‘You are only allowed to see Bosnia in black and white’ – Brendan O’Neill, January 2004

23 January 2004 

‘You are only allowed to see Bosnia in black and white’


by Brendan O’Neill 


‘Some people seem pissed off that I did not take sides over the war in Bosnia. I suppose I was more interested in reporting all of the facts.’


Professor Cees Wiebes, a senior lecturer in the Department ofInternational Relations at Amsterdam University, caused a storm with his book Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995. As part of the official Dutch inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 – when Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serbs in a United Nations-designated safe haven towards the end of the Bosnian war – he was charged with analysing the role of Western intelligence and security services in Bosnia, including secret arms supplies and ‘other covert actions’.


Wiebes, in the words of one report, ‘stalked the corridors of secret service headquarters in Western capitals’ for five years, asking awkward questions and gathering info. The end product is a dense, 500-page book, first published in April 2002 and reissued this month, described by one British professor as ‘one of the most sensational reports on Western intelligence ever published’ (1).


Wiebes had unrestricted access to Dutch intelligence files; he interviewed high-level Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs who were involved in the war; he studied intelligence documents from, among others, the Canadian Department of National Defence, the army headquarters of the Bosnian Federation, the US National Archives and the George Bush Library; and he interviewed some of the leading Western officials involved in the war, including then president Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former British Labour foreign secretary Lord Owen, who played a negotiating role in Bosnia. After five years of investigation, Wiebes paints a thorough picture of the role played by Western intelligence services, including which states helped to arm which faction, why, and what the consequences were.

 One of the most sensational sections of the book – and the bit which grabbed the headlines (‘temporarily’ says Wiebes) when it first came out in 2002 – details the role of the Clinton administration in giving the ‘green light’ to Iran to arm the Bosnian Muslims. Wiebes catalogues how, from 1992 to January 1996, there was an influx of Iranian weapons and advisers into Bosnia. He describes how Iran, and other Muslim states, helped to bring Mujihadeen fighters into Bosnia to fight with the Muslims against the Serbs, ‘holy warriors’ from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Yemen and Algeria, some of whom had suspected links with Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan. And all of this took place under the watchful eye of a Clintonian policy of ‘no instruction’ – that is, that US officials should do nothing to prevent such movements into Bosnia; that, in fact, they should covertly give them the ‘green light’.


Yet this is also the bit of the book that seems to have won Wiebes few friends. He says that some of his findings and conclusions, especially on the arming of the Bosnian Muslims, have been ignored. ‘If you do not have a black and white picture of the Bosnian war, then something is apparently wrong with you’, he says. ‘I found there was much sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims, especially among journalists; and sometimes I think there is an inclination to silence things that do not fit withtheir view of the war.’

 Wiebes was surprised when his book didn’t receive that much press attention in Britain and the USA. He insists this isn’t a case of sourgrapes, as the ‘reviews I am getting in scholarly journals are very good’ – but in a world obsessed with ‘bin Laden and the Mujihadeen and where they came from’, he thought his findings about America’s role in allowing the Mujihadeen into Bosnia during the 1990s would make a splash. He has a point.

 The USA threw itself into the Bosnian war after the inauguration of President Clinton in January 1993. During his election campaign in 1992, Clinton made the lifting of the UN arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims a central policy platform. UN Resolution 713, adopted on 25 September 1991, ruled that all member states must suspend ‘the delivery of all weapons and military equipment to Yugoslavia’ (2). In spring 1993, Clinton’s national security adviser Anthony Lake outlined the USA’s preferred policy on Bosnia: the ‘lifting [of] the arms embargo with arms going to Bosnian Croats and Muslims and air power to stop Serbian interference with these shipments.’ (3)

 The Yugoslav tragedy is often understood to have been caused by too little Western intervention, offered too late in the conflict. In fact, Western intervention in the Balkans exacerbated tensions and helped to sustain hostilities. By recognising the claims of separatist republics and groups in 1990/1991, Western elites – the American, British, French and German – undermined government structures in Yugoslavia, increased insecurities, inflamed conflict and heightened ethnic tensions. And by offering logistical support to various sides during the war, Western intervention sustained the conflict into the mid-1990s. Clinton’s choice of the Bosnian Muslims as a cause to champion on the international stage, and his administration’s demands that the UN arms embargo be lifted so that the Muslims and Croats could be armed against the Serbs, should be viewed in this light.

