The Afghan-Bosnian Mujahideen Network in Europe
By Evan F. Kohlmann
Over the last two years, as a result of major terrorist attacks in Madrid and
London, European leaders have finally become aware of a lurking extremist threat that has been brewing in dark corners across the continent for almost two decades. Western European democracies—many of whom thought that they were insulated from the threat of organised international terrorism—are discovering growing numbers of disaffected Muslim youth, hardened by scenes of televised bloodshed in the Middle East and the unwelcoming demeanor of some “native” Europeans. Frustrated by a perceived lack of social or political mobility, these men eventually become ideal recruits for the growing network of “pan-European mujahideen.”
However, to fully understand the current mujahideen phenomenon in Europe, one must first recognise its proper origins. Ironically, the flourishing of local Muslim extremist movements during the 1990s came primarily not as a result of Usama Bin Laden’s progress in Sudan and Afghanistan—but, arguably, rather due to a Muslim conflict much closer to the heart of Europe. Indeed, some of the most important factors behind the contemporary radicalisation of European Muslim youth can be found in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the cream of the Arab mujahideen from Afghanistan tested their battle skills in the post-Soviet era and mobilised a new generation of pan-Islamic revolutionaries. When I spoke to Al-Qaida recruiter Abu Hamza al-Masri in London in 2002, he tried to explain to me the mindset of the first volunteers who came to Bosnia at the start of the war in 1992: “People are dedicated to the [religion]… They went to Afghanistan to defend their brothers and sisters. So, they find Afghanistan now, the destruction of war and Muslims fighting against each other.” As a result, in the aftermath
of the Afghan jihadi debacle, “they want to [struggle against] something that is
indisputable, which is non-Muslims raping, killing, and maiming Muslims.”
The Bosnian conflict was cynically offered by jihad recruiters to desperate youths
in many European capitals as a chivalrous escape from the drudgery of their own boring urban lives. Yet even some of the smartest and most promising members of the European Muslim community were sucked into this bizarre netherworld. “Abu Ibrahim”, a 21-year old medical student from London at Birmingham University, took a break during training in Bosnia to be interviewed for a jihad propaganda video. Brandishing an automatic weapon, he scoffed:
“When you come here, people they think, ‘when you go into Bosnia you are sitting around and there are shells coming down and they are firing everywhere around you.’ They don’t know that we sit here and we have kebab. They don’t know that we have ice cream and we have cake here. They don’t know that we can telephone or fax anywhere in the world. They don’t know that this is a nice holiday for us where you meet some of the best people you have ever met in your life. People from all over the world, people from Brazil, from Japan, from China, from the Middle East, from America, North, South, Canada, Australia, all over the world you meet people.”
Beyond its propaganda value, Bosnia’s unique geographic position directly between Western Europe and the Middle East was the ideal jumping-off point for
organisational expansion of various Muslim extremist movements into the United
Kingdom, Italy, France, and even Scandinavia. Bosnia provided an environment where trained foreign Muslim fighters arriving from Afghanistan could mingle with unsophisticated but eager terrorist recruits from Western Europe, and could form new plans for the future of the jihad. No such contact had ever occurred before for groups like Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya and Al-Qaida, and it provided these organisations limitless possibilities for development and growth. After fighting for six months during the opening stages of the Bosnian war in 1992, Saudi Al-Qaida commander Abu Abdel Aziz “Barbaros” told journalists during a fundraising trip to Kuwait, “I have come out of Bosnia only to tell the Muslims that at this time this offers us a great opportunity… Allah has opened the way of jihad, we should not waste it… This is a great opportunity now to make Islam enter Europe via jihad. This can only be accomplished through jihad. If we stop the jihad now we will have lost this opportunity.”
For their part, the European radicals inducted into the ranks of the foreign mujahideen in Bosnia were equally eager to make themselves useful. Babar Ahmad—a British Muslim currently awaiting possible extradition to the United States to face charges of running an Al-Qaida support cell in London—boasted in an early jihadi audiotape that the contributions of the new European mujahideen were “instrumental”:
“[I]nstrumental… not just to the jihad in Bosnia, but the world-wide jihad, for what they managed to achieve. And you think this is an exaggeration, but by the hands of the brothers they did many things that you wouldn’t believe. Books were translated and produced, in the front-lines, because you had the English brothers that could speak English and the Arab brothers that could speak Arabic and a bit of English, and they go together and translated books about Jihad. Now, these books are guiding other brothers back to the Jihad again. They’ve computerised whole computer networks because of their computer knowledge.”
From the moment the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina began in 1992, the Bosnian
Muslim government secretly tracked the arrival of foreign volunteers from Europe
seeking to wage a jihad, or “holy struggle”, against the Christian Serbs and Croats. According to ARBiH military intelligence documents, “the channels for their arrival in [Bosnia] went through the Republic of Croatia, majority of them came from Western Europe and Great Britain and they have the passports from these countries. According to the operative information from the State security service, a large number of these people were recruited and transported to the BiH area through… London and Milan, and there are some indications that some individuals also came through Frankfurt and Munich.” A second document from Bosnian Muslim military intelligence detailing the infrastructure of the foreign mujahideen brigade lists the names of prominent individual jihad financiers and recruiters based in Zagreb, London, Vienna, Milan, and Torino.
