The United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has sentenced Bosnian Army Commander Rasim Delic to three years in prison for crimes committed by foreign Islamic fighters against captive Bosnian Serb soldiers during the 1992-1995 war.
General Delic’s defense argues that he did not have control over the El Mujahid Detachment and that they received their orders directly from al-Qaida commanders, bypassing the Bosnian Army.
According to the court’s ruling, Delic failed to prevent or punish the crimes committed by the members of the El Mujahid Detachment in the fall of 1995 in Central Bosnia. El-Mujahid was under the official jurisdiction of the Bosnian Army during the war, though it operated autonomously and was comprised of foreign fighters from various Islamic countries.
Specifically, the court found Delic guilty of failing to prevent or punish the cruel treatment of 12 Bosnian Serb soldiers captured in the village of Livade. The soldiers were kept at the Kamenica prison camp near Zavidovici between July and August 1995 under the supervision of the El Mujahid. Delic was tried on the basis of “superior criminal responsibility for failing to prevent or punish the men’s actions.”
Making no attempt to deny the executions and abuse of Bosnian Serbs by the El Mujahid, Delic’s defense insisted during the trial that all major decisions regarding the El Mujahid Detachment were made by the Mujahideen supreme body, the shura.
Vasvija Vidovic, the general’s defense attorney, told ISN Security Watch that the El Mujahid Detachment cooperated with the Bosnian Army but was not under its control and command.
During the trial, the prosecution called on witnesses – former El Mujahid members and commanders – who proceeded, before the court, to mock Delic, referring to him as the “fat general.” They suggested that only wartime Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic and the head of the Bosnian Army Third Corp, Sakib Mahmuljin who was the liaising officer with the El Mujahid, had earned their respect.
According to Vidovic, the Bosnian Army was never able to establish effective control over the El Mujahid, which was established in August 1993 and was subordinated to the BH Army 3rd Corps – at least on paper.
Delic’s defense team insisted that there was a parallel chain of command for the El Mujahid, who reported to Sheik Anwar Shaban, headquartered in the Islamic Center in Milan.
“Combat reports were sent to the Islamic Cultural Center in Milan. Sheik Anwar Shaaban, who founded and ran the Center, was the real authority in the El Mujahid Detachment. The detachment also sent reports to the terrorist organization al-Qaida,” the defense counsel said.
The al-Qaida link
According to documents obtained by ISN Security Watch from Bosnian military and civilian intelligence and reports from western intelligence agencies, Shaaban was in charge of recruiting, financing and transporting fighters and weapons to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Furthermore, it appears that the Center in Milan was the main logistical and operational center for foreign fighters during the Bosnian war, and also a base for Islamic militants operating elsewhere – all connected to al-Qaida.
Bosnia’s geographic position was the ideal jumping-off point for the organizational expansion of numerous extremist movements to Western European countries, and these movements used the Bosnian war and humanitarian aid to Bosnian Muslims as a pretext for their larger motives.
Bosnian officials became aware of Shaaban in the summer of 1995 when they received documents from the CIA warning them that Shaaban had arrived in the country.
According to the CIA report, Shaaban was a senior leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya and had been in regular contact with Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri and other high-ranking Islamic militants. The report said that Shaaban was a veteran who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and had obtained political asylum in Italy in 1991.
“We have reliable reports that Shaaban used his cells operations in Milan to raise significant amounts of money from the Islamic community in Italy, ostensibly to help Bosnian refugees. We are certain, however, that a large proportion of these funds were actually diverted to Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya terrorist operations in Egypt, as well as to build the group’s terrorist apparatus,” the CIA report said.
The CIA report also alleges that Shaaban ran a training camp some 50 kilometers outside of Milan where fighters heading to Bosnia could practice using weapons and explosives, and that the Islamic Cultural Institute was al-Qaida’s main logistical base in Europe. The first group of fighters sent by Shaaban through Milan to central Bosnia arrived in the summer of 1992, a couple of months after the war started.
In his book, “The Afghan-Bosnian Mujahideen Network in Europe,” author Evan F Kohlmann cites a letter from Shaaban to a wealthy donor in Qatar in 1994, in which he required additional funds to finance the purchase of camp equipment for the Mujahideen fighters in Bosnia.
“I’m convinced that “¦ the Islamic projects in the European countries are a priority over all general Islamic projects, especially when based on what we have seen with regard to the possibility of establishing bases in these places in order to aid Muslims all over the world”¦ Hot Islamic questions such as Bosnia”¦ raise the ardor of young Muslims and their desire to face the inevitable,” the letter said.
The CIA’s report, obtained by ISN Security Watch, said that Shaaban’s objectives were the “recruiting of Mujahideens for the Yugoslavian territories, the establishment of a European network for the connection among fundamentalist cells and logistic and operational support to the armed cells active on Egyptian soil.”
While clearly inspired by the principles of international jihad, Shaaban’s sermons drew in new recruits, many of whom were sent to Bosnia to fight the Serbs and Croats, with a smaller number going to Chechnya.
