Balkan Strategic Studies

June 15, 2003

Terrorism in the Balkans and the Wider Ramifications for the Global "War on Terror"

By Gregory R. Copley,1 Editor, GIS. The Iranian clerical leadership is now embattled, and is fighting for survival. It has unleashed all of the resources at its disposal — its manpower and a reported $250-million budget — to preserve a position in Iraq and to neutralize an attack from the US.2 Iran is now, effectively, surrounded by hostile states. The US, its stated enemy and "Great Satan", is physically at its gates. At the same time, much of the Iranian population is ready to remove the religious domination of the country and return to modernism, prosperity and Persian values.

So it is now inconceivable at this time of internal and external threat that the Iranian clerics would not use the great strategic asset which it spent more than a decade building in the Balkans: that is, its terrorist and political warfare infrastructure.

The substantial Iranian-dominated terrorist infrastructure in the Balkans now represents a critical weapon in the hands of the embattled Iranian clerical leadership. It is one major offensive asset which these Islamist Iranian clerics, and their allies in the broader Islamist terror community, have which is not constrained by the geography of the Middle East, and which basically allows it to enter the heart of their enemies in the West.

Iranian political leadership, coupled with funding from a wide range of Muslim communities around the world, many of them unwitting financiers of terrorism, has made the Balkans an area of great strategic importance to Europe and the United States, in the "war on terror". In other words, terrorism emanating from the Balkans is the symptom. Iran is the cause and problem.

For the US and the West, a key nexus of the war on terror once again becomes the Balkans, because this is Iran’s springboard. But to ultimately end the principal sponsorship of international Islamist terrorism — both from the point of view of the West and for the Balkan states themselves — Iran itself becomes the principal political battleground.

What is clear is that analysts and the media in the West did not, and still do not, understand the linkage between the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia in the 1990s and the broader terrorist wars which have been waged against the West. The reality is that the war waged throughout the 1990s by Iran and its allies for control of territory and infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo was a critical part of Iran’s and Osama bin Laden’s war against the West, and the US in particular.

The first stage of the Iranian strategic thrust in this regard, beginning in the 1990s, was to win control of territories and structures of government within the West. This was to be the base for terrorist and political operations to gain leverage against the West. No other opportunity had arisen of comparable scope to the collapse of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Until that time, Iran’s clerics had attempted since 1979 to find a foothold in the wider world. They had attempted to recruit and motivate bases of support in the US and Europe by proselytizing Muslims, and creating converts to Islamist, radical forms of Shi’ism. As well, they allied themselves with other pan-Islamists, such as Dr Hassan al-Turabi, of Sudan, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and his brother, from Egypt; and, of course, Osama bin Laden, and others in Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The people of Republika Srpska — and Bosnia-Herzegovina and much of the former Yugoslavia in general — no less than the people of Israel or New York understand first-hand the destructive impact of terrorism. Terrorism has historically been a tactical weapon used to induce fear and paralysis to shape political arguments. By creating fear through terrorist attacks, paranoia is induced in societies; they turn inward and feel victimized. One of the significant aspects of terrorism is that targeted communities rarely feel empathy with other targeted communities. Thus, the US never understood Russia’s plight in Chechnya, nor the plight of the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Croatia.

Each targeted community feels singled out, and rarely reaches out to others experiencing the same challenge. As a result, the Islamist terrorism which has struck at India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel, Russia, Afghanistan, the US, Indonesia, Singapore, Uzbekistan, Georgia, the Philippines, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and so on, has tended in many ways to isolate the states from each other, rather than to create bonds. There is, somehow, a sense that being targeted by terrorism is a contagious disease.

This is part of the irrational psychological response which, on a strategic scale, directly affects how governments fight terrorism, or allow it to spread.

We have seen in the events of September 11, 2001, and in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, that terrorism, when conducted as part of an overarching and well-conceived psychological strategy, can be used as a "national-level" weapon. It is a mistake to think of terrorism as only a tactical weapon, merely because its physical effects are localized. It is a strategic psychological warfare tool which distorts national-level decisionmaking. This makes the professional study of terrorism and counter-terrorism now of great importance. In the case of the Balkans, the very future of the countries of the region are at stake.

Those countries which can understand, confront and defeat terrorism using sound counter-terrorism planning and operations are those which will be perceived internationally as stable, and therefore as good trading and investment risks. Those which seem unable to contain the violence will be bypassed by investors, tourists and traders, and their situation will progressively worsen until governments collapse or draconian measures are taken to stem the terrorists. Draconian measures themselves then generate a further spiral of political distortion, increasing the isolation of the society from the prosperous global mainstream.

The sooner, therefore, that the nature and the international context of terrorism is understood in the former member states of the old Yugoslavia, the sooner the problem can be made comprehensible to the international community and its help given to eliminate the threat. That is when real economic and political progress will begin in the Balkans. What makes the matter of overriding concern at this time is the fact that the international political and investment communities are deciding now where they will base themselves in South-Eastern Europe for the coming period of the "new Europe".

