Foreign fighters in the Bosnian War

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The Bosnian War, which was fought between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, attracted large numbers of foreign fighters and mercenaries from various countries. Volunteers came to fight for a variety of reasons including religious or ethnic loyalties and in some cases for money. As a general rule, Bosniaks received support from Islamic countries, Serbs from Eastern Orthodox countries, and Croats from Catholic countries. The presence of foreign fighters is well documented, however none of these groups comprised more than 5 percent of any of the respective armies' total manpower strength.

Bosnian side[edit]

Bosnian mujahideen[edit]

Main article: Bosnian mujahideen

Sunni involvement[edit]

Arab volunteers came across Croatia into Bosnia to help the Bosnian Army fight in the war. The number of the El-Mudžahid volunteers is still disputed, from around 300[1] to 6,000.[2]

These caused particular controversy: foreign fighters, styling themselves mujahideen, turned up in Bosnia around 1993 with Croatian identity documents, passports and IDs. They quickly attracted heavy criticism[who?], who considered their presence to be evidence of violent Islamic fundamentalism at the heart of Europe. However, the foreign volunteers became unpopular even with many of the Bosniak population, because the Bosnian army had thousands of troops and had no need for more soldiers, but for arms. Many Bosnian Army officers and intellectuals were suspicious regarding foreign volunteers arrival in central part of the country, because they came from Split and Zagreb in Croatia, and were passed through the self-proclaimed Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia without problems unlike Bosnian Army soldiers who were regularly arrested by Croat forces. According to general Stjepan Šiber, the highest ranking ethnic Croat in Bosnian Army, the key role in foreign volunteers arrival was played by Franjo Tuđman and Croatian counter-intelligence underground with the aim to justify involvement of Croatia in Bosnian War and mass crimes committed by Croat forces. Although Izetbegović regarded them as symbolically valuable as a sign of the Muslim world's support for Bosnia, they appear to have made little military difference and became a major political liability.[citation needed]

On August 13, 1993, the Bosnian Army decided to form a unit, Kateebat al-Mujahideen ("Battalion of the Holy Warriors") or El Mudžahid to impose control over the foreign fighters whose number increased. Initially, the foreign Mujahideen gave food and other basic necessities to the local Muslim population, deprived of many necessities by the Serb forces. Once hostilities broke out between the Bosnian government (ABiH) and the Croat forces (HVO), the Mujahideen also participated in battles against the HVO alongside Bosnian Army units.[3]

According to the Arab fighters who testified as the prosecution witnesses at the trial of Bosnian general Rasim Delić indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on the basis of superior criminal responsibility, the El Mujahid Detachment was only formally part of the Bosnian Army chain of command. All decisions were taken by the emir and the shura, the Mujahideen commander and the Mujahideen supreme council respectively. This was because the ‘Army couldn’t be trusted’.[4]

It is alleged that mujahideen participated in some incidents considered to be war crimes according to the international law. However no indictment was issued by the ICTY against them, but a few Bosnian Army officers were indicted on the basis of superior criminal responsibility. Amir Kubura and Enver Hadžihasanović were found not guilty on all counts related to the incidents involving mujahideen. Furthermore, the Appeals Chamber noted that the relationship between the 3rd Corps of the Bosnian Army headed by Hadžihasanović and the El Mujahedin detachment was not one of subordination but was instead close to overt hostility since the only way to control the detachment was to attack them as if they were a distinct enemy force.[5]

During and after the war, the government at the time, led by Alija Izetbegović, was thought to have bent the law when granting citizenship to the mujahideen.[6] As of 2007, the Bosnian government says that a commission reviewed a list of more than 1,000 names and has revoked citizenship for about 420 people so far.[7]

The mujahideen units were disbanded and required to leave the Balkans under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accord. Although the US State Department report suggested that the number could be higher, a senior SFOR official said allied military intelligence estimated that no more than 200 foreign-born militants actually live in Bosnia.[2][8]

Shia involvement[edit]

