar Sadat, by a hit squad led by Khalid Islambouli. (Interestingly, Khalid’s younger brother, Mohammed, has recently shown up as the probable leader of the “Khorasan Group”.)

Released in 1982, Sawah earned a teaching degree from al-Azhar and became a construction supervisor. In 1985, Sawah took a job in textiles and between 1986 and 1990 worked as an accountant. In 1990, Sawah moved to Greece as a private contractor in construction.

Saudi “Charities”

In early 1992, Sawah moved to Zagreb, Croatia, and began work for the “World Islamic Relief Foundation,” which likely refers to the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). This was Sawah’s entry into the Bosnian jihad. IIRO is an ostensible charity but was in fact tied into a web of groups—called “Allah’s NGOs” by some—that supported jihadism in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

With the siege of Sarajevo in place and this being early in the war, entry routes into Bosnia were not easy, writes John Schindler in Unholy Terror. “Zagreb quickly became the ‘main Muslim supply center’ where within a year twenty Islamic organizations, including MAK, established offices to support the jihad by getting men and munitions into Bosnia through Croatia.” MAK is Makhtab al-Khidamat (The Services Bureau), the organization founded by Abdullah Azzam to supply foreign holy warriors against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that evolved into the core of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda after Azzam was killed in 1989.

IIRO and its parent organization, the Muslim World League (MWL), which also operated in Bosnia, were both created and funded by the Saudi government as dawa (missionary) organizations, spreading Wahhabism, and were both entangled in “The Golden Chain,” the network of al-Qaeda’s chief donors in the late 1980s. Testifying in court in 1999, the head of IIRO in Canada noted: “The Muslim World League, which is the mother of IIRO, is a fully government funded organization. In other words, I work for the government of Saudi Arabia.”

MWL was also the overseer of al-Haramayn Foundation, another Saudi-backed enterprise, and its specifically Bosnian branch, al-Haramayn al-Masjid al-Aqsa, both entities later added to the terrorism list. The Muwafaq (Blessed Relief) Foundation was also active in Bosnia and was listed by Bin Laden as a group he supported. Muwafaq did draw on Saudi State support, but its principal financier was the Jeddah-based businessman Yasin al-Qadi; both Muwafaq and al-Qadi were designated as terrorists by the U.S. in October 2001.

Before the end of September 2001, NATO forces in Bosnia raided the Sarajevo offices of the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia-Hercegovina (SHC), a charity founded in 1993 by then-Prince Salman (now King) and supported by then-King Fahd. Suspicion was triggered by the rollup of the “Algerian Six,” one of whom (Bensayah Belkacem) was found to be in phone contact with Bin Laden and one of whom (Sabir Mahfouz Lahmar) was an administrator at SHC’s complex, a building costing $9 million and containing a mosque that can host 5,000 people.

The raid on SHC found before-and-after pictures of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the African Embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, and the World Trade Centre, documents of handwritten minutes (on IIRO and MWL letterhead) of meetings with Bin Laden, plus computer files on the use of crop duster aircraft, how to fake State Department badges, and antisemitic and anti-American propaganda materials aimed at children. SHC distributed at least $500 million in Bosnia during the war, ostensibly to mosques, cultural centres, schools, and orphanages, but SHC money also went to the Third World Relief Agency, which directly financed radical battalions (see below), and was geared more toward proselytization for Wahhabism than charity in post-war Bosnia.

Egyptian Islamism in Bosnia

Egypt had exerted a lot of influence over Muslim extremist circles in Bosnia and it was Egyptians who dominated the foreign jihadist scene in Bosnia during the civil war.

Amin al-Husseini surveying the Handzar Division, November 1943

Amin al-Husseini surveying the Handzar Division, November 1943

One of the most important Bosnian extremist groups is the Young Muslims, founded in the 1940s. The Nazi occupation of Jugoslavija subdued Bosnia through a puppet regime run by the Ustaše, a zealously Catholic, hyper-nationalist Croat group, one of whose stranger beliefs was that Muslim Croats were “the purest Croats”. A lot of space was given—at least symbolically—to Islam. When the SS began recruiting a Muslim division in early 1943, the Handžar, the Young Muslims split, some choosing to join Tito’s Partisans, but the bulk chose to join Handžar, including Alija Izetbegović, Bosnia’s post-independence and wartime president. Amin al-Husseini, the infamous pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, visited the Handžar Division in November 1943 and called for more Muslims to join it.