Authorities in the US and other Western governments need to work very closely with governments in the Balkans to understand terrorism today in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, Serbia and Montenegro. This is the critical nexus, or hub, of much of the international terrorism being aimed at the West. What the Iranian clerical Government and other trans-national Islamists do in Bosnia, or Kosovo, for example, is of vital importance to the global "war on terror". Equally, it is critical for Balkan governments to be able to play a rôle in counter-terrorism with the major powers so that the underlying sponsors of such terrorism can be dealt with at their source. This not only includes the Iranian clerics — who are also suppressing their own people — but also the bin Laden network, the Syrian Government and the Administration of Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi.

Significantly, the Syrians, Libyans, Iranians and trans-national Islamists like bin Laden (who is nominally a Wahabbi) and Dr Hassan al-Turabi (who has evolved a new, Sudanese-based form of Islamism), all differ in their motivations and objectives. But even the secularists like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi have their reasons to cooperate with Islamists with whom they have fundamental philosophical differences. Together, they have created a messy, but mutually supportive, house of cards of terrorism. Today, we see former Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, from his hiding place somewhere in Iraq, using the communications network of Osama bin Laden, for example, to get messages to the outside world.3

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily on May 30, 2003, reported: "It is now understood that the mechanism by which former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been transmitting faxed, handwritten notes to the outside world has been provided by the bin Laden network. This is quite a separate communications network than the one currently being used by Saddam and his son, Qusay, to communicate with Syrian officials, for example."

Dealing with the symptoms of terrorism in the Balkans — or in the US or Britain or elsewhere — is a vital part of day-to-day security. But dealing with terrorism at its sponsoring sources is critical. And, until the US-led Coalition war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein in 2003, this aspect — destroying terrorism at its sponsoring source — was neglected.

The International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) and its Defense & Foreign Affairs publications and the on-line Global Information System (GIS) have been constantly working on this problem since the break-up of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. We have published literally hundreds of reports, citing extensive original intelligence over the past decade. On January 31, 1993, for example, we published a report entitled "Will Iran Let Balkan Muslims Achieve Peace?"4 This outlined Iran’s creation of what it called "forward bases" for the "Islamic revolution in Europe", designated by Iran in the Autumn of 1991, and starting with the establishment of terrorist assets in Bulgaria. It talked about Iran’s despatch in early November 1992 of more than 50 expert terrorist trainers to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

On July 31, 1993, we published a further report by my colleague, Yossef Bodansky, which noted:5

"Sarajevo and its allies are already actively building the support infrastructure for the launching of special subversive and terrorist operations in the Yugoslav strategic rear. Most advanced is the plan to subvert Kosovo, and rapidly escalate an armed struggle against Belgrade, from bases in Albania."

The article continued:

"In June 1993, the Government of Saudi Arabia announced the donation of US$1-million to build a ‘refugee camp’ for Bosnian Muslims in Albania. However, in mid-July, a senior Bosnian official in Sarajevo confirmed to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Misha Glenny that ‘the Bosnian Government intended to use the base for guerillas to be sent into Kosovo. The Serbs would not be able to differentiate the [Bosnian] guerillas, linguistically or ethnically, from the local Serbs.’ These Bosnian operatives would be able to carry out a series of terrorist operations which could be attributed to a Kosovo Albanian organization, real or imagined, thus instigating a fierce reaction by the Serb security forces and, consequently, a cycle of violence."

… "The ensuing widespread violence in Kosovo, the Bosnian Government believes, could then be used to induce Western military intervention against Yugoslavia itself."

This was just a small sample of the information which, in massive detail, we gathered and analyzed throughout the 1990s, highlighting the fact that Iran and other sponsors used the former Yugoslavia, and particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina, as a springboard for strategic-level operations against the West.

These were essential steps in the overall terrorist escalations which were to later include the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC and the October 2002 attacks in Bali, Indonesia. The linkages between Iran and the bin Laden organization, for example, were absolutely crystal clear in the Bosnian and Kosovo contexts during the 1990s. For that reason alone, it is essential that now the US and Western intelligence agencies see that they cannot regard the Bosnia-Herzegovina situation and the artificial (and now unworkable) construct of the Dayton Accords as separate from today’s "war on terror".

Terrorism can be used as a decisive political trigger, and can be employed either as part of a coherent and comprehensive conventional conflict or solely as a weapon of psycho-political warfare. But terrorism is only a war-winning weapon or stratagem when the target voluntarily surrenders or when terrorism-induced political paralysis allows other military-political strategies to succeed where they otherwise might fail. A thorough understanding of the context of terrorism is essential, then, if a targeted ociety is not to succumb to the sense that it is embattled and isolated. This sense of being embattled and isolated is the first, subconscious step toward surrender.

