OSAMA BIN LADEN: THE BALKAN CONNECTIONfrom
September 19, 2001
OSAMA BIN LADEN:
THE BALKAN CONNECTION
by Srdja Trifkovic
So we are at war. Terrorism is the enemy, personified by Osama Bin Laden.
But before America commits its treasure and risks the lives of its young men
("and women") to this epic struggle, a few stables need to be cleaned and
some unpleasant skeletons removed from government cupboards. Bill Gertz,
writing in today's (9/18) Washington Times, proves conclusively that Osama
bin Laden's terrorist network is thriving in Albania. [Read the article]
It is not enough to bewail the fact that bin Laden's rise was facilitated by
the hefty support he received from the CIA in the 1980's. At that early
stage one could justify the policy--mistaken and shortsighted, as it turned
out to be--by the dictates of the Cold War: your enemy's enemy is your de
facto ally, if not a trusted friend. "Blowback" was a risk, but arguably
worth taking two decades ago. But if we are to take the war on terrorism
seriously today, it is also necessary:
*To acknowledge that throughout the 1990s the Clinton Administration had
tolerated, and effectively aided and abetted bin Laden's operations in the
Balkans, long after he was recognized as a major security threat to the
*To name the instigators of such policy in Washington, and to ensure that
none of them remain in any positions of responsibility as President Bush
plans his response to the recent outrage; and
*To recognize that the Balkan policy of successive U.S. administrations--the
policy that had made this scandalous connection possible and, in a way,
inevitable--was fundamentally flawed, and requires urgent revision.
BIN LADEN AND BOSNIA
In the aftermath of America's "Black September," it was confirmed in
Sarajevo that the Muslim authorities of Bosnia-Herzegovina had issued a
passport to Osama bin Laden at the Bosnian embassy in Vienna in 1993. The
intention was obviously to facilitate the movements of a man who was fast
acquiring the reputation of a dangerous terrorist.
That the government in Sarajevo was sympathetic to Islamic militants is
neither surprising nor remarkable, of course, but in this particular case
there was an old debt to be repaid. Osama Bin Laden was an early supplier
of weapons to the Bosnian Muslims. His early efforts in 1992-93 were known
to the Clinton administration and quietly tolerated by it. He was given a
free hand in the Balkans and eventually established a strong foothold in the
heart of Europe, initially under the guise of humanitarian work.
The facts of the case were known to the media. In the summer of 1996, the
Washington Post confirmed that "the Clinton administration knew of the
activities of a so-called Relief Agency which was, in fact, funneling
weapons and money into Bosnia to prop up the Izetebegovic Muslim government
It was funneling troops, too. The mujahideen had first come to Bosnia in
1992 and numbered over 3,000 by the summer of 1995. They included
volunteers from the Middle East, as well as deserters from the Turkish,
Malaysian and French UNPROFOR units. They never took prisoners: wounded
Serb soldiers were usually decapitated.
Under the Dayton Peace Accords, all Islamic volunteers who fought with the
Muslim government army were supposed to leave the country. An undisclosed
number remained, however, having been given Bosnian citizenship and
permanent residence. Several hundred had taken over what was the Serbian
village of Bocinja Donja, in central Bosnia, and provided instruction to
local Muslim forces in terrorist activities.
They first attracted attention when on December 18, 1995--only a month after
Dayton--a car bomb prematurely exploded in the central Bosnian town of
Zenica. It was apparently meant for American troops stationed nearby, as
revenge for the sentencing of Sheik Omah Abdel Rahman in connection with the
World Trade Center bombing.
Two months later, in February 1996, SFOR units raided the training center of
the Bosnian government's secret police (AID), located near Fojnica. Several
persons were arrested for preparing terrorist actions. It transpired that
instructors from the Middle East were teaching AID officers how to disguise
bombs as toys and ice cream cones.
Only months later the Bosnian Connection started making an impact abroad.
Reporting on the bombing of the Al Khobar building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,
the New York Times reported on June 26, 1997, that several suspects had
served with the Bosnian Muslim forces and were linked to Osama Bin Laden.
>From that point on the United States and its allies had complained
periodically and ineffectually to the Muslim authorities in Sarajevo about
the continued presence of the mujahadeen in Bosnia.
By late 1999 this connection attracted further attention when U.S. law
enforcement authorities discovered that several suspects who have visited or
lived in Bosnia were associated with a terrorist plot to bomb targets in the
United States on New Year's Day. Among them was Karim Said Atmani, who was
identified by authorities as the document forger for a group of Algerians
accused of plotting the bombings. He is a former roommate of Ahmet Ressemi,
the man arrested at the Canadian-U.S. border in mid-December 1999 with a
carload of explosives. Atmani has been a frequent visitor to Bosnia, even
after Ressmi's arrest. Another Bosnian veteran, a Palestinian named Khalil
Deek, was arrested in Jordan in late December 1999 on suspicion of
involvement in a plot to blow up tourist sites; a second man with Bosnian
citizenship, Hamid Aich, lived in Canada at the same time as Atmani and
worked for a charity associated with Osama Bin Laden. A third suspect, an
Algerian named Abu Mali, was regarded as a "community leader" in the Bosnian
village of Bocinja. Mehrez Amdouni, yet another former resident, was
arrested in September 1999 in Istanbul, where he arrived with a Bosnian
passport. It has been confirmed that Ahmet Ressemi had ties with Said
Atmani, another terrorist who fought in the El Mujahadeen unit in
Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Canadian authorities deported Atmani back to
Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 18, 1998, supposedly without knowing of his
alleged participation in terrorist activities through Europe. The New York
Times Magazine reported on February 6, 2000 that "last year, sources in
Jordan say, the Mukhabarat, the intelligence service, alerted the C.I.A. to
at least three plots by Bosnian-based Islamic terrorists to attack U.S.
targets in Europe."