Izetbegović was imprisoned in 1946 for Islamist activities in Communist Jugoslavija—which took him out of harm’s way during the major crackdown on the Young Muslims in 1949, which among other things used their wartime collaboration to impose lengthy sentences on the group’s leaders, putting the group into effective dormancy. Upon release, Izetbegović went back to Islamist activism and under his direction the Young Muslims, in the 1950s, re-established links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hasan Nasser, one of the conspirators in the Sadat assassination, even took refuge in Bosnia.

The Brotherhood’s ideas were smuggled into Bosnia through books and sermons. The Jugoslav Islamists also developed relations with the Sudanese Brothers, who would seize power under Hassan at-Turabi in 1989, and also the Syrian Brothers, including Mahmud Wadeh, who was struck down by Assad’s mukhabarat in Belgrade in 1981. Large parts of the Syrian Brethren fled to Europe after the Hama atrocity in 1982.

Bosnia Izetbegovic

Alija Izetbegovic

As the tide of political Islam rose in the 1970s, Belgrade’s response was confused and largely hands-off, but UDBA drew a line for the Young Muslims when Izetbegović, using Tawfiq Velagić to give him “deniability,” made contact with the Embassy of the newly installed Iranian revolution. Izetbegović was arrested in 1983, charged with terrorism and collaborating with foreign enemies of the State, and sentenced to fourteen years in prison, later reduced to twelve. “[T]o most Bosnians the [trial] seemed like a time warp,” Schindler writes. “The public had heard little mention of the Young Muslims in decades, and as far as Bosnians were aware the group had ceased to exist long ago.” At the trial, Izetbegović’s 1970 manifesto, Islamic Declaration, a pan-Islamist tract clearly influenced by the Brotherhood but which includes some phrasing about democracy, had been a chief part of the prosecution’s case.

In the course of events, Izetbegović was released from Foča prison in a pardon in October 1988. As Jugoslavija faltered, it was the old Young Muslim hands who founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which inherited Bosnia from Tito and which is Bosnia’s governing party to this day. One of the SDA’s major funders during the war was Fatih al-Hasanayn, through his Vienna-based Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), which was tied into the support system of “Allah’s NGOs”. Al-Hasanayn, a Sudanese Islamist close to at-Turabi, had developed relations with Izetbegović when al-Hasanayn studied medicine in Belgrade and Sarajevo in the 1970s, and was among those who planned the security structures, notably the Muslim Intelligence Service (MOS), by which SDA secured its hegemony over the Bosnian State.

The old connections between Bosnia’s Islamists and Egypt became manifest once the war was underway:

The conflicts in Bosnia and Algeria were intertwined by shared logistics networks, through which these two jihadi hotspots were also linked to another node of jihadi violence: Egypt. The Egyptian revolutionary groups—the EIG [al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya] and EIJ [Egyptian Islamic Jihad]—quickly established their presence in Bosnia, and their cadres were predominant among the leadership of the foreign mujahidin in Bosnia, as well as of the aid groups established to distribute and administer the influx of material support. The GIA [Groupe Islamique Armé from Algeria] was also prominently represented in Bosnia, especially among the rank‐and‐file volunteers.

Izetbegović was closely allied with fighters loyal to Omar Abdel-Rahman (“The Blind Sheikh”), the man accused of being EIG’s leader who was prosecuted over the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. Izetbegović appeared (p. 55) in “grip-and-grin” promotional videos with Abdel-Rahman’s associates—and Bin Laden’s.

It was through extended networks associated with the U.S.-based Abdel-Rahman—notably the Muslim American Council, run by Abdurahman Alamoudi, who regularly supplied (p. 56) $5,000 payments to Abdel-Rahman from Bin Laden—that Izetbegović sought to lobby both the U.S. media and government. There was much truth in the prevailing coverage of largely-Muslim victims of a campaign, directed from Belgrade, of ethno-religious expulsion, but significant complexities—the atrocities by the “Muslim” side, the jihadi-Salafists, Iran, and perhaps above all Sarajevo’s alliance with same—got less attention than objective coverage would have warranted.