The Bosnians also noticed something else about their new would-be European
Muslim allies: while some genuinely sought to defend innocent Muslims, others were fleeing to Bosnia after being “expelled from their [home] countries for various reasons and they cannot return there.” ARBiH memoranda suggest that the Bosnian Muslim military regarded mujahideen arriving from Afghanistan and the Middle East as potentially useful, but reserved a much more skeptical attitude towards some of their idealistic and irreverent young comrades who hailed from various capitals of Western Europe. In a report written in September 1994, sources within the ARBiH Security Service Department warned that “their not providing their personal data is most probably due to possible links with [intelligence services] or having committed criminal offenses in their countries of origin, for in case their countries learnt about their stay here, they would demand their extradition.” A second analytical report from the ARBiH Military Security Service issued in May 1995 further noted that, “a significant number of these persons [who] entered in our country are from some West European countries and they have the citizenships and passports from those countries… After the arrival in our country, these persons are hiding their identity and as members of the unit ‘El Mudzahedin’ they submit the requests to enter the BiH citizenship… because they are the persons from the Interpol wanted circulars.”
One of the European mujahideen cited in particular by the Bosnian Muslims for
his thuggish behaviour was “Abu Walid”, a medic “originally from France” who
reportedly seized control of a local hospital in Zenica in July 1994 with weapons drawn and “harassed the medical staff there. Simultaneously, outside the… Center, there were ten armed members of ‘El-Mujahidin’ Unit.”8 Within months of being discharged of his duties with the foreign mujahideen in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Abu Walid—better known as French Muslim convert Christophe Caze—went on to lead an infamous Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) terrorist network based in northern France known as the “Roubaix Gang.” Caze was eventually killed during a suicidal highway battle with local police near the Belgian border as he fled French counter-terrorism investigators in mid-1996.
Even the mujahideen themselves were critical of some of the hotheaded European volunteers recruited by Syrian Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (a.k.a. Abu Dahdah) in Madrid, Spain for the purpose of waging jihad in Bosnia. When Barakaat telephoned a mujahideen training camp in Zenica in November 1995 to check on his new crop of students, the personnel director at the camp picked up the line and “complain[ed] about the young men who had been sent by Barakat to the camp.” Yarkas was finally arrested by Spanish authorities in 2001 and sentenced to a 27-year jail term for providing substantial logistical support to, among others, the 9/11 suicide hijackers dispatched by Al-Qaida.
However, while the new European faces among the mujahideen may have caused consternation in some Bosnian government circles, generally speaking, the foreign terrorist organisations active in the region (primarily Al-Qaida, Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya, and the GIA) were pleased to benefit from the situation and use the Bosnian war as a massive engine for recruitment and financing. In December 1995, these terrorist commanders further profited from NATO’s interest in expelling the foreign mujahideen from Bosnia. Hundreds of veteran fighters, accused of brutal wartime atrocities and expertly trained in urban warfare, were readily granted political asylum in a collection of European countries, Australia, and Canada. It was a devious tactic that allowed nefarious groups like the GIA to infiltrate several Western European nations with highly skilled and motivated terrorist sleeper cells. A French report written by French counterterrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière later concluded that the “exfiltration” of significant numbers of veteran fighters from Bosnia was beneficial in the sense that it enabled the mujahideen “to be useful again in spreading the Jihad across other lands.” In fact, as Bruguière noted in his report, “among the veterans of the ‘Moudjahiddin Battalion’ of Zenica, many would go on to carry out terrorist acts following the end of the Bosnian conflict.”
The United Kingdom
Despite its relatively high standard of living and social equality, the United
Kingdom has been and remains one of the most active bases of radical Islam across Western Europe. Certainly, it can be said that the Iranian revolution and the war in Afghanistan together started the ball rolling for the Sunni British fundamentalist movement. However, their ideas did not begin to have a wide appeal among local Muslim youths until the era of Bosnia-Herzegovina. When scenes of devastation and war crimes began to air on BBC television broadcasts, many British Muslims were shocked that such horrific events could take place in the context modern Europe without any Western intervention. It gave sudden and unexpected credence to the calls of violent radicals who suggested it was time for Muslims to start taking their personal security into their own hands. Dr. Zaki Badawi, the principal (at that time) of the Muslim College in London, acknowledged in early 1992, “Bosnia has shaken public opinion throughout the
Muslim world more deeply than anything since the creation of Israel in 1948.”
The Bosnian war caused a particularly strong backlash in the outspoken circles of
indignant British Muslim college students. These educated and idealistic youths angrily protested against the persecution of fellow Muslims in Bosnia. One student, a classmate of several men who had left to seek training in Afghanistan and Bosnia, saw nothing wrong with taking up arms against the “enemies of Islam”: “You cannot turn a blind eye when Muslims are being massacred, because what will you do when it is happening on your doorstep?”16 Inside Bosnia, the 21-year old Londoner “Abu Ibrahim” criticised the “hypocrites” among his peers back in Britain who swore revenge on the Serbs and Croats, yet were too afraid to join the jihad in Bosnia:
“…what we lack here is Muslims that are prepared to suffer and sacrifice. There in Britain, I see Muslims, every medical student is saying that my third year is for Islam, my third year is for the Muslims. They get their job, they get their surgery. 50, 60, £70,000 a year they’re earning. And then, no struggle, no sacrifice.” Abu Ibrahim spoke of the intense sense of satisfaction he felt fighting in the Bosnian war, as compared to the apathy of the secular Muslims who remained in London. In Britain, “I watch the TV and tears roll down my face when I see the Muslims in Bosnia, Muslims in Palestine, Muslims in Kashmir. And then I come [to Bosnia] and you feel a sense of satisfaction. You feel that you are fulfilling your duty. You feel that you are doing what the Prophet and his companions done[sic] 1400 years ago.”  Another British recruit from south London featured on the same Bosnia jihad video sneered, “this is what they like to do in England, they like to talk, they like to talk, they like to organise… big conferences… in the London Arena… and they make a nice conference… Then, after the talk, they go back home and they sleep. They carry on watching ‘Neighbours’… They carry on watching ‘Coronation Street’… What life is this? These people talk too much… You want to see true Muslims, with unity, come to this place, and then you’ll see.”