Aside from the Sunni and Wahabi mujahideen, Shia Iran was one of the very first Muslim countries to provide support for besieged Bosniaks (predominantly Sunni Muslim, that ascribe to the Hanafi school of thought). Iran supplied two-thirds of the total received in weapons and ammunition by the Bosnian Muslim forces during the 1992-95 war. From May, 1994 to January, 1996, Iran transported over 5,000 tons of weapons and military equipment to Bosnia.[9] Iran not only sent much needed supplies but also fighters. Lebanese Shia Hezbollah had also its fighters in the Bosnian war.[10] Robert Baer, a CIA agent stationed in Sarajevo during the war, later claimed that “In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Muslim government is a client of the Iranians . . . If it’s a choice between the CIA and the Iranians, they’ll take the Iranians any day.” By war’s end, public opinion polls showed some eighty-six percent of the Bosnian Muslim population expressed a positive attitude toward Iran.[11] All Shia foreign advisors and fighters withdrew from Bosnia at the end of conflict.

According to some US NGO reports, there were also several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guards assisting the Bosnian government during the war.[12] Other foreign Muslim fighters also joined the ranks of the Bosnian Muslims, including from the Lebanese guerrilla organization Hezbollah.[10] These were however reserved for duties requiring close combat engagements, simply because their skill and experience was too valuable to be wasted in other less complicated duties.[citation needed]


According to the ICTY verdicts, Serb propaganda constantly propagated false information about the foreign fighters to inflame anti-Muslim hatred among Serbs. After the takeover of Prijedor by Serb forces in 1992, Radio Prijedor propagated Serb nationalistic ideas characterizing prominent non-Serbs as criminals and extremists who should be punished for their behavior. One example of such propaganda was the derogatory language used for referring to non-Serbs such as mujaheddin, Ustaša or Green Berets. According to ICTY conclusion in Stakić verdict Mile Mutić, the director of Kozarski Vjesnik and the journalist Rade Mutić regularly attended meetings of Serb politicians (local authorities) to be informed of the next propaganda steps.[13][14]

Another example of propaganda about Islamic holy warriors is presented in the ICTY Kordić and Čerkez verdict for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia leadership on Bosniak civilians. It claimed that Gornji Vakuf was attacked by the Croatian Army (HV) and the Croatian Defense Forces (HVO) in January 1993 followed by heavy shelling of the town by Croat artillery. During cease-fire negotiations at the Britbat HQ in Gornji Vakuf, colonel Andrić, representing the HVO, demanded that the Bosnian forces lay down their arms and accept HVO control of the town, threatening that if they did not agree he would flatten Gornji Vakuf to the ground.[15] [16] The HVO demands were not accepted by the Bosnian Army and the attack continued, followed by massacres on Bosnian Muslim civilians in the neighboring villages of Bistrica, Uzričje, Duša, Ždrimci and Hrasnica.[17][18] The shelling campaign and attacks during the war resulted in hundreds of injured and killed, mostly Bosnian Muslim civilians. Though Croats often cited it as a major reason for the attack on Gornji Vakuf to justify the massacres of civilians, the commander of the British Britbat company claimed there were no Muslim holy warriors in Gornji Vakuf.[15][clarification needed]

Croat side[edit]

The Croats received support from Croatia and the Croatian Army fought with the local Croatian Defense Council (HVO) forces. Some external fighters included British volunteers as well as other numerous individuals from the cultural area of Catholics and fought as volunteers. Spanish, Irish, Polish, French, Swedish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Canadian and Finnish volunteers were organized into the Croatian 103rd (International) Infantry Brigade. There was also a special Italian unit, the Garibaldi battalion.[19] and one for the French, the "groupe Jacques Doriot".[19] Numerous Albanians also fought for the Croatian side, notably including Agim Çeku and Rahim Ademi.

Swedish Jackie Arklöv fought in Bosnia and was later charged with war crimes upon his return to Sweden. Later he confessed he committed war crimes on Bosniak civilians in the Croatian camps Heliodrom and Dretelj as a member of Croat forces.[20]

Serb side[edit]

The Serbs received support from Orthodox Christian countries, from countries including the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Greece, Russia, and Romania.[citation needed]

Primary Russian forces consisted of two organized units known as "РДО-1" and "РДО-2" (РДО stands for "Русский Добровольческий Отряд", which means "Russian Volunteer Unit"), commanded by Yuriy Belyayev and Alexander Zagrebov, respectively.[citation needed] РДО-2 was also known as "Tsarist Wolves", because of the monarchic views of its fighters. There also was unit of Russian cossacks, known as "Первая Казачья Сотня" (First Cossack Sotnia). All these units were operating mainly in Eastern Bosnia along with Rebuplika Srpska forces from 1992 up to 1995.

In May 1995, Serb Herzegovina Corps intended to organize an international brigade in eastern Bosnia which gathered between 150 and 600[21] Greek and Russian mercenaries fighting for 200 German marks monthly.[22]

Greek volunteers were also reported to have taken part in the Srebrenica Massacre, with the Greek flag being hoisted in Srebrenica when the town fell to the Serbs.[23] The Greeks were organized in March as the Greek Volunteer Guard (GVG) and had around 100 soldiers.[22]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ SENSE Tribunal:ICTY - WE FOUGHT WITH THE BH ARMY, BUT NOT UNDER ITS COMMAND "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-12-14. Retrieved 2007-11-26. [not in citation given]
  2. ^ a b Pyes, Craig; Meyer, Josh (7 October 2001). "Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2008-10-25. Retrieved 17 February 2010. Hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists who became Bosnian citizens after battling Serbian and Croatian forces present a potential terrorist threat to Europe and the United States, according to a classified U.S. State Department report and interviews with international military and intelligence sources. 
  3. ^ ICTY, Summary of the Judgmenet for Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kubura, 15 March 2006
  4. ^ ICTY: Mujahideen didn’t trust the Army -
  5. ^ ICTY - APPEALS CHAMBER - Hadzihasanović and Kubura case
  6. ^ "Bosnia fighters face uncertain fate". BBC. 10 May 2007. Archived from the original on 2012-11-13. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  7. ^ Wood, Nicholas (2 August 2007). "Bosnia Plans to Expel Arabs Who Fought in Its War". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2014-03-20. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  8. ^ Kroeger, Alex (18 July 2000). "Mujahideen fight Bosnia evictions". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2007-05-14. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  9. ^ Iranian Arms and Bosnia
  10. ^ a b Fisk, Robert (7 September 2014). "After the atrocities committed against Muslims in Bosnia, it is no wonder today's jihadis have set out on the path to war in Syria". The Independent. Retrieved 25 March 2016. 
  11. ^ Iran in the Balkans: A History and a Forecast
  12. ^ United States Institute of Peace, Dayton Implementation: The Train and Equip Program, September 1997 | Special Report No. 25
  13. ^ "ICTY: Milomir Stakić judgement - The media". 
  14. ^ "ICTY: Duško Tadić judgement - Greater Serbia". 
  15. ^ a b "ICTY: Kordić and Čerkez verdict" (PDF). 
  16. ^ "SENSE Tribunal: Poziv na predaju". Archived from the original on 2008-06-04. 
  17. ^ "SENSE Tribunal: Ko je počeo rat u Gornjem Vakufu". Archived from the original on 2008-06-04. 
  18. ^ "SENSE Tribunal: "James Dean" u Gornjem Vakufu". Archived from the original on 2008-06-04. 
  19. ^ a b "Srebrenica - a 'safe' area". Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. 10 April 2002. Retrieved 17 February 2010.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "niod" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  20. ^ Karli, Sina (11 November 2006). "Šveđanin priznao krivnju za ratne zločine u BiH" [Swede confesses to war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina] (in Croatian). Nacional (weekly). Archived from the original on 30 June 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  21. ^ Granić, Mate (30 June 1995). "Letter dated 30 June 1995 from the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia addressed to the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the question of the use of mercenaries". UN. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  22. ^ a b Koknar, Ali M. (14 July 2003). "The Kontraktniki : Russian mercenaries at war in the Balkans". Bosnian Institute. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  23. ^ Smith, Helena (5 January 2003). "Greece faces shame of role in Serb massacre". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 February 2010.