EIJ was at this time led by Ayman az-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current leader. Shattered in their home country and on the run, EIJ and Zawahiri found Bosnia as a cause and base, and Zawahiri was operating as Bin Laden’s deputy and a roving emissary as al-Qaeda cohered into a global network in the early 1990s. Zawahiri frequently visited Bosnia, tending the camps and distributing cash (Zawahiri’s brother Muhammad was al-Qaeda’s resident representative in the Balkans, working in several countries as an IIRO official).

Bin Laden himself visited Bosnia, being received as a personal guest of Izetbegović. Der Spiegel‘s Renate Flottau recalls (p. 247) meeting Bin Laden in 1994 in the foyer outside Izetbegović’s office, where he was treated like a dignitary. Bin Laden handed Flottau a card with his name on it, but at the time it “meant nothing” to Flottau—this was before the Embassy bombings in 1998, when al-Qaeda was put on the international terrorist map—and they chatted amiably in English. Izetbegović’s staff were visibly displeased at Bin Laden speaking to a Western journalist. Eve-Ann Prentice of The Times, who was in the anteroom with Flottau, confirmed Flottau’s account, placing the meeting in November 1994.

Iran, al-Qaeda, and the SDA

Zawahiri and Iran had a long relationship of mutual admiration back to the 1980s. In Bosnia in the 1990s, Iran supported some of the same networks as al-Qaeda and is even said to have had a close working relationship with Zawahiri through Imad Mughniyeh, Hizballah’s military chief who was a fully commissioned officer of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Hizballah’s military trainers were thick on the ground in Bosnia—according to none other than Hassan Nasrallah, whose statements to this effect, encouraging others to join them, were found (p. 149) among the possessions of an American Hizballah member.

It was Mughniyeh who personally met with Bin Laden in Khartoum in 1992 to seal the agreement Iran had made with al-Qaeda to cooperate in anti-American attacks—an agreement that ultimately led inter alia to Khobar Towers. Iran’s “secret deal” with al-Qaeda continues to the present, facilitating al-Qaeda fighters getting to Syria. Mughniyeh trained al-Qaeda operatives in camps in the Bekaa Valley, the 9/11 Commission Report notes (p. 61), and it was Mughniyeh among other Iranian agents who met with Zawahiri and other Sunni jihadists in Bosnia in a series of meetings where they agreed to coordinate support for the SDA government. The final wartime meeting took place in April 1995 in Khartoum.

Izetbegović held the Iranian revolution in high regard, as did many Islamists, for successfully bringing Islamist governance into reality. One appearance of this fact was during the preparation for Bosnia’s first post-Communism Election, on September 15, 1990. A large SDA rally was held at Velika Kladuša, comprising well over 200,000 people. Adil Zulfikarpašić, an ex-Communist who had become devout while maintaining his secularism, had helped financially in the founding of the SDA and now finally returned from his long exile in Switzerland. Zulfikarpašić was horrified: in the crowd were chants of, “Long Live Saddam Hussein,” and large pictures of the recently-deceased Ruhollah Khomeini. “By God, Alija, why are you doing this? Don’t you know that in a half an hour, these pictures will be shown around the world?” Zulfikarpašić asked Izetbegović on the stage. Zulfikarpašić broke with Izetbegović soon after and formed the Muslim Bosniak Organization.

One of Izetbegović’s first trips abroad as he prepared for the Elections that would formally undo Communism in Jugoslavija was to Iran in May 1991. It is said that then-Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani offered Izetbegović a blank cheque for what many knew was an impending war. True or not, during the war Iran shipped a huge amount of military hardware into Bosnia.

In April 1994, President Clinton gave a green light for Tehran to violate what was an unjust arms embargo, which did not serve humanitarian needs but locked in the imbalance between Sarajevo and the regime in Belgrade that had taken control of the old Federal Army, and to supply the Bosnian government with arms. That, Tehran did, but the Islamic Republic also began laying its own infrastructure to remain in the Balkans long after the war

Detailed intelligence from the CIA found:

Within weeks of Clinton’s decision to sanction Iranian arms shipments … hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters and trainers poured into [Bosnia], doubling the Iranian-sponsored presence to 400 or more. Two weeks after the green light was given, United Nations peacekeepers for the first time detected an independently commanded Iranian Revolutionary Guard unit on the ground in Bosnia.

And just 10 days after the green light, Iran appointed its first ambassador to Bosnia, Mohammed Taherian, who had served as Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan when Iran was funneling aid and arms to the Afghan rebels [during the war with the Soviets in the 1980s].