Even those who remained behind in the United Kingdom did their part to help the
cause of the mujahideen. Young activists in the fundamentalist Muslim Parliament established a charity to support jihad in Bosnia that later became known as the “Global Jihad Fund” (GJF). According to its later website, the GJF was established to aid “the Growth of various Jihad Movements around the World by supplying them with sufficient Funds to purchase Weapons and train their Individuals.” Two months after the signing of the Dayton Accords officially ending the Bosnian war, GJF administrators announced the distribution of a new brochure entitled, “Islam—The New Target”: “Contents include… a reprint of an acknowledgement certificate from the Commander of the Bosnian 7th Corps to Muslim Parliament (on behalf of the fund). Why don’t you get a copy or many copies of the brochure for local distribution or get a master to reprint. You and your friends could use it to increase genocide awareness and Jihad awareness in your locality.” Two years later, following a twin Al-Qaida suicide bombing attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the administrators of the GJF indicated that the fund was being run by Saudi Al-Qaida spokesman Mohammed al-Massari and had found a new cause célébre in “support[ing] Sheikh Mujahid Osama bin Laden.” When confronted by British investigative reporters, the GJF webmaster in London admitted, “I work for two people, really… Mr. Massari and Osama Bin Laden.”
On the battlefield in Bosnia, British-born mujahideen recruits had a noticeable
and significant impact. On June 13, 1993, a British patrol of four APC’s was stopped at a roadblock near the central Bosnian town of Guca Gora. A group of approximately 50 mujahideen fighters, who “looked north African or Middle Eastern,” had assembled there to intercept mobile enemy troops. The frightened British soldiers told journalists later that the foreigners had long, wispy beards, Afghan-style caps, and uniforms unlike anything worn by local Bosnian guerillas.25 Though the jihadis instantly trained their rocket propelled grenade launchers and rifles at the UN vehicles, the mujahideen commander on scene—an unidentified British Muslim wearing an Afghan hat and a blue scarf over his face—addressed the British officer in charge of the patrol, Major Vaughan Kent-Payne, in perfect English and coldly reassured him, “be cool, these people won’t
fire until I give them the order.”
In the summer of 1993, the British mujahideen began to suffer their first series of combat casualties, including a Muslim convert named David Sinclair. Sinclair (a.k.a. Dawood al-Brittani) was a 29-year old employee of a computer company in the UK. After suddenly converting to Islam and adopting traditional Muslim dress, Sinclair ran into problems with senior management at his company. Within a week of wearing his new clothes to work, he was reportedly terminated. Mobilised into action, he thereupon decided to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina and to join the Islamic military organisation based there. In the midst of his training, he generously gave away his two British passports to Arab-Afghan “brothers in need.” Dawood refused to return to the UK evidently out of a determination to avoid living the life of an infidel. During deadly clashes with Croatian HVO forces, he was shot and killed near an enemy bunker.
Indeed, British Muslims were present for some of the most important ARBiH
victories of the Bosnian war, including the conquest of the Vozuca region in late summer 1995. That battle, popularly known among the Arab-Afghans as “Operation BADR”, cost the lives of dozens of foreign fighters—including “Abu Mujahid” from the United Kingdom, killed on September 10, 1995. Abu Mujahid was a recent British university graduate who had finished his studies in 1993, when the Islamic community in the UK was still in an uproar over the war crimes being committed by the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He first came to the Balkans in 1993 as a humanitarian aid worker purportedly transporting food and medicine to the embattled Muslims in central Bosnia. Abu Mujahid was using his position as charity employee as a cover for other, more illicit activities: “Over the next two years Abu Mujahid hurried back and forth between Bosnia and Britain carrying valuable supplies to the brothers there. Between trips he travelled the
length of Britain reaching its smaller parts in his efforts to raise money for the cause and increase the awareness among Muslims there.” Abu Mujahid returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina in August 1995 and enlisted in a jihad training camp soon after his arrival, receiving instruction from—among others—two elite Egyptian trainers imported to the region directly from Al-Qaida-run camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border. For all his anti-Western vigor, Abu Mujahid nonetheless proudly wore a G-Shock watch and U.S. Army boots. According to his teachers, he “excelled” at shooting and throwing grenades and he insisted that he would remain in Bosnia “‘until either we get victory or I am martyred’… One thing which was strange about him was that he always used to say, thinking back, I remember, maybe three, four, five times a day, he would say to me that ‘Inshallah [“God-willing”] I am going to be martyred. Inshallah, this time in Bosnia, I am going to be martyred.’”
Following the initial assault during Operation BADR, Abu Mujahid disappeared
in the fog of war. Over a week later, a mujahideen search party recovered his body from the battlefield. One of the men who found Abu Mujahid later recalled, “At that point, the thought that went through my mind was that the brother had been there, left behind when I was there in Bosnia and he intended to stay there longer than me. But only Allah knew what could he have done for him to die in such a beautiful way? And the thought that’s still in our minds, Inshaallah, may Allah accept it from him, and may the people who loved him in this life, Inshaallah join him in the next.” Abu Mujahid’s body was brought back down from the mountain and then taken in a van to the frontline base camp. The
lead commander present, Abu Hammam al-Najdi from Saudi Arabia, would only allow fellow British mujahideen to go inside the van to see the remains of their departed compatriot.
