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'Reverse Balkan blowback': good guys become bad then good

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Americans love coming up with catchy and punchy terms. Take for instance “blowback”, a term used in espionage to describe the unintended consequences of covert operations. In the war on terror context it means former Mujahaddin Islamic holy war warriors once sponsored by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the cold war who have now turned against their former paymaster.

I have travelled to the Balkans region four times, including spending a 12-month stint as a stringer for a major British newspaper in 2002 at the tail end of the war in tiny Macedonia. In my time in the volatile Balkans, perhaps the research laboratory for world destruction, I learnt three valuable lessons: everyone believes in conspiracy theories; never take things at face value; and good guys can become bad guys and vice versa in an instant.

So it comes as no great surprise to discover that there is an incredible Balkan example of “Reverse Blowback” now hitting the media in both Serbia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


A report titled, Jihad, bought and sold on January 26, 2009 by ISA Consulting, a non-profit international think tank reveals an interesting individual offering his services in the fight on terror:

He is an Islamic warrior who fought in Bosnia during the war, a fierce follower of jihad who has pledged to die in the name of God, a convicted terrorist and proclaimed al-Qaida commander. Ali Ahmed Ali Hamad is now trying to sell information about atrocities committed by his warriors in Bosnia in return for asylum.

The report adds:

A native of Bahrain, Ali Ahmed Ali Hamad, known during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war as “Ubaidah al-Bahraini”, was released on 30 December 2008 from a Bosnian prison where he served a 12-year sentence for robbery and terrorism.

Ali Hamad was a high-ranking officer of the notorious El-Mujahid unit, composed of foreign fighters from Islamic countries, and under the command of the Bosnian Army. El-Mujahid committed war crimes against ethnic Serbs and Croats in Bosnia. In 1997 Ali Hamad was eventually locked up for masterminding a terrorist car bomb attack in the Bosnian town of Mostar (Old Bridge) aimed against the ethnic Croat population.

Irony of ironies, he is now seeking asylum in Serbia, his former enemy in the Bosnian war, after his Bosnian citizenship was revoked and with deportation to his native Bahrain on the cards.


The ISA report explains:

Ali Hamad told local media that he is since "reformed" and is now ready to help "fight terrorism" and Osama bin Laden, admitting that he did "bad things" as an al-Qaida fighter. He also revealed that he was preparing to release a book containing secrets about al-Qaida based on his experiences in Bahrain, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

The Bosnian war was a result of the break up of the former Yugoslavia and in a three-way struggle which pitted Muslim Bosnians (Bosnjaks) against ethnic Serbs, against ethnic Croats, in a bid to control the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosna-Hercegovina). No one can forget the images of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo being bombarded constantly by Serb artillery or the infamous Serb concentration camp with emaciated Muslim Bosnian prisoners or the UN’s inability to stop the slaughter of Muslim Bosnians at Srebrenica. The war ended with the US-brokered Dayton Agreement in 1995.

But let us go back in time so that we can understand this bizarre Reverse Balkan Blowback involving Ali Ahmed Ali Hamad.

From 1945 to 1991, Yugoslavia was a communist federation consisting of six republics: Serbia (Srbija), Croatia (Hrvatska), Slovenia (Slovenija), Macedonia (Makedonija), Montenegro (Crna Gora) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosna-Hercegovina). In 1974, two autonomous regions, Vojvodina and Kosovo-Metohija, were created within Serbia. Up until his death in 1980 Marshal Josip Broz Tito, a half Croat, half Slovene, managed an incredible balancing act by a ruthless crackdown on any form of ethnic separatism and as well as keeping Yugoslavia free from Soviet Russian domination.

In 1989 the President of the Republic of Serbia, a communist banker by the name of Slobodan Milosevic, riding on a wave of nationalism, revoked the special status of Vojvodina, which had a large ethnic Hungarian population, and Kosovo, with its 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority. Milosevic’s ambition was to keep Yugoslavia intact but under Serbian hegemony.

In an article titled, “Yugoslavia supplying arms to Iraq, published in the Croatian Herald, Melbourne, on January 25, 1991, I wrote, as it turned out five months in advance that war in Yugoslavia would break out:

It is believed that the US may have given tacit approval for JNA [Yugoslav People’s Army-Jugoslovenska Narodna Army] to intervene in Slovenia, Croatia … In return the Yugoslav government pledged to stop supplying Iraq with weapons [first gulf war 1990-91].