Between May 1994 and December 1996, Iran sent 14,000 tons of weapons to the Bosnian government, which were worth anything up to $200 million.

When an Iranian official said recently of Iraq that the current policy is “very similar to what happened in Bosnia,” where Iran was “fighting on the ground … while the airstrikes [were provided] by the United States,” he’s not wrong. Bosnia was America’s first attempt to make Iran a partner in regional security; it did not end well.

Nedžad Ugljen

Nedžad Ugljen

Iran thoroughly penetrated the Bosnian security sector. In late 1995, the CIA sent a station chief to Sarajevo, “H.K. Roy,” who had liaised was Nedžad Ugljen. In January 1996, Izetbegović had founded the Agency for Investigation and Documentation (AID) as a secret service reporting directly to him. AID was a reorganization/formalization of some wartime structures. Notably, AID was all-Muslim, a violation of Dayton. Ugljen, one of the founders of the SDA’s shadowy paramilitary squad, Ševe (Larks), was AID’s deputy. AID was effectively an appendage of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK) and Ugljen was an Iranian agent who gave up “Roy” to Tehran. Iran was in the planning stages of a kidnap and murder hit when “Roy” narrowly escaped.

Juka Prazina

The Larks had, among other things, tried to kill the chief of the General Staff, Sefer Halilović, in October 1993, after he turned on the SDA for its corruption and extremism, and had succeeded that December in killing Jusuf Prazina (a.k.a. “Juka”) in Belgium, a mafioso since the 1980s who had been made head of the Bosnian special forces until he broke with the SDA. But by late 1996, Ugljen was a liability. AID was able on its own to dispatch Iranian-trained commandos into Croatia to try to assassinate Fikret Abdić, a long-standing opponent of Izetbegović’s who had actually won the first post-independence election. (Abdić’s critics maintain that he was an agent of KOS, the Counterintelligence Service of the Tito regime that was inherited by Slobodan Milošević.) The Larks had thus outlived their usefulness. More importantly, there was the political problem of Izetbegović needing “distance” from Iran after the NATO raid on Pogorelica.

On February 15, 1996, NATO troops from America, Britain, and France raided a ski chalet at Pogorelica near Fojnica, twenty miles northwest of Sarajevo. What NATO found was: a training camp run by VEVAK officers, three of whom were arrested (one was released immediately because he was on a diplomatic passport), lists of Interior Ministry officials who had passed through the camp, racks of high-powered firearms, toy cars and shampoo bottles that were actually bombs, and a training model for assassinations. NATO believed attacks on its forces were being planned at Pogorelica. The SDA protested the raid. Pogorelica was training “special anti-terror units … to arrest war criminals,” the Bosnian government said. Izetbegović told NATO it was “an old training activity” that “was in fact being closed down” and all those arrested were there “to remove all the equipment.” This was a first admission of any cooperation between Sarajevo and foreign Islamist forces, but there was also an insistence that this only happened between 1993 and 1995 and that all foreigners had now left.

The Pogorelica raid had uncovered AID and the close links between its director, Bekir Alispahić, a former Interior Minister, and Iran. Soon Alispahić, who also had links to the Larks, was fired and replaced with Kemal Ademović, who was less close to the Iranians. Other senior AID officials with flagrant Iran ties, such as Irfan Ljevaković, were demoted. Alispahić, Ljevaković, and Enver Mujezinović, a senior KOS officer who moved seamlessly into MOS, are said to have been the driving forces behind AID; Mujezinović was also an Iranian asset. The Deputy Defence Minister, Hasan Čengić, a key mover of the Iranian arms shipments during the war who later ended up on a U.S. Treasury blacklist, was also fired. Ugljen could not just be fired or demoted, however. In late September 1996, Ugljen was liquidated by assailants never determined, and Iran’s presence became much less overt in Sarajevo.