The foreign mujahideen who survived the end of the war in 1995 grew apprehensive when they discovered that the Bosnian Muslims were about to sign the Dayton Accords—“the peace of the enemy”—with the United States and Europe. British jihadi recruits were among the voices urging their commanders to wage an apocalyptic all-out terror campaign in central Bosnia targeting Western peacekeepers, the Serbs and Croats, and even other Muslims. In a direct English-language message aimed at fellow British Muslims, one mujahid fighter appealed, “the amir [commander] of the jihad… is here. And the amir of the mujahideen here says he needs more people, and more equipment, and more everything. So for the people who are sitting at home and saying that, ‘well, they don’t need people anymore’, it’s not true, it’s not true… we need as many people and as much money and everything that people can send us to help us.” One British Muslim guerilla recounted the discussions taking place at the El-Mudzahedin Unit headquarters in a propaganda audiotape:
“[W]hen the Americans came to Bosnia… the situation had developed in such a way that it seemed as if we were going to have to fight the Americans. And [commander] Abul-Harith [the Libyan], he turned to me and he said, ‘We will become an example for these Bosnians. We will fight for our belief and the lost land. Please Allah, will give us victory and we will defeat [the Americans] or they will kill us. But we will not flee, and we will be an example for the Bosnians.’”
According to various accounts, on the day of December 12, 1995, several fighters had left a non-descript delivery van in the parking lot of the Zenica mujahideen base. A Bosnian police investigation later concluded that these radicals were in the final stages of “trying to rig a car bomb” when they ran into an unknown technical error, and it prematurely exploded. The massive and unexpected detonation killed as many as four mujahideen bombmakers and injured several other foreigners in the area. One wounded mujahid recounted, “You could feel the explosion… like a shining light… as I was on the floor, I remember seeing the face of Abul-Harith [the Libyan] as he ran to me. And he
took me and put me on the stretcher… And the building that he wanted to open, it was locked. And Abul-Harith he didn’t look for the key, he just knocked the door down and took me inside.”
In this case, as reported by both Arab-Afghan and Bosnian authorities, the
deceased would-be bomber was an 18-year-old British honours student from southwest London known as “Sayyad al-Falastini.” Sayyad was born in the United Kingdom but spent most of his early youth in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When he returned to London at age 12, he soon became involved in the radical Islamic fundamentalist movement there that was recruiting young volunteers for jihad in Bosnia. At age 16, he first sought unsuccessfully to join the mujahideen battalion in the Balkans after hearing an inspiring Friday khutba (religious sermon) from an Arab veteran of Bosnia.
However, after being elected president of the Islamic society at his college,
Sayyad started to methodically plan and save his money in a fund that would finance his dreamed jihad adventure. According to the mujahideen, Sayyad possessed this instinct because he was of Palestinian descent, and therefore, there was “a background of realising the importance of Jihad in his family.” During the summer of 1995, he left London and travelled to a Bosnian mujahideen training camp, fighting alongside his fellow comrades during Operation BADR. When combat hostilities gradually came to a halt after “BADR,” many foreign volunteers began filtering out of Bosnia and returning home, including a number of British recruits. But Sayyad was not ready to leave; his first taste of battle had exhilarated him and changed his life. Among the mujahideen, despite his young age, he was well liked and highly esteemed for his proficiency in English, Arabic, and Bosnian. Sayyad did not want the war to end, grumbling (like many of the Arabs) that the peace accords had been negotiated only “in order to halt the victories of the Mujahideen in Bosnia… For three years the world had sat back and allowed the slaughter of the Muslims to continue. But now as soon as the Muslims began to fight back and win, they ended the war.” Even in light of the Dayton agreement, Sayyad stubbornly refused to leave, and he recommitted himself to keeping the Islamic jihad alive in Bosnia. In the first few days of December, as the terms of Dayton were about to become a reality, Sayyad was torn by despair as he saw his beloved combat tour coming to an inexorable end. He angrily demanded of his fellow mujahideen, “Why are we all lost? Look at the [infidels]. Are they thinking of us and then they are laughing because they have their own state. But look at us, the Muslims, we do not even have a state yet but we continue to laugh!”
At this point, Sayyad started to act peculiarly, as if he was readying himself for a
“martyrdom” operation. He would pray all night long and continuously recite verses from the Qu’ran. Previously, he had telephoned his mother to ask her to send some money for him to visit home. Suddenly, two days before the explosion in Zenica, he called her and told her not to wire the cash as “he would not be needing it.” There is good reason to believe that Sayyad may have been preparing for an imminent role as a suicide bomber. Regardless of his intentions, on December 12, something in his plan went terribly wrong. While Sayyad stood beside the van, it prematurely detonated, shaking the entire neighbourhood and thoroughly frightening nearby Croatian civilians. By the “official” count of Al-Qaida, Sayyad became the sixth British Islamic volunteer soldier killed in Bosnia only two days shy of his nineteenth birthday. He was buried in a ceremony attended “by over three hundred of the cream of the foreign Mujahideen
fighters in Bosnia.” The Arab battalion later eulogised him:
“Sayyad was a brother who made Jihad his wealth and his life giving every penny of his wealth for the pleasure of Allah and eventually giving every drop of his blood for him. We ask Allah (SWT) to accept Sayyad as a martyr, to make him an example for the millions of youth in the West who have chosen this life in preference with the hereafter.”
