Obituary: Alija Izetbegovic, 1925-2003

October 22, 2003

Obituary: Alija Izetbegovic, 1925-2003

Alija Ali Izetbegovic, the controversial Bosnian Islamist leader of a largely secularized people, died on Sunday, October 19th, 2003, in Sarajevo, at the age of seventy-eight.

Alija Ali Izetbegovic, the controversial Bosnian Islamist leader of a largely secularized people, died on Sunday, October 19th, 2003, in Sarajevo, at the age of seventy-eight. Izetbegovic helped lead an ill-defined entity inhabited by three ethnic groups down a tortured path of war and independence, poverty and conflict and hatred and instability. He brought jihad to Europe while also struggling to found a multiethnic state against the objection of a majority of its projected citizens. Izetbegovic will remain a controversial figure for two related reasons: his Islamic fundamentalism and his unwillingness to abide by an agreement that would have prevented war and secured independence for Bosnia. Each will be examined in turn.

To recall the name of Izetbegovic is to recall that, as Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson wrote in The National Interest's Fall 1993 issue, the Bosnian civil war he precipitated "occasioned the first significant debate over foreign policy of the post-Cold war period." The authors quickly added that "although the war in Bosnia has aroused such strong emotions and passions, it has not evoked comparable appeals for the sacrifice of blood and treasure. With very few exceptions, those who have called for American intervention have been careful to emphasize the quite modest costs they are willing to pay in intervening. While insistent that the interests at stake in Bosnia are very great, they are equally insistent that these interests be secured at modest cost."

The debate over Bosnia reminds one of the Clinton Administration's foreign policy doctrine of "humanitarian intervention", which argues that war can be waged on primarily humanitarian grounds, even in the absence of a clear and present (and grave and gathering) danger to the United States. As General Charles G. Boyd wrote in the September/October 1995 issue of Foreign Affairs, "the linchpin of the U.S. approach [in Bosnia] has been the under-informed notion that this is a war of good versus evil, of aggressor against aggrieved." Boyd argued that the legitimacy of interests is rarely, if ever, "the special province of only one or two factions", and that failure to recognize this axiom of international relations leads to disaster. Sometimes you have to "make peace with the guilty."

As Paddy Ashdown, the head of the Office of the High Representative that administers Bosnia and Hercegovina, put it in a statement, Izetbegovic "was in a real sense the father of his people. Without him I doubt if Bosnia and Hercegovina would exist today." Indeed, but has the order and stability of post-Cold War Europe increased as a result? Warren Zimmerman, America's last ambassador to Yugoslavia and a strong defender of Izetbegovic and his policies certainly thinks so. Writing in the pages of The National Interest in Fall 1994, he opined that "the time of the nation-state is ending; the time of the successful multi-ethnic state is already here.  When that realization sinks in, it will be possible to look at Bosnia, not only as a cautionary tale, but also as an inspiration."

In 1970, Izetbegovic published a book entitled the Islamic Declaration, which led to his imprisonment under Tito on the charge of conspiring to create an Islamic state. This-combined with his wartime record (he was an active member of the S.S.'s Handzar Division, a unit composed of Bosnian jihadists whose primary targets were Bosnia's Jews and Serbs) and his actions before and during the Bosnian civil war (in particular his active acquiescence in the incorporation of mujahedeen units into the army of which he was commander-in-chief, units suspected of perpetrating some of the worst atrocities of an atrocious war)-suggests that Zimmerman's dismissal of Izetbegovic's Islamism and its applicability to the situation in Bosnia is too simplistic, if not inaccurate.

As Yugoslavia was falling apart, Izetbegovic helped to found the Party of Democratic Action (SDA)-a party composed overwhelmingly of Bosnian Muslims-whose slogan was "In Our Land, With Our Faith." This was in 1990, the same year the Islamic Declaration was reprinted in Sarajevo. Famously, the book proclaimed that "there can be no peace or coexistence between the ‘Islamic faith' and non-Islamic societies and political institutions." It argued that in countries where Muslims do not represent a majority of the population, the "Islamic order" could not be "implemented", and that the "Islamic authority […] may turn to violence."

