Syria/Bosnia, Part II: Islamic Fighters

My last post in this series ended with a note about how Bosnia currently serves as mostly a “transit or recuperation” zone for Islamic extremists (see relevant ICG Report). This label does not have to be confined to the country’s post-conflict experience, however; Islamic extremists played a similarly transitory (though very active) role during the early 1990s war—much, as a lot of the media tends to hype, as they are in Syria today.


When Serbia turned its attention to Bosnia in 1992 after having attacked (and been stalled by) Croatia in 1991, Bosnia was caught off guard with little-to-no institutional defense capabilities, making this newest hotbed of European violence ideal territory for the emergence of paramilitaries. At first, these paramilitaries were composed of organic, domestic fighters, Bosnian ex-policemen or ex-Yugoslav Army soldiers who suddenly found themselves having to defend their homeland (The Muslim-Croat Civil War in Central Bosnia: A Military History, 1992-1994, Charles R. Shrader, p. 203). Soon, as is often the case in civil wars of this magnitude, people with little-to-no fighting experience also took up arms (The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991-1995, Ivo Magaš and Branka Žanić, p. 162). But the most unique part of the tale of these unofficial brigades during the Bosnian war was the plethora of not-homegrown paramilitaries (read: foreign Muslim fighters) that came from far and wide to partake in the defense of Bosnian Muslims (Shrader, p. 46). Domestic Muslim paramilitaries and the small number of foreign Muslim armed supporters were not fully coordinated with or incorporated into the official Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina structure until 1992-1993, by which point Bosnia was mired in conflict (Shrader, p. 35-38).

For more details on these Islamic fighters who dubbed themselves “mujahideen,” check out the surprisingly helpful Wikipedia page on the topic.


The Al-Nusra Front by most accounts is a homegrown organization that has drawn plenty of attention to itself in the media due to its highly violent tactics and potential links to al-Qaeda. (NPR recently had a really interesting—and unique—interview with a member of Al-Nusra, found here.) Most relevant to this discussion, however, Al-Nusra fighters have flocked into Syria from across the Arab world—even as far as North Africa and the Balkans—and are affiliated with fellow Sunni forces in neighboring Arab countries such as Iraq. In fact, quite a few Iraqi officials have come forward about the role that Iraqi extremists have played in Syria: there seems to be active arms smuggling from Iraqi sympathizers and individual jihadists have crossed the border to take up arms against the Syrian government.

On the other side of the conflict are outside Shiite forces fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, claiming to be backed and supplied by Hezbollah and Iran, although the extent and nature of these forces are controversial.

Therefore, the Syria case is particularly different from the Bosnia case because the outside fighters are fighting on both sides: the sectarian conflict is not between Muslims and non-Muslims as it was in 1992-1995, but rather between Sunnis and Shiites (and the other Islamic sects that fall under these umbrellas, like the Salafis and Alawites, respectively).


Despite the fact that Syria’s foreign fighters are fighting on both sides of the conflict whereas Bosnia’s were clearly biased, a couple lessons can be extrapolated from these cases’ similarities:

  • For one, in both cases, so-called jihadists came to the rescue of specific, publicly threatened Islamic communities. In Bosnia, the threatened group were Bosnian Muslims. In Syria, there are two groups that could be perceived to be threatened: 1) the Sunni majority that began the uprising; and 2) the Shiite minority that reacted to the revolution in kind. Due to Islamic globalization, each of these groups had sympathizers who perceived a threat to their community at large, provided support, and perhaps saw other opportunities in becoming involved.
  • This pattern of Islamic sects to extend their jihad wherever necessary is fairly acknowledged in international security circles—and has been since 9/11. But what the Bosnian case shows us is that this habit showed up before 2001. In other words, Islamic intervention in the defense of other Muslims is not so easily chocked up to post-9/11 experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The collective call to jihad and defense of fellow Muslims may have been exacerbated by Western interventions in the first decade of the 2000s, but it was a notable pattern before Al-Qaeda gathered such worldwide notoriety. 
  • Beyond this, on a practical level, individually-inspired Muslim fighters were given ripe opportunity to take up residency and arms due to power vacuums and rampant lawlessness found in the territories in question. Arguably, these factors are much more controllable variables than sectarianism and ethnic strife, although in the context of civil war, lawlessness is as natural as the fog of war. 
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