While an elaborate Islamic terror network was developing in Bosnia, Osama
bin Laden was busy looking for fresh opportunities in the Balkans. The
victims would remain the same; and yet again he could count on the quiet
complicity of the U.S. government.
BIN LADEN AND KOSOVO: "ADMINISTRATION FULLY AWARE"
During the NATO war against Serbia, in May 1999, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe warned
that if American troops go into Kosovo they'd be fighting alongside a
terrorist organization known to finance its operations with drug
sales--including some to the United States. Inhofe was one of the few
legislators to note and complain that by joining hands with the KLA the
United States also would become partners of a sort with Osama bin Laden.
Six months before the bombing, the Jerusalem Post reported that Bosnia was
the first bastion of Islamic power in the former Yugoslavia, but Kosovo
promised to be the second ("Kosovo seen as new Islamic bastion" by Steve
Rodan, September 14, 1998). The Albanians have been provided with financial
and military support from Islamic countries, the report went on, and they
were bolstered by hundreds of mujahadeen infiltrated from Albania. "US
defense officials say the support includes that of Osama Bin Laden" and the
Defense Department confirmed that bin Laden's Al Qa'ida organization
supported Moslem fighters in both Bosnia and Kosovo. The report quoted
sources in Washington as saying that the Clinton administration was fully
aware of the Islamic militants' activities in Bosnia and Kosovo, but had
looked the other way: "The administration wants to keep the lid on the pot
at all costs . . . Needless to say, the Europeans have been quite upset by
The usually well-informed Israeli paper correctly sensed a shift in U.S.
policy that facilitated bin Laden's activities. In early 1998, the State
Department had listed the KLA as an international terrorist organization
that supported itself with drug profits and through loans from known
terrorists like bin Laden. By the end of that year the policy was reversed,
however. On November 30, 1998, the Scotsman reported that the KLA "had the
unusual honour of being taken off a register of organisations the US defines
as 'terrorists'. This is a valuable asset, not just in terms of public
relations. It also makes fund-raising among ethnic Albanians abroad much
The KLA's rehabilitation in Washington went hand-in-hand with its growing
links with the Islamic radicals. The Sunday Times of London reported on
March 22, 1998, that Iranian Revolutionary Guards had joined forces with
Osama bin Laden to support the Albanian insurgency in Kosovo, hoping "to
turn the region into their main base for Islamic armed activity in Europe."
By November the same paper confirmed that bin Laden's terrorist network in
Albania was regularly sending units to fight against the Serbs in Kosovo.
The paper pointed out that bin Laden's Albanian operation dated back to
1994, when its was established under the guise of a wealthy Saudi
humanitarian agency. In those early days bin Laden's group enjoyed the
support of then premier Sali Berisha--also an American "asset" at that
time--and the main KLA training base was subsequently established on
Berisha's property in northern Albania.
Correctly sensing that the anti-Serb course of the Clinton administration
would lead it to tolerate his activities in Albania and Kosovo, bin Laden
issued a communiqué in August 1998 listing Serbia among "the worst infidel
nations." The communiqué, faxed to Knight Ridder from bin Laden's
supporters in London and translated from Arabic, boasted of "great
victories" in Bosnia and Kosovo. By the end of 1998, as the United States
was building up its pressure on Belgrade to accept the Clinton
administration's terms on the beleaguered Serbian province, the Times of
London reported (November 26, 1998) that the Islamic fighters who "created
havoc in the war in Bosnia" were moving on to Kosovo. The link between
Osama bin Laden and the KLA were facilitated by the chaotic conditions in
the neighboring Albania, the Times went on, allowing Muslim extremists to
settle there, often under the guise of humanitarian workers.
"They were terrorists in 1998 and now, because of politics, they're freedom
fighters," a top U.S. drug official complained to the Washington Times in
May 1999. By that time the NATO bombing was in full swing, however, and the
mujahideen were once again American allies. According to the Washington
Times, "The reports said bin Laden's organization, known as al-Qaeda, has
both trained and financially supported the KLA. Many border crossings into
Kosovo by 'foreign fighters' also have been documented and include veterans
of the militant group Islamic Jihad from Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.
Many of the crossings originated in neighboring Albania and, according to
the reports, included parties of up to 50 men."
Bin Laden has become an integral attachment to each KLA operation. It is
unsurprising, therefore, that he has established a presence in Macedonia,
the latest victim of the flawed U.S. policy. The Washington Times wrote on
June 22 of this year that the NLA (the KLA subsidiary in Macedonia) was
largely--but not exclusively--dependent on the illegal trade in narcotics:
"In addition to drug money, the NLA also has another prominent venture
capitalist: Osama bin Laden." The sum supplied was estimated at between six
and seven million dollars over six months.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in New York and Washington, it is certainly
desirable, and perhaps even possible, for the United States to devise an
effective anti-terrorist strategy. This cannot be done, however, unless
there is a change of the policy that breeds terrorism. A decade of American
covert and overt support for the Muslims in the former Yugoslavia has been a
foreign policy disaster, detrimental to peace in the Balkans and to American
interests. Its beneficiaries are Osama bin Laden and his co-religionists in
Sarajevo, Tirana, Pristina and Tetovo. If we are to take the "war on
terrorism" seriously, the mistakes of the past need to be recognized and
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