The U.S. had made the reduction of Iranian influence in Bosnia a top priority of the NATO occupation. On June 26, 1996, President Clinton certified that all foreign fighters had left Bosnia—a key condition of the Dayton Accord. With the removal of the officials flagrantly tied to the Iranians, specifically Čengić, and the apparent exit of the Iranian-run foreign mujahideen, the U.S. released $100 million-worth of U.S. military aid to Bosnia in November 1996, with the Clinton administration’s public position being that Iran’s influence over the Sarajevo government was significantly diminished. But this was not what the CIA said. Izetbegović has been “co-opted by the Iranians” and is now “literally on their payroll,” according to a classified CIA analysis in late 1996, which further noted that Tehran bankrolled Izetbegović’s re-election in September 1996 and, despite the fact Čengić had been removed, there was still at least one VEVAK agent in the Bosnian Cabinet. Throughout the fall of 1996, so far from diminishing influence, Iran opened a new Consulate in Mostar, radio station, cultural centre, two “reconstruction centres,” and a Red Crescent Society office. The Red Crescent especially is a known front for VEVAK and IRGC. Despite occasional setbacks, Iran’s meddling in Bosnia continues to the present.

Joining the Bosnian Jihad

In 1993, Sawah “joined the 3rd Bosnian Army and fought in the Bosnian war for three years,” his Guantanamo file says. While Sawah’s activities between 1996 and 1999 are unclear, it is apparent that he remained in Bosnia during this period. This is a well-established pattern for foreign mujahideen who made their way to Bosnia during the war.

Between 4,000 and 6,000 foreign jihadi-Salafists joined the war on the SDA government’s side, with about 3,000 Bosnians also fighting in the mujahideen detachments rather than as part of the regular army. The crucial organizer of the foreign fighters in Bosnia was the above-mentioned MOS, which had “direct links with al-Qa’ida and bin Laden’s inner circle from the war’s opening phase,” Schindler writes. A key finance mechanism for this was the Benevolence International Foundation, one of “Allah’s NGOs,” which was tied to Bin Laden and MOS; another was TWRA.

The Seventh Muslim Brigade was formed in November 1992, bankrolled by TWRA, and recruited mostly local radicals, some of whom had fought in the Afghan jihad. Growing to a size of over 1,000 men and being under the direct command of the Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina (ABiH), the Seventh Muslim Brigade was “the SDA’s flagship unit, the prototype of the Islamist fighting force Izetbegović’s army was supposed to become,” Schindler writes. The Seventh Muslim Brigade was indeed as much a political project as it was a military one; military recruits were screened for “moral” purity and then subjected to intense politico-religious instruction/indoctrination by SDA-approved imams.

Bosnia 7th Muslim Brigade

Seventh Muslim Brigade

Smaller units on a not dissimilar model to the Seventh Muslim Brigade included the Ninth Muslim Liberation Brigade and the Fourth Muslim Light Brigade, which was formally founded in 1994 but which had existed in various forms since 1992 under the leadership of Nezim Halilović, a zealot preacher and Saudi favourite known as Muderis (a Qur’an teacher), who based himself in the enormous King Fahd Mosque after the war, attaining legendary status among Islamist radicals.

A group of “Afghan Arabs” and Albanian jihadists (some from Kosovo rather than Albania proper) revived the Handžar Division, which like its original spent more time killing civilians, like the monks Nikola Miliciević and Mato Migić, rather than engaged in combat. The key foreign-dominated unit, though, was Odred el-Mudžahid (The Holy Warrior Detachment), founded in August 1993, which also served under the Third Corps—likely what is referred to Sawah’s Guantanamo file. El-Mudžahid were based around Zenica, where the Third Corps was headquartered, and some of their most infamous atrocities were committed in nearby Travnik. While most Islamist battalions were more interested in proselytization, el-Mudžahid did real fighting, suffering 500 dead (400 of them foreign Arabs) and 2,000 wounded.

Izetbegović initially denied all knowledge of the jihadists (despite attending an el-Mudžahid camp as early as November 1993), then it was said that the jihadists were freelancers unconnected to official structures. Documents show el-Mudžahid registered as “Military Unit 5689” within ABiH and its leaders—including the most infamous of all, the young Algerian, Abdelkader Mokhtari, better known as Abu Maali—were paid and promoted as any regular soldier was. When it became impossible to deny that the mujahideen had been put under official sanction, it was said that this was done to try to get control of them—and the commander, General Enver Hadžihasanović, did seem to genuinely dislike the foreigners who paid him little heed. But as Hadžihasanović noted: “Behind [the mujahideen] there are some high-ranking politicians and religious leaders.”

