How Iranian intelligence trained Bosnian terrorists

The important role of Iranian intelligence during the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995, something which got little attention at the time, was a major story exposed in my 2007 book Unholy Terror. My research into this murky story showed how Iran’s intelligence service (VEVAK) and especially its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran) played a major secret role in the Bosnian war, training Al-Qa’ida-linked mujahidin groups, as well as radical units of the Bosnian Army that were responsible for numerous war crimes. At the height of the conflict, Iran had hundreds of spies and special operators in Bosnia, and they left the country slowly after the late 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war and brought NATO forces into Bosnia in large numbers. The continuing presence of Iranian spies and terrorists in the Balkans over two decades after they established their Bosnian beachhead is a continuing research interest of mine, as well as a major theme of this blog.

One of the unpleasant stories that my book exposed, which few in Sarajevo or their fans in the West wanted discussed, was how the Bosnian Muslim leadership committed war crimes too, including murders of political opponents and even staging atrocities to blame on the Serbs and Croats. Sarajevo’s ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and its leader, Alija Izetbegovic, understood the importance of favorable coverage for their cause in the gullible Western media, so when actual atrocities were hard to come by – especially nasty things like snipers taking out civilians for no reason – the SDA invented some.

This very dirty work, including hits on opponents such as top Muslim generals and politicos, was perpetrated by a shadowy special operations unit called Seve (Larks), which answered to the SDA leadership and was under the control of Nedzad Ugljen, a senior Muslim intelligence official and, not coincidentally, a top Iranian agent. Ugljen’s extremely close relationship with Tehran’s spies was a poorly guarded secret, so the question of whether Iran had something to do with the Larks has remained open and important, given the large number of atrocities which that special unit perpetrated back in the 1990s.

Although Ugljen was murdered under still-unexplained circumstances in late 1996, while serving as the number-two man in Sarajevo’s intelligence apparatus, intelligence information has now come to light, and has been reported by the Sarajevo newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna, which answers that key question. To improve the unit’s competence in murder in mayhem, Ugljen in mid-1994, about two years after the unit was first established at the war’s outset, selected Seve operators for advanced training in Iran.

This team, hand-chosen by top SDA officials, left for Iran in mid-June 1994, having each been given a thousand deutschmarks by Bakir Alispahic, a senior spy in Sarajevo. The men first transited Croatia, with the tacit approval of the government in Zagreb – the best can be said of the Croats is that they only indirectly assisted the Bosnians here – then flew to Frankfurt. In all, the secret journey to Tehran took five days, with the Bosnians being escorted by Iranian spies who spoke their language.

To maintain operational security, while in Iran the Bosnians presented themselves as Austrian engineers, traveling with Teutonic-sounding aliases. The trainees were hosted in a renovated mansion in the northern part of Tehran, a Pasdaran safehouse; the Bosnians, coming from a warzone, found their accommodations more than satisfactory. Training took place every day but Friday, with full twelve-hours days of instruction in a wide array of subjects, including religious indoctrination.

Yet most of the curriculum was what a special operator needs: training in the use of a wide range of small arms, from AK-47s to Uzis to light machine guns, several pistols, plus RPGs. Bomb-making featured prominently in the classes too. Learning how to drive a car, fast, in a city was also taught, as was how to fire weapons from a moving car or motorcycle: the sort of skills needed more by terrorists than soldiers.

Before the group completed the course, all students were required to sign an oath of secrecy, before Allah, promising to never reveal any details of their training, or even the fact that they had been to Iran. The newly minted Larks returned to Sarajevo on 12 September 1994 and quickly got down to committing assassinations and war crimes against innocents on behalf of the SDA.

While Iran’s role in training and equipping terrorists in Bosnia and across Southeastern Europe has been generally known, particularly since Unholy Terror was published, this new information provides critical details on how Iranian intelligence had a direct hand in terrorism and war crimes in Bosnia. The real question is – does the Pasdaran still today?