The question of the activities of mujahedeen units in Izetbegovic's wartime army and his complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity is complicated. But some facts continue to weigh heavily in postwar Bosnia. For example, the Third Corps of the Seventh Muslim Mountain Brigade, made up of both fundamentalist Bosnian Muslims and foreigners, together with the Tenth Muslim Brigade, are suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against Croats and Serbs inside Sarajevo during the Serb siege of the city as well as in many towns and villages in central Bosnia throughout the war.

The Sunday Times reported in June 1993 that secular Bosnian Muslim officers had grave reservations about the foreign mujahedeen, many of whom were sent by Al-Qaeda and commanded by Abdelkader Mokhtari, one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants. In fact, Bin Laden himself visited Izetbegovic in Sarajevo on at least one occasion during the war, according to the eye-witness account of Renate Flotau, a Der Spiegel reporter. Moreover, he and other senior Al-Qaeda operatives were also issued a Bosnian passport by the Bosnian embassy in Vienna. Colonel Stjepan Siber, then the deputy commander of Izetbegovic's army, argued that the Islamist units are the ones that "commit most of the atrocities […].  They have been killing, looting and stealing."

Izetbegovic served as commander-in-chief of the Army of Bosnia and Hercegovina and was, thus, criminally responsible for the acts of his subordinates, pursuant to several articles in the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Worse yet, he was the honorary commander of the Seventh Muslim Mountain Brigade when it slaughtered Bosnian Serb POWs in the Serb village of Vozuca immediately after it fell on September 11, 1995. The next day, Izetbegovic reviewed his troops, exclaiming, on videotape, "In Vozuca, you have broken the backbone of the Chetnik (i.e. Serb) enemy. You show the way how we can achieve our aim of liberating our country."

But that was during the war. What about the events that led to its commencement? It seems that Izetbegovic never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Thanks to the skillful efforts of the Portuguese Foreign Minister, Jose Cutileiro, acting under the auspices of the European Union, an accord was signed among the three ethnic leaders of Bosnia, including Izetbegovic, that seemed to offer an acceptable compromise aimed at containing the spread of war from Croatia to Bosnia.

This Lisbon Agreement predated, crucially, the commencement of hostilities by a little more than a fortnight. On March 18, 1992, the three leaders agreed on a constitutional and administrative framework that would allow Bosnia a peaceful entry into the world. Concessions were made on all sides. While not a perfect solution, the agreement, which called for an independent Bosnia divided into three constituent, autonomous and geographically separate parts, was preferable to civil war.

Enter Warren Zimmerman. On March, 28 1992, Zimmerman met with Izetbegovic in Sarajevo. What was said and by whom remains unclear. Zimmerman denies that he told Izetbegovic that if he withdrew his signature, the United States would grant recognition to Bosnia as an independent state. What is indisputable is that Izetbegovic, that same day, withdrew his signature and renounced the agreement. Tucker and Hendrickson judge that "American diplomats acted in an extremely irresponsible manner if, as reported, they advised Izetbegovic to reject the Lisbon formula. If war was to be averted, an agreement respecting cantonization was the last step at which it might have been."

Two days after Zimmerman's visit, Izetbegovic called a referendum on secession. As Tucker and Hendrickson put it, "the referendum[…] was itself a violation of the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution. That constitution, like its predecessors, had conferred a right of secession but made it dependent on the mutual agreement of the nations composing Yugoslavia. It was based, that is to say, on the notion of a concurrent majority of the constituent nations, not on simple majoritarianism; to move to secession without the consent of the Serbs was a plain violation of its terms." They go on to argue that there is no strongly accepted principle of international law "that a majority of the population within a well defined province or constituent republic […] has a right to secede from an existing state." The reason is plain: "Were the case otherwise, we would have the inexplicable phenomenon that a large number of states had entered a suicide pact when they signed the covenant, and no known rule of legal interpretation would allow such an absurd construction."

For Tucker and Hendrickson, "Izetbegovic's repudiation of the […] agreement […] was the immediate trigger for the war. Whether the Muslim leader repudiated this agreement because of pressure from militants at home […] or because he understood America's advice to reject it as an implicit pledge of military support remains unclear. Given the distribution of military power in Bosnia at the time, the only way to make sense of Izetbegovic's decision is to assume that he did believe that the United States would make good on his military inferiority; the support Izetbegovic received from the United States to oppose cantonization may well have given him the confidence to take this fateful step."