The shadow cast by British mujahideen volunteers in Bosnia-Herzegovina
continues to plague law enforcement and intelligence agencies even to this day. On September 23, 2005, 34-year old British Muslim convert Andrew Rowe was convicted and ordered jailed for 15 years by a court in the U.K. for possessing details on how to fire mortar bombs and using secret codes to facilitate terror attacks. Back during the early 1990s, Rowe dramatically changed his loose lifestyle after converting at a mosque in Regent’s Park, London—an event which Rowe said “put meaning into my life.” Rowe admits to traveling to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 on a “humanitarian” mission—in reality, acting as an envoy for the foreign mujahideen. When he returned to the U.K., he even claimed government invalidity benefits for wounds suffered during an alleged mortar attack in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2003, Rowe was arrested on the French side of
the Channel tunnel while carrying a bound pair of socks bearing traces of TNT, plastic explosives, RDX, and nitroglycerine. According to Crown Prosecutors, the socks were likely used “to clean the barrel of a mortar or as a muzzle protector.” Raids on Rowe’s various residences revealed coded documents with phrases such as “airline crew,” “explosives,” and “army base.” Investigators also found video recordings of jihad in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and Al-Qaida leader Usama Bin Laden.
Perhaps more than any other nation in Europe, Italy played an overly dominant
role in hosting the transnational infrastructure of the Bosnian El-Mudzahedin Unit during the mid-1990s. Italy was one of the very few Western European nations to provide a direct land route through Croatia into Muslim Bosnia, and—even prior to the conflict in the Balkans—was serving as an important hub for activity by various North African Islamic extremist groups, including: the GIA, Al Gama’at al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and the Tunisian An-Nahdah movement. By the time of the war in 1992-1993, forces within the influential Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya had already designated Italy as one of three primary “support places” in Europe for its regional activities.
No individual from Italy had a greater impact on the Bosnian mujahideen than
former top Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya commander in southern Europe, Shaykh Anwar Shaaban (a.k.a. Abu Abdelrahman al-Masri), the late Imam at Milan’s Islamic Cultural Institute and the one-time overarching leader of Arab mujahideen forces fighting alongside the ARBiH.43 Shaaban was a well-known veteran of the Afghan jihad who (like many other Arab-Afghans) in 1991 decided he no longer felt safe in Afghanistan as it collapsed into civil turmoil. He sought and obtained political asylum in Italy, and was disappointed by what he found: “the Muslim community in Italy was just the same as elsewhere in Europe: asleep and busy in the worldly affairs.” Aided by a collection of Afghan war veterans and Italian Islamists, Anwar Shaaban opened a major new headquarters in a converted garage in Milan. Knowledgeable mujahideen sources have praised Shaaban’s efforts in Milan, and noted that Islamic Cultural Institute was “the center of much activity and it gained much popularity amongst the local Muslims.”
Similarly, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a former Moroccan member of the Al-Qaida
terrorist organisation, testified during the federal trial of four Al-Qaida operatives in the U.S. that Shaaban used the Islamic Cultural Institute as a critical Arab-Afghan recruiting center for young Muslim extremists living in Europe. According to Kherchtou, Shaaban had personally helped arrange Pakistani visas for him and three other mujahideen recruits who then went on to an Al-Qaida military training camp in eastern Afghanistan. French counterterrorism officials concluded that the ICI in Milan, under the lead of Shaaban, served an “essential role” as a command center for a variety of North African armed militant groups including Al-Gama’at Al-Islamiyya, the Tunisian An-Nahdah, and the Algerian GIA. After searching Anwar Shaaban’s office at the ICI, Italian counterterrorism police concurred that the Institute was “characterised by… a constant closeness to the activities of Egyptian terrorist organisations, especially those of [Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya], in the area of strategic and operational choices… the recruiting of mujaheddin 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.”
In the summer of 1992, Shaykh Anwar Shaaban helped lead the first quasi-official Arab-Afghan delegation to arrive in Bosnia, accompanied by a number of his Italian colleagues. As the fighters themselves have testified, “Sheik Anwar was not a textbook scholar: he was a scholar who practiced what he preached and fought oppression at every level, just like the companions and the early generations of Muslims… with books in his hands and military uniform on his body. Not only did he teach but he fought as well.” In one audiotape, mujahideen representatives attempt to unravel the mysterious life of Shaaban and note that “in the footsteps of Sheik Abdullah Azzam, Sheik Anwar Shaaban carried the responsibilities of the Mujahideen regiment in Bosnia… teaching, encouraging, and inspiring the fighters, laying the same foundation in Bosnia that Shaykh
Abdullah Azzam laid in Afghanistan.”
Shaaban shuttled back and forth to his headquarters in Milan, bringing with him
to Bosnia a host of veteran fighters and new recruits. In a September 1994 fax sent to a wealthy jihad donor in Qatar, Shaaban explained that he required additional funds “to finance the purchase of camp equipment for the Bosnian mujaheddin in view of another winter spent in war in former Yugoslavia.” Shaaban continued in his letter, “I’m convinced that based on today’s facts, 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.” Undoubtedly, Shaaban hoped to use the Bosnian war to as a means to create an unassailable garrison for North African militants in Europe. One document later confiscated in Italy seemed to endorse this strategy, explaining that “Hot Islamic questions such as Bosnia… raise the ardor of young Muslims and their desire to face the inevitable.” Not surprisingly, many of those that Shaaban introduced to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina became “the commanders and trainers, the cream of the Mujahideen.”
