Page last updated at 08:38 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

'I was put on trial by al-Qaeda'

The BBC's Allan Little reported on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, following at close range the fighting between Bosnian, Serb and Croat forces. But, one day in 1993, he came face to face with a different group, the "Bosnian mujahideen".

Allan Little reporting from Sarajevo in 1992
BBC correspondent Allan Little reporting from Sarajevo in 1992

A year into the war, hundreds of men from other parts of the Muslim world had arrived in Bosnia. Many had come to train. Some - though we did not know it at the time - had already fought in Afghanistan.

We Western reporters knew they were there. What we did not know is that they were already part of a nascent global jihad led by a group whose name was not yet familiar to us: al-Qaeda. We thought them a sideshow - irrelevant to the much more compelling dynamic of the war between actual Bosnians.

One bright cold morning a camera crew and I drove from our house in the Lashva Valley to the town of Zenica accompanied by our translator, a brave and formidable young woman called Vera Kordic.


We made our way quietly through deserted outskirts. We turned into the main thoroughfare. And then we saw them: a column of men hundreds strong marching towards us in ordered ranks.

They wore green uniforms, and bandanas, and carried banners with slogans written not in Serbo-Croatian but in Arabic script. Some wore turbans and heavy beards.

The Seventh Muslim Brigade on parade in Zenica in 1996
Members of the Seventh Muslim Brigade on parade in Zenica in 1996

We saw the green shimmer of the Saudi national flag, and the red and green bands of the Iranian. They were highly charged, pumped up with a raw, aggressive energy, chanting, brandishing weapons above their heads.

Instinctively, we did what TV crews do. We started filming. Suddenly we were surrounded. I heard the cocking of an AK47 at my side, felt a pistol at my temple.

Cameramen are notoriously the most vulnerable of us. They watch the world through a viewfinder and can see only what is on the end of their lens.

Greg, our cameraman, had not seen the pistol at his own head. I told him to stop filming. We were manhandled down the street and into a walled compound.

The foreigners who had come to Bosnia had organised themselves into an independent fighting force known as the Seventh Muslim Brigade. Local commanders had little control over them.

On trial

Presently we were led into a room. There, behind a table draped with green cloth, sat three middle-aged men, too dark-skinned to be Bosnian. Throughout what followed, they never spoke.

A local man, bearing the insignia of the brigade, told us we were on trial, that this was a tribunal. I asked what we were accused of. "Spying," he said.

They began to call witnesses. "Yes I saw the spies trying to run away when they were arrested," the witnesses said, one after the other.

We are the civilian police and we try to uphold the law, but there are so many of them and they are well armed. They do what they like
Unnamed police chief, Zenica

I began to doubt the reliability of my own memory. Had we tried to run away? Yes we had run, but only to get quickly into the best vantage point for the camera.

The local man asked me whether I understood the seriousness of the charge, whether I understood that the rules of war demanded that spies be shot?

I began to play over and over again in my mind the moment we had made what I now thought of as our fatal error. If only we had turned left and not right. If only we had arrived 20 minutes later, or 20 minutes earlier. We sat and waited to hear our fate.

Three men arrived. They directed us to the town's police station.

The police chief was large, taciturn, manifestly exhausted. We were in his custody now. He had a piece of paper taped to his door identifying him as the "INSPEKTOR ZA STRANCI" - the inspector for foreigners.

In my anxiety, the title struck me as bizarre. There were no foreigners in Zenica except aid workers and peace keepers and us. And then it struck me. Of course there were other foreigners.

The Seventh Muslim Brigade. The so-called foreign mujahideen.

The inspector sat behind his desk. A young woman, not yet 30 I guessed, slim, pretty, long chestnut hair, sat beside him looking on. "Give me your passports," the inspector said. Three of us handed over our passports.

Greg said he had left his in the car. The inspector turned to the young woman. "Take this one to the car, get his passport, bring him back," he said. Greg and the young woman got up and left.


The inspector waited until the door was closed and he had heard the high-heeled clip-clop of her footsteps disappear down the corridor.

"Now listen to me," he said, as Vera translated.

I was put on trial by al-Qaeda was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 8 February at 22.45 GMT as part of The Westminster Hour
Or listen now via the BBC iPlayer

"I am going to do my best for you, but you are in deep trouble. The foreign Muslims want you shot as spies. This would be a disaster for us, for our reputation abroad.

"But there's been huge tension in this town since they arrived. We are the civilian police and we try to uphold the law, but there are so many of them and they are well armed. They do what they like.

"Today they've come back from the front line and they are fired up. They've been going round town smashing up shops that sell liquor, killing people's pigs and burning the carcasses. It seems Bosnia is not Muslim enough for them.

"I am in danger myself," he said. "I am distrusted by them because I am a Roman Catholic, a Croat, even though this is my home town.

"The woman who has gone to car with your colleague has been put in my office to spy on me. So please, when she comes back, this conversation never happened."

And he repeated, "I will do my best for you."

After a few minutes, Greg and the young woman reappeared. Greg was visibly shaken. The colour had drained from his face.

I asked him what was wrong. He described what he'd seen.

The police station was under siege, he said, surrounded by two concentric rings of men - an inner ring of men dressed in blue police uniforms, with their guns trained out; and an outer ring of men in green, with their guns trained in.

We sat in sullen impotence for what seemed like hours. And then, as quickly as our crisis had emerged, it ended.

The Inspector for Foreigners came into the room. He looked out the window. He said, "Come with me."

He led us down two flights of stairs to the front door of the station. The Muslim Brigade had disappeared.

"Go to your car," the Inspector said. "Walk, don't run. Behave normally. And get out of town."


Years later, long after 9/11 had changed the world and the war in Bosnia was all but forgotten, I found myself at a drinks reception at a London think tank.

The World Trade Centre in New York after the bomb explosion which killed 6 people in 1993
New York's World Trade Centre after the fatal bomb explosion in 1993

I fell into conversation with a war crimes lawyer who worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in the Hague.

I related this story to him.

"When was this?" he asked. "In November 1993," I said.

His eyes widened. "Do you have any idea how much trouble you were in?" he said.

"It was a few months after the first attack on the World Trade Centre in New York which killed six people," he added.

"Some of those guys were already on the run.

"No wonder they didn't like your cameras around."

I was put on trial by al-Qaeda was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 8 February at 22.45 GMT as part of The Westminster Hour. The second part will be broadcast on Sunday 15 February at 22.45 GMT.

Or listen to part one now via the BBC iPlayer .

Print Sponsor

Timeline: Serbia
21 May 12 |  Country profiles
At a glance: Hague tribunal
21 Oct 09 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific