When foreign fighters rally to the cause of a rebel army locked in a local conflict, this is bound to draw in competing agendas and identities even among putative allies. And these cleavages may persist long after the fighting ends.
“Upon arrival,” according to one account, “foreign mujahedin settled in various locations and did not form a homogeneous entity.” Eventually, “local Muslims started to join the foreign mujahedin,” coalescing into a unit known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion. Still, “notwithstanding instances of participation in combat alongside each other, it appears that [the different] groups were anxious to maintain their distinct identities. There were religious and ideological differences between [locals and foreigners], which resulted in occasional violent clashes.”
Despite their differences, according to this account, locals continued to be attracted to the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion for its “stricter regimental discipline, greater degree of organization, superior equipment and combat morale, religious dedication, and the material benefits” bestowed by “many organizations and individuals from the Islamic world.”
If you are thinking this is Syria, think again. This is Bosnia, 1993: different country, different war, same story. It is now common knowledge that Western intelligence agencies actively facilitated the flow of foreign fighters—who were being funded and trained, mother of all ironies, by Saudi Arabia and Iran—into Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth simply “Bosnia”).
One of those fighters was Imad al-Husein, aka Abu Hamza al-Suri, a Syrian national. When war broke out in Bosnia, Abu Hamza was a medical student in what was then the Socialist Republic of Croatia, Yugoslavia. He enlisted in the ranks of the mujahedin on the other side of the border with the help of a U.S.-registered but Saudi-funded non-profit called the Benevolence International Foundation, which covertly channeled funds and equipment to foreign fighters in Bosnia. Abu Hamza joined the jihad for a spell in 1992-1993 and again in 1994-1995, with a stint in between organizing papers and logistics for the fighters coming in and out of Bosnia under the cover of Benevolence International.
For any of today’s foreign fighters hoping to start anew in Syria after the war, however, Abu Hamza’s case offers a cautionary tale about the limits of solidarity.
After the war, a number of foreign fighters decided to begin a new life in Bosnia. Many married local women and started families. For his part, Abu Hamza married a Bosnian widow he had met while distributing aid at a refugee camp in Croatia and settled down in the northeastern Bosnian village of Donja Bočinja. Fluent in the local language, Abu Hamza often spoke to local media interested in the village’s new residents. Despite disputes with Serbian returnees over house ownership, the community seemed to be slowly making the transition to peaceful civilian life.