 Wiebes documents how in 1992 and 1993, Iran had started secretly arming the Bosnian Muslims. On 4 September 1992, the CIA discovered an Iran Air Boeing 747 at Zagreb airport in Croatia; it contained weapons, ammunition, anti-tank rockets, communication equipment, uniforms and helmets destined for the Army of Bosnia Herzegovina (ABiH). In October 1992, then Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic (now deceased) visited Tehran and ‘entered into an agreement according to which Iran would again attempt to supply necessary goods via Zagreb’. On 1 November 1992, an Iranian Boeing 747 arrived in Zagreb with 60 tons of ‘humanitarian goods’ (suspected to be a massive consignment of weapons). In a three to five-month period in late 1993, around 30,000 ABiH soldiers were armed and equipped by Iran and also Turkey (4). The Croats also benefited fromthe Iranian weapons-smuggling, often creaming off around 30 to 50 per cent of the imports as payment for the use of Zagreb territory.


During this first stage of Iran’s arming of the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, the Americans were aware of what was happening but adopted a ‘blind eye’ policy. Wiebes’ book quotes then Croatian minister of defence, the late Gojko Susak, who said that in 1992 and 1993 ‘the Americans never protested. When they asked, we would say that our original weapons were simply hatching babies’ (5). The imports from Iran via Croatia ceased towards the end of 1993, when there was heightened conflict between Bosnian Muslims and Croats. But with the suspension of hostilities on 23 February 1994, and the American-backed formation of the federation of Croatia and Bosnia on 13 March 1994, the Iranian supplies could be kickstarted again – and during this second round of weapons-smuggling, the Americans were much more ‘actively’ supportive.

 Wiebes records that on 27 April 1994, Croatian officials visited then US ambassador to Zagreb Peter Galbraith, to ask him how the Clinton administration would respond to the reopening of the Iranian weapons pipeline. Galbraith passed the issue on to US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott and national security adviser Anthony Lake, who weighed up the advantages of arming the Bosnian Muslims against allowing Iran greater influence in the Balkans; they told Galbraith that he had no instructions, a ‘deft way of saying that the United States would not actively object’ (6). As Wiebes documents in his book, Talbott and Lake then discussed the issue with President Clinton on board Air Force One on 27 April 1994 – and ‘it was then decided to give a green light to the arms supplies from Iran to Croatia’ (7).

 This was a period when the Clinton administration was publicly hostile to Iran. Indeed, Clinton officials often criticised Iran for ‘sponsoring radical political groups and terrorists around the world’, and for arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank (8). Yet at the same time the Clinton administration effectively granted permission to Iran to ship arms to the Bosnian Muslims; as Wiebes points out, by early 1995 ‘Iranian cargo landed in Zagreb three times a week’ (9). Wiebes tells me that America’s green-lighting of arms deliveries from Iran could have pushed President Izetbegovic and his party further towards Islamic fundamentalism. ‘What I discovered is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia were very willing to deliver weapons and to lure Izetbegovic  away from Iran, but the orientation of the Bosnian government was far more towards Iran.’

 This US-backed pipeline between Iran and the Bosnian Muslims – the way in which Muslim states were allowed to strengthen their influence over Bosnia often at the expense of Turkish influence – also opened the gates to the arrival of Mujihadeen forces. According to US Lieutenant Colonel John Sray, an intelligence officer in Sarajevo from April to August 1994, ‘Approximately 4,000 Mujihadeen, supported by Iranian special operations forces, have been continually intensifying their activities in central Bosnian for more than two years’ (10). In his book, however, Wiebes says that the numbers remain uncertain: ‘There are no reliable figures on the number of mercenaries or volunteers in Bosnian, Srpska and Croatia.’ (11) Where Sray estimated that there were 4,000 Mujihadeen, the UN put the number at about 600 and the USA later claimed, after 1995, that there were about 1,200 to 1,400.

‘I discovered that the role of the Mujihadeen in Bosnia probably wasn’t that big’, Wiebes tells me. ‘But the fact that they could set up training camps there, possibly for hundreds of volunteers, I thought that was quite amazing.’ Wiebes says the Mujihadeen came from Yemen, Algeria, Chechnya, the Middle East and of course Afghanistan. This is where the Reagan administration first helped to found and fund the Mujihadeen, including Osama bin Laden’s Office of Services set up to recruit volunteers from overseas, to fight against the Soviet invasion.

Between 1985 and 1992, US officials estimate that 12,500 foreign fighters were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and guerrilla warfare tactics in Afghan camps that the CIA helped to set up (12). Some of the Mujihadeen then took these skills to Bosnia.

 Wiebes says that the Mujihadeen played a small but important role in the Bosnian war. ‘They were mainly concentrated around Zenica in central Bosnia. They weren’t much liked by the local population, who found them arrogant and extreme in their views. They were usually kept away from the front. But they were seen as good fighters; they were used as shock troops, for surprise attacks and so on.’ Wiebes says that ‘everyone was aware’ that the Mujihadeen were in Bosnia; after all, ‘they killed a British soldier early on, so Britain and others were certainly aware of their arrival’. Yet it was not until the signing of the US-backed Dayton Accord in late 1995 that US forces sought to remove the Mujihadeen from Bosnia.