In this regard, the superb research published in Banja Luka, in the Republika Srpska in September 2002, entitled Islamic Fundamentalists’ Global Network and Modus Operandi: Model Bosnia,6 was a profound attempt to let the world understand that the Islamist terrorist operations in the Balkans were, in fact, also a problem for the wider world. This was the first major attempt since the two major studies by the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) in 1995 and 1996 — quite apart from the many Defense & Foreign Affairs interim studies — to document the extent of terrorist penetration of Bosnia. The ISSA studies by analyst Yossef Bodansky — Offensive in the Balkans: The Potential for Wider War as a Result of Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, and Some Call it Peace: Waiting for War in the Balkans in 19967 — had earlier detailed the extensive penetration of the region by both the trans-national Islamists under Osama bin Laden and his colleagues and the efforts of the Iranian clerical Government to introduce terrorist infrastructure.

Darko Trifunovic’s new study focuses largely on Osama bin Laden and what has come to be known as the al-Qaida network, and his study dovetails perfectly with the work undertaken by Bodansky.

Significantly, while bin Laden and his associates focus, as Mr Trifunovic correctly points out, on establishing Islamic and Islamist states in the Balkans — particularly Bosnia and Kosovo, and, to some extent, Albania — this is where the Iranians have a slightly different, although complementary, agenda. For the Iranian clerics, the creation of Islamist states in Europe merely helps to extend the buffer zone, and extends the reach of Iranian operations into the West. And while some Bosnian or Albanian activists see the creation of an Islamic state as an end in itself, the Iranians merely see the Balkans as stepping stones in a more global agenda.

So these are mutually-supporting agendas. And within this overarching framework, the bin Laden groups also see the creation of Balkan Islamist enclaves as safe-havens for wider international operations.

To reiterate:

  1. Iran’s clerical leaders now are at a critical juncture in their fight for survival. They will have to use their terrorist resources in the Balkans as a lever in their global war against the US.
  2. The Iranian, bin Laden and other connections into Balkan terrorism are now being more clearly understood as part of a global phenomenon, and the US and the West have a critical need to fight terrorism in Bosnia and Serbia. However, it is important for the Balkan governments to help educate the major powers about the seamless linkages between the symptoms of terrorism in the Balkans and the causes and sources of anti-Western terrorism in Iran, Syria, Libya and the bin Laden organizations.
  3. It is now of continuing and ongoing importance that major Western governments become informed as to how the imagery of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were for, the past decade, manipulated so that the West can understand that the interests and peoples of the region — Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and others — were maligned and misrepresented in the interests of trans-national Islamist terrorism. The wars of the 1990s cannot be swept away as merely being "ancient history"; it is critical to tomorrow’s counter-terror wars that the real perpetrators of terror in the Balkans become known, as well as the real victims. The world community does not yet understand the reality of that confusing period. And in some ways, the victims of the wars may also be too close to the trauma to adequately write a truly objective and balanced view of history.

In other words: The "war on terror" must develop tactics to deal with the symptoms of ongoing terrorism and its networks in the Balkans, but simultaneously develop and prosecute new strategies to eliminate the sources of terrorism sponsorship. But at the same time the Balkan governments need to invest heavily in correcting the history of the Balkans in the 1990s which in Bosnia and Serbia, in reality, the terrorists wrote. Until now, the governments and people of the region — with the exception of Croatia — have not taken their own history into their own hands.

If history is written by the Victors, then all we have seen thus far is the history written by terrorists. The late, great strategic philosopher Dr Stefan Possony said: "Prestige is the credit rating of nations." The Balkan states need to address the counter-terrorism campaign and the aggressive presentation of their history by making an investment which gets them the credit ratings necessary to revive the political and economic fortunes of the region.


1. Gregory Copley, President of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), is Editor-in-Chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs Publications, and President of the Global Information System, a worldwide intelligence collection and processing organization. These institutions are all based in Alexandria, Virginia, USA. Mr Copley is also author of numerous books and several thousand classified and unclassified studies, reports and articles on strategic topics. He is regarded as one of the few authorities on psychological strategy. He is also a founder-director of Australia’s only international strategic policy think-tank, Future Directions International (FDI), based in Perth, Western Australia.

2. Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, May 13, 2003: Iran, Libya Embarked on Massive Political Influence Campaigns in US, Elsewhere.

3. Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, May 30, 2003: Iranian Clerics Meet With Iraqi Ba’athists to Form New Terrorist Operation; Bin Laden/Islamists Team With Ba’athists.

4. Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, January 31, 1993, p.1

5. Muslim Forces Plan Major Offensives After a Peace Accord in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, July 31, 1993.

6. Trifunovic, Darko: Islamic Fundamentalists’ Global Network and Modus Operandi: Model Bosnia. Banja Luka, September 2002: published by Documentation Center of Republic of Srpska for War Crimes Research.

7. Bodansky, Yossef: Offensive in the Balkans: The Potential For a Wider War as a Result of Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995) and Some Call It Peace: Waiting for War in the Balkans. Published by ISSA, PO Box 20407, Alexandria, VA 22320, USA.