During their subsequent investigation of Shaaban and the ICI, Italian counterterrorism police turned up numerous pieces of evidence showing how involved Shaaban was in supporting jihad activity in nearby Bosnia. This included documents indicating that “paramilitary training activities” were “organised by the I.C.I. for those individuals who would fight on the Yugoslav territory.” A second undated letter from Anwar Shaaban recovered by Italian investigators details a meeting the former had in Sarajevo “with an unidentified Islamic individual who was willing to host trained Muslim guys capable of training others to use Russian and eastern firearms in order to open the door of the Jihad against Orthodox Serbs in Yugoslavia.” The Italians also found another handwritten sheet of paper in Arabic:
“I am sending you this film from the center of Bosnia-Herzegovina, from the land of war and the Jihad. In it there is what I succeeded in sending you, and I am very happy… In the little remembrance book there are a few pages glued together, which you must open because there are inside sections of small films that you will develop and watch… I placed the small films inside the remembrance book, between the pages, but only between some pages, not all of them… so that the Croatians may not find them and cause problems for us, because they can even decapitate; when the letter arrives, develop and number them.”
A subsequent fax received in April 1995 confirmed that the ICI in Milan had been
officially assigned the task of distributing news bulletins and conducting other
“propaganda activity” on behalf of the Bosnian El-Mudzahidin Unit.
Yet, almost immediately, Shaaban’s mission in the Balkans strayed from its
purported goal of defending innocent Bosnian Muslims. In 1993, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials began to privately express concerns that Egyptian Islamic extremists were targeting the U.S. embassy in Albania for a potential terrorist attack. According to the CIA, “Al-Gama’at members, including… Anwar Shaban… were involved in the 1993 surveillance of the U.S. embassy in Tirana.” The surveillance was confirmed when a suspected militant was observed driving “repeatedly around the embassy.” Separately, the CIA gathered telephone intercepts that included an “apparent order from overseas
instructing a Muslim-charity worker to case the embassy.” No successful attack was ever carried out, likely as a result of close cooperation between the CIA and Albanian security officials.
Shaaban’s influence also extended to a number of other Italian fundamentalist
clerics, such as Mohamed Ben Brahim Saidani, a volunteer fighter in Bosnia and Imam of a mosque on Massarenti Street in Bologna, Italy. Saidani had been one of a number of participants in a guerilla training course held in Afghanistan in 1993. Upon his return to Italy, he quickly convinced 30 of his local followers to enlist in the foreign mujahideen brigade active in Bosnia. He founded a front company in Italy known as Piccola Societa’ Cooperativa Eurocoop that provided seemingly legitimate work authorisation permits to jihadi volunteers and veterans, allowing them to travel without hindrance to different parts of the world, including Bosnia.60 In witness testimony in the trial of conspirators
convicted of involvement in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, Al-Qaida
lieutenant Jamal al-Fadl discussed his trip to Zagreb in mid-1992, specifically how he had been instructed to meet with Mohamed Saidani so he could get “information about what’s going on in Bosnia” and bring this intelligence back directly to Usama Bin Laden.
Italian law enforcement and intelligence officials grew concerned after
intercepting a letter from a fundamentalist militant imprisoned in southern Italy in July 1993 discussing potential terror attacks on U.S. and French targets in the region. The seized letter appears to be one penned by Mondher Ben Mohsen Baazaoui (a.k.a. “Hamza the Tunisian”), an activist in the An-Nahdah movement and, according to an Italian police statement, “a fighter for a mujahideen unit during the ethnic conflict in Bosnia… believed to be in the front row of fundamentalist, Islamic terrorist networks.” Baazaoui wrote to Mohamed Saidani (the Imam in Bologna who was on close terms with both Anwar Shaaban and Usama Bin Laden) to tell him that if his prison hunger strike did not
secure his immediate release, Baazaoui would commit a “homicide operation… [to] die gloriously.” He then pleaded with Saidani to avenge his death with a spectacular eulogy of terror: “All I can suggest to you is the French: leave not a child nor an adult [alive]. Work for them, they are very numerous in Italy, especially in the Tourist areas. Do what you will to them using armed robbery and murder. The important thing is that you succeed at sparking the flames that burn inside me against them, and this is to be a promise between you and me.”
In November 1994, Italian authorities were even more alarmed when they learned of a new assassination plot organised by elements of the Egyptian terrorist groups Al-Jihad and Al-Gama’at Al-Islamiyya targeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a three-day diplomatic trip to Rome. As a result, the Italian police stepped up their efforts—particularly, their focus on Shaaban’s Islamic Cultural Institute. On June 26, 1995, in a mission codenamed “Operation Sphinx,” Italian police arrested 11 suspected members of Al-Gama’at Al-Islamiyya (including 10 Egyptians and 1 Palestinian) and carried out formal searches of 72 addresses across northern Italy, including Milan. The detained terrorists were charged with criminal conspiracy, robbery, extortion, falsifying documents, and illegal possession of firearms.
