Bosnian Muslim brigade wages holy war at home Secretive Islamic unit is a source of concern

January 01, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LUKAVAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- In the morning they run nine miles in formation, sounding off like U.S. Marines.

"Allahu Akbar!" they cry, "Glory to God." In cadence, they shout short, inspirational verse from the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Some days, the imam visits, talking of martyrdom for the jihad.

Such is a soldier's life in the Bosnian army's 9th Muslim Liberation Brigade, a strict, secretive unit of home-grown

mujahedeen, encamped about 10 miles from U.S. Army headquarters at the Tuzla air base.

When the Balkan peace treaty was negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, in November, U.S. representatives insisted on requiring all foreign troops to leave Bosnia within 30 days of the signing. The provision was directed mostly at a few thousand mujahedeen volunteers imported from Iran, Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. Bearded, devoted and combat-tough, their fundamentalist zeal has sometimes intimidated the very people they've been fighting for, and U.S. officials considered them a serious threat to U.S. peacekeeping troops.

Their departure is apparently on schedule, military officials say, despite recent incidents that have enhanced their reputation for troublemaking. But the few hundred soldiers of the Muslim Brigade, based near Lukavac, won't have to go anywhere. They're all Bosnians, many of them angry, vengeful refugees from towns such as Srebrenica.

[In the brigade] "they teach that religion is the most important thing in the war, and in everything else," said Elvir Ahmetovic, 21, who has been training for the past two months with a group of 40 new recruits.

A soldier named Namir put it more succinctly while standing at the guardhouse at the unit's front gate. "The jihad [holy war] has precedence over everything else," he says. "And after the war we will purify the whole country."

Namir did not wish to give his last name, nor would he and a sentry allow reporters inside the base. He said visitors may enter only if they have deep religious conviction -- and an appointment.

U.S. military officials seem to know little about the unit. A reporter who made inquiries was referred to the nearby Nordic battalion of Swedish and Danish troops, based near Tuzla for the past 2 1/2 years.

vTC But the battalion's intelligence analyst, Maj. Peter Oeberg, said he knew little about the brigade, partly because it was formed only four or five months ago. That's about when the survivors of Srebrenica began arriving in this part of Bosnia, having fled a siege and subsequent massacre by the Bosnian Serb army, which killed an estimated 5,000 Muslim men.

Major Oeberg described the brigade as an assault unit, meaning that it tends to move around the country, engaging in the latest offensive. Other units tend to stay on the defensive lines near their hometowns.

"Generally, the assault units are younger, better motivated and better trained," Major Oeberg said. "And, for this one, probably a little more religiously committed."

That's the picture painted by Mr. Ahmetovic, who describes a daily routine that seems designed to cultivate the sort of zeal and discipline often found among the foreign mujahedeen.

A typical day, he said, goes like this:

* 5 a.m. -- Up for prayer to the call of the muezzin, followed by a snack, a nine-mile run, calisthenics, breakfast and a one-hour break.

* 10 a.m. -- Religious instruction and lessons in writing Arabic, followed by training in weapons and tactics. Leading these sessions at times have been two Arab instructors. Mr. Ahmetovic said that one has already left the country. He said he does not know which country either one came from.

* 12:30 p.m. -- Midday prayers, lunch and a break.

* 2 p.m. -- More prayers, more training, sometimes with live firing, followed by more religious instruction.

In late afternoon comes the last prayer of the day, then dinner and free time, though not always.

"Sometimes we might have training in the hills at night, with orienteering and learning to find our way around in the dark," Mr. Ahmetovic said.

Once a week the religious leader, the imam, visits with words of encouragement. "One time he said to us, 'You should be proud because you are a soldier, and you should be happy to give your life for your country.' "

Mr. Ahmetovic admits that he is unsettled by such talk. Until they began being persecuted because of their religion, most Muslims in the former Yugoslavia were not rigorous in their religious training. Zeal increased as people died simply for being Muslim.

Mr. Ahmetovic did not volunteer for the unit, as most of the brigade's other soldiers did. He was transferred by the Bosnian army's 2nd Corps.

Days off come once a week, but even then strict rules apply, he said. "The first one," he said, "is that if they ever decide to send you to Saudi Arabia, then you have to fight for the jihad," although he's not sure exactly what that might entail. The others are standard rules for a strict Muslim lifestyle. "Alcohol is forbidden, and there is no going into cafes."

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