In late June 1995, in a mission codenamed “Operation Sphinx,” Italian anti-terror police arrested 11 suspected members of Al-Gama’at Al-Islamiyya and carried out formal searches of 72 addresses across northern Italy, including Milan.
Inside the Milan mosque, police found forgery tools, letters to wanted radicals around the world, and hundreds of false documents. Plots to bomb targets in other countries and a US target elsewhere in Italy were also found.
Bosnian Federal anti-terror police told ISN Security Watch that their Italian colleagues informed them that dozens of the combat reports from the El Mujahid unit in Bosnia were also found in the Milan Islamic Cultural Center, along with combat video footage recorded by El Mujahid members while fighting.
The anti-terror source, who wished to remain anonymous, said that those combat reports and videos were frequently sent to the donors to encourage them to fund the El Mujahid but also were circulated among the Mujahideen community elsewhere in order to recruit new fighters. Some of the footage also appeared during Delic’s trial.
However, Shaaban, the imam of the raided mosque, had somehow been tipped off about the operation and fled to the Bosnia just days earlier. According to wartime Bosnian State Security Service (SDB) documents, Bosnian intelligence had information that Shaaban had obtained Bosnian citizenship in February 1995 – meaning that he had visited Bosnia at least once before the raid in Italy.
Shortly afterwards, Shaaban increased his involvement in Bosnia and became the emir of the El Mujahid Detachment. During the Delic’s trial, former members of the El-Mujahid unit testified that Shaaban was their political and ideological leader.
“Friends” worse than enemies
In early May 1995, the Bosnian Army Center for the Analytics and Security compiled and delivered a report to the Bosnian military and political leadership regarding El Mujahid activities for 1994 and 1995. The analysis showed that throughout the war El Mujahid functioned independently and in accordance with decisions made by their own religious and military leaders.
In the report, the Center warned that the El Mujahid were recruiting soldiers, supplying themselves with weapons and munitions without the knowledge or and approval of 3rd Corps, and using those weapons for training in private camps closed to the Bosnian Army authorities.
“The El-Mujahid commanders and soldiers are showing less interest in combat but instead increasing their activity in persuading Bosnian Muslims in central Bosnia to practice radical Islam,” the report said.
The report also said that many of El Mujahid members were joining Islamic aid agencies and blackmailing Bosnian Muslims in a scheme that promised aid for radical conversion.
Military intelligence officers recommended that Bosnian authorities take immediate action to stop these subversive activities, the report concluded.
However, less than three months after the report was delivered, the Bosnian Army launched offensives in Uragan and Farz with the goal of taking the Ozren mountain and the town of Vozuca from the Bosnian Serbs. The El Mujahid unit took part in those operations and committed the crimes for which Delic has been tried, severely damaging the reputation of the Bosnian Army.
After the offensives, 12 Serb prisoners of war were subjected to severe beatings and electric shocks. They were also forced to kiss the severed heads of other detainees who had been beheaded at the camp – a grotesque incident that the El Mujahid proudly videotaped.
In October 1995, the Bosnian SDB compiled a report officially acknowledging for the first time that the El Mujahid and foreign fighters were potential threats to the country’s security and stability, and that through them foreign terrorist groups could launch attacks on European targets.
Just one day before the report was written, in the port city of Rijeka, Croatia, a massive explosion occurred when a suicide bomber detonated some 60 kilograms of explosives hidden in a car outside a police station.
Croatian police found a partially destroyed Canadian passport on the body of the suicide bomber, who had been investigated a couple of months earlier by Italian officials for connections to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan. Soon afterwards, Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya claimed responsibility for the Rijeka attack.
The blast came after Croat security forces arrested Abu Talal al-Qasimy, one of the most important Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya leaders hiding out in Europe, as he attempted to enter Bosnia. Within days, the Croats deported al-Qasimy through US custody into the hands of Egyptian authorities, who according to some unconfirmed reports, executed him.
The Croats, with the assistance of Bosnian and US security services, determined that the mastermind behind the Rijeka attack was Hassan al-Sharif Mahmud Saad. Bosnian intelligence discovered that Saad arrived in Bosnia from Italy in the spring of 1995. The investigation also showed that Saad was planning a new terrorist attack against NATO forces for December 1995. However, he was killed in combat just days prior to the planned attack.
Shaaban’s career ended dramatically on 14 December 1995, the same day the peace accord was signed ending the Bosnian war. He was killed at a Bosnian Croat road block. Everyone in the convoy of El Mujahid commanders – including emir Abdul-Harith al-Liby aka Abu Haris, sheik Shaaban and three others high-ranking officials – was killed.
Even though the incident was never fully investigated, ISN Security watch sources said that the El Mujahid commanders were on their way to inspect the frontline and had successfully passed through the first Croatian Defense Council (HVO) checkpoint without incident. But at the second checkpoint, near the town of Zepce, HVO Special Forces ambushed the convoy, killing everyone.
The case is still classified as a road accident, while the members of the El Mujahid unit believe that the HVO executed them on orders from the CIA.