One of those that Italian counterterrorism authorities were particularly seeking to
arrest, Shaykh Anwar Shaaban himself, was nowhere to be found. Evidently, having been tipped off to the intentions of the Italian government, Shaaban had escaped and found asylum at his mujahideen military stronghold in central Bosnia-Herzegovina. Shaaban’s Bosnian exodus marked a critical period of development for the Arab-Afghan mujahideen in southern Europe. Despite all the Arab-Afghan propaganda decrying the suffering of the Bosnian Muslims—just as in Afghanistan—their participation in the war was ultimately being channeled toward an alternate purpose. By 1995, central Bosnia was more than a mere mujahideen frontline. Instead, thanks to the work of Shaaban and others, it had become a strategic foothold for Usama Bin Laden and his fanatical North African allies to help infiltrate Western Europe.
With Bosnian war hostilities drawing to a close in September 1995, Anwar
Shaaban and his Italian-based Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya cohorts were free to turn their attention and resources to issues of “more critical” importance. In late September, one of the most important Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya leaders hiding in Europe—Abu Talal al-Qasimy (a.k.a. Talaat Fouad Qassem)—was captured by Croat HVO forces as he attempted to cross through Croatian territory into Bosnia-Herzegovina. Within days, the Croats quietly rendered al-Qasimy through U.S. custody into the hands of Egyptian authorities. At the time, a government official in Cairo noted, “[Al-Qasimy’s] arrest proves what we have always said, which is that these terror groups are operating on a worldwide scale, using places like Afghanistan and Bosnia to form their fighters who come back to the Middle East… European countries like Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, England and others, which give sanctuary to these terrorists, should now understand it
will come back to haunt them where they live.”
The first real Arab-Afghan response to Abu Talal al-Qasimy’s arrest came on
October 20, 1995, when a massive explosion shook the quiet Croatian port town of Rijeka. At 11:22am, a suicide bomber detonated 70 kilograms of TNT hidden in a FIAT Mirafiori parked outside the Primorje-Gorani county police headquarters. The mysterious suicide-bomber was killed, two bystanders were seriously wounded, and 27 other people received lighter injuries. The bomb was powerful enough to destroy the police headquarters and damage several nearby buildings, including a Zagreb Bank branch and a primary school.69 In the blast debris, Croatian police found fragments a Canadian passport belonging to the suicide bomber—who had previously been investigated by Italian counterterrorism officials for his connections to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan controlled by Anwar Shaaban. The CIA later confirmed that the bomber was “a member of Al-Gama’at [al-Islamiyya].”
A day later, Western news agencies in Cairo received an anonymous faxed
communiqué allegedly from Al-Gama’at representatives, claiming responsibility for the Rijeka bombing in order “to prove that the case of Sheik Talaat Fouad Qassem… will not pass but will bring cascades of blood bleeding from Croatian interests inside and outside… You Croats will be mistaken if you think that this matter will go peacefully.” In their statement, Al-Gama’at representatives firmly demanded that the Croatian government “release Sheikh Qassimi and apologise formally through the media… Close the gates of hell which you have opened upon yourselves ... otherwise you will be starting a war the end of which only Allah (God) knows.” U.S. intelligence indicated that Anwaar Shaaban was personally responsible for overseeing the suicide bombing operation in Rijeka. The terror attack was meant to be a mere prelude to a new strategy employed by the mujahideen. As the long Balkan war began winding down, Shaaban
“and other mujahedin leaders had begun planning to attack NATO forces which would be sent to Bosnia.” French investigators believed that the October terror attack confirmed that the military leadership of the El-Mudzahedin Unit in Bosnia-Herzegovina “was closely related to [Al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya], both ideologically and in practice.”
For several years afterwards, Croatian authorities sought other suspects believed
responsible for arranging the Rijeka bombing. Witnesses, including a police guard in the headquarters parking lot, described a suspicious Mercedes driven by an Arab man that sped away from the scene just before the blast. After looking at mugshots, those witnesses were able to positively identify a wanted 36-year old Egyptian militant loyal to Al-Gama’at Al-Islamiyya named Hassan al-Sharif Mahmud Saad. Saad, who had lived in Cologno Monzese (a surburb of Milan), was a prominent figure at the Islamic Cultural Institute. He even sat on the board of trustees of Anwar Shaaban’s own Italian charitable organisation “Il Paradiso.” In Italy, Saad was known to own a FIAT 131 Mirafiori with Bergamo plates, the very same vehicle later used in the Rijeka attack. As early as 1993,
he was traveling back and forth between Bosnia and Italy. But everyone at the ICI mosque was aware that something was different in June 1995, when Hassan Saad packed his family and belongings in the FIAT and left permanently for Bosnia-Herzegovina. His friends at the ICI said he had gone away to join the El-Mudzahedin Unit in Zenica led by Anwar Shaaban.
Immediately following the premature truck bomb explosion outside foreign
mujahideen headquarters in Zenica in December 1995, Shaaban finally met his own violent end in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During a suspicious clash with Croat HVO forces, Shaaban and four of his closest mujahideen advisors were ritually gunned down, seemingly harkening the end of a major era in for the Arab-Afghans in Europe. But the influential network Shaaban was responsible for establishing in Italy and Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to survive and prosper long after his death. The credit for this unexpected resurgence largely goes to top Algerian mujahideen commander Abu el-Ma’ali (a.k.a. Abdelkader Mokhtari) and his reputed lieutenant Fateh Kamel (a.k.a. “Mustapha the Terrorist”). Kamel, who had lived in Canada since 1988, was originally from Algeria and spent a good part of his life in a quarter of the capital Algiers. His slick, polished exterior boasted a professionalism that was matched only by his pure ruthlessness. First trained in Afghanistan in 1991, Kamel came to the attention of Italian authorities while encouraging attendees at Anwar Shaaban’s Islamic Cultural Institute in
Milan to join the mujahideen in Bosnia. By 1995, according to French intelligence, the El-Mudzahedin Unit in Bosnia was headed politically by Anwar Shaaban, seconded militarily by Abu el-Ma’ali, and in the third position was Fateh Kamel, in charge of the brigade’s “logistical matters” (a role that consisted mostly of coordinating the transfer of weapons, new recruits, and false documents to and from the Arab headquarters in Zenica). Investigators reviewing the phone records of lines serving the ICI between 1994 and 1995 found evidence of regular contacts between the triumvirate of Abu el-Ma’ali, Anwar Shaaban, and Fateh Kamel.