Sawah “accepted the sponsorship of known al-Qaida associate Abu Maali,” according to the Guantanamo file, and “probably served under Maali when he fought in the Bosnian War, and reported he worked for Maali following the war.” Sawah also admitted that his unit in Bosnia was supplied with money and weapons by Khaled Sheikh Muhammad (KSM), the planner of the 9/11 atrocity, who personally visited Bosnia in 1995. (Two of the “muscle hijackers” on American Airlines Flight 77, which smashed into the Pentagon, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, both Saudis, also fought with the mujahideen in Bosnia.) Sawah met with KSM several times in Bosnia between 1995 and 1999, and also knew of KSM’s close links with Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn (Abu Zubaydah), who coordinated the movement of fighters from Afghanistan to Bosnia during the war.

After the signing of the Dayton Accords and the occupation of Bosnia by 60,000 NATO troops, the foreign jihadi-Salafists were supposed to have left by January 19, 1996, but there was a loophole: NATO could not very well insist on the expulsion of Bosnian citizens, so the Izetbegović government engaged in a mass-naturalization of mujahideen.

It is estimated that 12,000 Bosnian passports went missing during the war. According to Senad Avdić, editor-in-chief of Slobodna Bosna, an investigative weekly that has done much to expose official corruption and connections to Islamism, one of the passports went to Bin Laden. (And Avdić added: “If Bin Laden doesn’t have a Bosnian passport, then he has only himself to blame!”) KSM acquired Bosnian citizenship in November 1995. Some of the missing Bosnian passports were used to naturalize the mujahideen, at least 100 who had never even been in Bosnia, and some of those turned up in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban. This was the path Sawah took: moving to Taliban Afghanistan in 2000, Sawah’s Bosnian passport was found during the raid on al-Qaeda’s guesthouse in Karachi that netted Ramzi bin a-Shibh in September 2002.

Taliban Afghanistan

Sawah left Bosnia in October 2000 and travelled—via Turkey and Iran—to Afghanistan, where he was initially arrested and interrogated by the Taliban for forty days. Upon release, Sawah moved through a series of al-Qaeda camps, learning skills in urban warfare, mountain tactics, and mortars. Sawah admits to being an al-Qaeda member from this point, having gone to Afghanistan with the “express intent of supporting” Bin Laden.

After a trip to the front lines against the Northern Alliance, Sawah moved to al-Farouq Camp, near the airport in Kandahar, in May 2001, where he was taught about explosives by Mushin Musa Matwalli Atwah (Abd ar-Rahman al-Muhajir), who built the bombs for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in August 1998 and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000. Having completed the two-month course in late June 2001, Sawah offered himself to Mohammed Atef (Abu Hafs al-Masri), al-Qaeda’s military chief and one of Bin Laden’s two deputies (the other being Zawahiri), as an explosives instructor. (Sawah’s name would show up on one of Atef’s databases of al-Qaeda members after Atef was killed in December 2001.)

Between July and August 2001, Sawah taught at least two courses in bomb-making to a total of eighty students at Tarnak Farm (a.k.a. Abu Ubaydah Camp), located fifteen-to-twenty miles from the Kandahar airport. Sawah was proud of having been personally praised by Bin Laden for his “good work” teaching at Tarnak Farm. Sawah also had contact with Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Mauritani), Bin Laden’s religious adviser and al-Qaeda’s chief shar’i. Sawah recommended students he thought would be willing “martyrs,” and Sawah conferred with Midhat Morsi as-Sayid Umar (Abu Khabab al-Masri), a chemist and bomb-maker who was a key figure in al-Qaeda’s never-ending hunt for weapons of mass destruction, to pick out students for their explosives and poisons course.

In August 2001, al-Farouq was closed and at this time Sawah moved to Jalalabad. Sawah remained in Jalalabad until he was arrested on November 18, 2001, by the Northern Alliance after being injured by a cluster munition as he tried to cross into Pakistan at Tora Bora. Sawah was handed to the Americans in December 2001.

Sawah had developed, at the direct instruction of Sayf al-Adel, an explosives expert and one of al-Qaeda’s most senior members, specialized improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Sawah developed a prototype of the shoe bomb later used by Richard Reid and, after Sept. 11, worked on constructing limpet mines to attack American ships that al-Adel “assumed were heading to harbors in Pakistan.” Sawah designed and built four magnetic limpet mines. Sawah was also found to have “detailed information on chemical explosives, conventional and non-conventional weapons.”

