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The Bosnian war of 1992-1995 seems to have been largely forgotten about nowadays, but it continues to have large consequences for U.S. foreign policy and the war on terror.
Many fighters were radicalized during the conflict and in recent years have turned up in many war zones in Europe and elsewhere. In addition, the war attracted many radical Islamists from outside Bosnia, who got their first real taste of armed conflict.
Thinking back to the way the Bosnian war was characterized in the 1990s, this may be surprising. The most common rubric used to understand the conflict, at least in the U.S., was that it was a resurgence of an "ancient ethnic conflict."
This phrase was always a bit misleading - the war also had roots in economic strife and the broader conflicts that accompanied the end of the Cold War - but contained a grain of truth.
Calling the Bosnian War an "ethnic" conflict was also misleading in another way. In the U.S., we are used to thinking of "ethnicity" as a concept somewhat analogous to "race."
In other contexts, however, this slippery term is used to mean radically different things. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, it normally designates the language that a person or group speaks. In Bosnia, and in the broader Balkan region, it is used to describe religion.
Once this is realized, the Bosnian War becomes easier to understand as one of the first modern instances of conflict involving radical Islam. Though the war was reported as a struggle between "Serbs," "Croats" and "Bosniaks," in reality it was between Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslims.
Radical Islam in the 1990s
A certain portion of the Bosnian people have been Muslim since the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s. Until that point, the people of the remote region followed various forms of Christianity, some more mainstream than others, and some that were outright heretical. The fact that under the Ottoman Empire, Muslims paid less tax led many to convert to Islam in the period between 1500 and 1800.
The indigenous form of Islam in Bosnia was never particularly radical or fundamentalist. The country was remote even until recent times and managed to largely escape the homogenizing influence of Istanbul. As a result, though nominally Muslim, many in the country drank alcohol and continued to celebrate pre-Islamic festivals.
When Bosnia became part of communist Yugoslavia in 1945, all forms of religion were officially subdued. The regime was less oppressive than those in the Eastern Bloc, however, and did not destroy religious buildings or outlaw the celebration of religious practices. Many have seen the light suppression of religion as a way of suppressing other tensions in the country, in fact, rather than as an aversion to religion in itself.
This all changed during the 1990s war. Although the conflict began as a national one, concerning Bosnia's right to declare independence from Yugoslavia, it quickly took on religious significance. Serbs - followers of the Eastern Orthodox church - living in Bosnia feared that a newly independent state would become an Islamic country.
For those who had declared independence, this was not the initial intention. However, as the conflict widened, and became more bloody, many Muslims came to feel that they were fighting as much for their faith as for their right to self-determination.
By 1994, with numerous incidents of ethnic cleansing and other hideous crimes being reported in the press, the war began to attract foreign fighters. These were Muslims who had fought in Afghanistan against the Russians and Saudi citizens eager to defend their faith against Christian extermination. They carried with them a much more fundamentalist, radical form of Islam than had been present in Bosnia until then.
The bitterness of the war was undoubtedly a factor in many young Bosnian men falling under the spell of these new ideologies. In a pattern that we see repeated today everywhere from Yemen to Iraq, the horror of war seems to create a fertile breeding-ground for radical ideologies.
After the War
At the close of hostilities in 1995, Bosnia was ruined. Though the majority of the population was exhausted by the war, in the following decades Bosnian soldiers would turn up in almost every major conflict in Europe and Central Asia, from Chechnya to Ukraine.
Several factors drove this process. The Bosnian war had created a generation of young men who had received extensive military training and had already built up combat experience. Many of this generation did not give up their weapons at the close of hostilities, and so the country contained a huge store of weaponry - everything from pistols right up to anti-aircraft missiles.
More pragmatically, economic opportunities in Bosnia itself were woeful. Even today, the country is one of the poorest in Europe, and the youth unemployment rate is 40%. Given these factors, it is not surprising than many young men who had fought in the 1990s war sought lucrative employment as mercenaries.
For some, however, the motivation was different. They had been radicalized during the 1990s, and as each new war sprang up between 1995 and today - in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Georgia - it was not hard for them to see a pattern. Each war was being fought against Muslims by a vastly larger, Christian country. It's not surprising that some saw themselves as fighting the Crusaders.
The Problem Today
Young people in Bosnia continue to be radicalized today. The reasons for this are partly domestic, and partly international, but neither shows any sign of decreasing anytime soon.
Radicalization in Bosnia today follows a pretty clear pattern. The country remains largely agricultural, and the mountains that make up most of the landscape mean it contains thousands of isolated villages. The ongoing economic problems in the country lead to young people in these villages feeing increasingly disillusioned with the ideology of the country at large, and this makes them prime targets for those wishing to radicalize them.
In many cases, it is the arrival of an outside "scholar" that starts the process of radicalization. The war of the 1990s not only radicalized many people, it also forced many to become refugees. While the majority went to Canada, Norway and Sweden, some moved to the Gulf States or the Middle East. There, some wholly adopted forms of radical Islam such as Wahhabism and are now returning to their home country to "spread the message."
The way this is done is analogous to the process of radicalization in the rest of Europe, such as in the UK or France. It is not hard for recruiters to point out that many of the wars of the past two decades were fought against Muslims by large foreign powers and to "explain" this is because they are trying to eradicate Islam.
Young men, especially, are then drawn into "defending" their faith against these powers.
In Bosnia today, that includes both the embassies of foreign powers and the state itself, which is nominally secular. Given this ongoing process of radicalization, it is not surprising that recent years have seen a sharp increase in incidents of religiously-motivated terrorism, or that the Bosnian government is increasingly worried about such movements starting a full-scale revolution.
What This Means for the U.S.
Radicalized Muslims from Bosnia continue to fight as mercenaries in wars throughout the world. Bosnia is a small country, so the actual numbers of these radical Islamists are quite small. For this reason, I would never advocate planning U.S. foreign policy specifically around them.
Instead, what the story of Bosnia should teach us is a more abstract process of historical re-appraisal, in order to better understand the ways in which our foreign policy comes back to haunt us.
Bosnia is particularly instructive in this regard because of the following paradox: During the Bosnian war, the U.S. and NATO were on the side of Muslims. In supporting Bosnia's right to independence, NATO bombers provided military assistance to radical Islamists, among others.
The situation is analogous to that of Afghanistan, where the U.S. was happy to support radicalized Muslims in the fight against the USSR, only to find that after the war this assistance, albeit coupled with an ideology that had been useful at the time, came to cause huge problems.
My plea, here, is two-fold. The first realization that those planning U.S. foreign policy need to make is this: supporting radical Islamists only leads to this ideologies growing, and ultimately causes more problems than the short-term battlefield advantage justifies.
The second is that the Bosnian War needs to be remembered and re-appraised in order to broaden our historical perspective on radical Islam. By digging down into the actual causes of the war, and by recognizing the radicalization that accompanied it, we might come to realize that we have been fighting radical Islam for longer than we previously thought.