French intelligence determined that Kamel and his associates had “multiple links”
with “diverse Islamic terrorist organisations around the world, and particularly in Bosnia, in Pakistan, in Germany, and in London.” Between 1994 and 1997, Fateh Kamel moved constantly between (at least) Milan, Montreal, Paris, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Zagreb, Bosnia, Copenhagen, Austria, Slovenia, Freibourg (Germany), Morocco, Ancone (Italy), Istanbul, Belgium, and Amsterdam. Kamel was recorded on one occasion by Italian intelligence, discussing potential terror attacks and bragging to his henchmen, “I do not fear death… because the jihad is the jihad, and to kill is easy for me.” He hated the very society he lived in and cynically mocked Western attitudes towards Muslims: “And you know, the people [here] imagine a Muslim on the back of a camel, four wives behind him and the bombs that explode… terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.” In another communications intercept in 1996, just after the end of the Bosnian war, Kamel confided in his terrorist partners, “I prefer to die than go to jail. I almost lost my wife. I am 36 years old with a son four and a half months old. My wife is playing with him and me, I am here. I am almost a soldier.”
The evidence in Kamel’s addressbook alone seems to confirm his role as a key
liaison and coordinator between assorted European sleeper cell terrorist networks and senior Al-Qaida commanders based in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Among other numbers, Fateh Kamel had several contacts for Akacha Laidi (a.k.a. Abderrahmane Laidi, Abou Amina), a senior GIA member in the UK. One of the numbers with Akacha’s name actually reached Djamal Guesmia, a terrorist widely known to be working with both the GIA and its successor group, the Algerian Salafist Group for Prayer and Combat (GSPC). Fateh Kamel drew particularly close to loose network of units of North African immigrants and European converts to Islam who had come to aid the mujahideen during the early stages of the Bosnian war. For all intensive purposes, he became their
handler, giving assistance and issuing orders on behalf of Anwar Shaaban and Abu el-Ma’ali.
In 1996, following the sudden death of Shaaban in central Bosnia, Kamel
suddenly began activating “Bosniak” terror units implanted in Europe, instructing them to prepare for new jihad operations to take place inside France and Italy. Between August 6-10, 1996, Kamel stayed at the Milan apartment of two GIA supporters, including Rachid Fettar, who had close ties to the masterminds of the 1995 Paris metro bombing spree. Fettar was well-placed in the GIA leadership hierarchy, considered the “heir” to the European extremist network established by Safé Bourada, the deputy-in-command of the Algerian terror cell deemed responsible for the metro bombings. Thus, Kamel’s visit to Fettar and his companion Youcef Tanout came with a definite purpose: to direct a terror cell in the construction and deployment of more crude gas-canister bombs like those used during the Paris metro campaign.
Kamel respected Rachid Fettar as an equal and complained to him that Tanout
and the others were too reluctant to produce the explosives without elaborate and timeconsuming covert procedures. “I insisted as much as I could, but there was nothing I could do. In France, we can make [the bombs], even if their destination is France. You know very well that in France, I have no problems; I return and I leave when I want, clandestinely.” In a discussion with the more amateurish Youcef Tanout, Kamel coldly asked, “What are you afraid of? That everything will explode in your house? Tell me at least if Mahmoud has gotten the gas canister.” Tanout meekly related to Kamel how one of his fellow cell members had sought the shelter and anonymity of a nearby deep forest in order to fabricate the required bombs. He admitted to Kamel, “I feel no shame in
telling you that I am extremely afraid.” Evidently, Tanout’s hesitant concerns were well founded; on November 7, 1996, both himself and Fettar were arrested and their Milan apartment was searched by experienced Italian counterterrorism investigators. They discovered two 400-gram gas canisters, five remote-control transmitters, 38 metallic cylinders, and other bomb-making materials.
Though Fateh Kamel’s gas canister terror plot in Milan never reached fruition, it
provided ominous clues as to what was to develop across Western Europe in the
following decade. In many ways, the early Italian-based mujahideen sleeper cells under the lead of Kamel, Anwar Shaaban, and Abu el-Ma’ali were the direct prototype for contemporary European-based North African militant networks responsible for carrying out such operations as the March 2004 commuter train bombings in Madrid, Spain. Members of Fateh Kamel’s brotherhood of fighters continue to enter and leave the Balkans even today. When Kamel’s “right-hand-man” in Bosnia—Moroccan Karim Said Atmani—was released from a French prison cell in the spring of 2005, he immediately left on a flight to Sarajevo where he was greeted at the airport by a “known commander of the Bosnian mujahideen… tied to the international Islamic terrorist movement.” After substantial pressure was brought to bear on local law enforcement authorities in BiH, Atmani was finally deported from the region in early 2006 and sent back home to North Africa.
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