This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 3 September, 2014.
Trafalgar Square, central London. More than 3,000 people are in attendance at the “Rally for Islam.” A notorious firebrand near Nelson’s Column calls for jihad against Britain. Thunderous cheers roll through the crowd and echo ominously toward Whitehall. Placards demand the assassination of the British prime minster and other Western heads of state. The speaker avows that he will not rest until the black flag of Islam flies over Downing Street. He further declares that British citizens are legitimate targets in the imminent holy war because Britain assisted in the destruction of the Caliphate in 1924.
The aforementioned episode took place neither in response to Israel’s incursion into Gaza, nor the U.S.-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It occurred 19 years ago in 1995 and was orchestrated by the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir (“Party of Liberation”), an international Islamist group founded in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem in 1953. During the previous year, Hizb ut-Tahrir had cosponsored the Khilafah Conference at Wembley Stadium, which attracted more than 10,000 Muslims from around the world. The BBC described it as one of the biggest gatherings of Muslims ever held outside the Middle East.
The Bosnian War, specifically the West’s refusal to stop the Serbian slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, was the issue that inspired “homegrown” radicalization in the early 1990s. Hizb ut-Tahrir and other extremist entities portrayed the lack of intervention in the Balkans as a Christian plot to eliminate Islam in Europe. They accurately pointed out that the victims of ethnic cleansing were white, blonde, and blue-eyed Muslims who ate pork, drank alcohol, and infrequently visited mosque. In other words, the fact that Bosnian Muslims were “assimilated” was irrelevant to Ratko Mladić and his death squads. In turn, countless British Muslims, relatively dark skinned and devout, were convinced that their physical safety and prospects for integration had suddenly been extinguished.
It is worth exploring the origins of British Islamization because, contrary to the narrative involving James Foley’s executioner and the rest of the “Beatles,” very little about the phenomenon is “new.” Indeed, the current situation illustrates both that the public’s memory is short and that government, because of its bureaucratic weight, is slow, and often entirely unable to counter even clear and present threats.
While radical elements were already in place by the time of the “Rushdie Affair” in 1989, it was undoubtedly the exceptional circumstances of the Bosnian War that ignited domestic Islamism in Britain. And yet over the past two decades, not much has changed in terms of how Islamists recruit their followers, how they frame and propagate their message, and how they finance their operations.
During the conflict in the Balkans, Hizb ut-Tahrir focused on conscripting foot soldiers. It targeted those most susceptible to the Islamist call: young British Muslims marginalized due to pervasive racism and limited mobility in Britain’s rigid class system. On college and university campuses, the group helped stage Bosnia awareness events. British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, mastermind behind the 2002 kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl, is likely the most high-profile jihadist known to have attended one of these events. Shortly after entering the London School of Economics in 1992, he attended “Bosnia Week,” at which a series of documentaries were screened. Sheikh later claimed that one in particular “shook my heart.”Destruction of a Nation showed, among other horrors, Serbs castrating captured Bosnian Muslims in detention camps. Portentously, in 1994, The Guardian reported that Hizb ut-Tahrir had “taken over nearly all the Muslim student societies at London University colleges and campuses in other areas where Muslims form a large part of the community.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir also organized community events, searing itself into the broader British Muslim conscience. “Bosnia Today, Brick Lane Tomorrow,” for instance, comprised a massive march through the East End of London. Over 30,000 leaflets promoting the march were distributed to houses, markets, and mosques. Similar demonstrations condemning Western non-intervention were held in Slough, Birmingham, Oldham, Manchester, Newham, and Southall.
Other institutions provided forums for small-business owners, professionals, and scholars to produce material and ideological backing for the Balkan jihad. The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, established in 1992, held two major conferences during the Bosnian War. The first, “Bosnia and the Global Islamic Movement,” convened in November 1993 and encouraged the more than 3,000 individuals present to either fight in or donate to the holy war. Three years later, the Muslim Parliament hosted its second major conference, “Hiroshima to Sarajevo: Fifty Years of the United Nations.”Notably, it further used Internet chat forums to garner patronage for its mission.
Grassroots associations also popped up across Britain, generating additional awareness of the Bosnian War and resources for jihad. The Bradford Eid Committee, for example, held a charity dinner for Bosnia and Kashmir in March 1994, an event attended by Muhammad Sacirbey, then-Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations. Advertisements for the dinner posted in community centers and Pakistani restaurants asked in English and Urdu, “Does anybody care?” Between courses, the human rights officer of the Muslim Parliament beseeched guests to subsidize his institution’s Arms for Bosnia Fund. Charity in the form of food, he lamented, was “simply fattening our brothers and sisters for their death.”
“Relief organizations” were also instrumental in raising money to purchase and distribute weapons for jihadis in Bosnia. Using various techniques, they acquired legal status and — for a not insignificant period of time — upheld a façade of legitimacy. One such organization, the Muwafaq Foundation, was founded in the early 1990s by Saudi multimillionaire Yassin al-Qadi, and registered as a charitable trust on the British island of Jersey. In 1992, it opened an office in Croatia and expanded to Sarajevo the following year. By June 1993, 750 Afghan-Arabs, funded by the foundation and advised by Iranians, had formed the al-Muwafaq Brigade in the Zenica region of Bosnia.
With respect to British Muslims, it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, fought alongside the Bosnian army. Adam LeBor, in his 1997 title A Heart Turned East, maintained that there were so many British Muslims abetting the Bosnian army that it became an “almost daily occurrence to see a soldier wearing the blue and white Bosnian fleur-de-lys speaking in a broad Glasgow or Manchester accent.”
Alas, the British security apparatus as a whole was essentially unmoved by the overt Islamist activity that ensued during the Bosnian War. Its understaffed counterterrorism divisions were still preoccupied with combating offshoots of the Irish Republican Army. But not long after, the menace of domestic Muslim extremism began to register. In 1995, the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group carried out a series of deadly bombings against the Paris regional train network. A feeling of urgency surged through Britain’s intelligence services after it was discovered that the Armed Islamic Group had been using London as a “back base.” The feeling, nevertheless, was ephemeral. British security services, by their own admission, failed to dedicate serious resources to contesting Islamic terrorism until after the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Twenty years after the Bosnian War, as America evaluates courses of action against the Islamic State, we must not allow unwarranted criticism to cloud our vision. Homegrown radicalization in Europe didn’t start because of American military intervention in the Middle East, and it certainly wouldn’t end with America’s retreat from the world stage.
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Jonathan Bronitsky is a political strategist and historian who completed his doctorate at the University of Cambridge. His master’s thesis detailed the ascent of British Islamism during the Bosnian War. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jbronitsky.