 ‘As soon as the war was over, the first assignment of the various CIA station chiefs in the region was to get them out’, says Wiebes. ‘This was also the task of MI6 in the region. Great pressure was put on Izetbegovic’s government to force the Mujihadeen out of Bosnia, which he started to do very reluctantly. I also discovered that some nasty things were done to the Mujihadeen when it was decided they had to go. There were SAS raids on training camps where many Mujihadeen were killed; some were forced to leave across the Croatian border where they were then shot by Croatian guards; there were also car accidents and hit-and-run incidents, covert operations to get rid of some Mujihadeen.’

 Despite these attempts to get the Mujihadeen out of Bosnia, throughout the late 1990s the Clinton administration discovered that it is one thing to give the green light to the movement of Islamic groups across territories, but quite another to rein them back in again. In 2000, the State Department raised concerns about the ‘hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists’ who became Bosnian citizens after fighting against the Serbs, and who pose a potential terror threat to Europe and the United States. US officials claimed that one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants had sent operatives to Bosnia, and that during the 1990s Bosnia had served as a ‘staging area and safe haven’ for al-Qa’eda and others.

 Indeed, in the run-up to Clinton’s and Blair’s Kosovo war of 1999, the USA backed the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbia – and according to a report in the Jerusalem Post in 1998, KLA members, like the Bosnian Muslims before them, had been ‘provided with financial and military support from Islamic countries’, and had been ‘bolstered by hundreds of Iranian fighters or Mujihadeen …[some of whom] were trained in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan’ (13).

 As Wiebes says, the Mujihadeens’ venture into Bosnia is a fascinating story – but it remains little reported. After 9/11, many journalists in the West explained in detail how the Mujihadeen had its origins in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, in America’s last stand against the Soviet Union. Yet few have explored America’s role in the Mujihadeens’ second outing in the early to mid-1990s – when Mujihadeen were transported from the ghettos of Afghanistan and the Middle East into Europe, from an outdated battleground of the Cold War to the major world conflict of the day. This is a process that must surely have impacted on the globalisation of Mujihadeen forces, on their development from an Afghan-based guerrilla army in the late 1980s to the roving, borderless terrorists that some of them have become today.

 Wiebes has noted an unwillingness on the part of journalists to delve into the role of Iran and the Mujihadeen in Bosnia. ‘Some journalists spotted these developments, but what I found quite strange is that some of them didn’t want to report it. One Dutch journalist discovered the arms shipments in Zagreb airport but chose not to report it because he felt very warmly towards the Bosnian Muslims. There is a certain bias.’

 What Wiebes has encountered is the moral correctness that still surrounds discussions of the Bosnian war. For many Western liberal journalists, Bosnia became much more than a conflict to be reported – it became a mission, a campaign, a battle between Good (the Bosnian Muslims) and Evil (the Serbs). Many journalists played a central role in calling for the arming of the Bosnian Muslims and for Western intervention on the side of the Muslims against the Serbs; indeed, Wiebes notes in his book that the pressure from the media, and Republicans, in the early 1990s to lift the arms embargo against theBosnian Muslims ‘should certainly not be underestimated’ in influencing the Clinton administration’s policy (14). 

 In such a climate, Western intervention in aid of the Bosnian Muslims has come to be seen as an unquestionably positive thing, beyond interrogation and debate – except that there was apparently too little of it, offered too late in the day. That the arming of the Muslims allowed Iran a greater influence over the Balkans is often overlooked; that it appears to have given rise to a Bosnian state that is far from liberal is downplayed; and that it allowed the Mujihadeen a mission and a focus during the 1990s remains underreported. The Bosnian war, it seems, has been looked at in black and white for too long.


Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995 by Cees Wiebes can be bought at the Lit Verlag website [ http://www.lit-verlag.de/isbn/3-8258-6347-6 ].


(1) America used Islamists to arm the Bosnian Muslims, Richard J Aldrich, Guardian, 22 April 2002

(2) UN Security Council Resolution 713, 25 September 1991

(3) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p161

(4) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p159-162

(5) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p166

(6) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p167

(7) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p167

(8) See The Clinton administration’s ‘wink and nod’ to allow Iran into Bosnia, House Republican Policy Committee, 26 April 1996

(9) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p176

(10) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p207

(11) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p207

(12) See Cross-border terrorism: a mess made by the West, by Brendan O’Neill

(13) See Cross-border terrorism: a mess made by the West, by Brendan O’Neill

(14) Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003, p161


Brendan O’Neill is a British columnist. He is the editor of Spiked and has been a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue. He also blogs for the Daily Telegraph and has written for a variety of publications in both Europe and America.