Eleven years later British journalists, Nicholas Wood and Ian Traynor, wrote in the Guardian newspaper, "Yugoslavia the hub of arms sales to Saddam," November 26, 2002.

On June 25, 1991, tanks from the Serbian dominated JNA rolled into Slovenia after it seceded from Yugoslavia. War broke out that was to tear apart the Balkans region for a decade.

Maud Beelman, an Associated Press foreign correspondent, wrote in Hear No Evil, See No Evil: Early U.S. Policy in Yugoslavia, for the Alicia Patterson Foundation:

Preoccupied with the Gulf War and concern over the future of the Soviet Union, the United States did not deploy its diplomatic big guns until June 1991, just days before the long-announced secession of Slovenia and Croatia and the outbreak of war.

Secretary of State James Baker flew to Belgrade for a one-day marathon of meetings with the leaders of federal Yugoslavia and the various republics. Baker declined to be interviewed, but in his autobiography, "The Politics of Diplomacy," he said his message was clear.

“While we supported the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and existing republic borders and would not accept unilateral changes, the international community, of course, recognized that if the republics wanted to change borders by peaceful, consensual means, that was an altogether different matter,“ he wrote.

A U.S. diplomat with Baker said the Serbs took his comments as a green light for sending in the federal army, while all the Croats and Slovenes heard was democratize. War erupted in less than a week.

Pointedly, Baker did not threaten any U.S. intervention should the Serbs use the army to quell secessionist attempts, only "ostracism" for the Serbs and a refusal by the West to recognize breakaway republics.

Slovenia won its independence after 10 days, and the JNA withdrew to attack Croatia and later Bosnia.

In October 1992, I was an Australian journalist hired by the MILS news agency, specialising in Macedonian and Balkan affairs, to train young Macedonian reporters and to fine tune its daily news wire service, which was being supplied to subscribers: foreign embassies and international media agencies. MILS Managing Director, was Dr Ljupco Naumovski, a former diplomat in the Federal Yugoslav and later the Macedonian Foreign Affairs Offices.

MILS's headquarters was in Brussels, Belgium, and had a branch in Skopje, the Macedonian capital. Skopje was manned by respected local journalist Saso Ordanoski, who is on a first name basis with ex-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans from Evan’s time as the President of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a strategic think tank dedicated to ending world conflict and based in Brussels.

One day in late 1992 a fit looking man in his late 30s or early 40s walked into MILS's Brussels office. He had very short blonde hair and an upright military bearing. He introduced himself as Andreas Renatus Hartmann, German political advisor to the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) in the European Parliament.

Down the track, Mr Hartmann invited Dr Naumovski and myself to dinner at a swanky Moroccan restaurant. The dinner went well. We talked about a wide variety of subjects but the attention inevitably turned to the Balkans. I was enjoying eating the Moroccan couscous and almost choked when Mr Hartmann said matter of factly that German Intelligence (BND) was about to open its first "station" in Tirana, Albania since World War II, and the British were not impressed at being beaten to the punch.

I thought to myself, why is this guy telling me this? He dropped more bombshells when he said that Europe, in particular German and France, did not want an Islamic state in the Balkans - namely Bosnia-Herzegovina or a Greater Albania. The German and French right wing parties wanted to strengthen Macedonia to act as a buffer state against possible Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, he claimed.

In the early stages of the war in Bosnia both the United States and the European Community (EC now European Union) were not interested in the plight of Muslims, other than supporting a token UN peacekeeping force. So why did the US change its policy and “permit” the use of former Islamic Mujahaddin warriors from the Afghan conflict with the Soviets to fight on the side of the Muslim Bosnians?

First, there was a change in President: George H. Bush was voted out after one term to be replaced by William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton in 1992. Second, and this is speculation on my part, there was a fear of post-Soviet Russia playing a big role in the Balkans again.

When Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from Yugoslavia, Germany broke ranks with the EC, to grant recognition. In Serbia’s camp was Russia, its traditional Orthodox ally. Could the US about-turn on Bosnia have been prompted by the possibility of the Russians eager to flex their diplomatic muscle after losing their communist empire?

Has the rivalry between the US and Russia since the end of World War II really stopped? The Russian showdown against the West in Georgia last year proves that the Russian bear is alive and well after licking its wounds at the end of the Cold War (1946-89).

Meanwhile, Ali Ahmed Ali Hamad would be an interesting character to interview about the inner workings of al-Qaida.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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