Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 5): US Governmental Accusations and Pogorelica Case

IFOR raid on Pogorelica (photo: AP/YouTube)

In addition to politically motivated groups and individuals (described in parts 2-4), unfounded terrorism charges also came from certain governments, accusing other countries of state-sponsored terrorism. One such case came to prominence shortly after the Bosnian war ended, involving the United States and Iran. On 16 February 1996, a special NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) operation was organized at Pogorelica, a mountain near the central Bosnian town of Fojnica, against a training camp described as a "secret terrorist training school" by the NATO officials. The camp itself was established a few months before, and the Iranian intelligence officers had been engaged in training members of the Bosnian security services. It was a spectacular, action movie-like mission, with masked commandos descending from helicopters, but no shots were fired in the raid and no one was hurt. IFOR closed a training camp, temporarily arrested three Iranian intelligence officers and eight Bosnians in the process, and seized stocks of arms.

Pentagon sources and NATO commanders claimed there was "clear circumstantial evidence" the group was planning possible attacks on NATO forces. David Hunt, the US officer who led the raid, said: "it was crystal clear that Pogorelica was a terrorism training center run by Tehran." US Admiral Leighton Smith, who headed the NATO-led IFOR forces operation in Bosnia, said he was "very disappointed that such a camp existed," adding that "findings showed clearly terrorist training activities." Reacting angrily to the NATO's raid, the Bosnian government said the building housed a legitimate anti-terrorist facility, and its existence and military cooperation with Iran were known to the Bosnian government. Bakir Alispahić, then Minister of Bosnian Ministry of the Interior (MUP) and director of the Agency for Investigation and Documentation (AID), confirmed that his organization ran a Pogorelica site and contended that President Izetbegović knew about the camp.

The Pogorelica camp was far from being the secret site of any kind. The main building was customarily surrounded by a half-dozen SUVs, marked with Interior or Defense Ministry insignia, and locals were aware that the Iranians were running a training school on the hill. Members of the Bosnian Ministry of the Interior regularly passed through the facility, there was no training that differed from the general training frameworks of special police forces of any other state, and the entire training program was run by Nedžad Ugljen, the Deputy Director of the AID secret service. From the Iranian and Bosnian point of view, it was a legal cooperation between two sovereign countries. Furthermore, Alispahić pointed out that everything was also familiar to the US government since in 1993 he and Ugljen personally traveled to the USA on an official visit and noted Washington about their relations with Iran. All conversations were verified on stenographs and records.

Alispahić accused the US government of trying to establish a client state in the Balkans to block the growing influence of Iran in this mostly Muslim land. "It is a tragicomedy that a big and serious country like the United States makes so much noise out of this," Alispahić said about US concerns over Bosnia's relations with Iran. He called US actions in Bosnia "very silly" and characterized NATO's raid on the training center as "in bad taste." Shortly after the incident, Alispahić resisted the political pressures to put 11 detainees into a jail, he received three Iranians and eight Bosnians personally in the MUP building, and they were released shortly afterward.

Nevertheless, the US pressures resumed. Only a month later, in March 1996, ships carrying aboard arms and military equipment arrived at the Croatian port of Ploče (under the "equip and train" programme for the Bosnian-Croat Federation's army), but US officials issued an ultimatum to Sarajevo: Alispahić's removal from his post and the shutdown of his security agency were among the conditions for starting the ship unloading. Alispahić said that he was "insulte

d" by American attempts to remove him from his post and called the US ultimatum "an unjust intervention in the internal affairs of our state." But the government in Sarajevo had no choice. New ships arrived in October of the same year, and this time as a condition for unloading Americans demanded for the resignation of Bosnian Deputy Defense Minister Hasan Čengić. American diplomats claimed both Alispahić and Čengić were "Iran's men" in Bosnia.

In April 2002, when everything seemed to have calmed down, the Bosnian public was shocked by the news that the Federal Prosecution filed an indictment against five former secret policemen, including Bakir Alispahić, Irfan Ljevaković, and Enver Mujezinović, on charges of terrorism and espionage for their role in running the Pogorelica facility. Many leading politicians denounced this as a witch hunt, declaring the accusations a hoax. Alija Izetbegović pronounced the trial as staged and politically motivated, explaining that military-political cooperation with Iran started at the beginning of 1995 to his knowledge. Grand Mufti Mustafa Cerić also denounced the accusations, stating that he cannot sleep while Alispahić and Ljevaković are in prison. The court case has been characterized by various controversies, including external political pressures, the appointment of Rohan Gunaratna for an expert witness, changing the indictment, delaying, etc. Finally, five men were acquitted of all charges by the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo in 2006, and two years later the Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina confirmed the first-instance verdict. The case was irretrievably closed.

During the twelve-year duration of this court process, unsubstantiated charges found their way to tens of books and articles, with the majority of authors stressing "Iranian terrorism in Europe" as an undeniable fact. For example, in his 2007 book "Unholy Terror", John R. Schindler calls Alispahić, Ljevaković and Mujezinović as "Sarajevo's usual jihadi suspects," Izetbegović as "a bald-faced liar," and claims that Pogorelica's curriculum included conventional espionage topics such as agent handling and secure communications, but also sabotage, bomb-making, assassination, black propaganda, how to stage murders to blame on IFOR, and so on. Michael A. Ledeen, an American neoconservative writer, went much further in his 2002 book "The War Against the Terror Masters," alleging that British forces found "the mother of all terrorist training manuals," produced by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry and used to train al Qaeda militants in Sudan. Virtually none of these authors dared to update their works with an acquittal and publish a new edition, in fact, old accusations are regularly being reprinted to this day.

See also:
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 1): A Brief Overview
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 2): Quasi-expertise by Neocons & Zionists
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 3): Quasi-expertise by Denialists
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 4): Regional Quasi-expertise under Israeli influence
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 5): US Governmental Accusations and Pogorelica Case
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 6): US Governmental Accusations and Lobby Groups
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 7): Foreign Mujahideen
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 8): Wahhabi Movement
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 9): From the Balkans to Syria, and Back
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 10): Recorded Attacks
Potential Terrorism in the Balkans (part 11): MEK in Albania

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.

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