Sawah knew in advance of al-Qaeda’s plot to kill Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance, just two days before 9/11. Additionally, Sawah “may have had prior knowledge” of the 9/11 massacre. Sawah’s above-mentioned connection to KSM might well have been deeper than he was willing to admit.

In Guantanamo

From 2004 onwards Sawah was extremely cooperative, proving a “highly prolific source” who had “provided invaluable intelligence regarding explosives, al-Qaida, affiliated entities, and their activities”. That said, Sawah had proven in places only “partially truthful”—for instance, being very shady about the “details of his militant training and activities prior to his arrival in Afghanistan”—and Sawah was “careful to discuss the al-Qaida members instead of himself.”

Sawah was assessed as a “Medium” risk to the U.S. and her interests. Sawah was “occasionally hostile to the guard force and staff earlier in his detention,” but his cooperation with the Americans make it unlikely he will be much trusted by his comrades on the outside.


The actions of the Izetbegović government, Iran, and Saudi Arabia during the Bosnian War made it an epicentre in shaping the jihadi-Salafist movement on the road to 9/11. Threads of the 7/7 atrocity went through Bosnia and 9/11 itself had a Balkan dimension. The alumni of the Bosnian jihad continue to show up in terrorist activities, increasingly actually in Bosnia. These actions also imported a radicalism into Bosnia itself that had heretofore been marginal, but which now has deep local roots—enabled by a chronically weak State, large-scale corruption, and the continued activities of the intelligence services of the countries who imported the ideology in the first place. The leading role of the Saudis in rebuilding Bosnia—particularly the mosques, restored in Wahhabi-style whitewash rather than their ornate pre-war Ottoman style, and cultural centres—was especially damaging to Bosnian Islam. For all these reasons the Islamic State has not been without success in recruiting from Bosnia.

Sawah is a near-textbook example of the path taken by many of al-Qaeda’s pre-9/11 members, who worked in one of the active, “ABC” jihad theatres—Algeria, Bosnia, or Chechnya—on al-Qaeda’s dime, before moving to Taliban Afghanistan as those conflicts wound down. Al-Qaeda has now perfected its insurgent model in Syria, but it has—for all the talk of the “far enemy”—long been in the insurgency game. Up to 20,000 fighters were trained al-Qaeda camps between 1996 and 2001 in Taliban Afghanistan, according to the 9/11 Commission (p. 67), and al-Qaeda effectively used active combat zones as training theatres, into which it sent talent spotters to find people who could do terrorism further abroad.

The contest within the Bosnian State apparatus between the hardliners and those determined to root out the extremists and Iran’s spy-terrorist apparatus that stands behind so much of the militant activity goes on. The damage the Saudis have done in spreading extremism in Bosnia is incalculable. If there is any difference it is that after the internal insurgency in Saudi Arabia in 2003-04, the Saudis have rather redefined their definition of acceptable partners in foreign policy more in line with Western interests, while Iran remains a revolutionary government committed to the expulsion of the West from the Middle East and will work with terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, to achieve that end.

The final issue is the detention facility at Guantanamo. Just over a week ago, the U.S. transferred ten Yemeni jihadists detained at Guantanamo to Oman, bringing the total population of the facility below 100 for the first time since 2002—to ninety-one, thirty-four of whom have been approved for transfer. Amnesty International released a statement saying that this was welcome but “this trickle of transfers should become a torrent”. There is reason to be sceptical that this is the best course of action, however.

In September 2015, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported that of 653 detainees who had been transferred, 196 were either confirmed (117) or suspected (79) of rejoining the jihad. That nearly a third of released Guantanamo detainees have rejoined Islamist terrorism undersells what has happened since many of the rest have remained committed ideologues who spread jihadist propaganda or otherwise facilitate the cause for which they were imprisoned in the first place.

The race to release the Guantanamo detainees is a political decision based on a calculation—that the immediate danger from releasing hardened terrorists is offset by narrative “strategic gains” against the jihadists’ recruitment propaganda—which is simply wrong. Guantanamo is not a key driver of radicalization and never has been, but the danger of releasing men with specialist skills back into the ranks of the jihadists during an ongoing war is pressing and immediate.




The “Iran, al-Qaeda, and the SDA” section of this post has been updated

10 thoughts on “From Bosnia to Guantanamo

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