Jeremy Scahill’s recent fame is based on his work in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, revealing the human and strategic dangers of America’s drone program. His appearance on best-sellers lists has made him an intellectual celebrity, not just on the far left but in the mainstream center. A former reporter for Democracy Now and a current columnist for the Nation, he has been a regular guest of Rachel Maddow and other liberal pundits. Chris Hayes, introducing Scahill on a Hardball discussion of Syria, described him as one of the “greatest reporters on national security we have.” But in their rush to acclaim a new star of progressive journalism, too many commentators have ignored his worrying record.
Reporting from Belgrade and Pristina in 1999, he portrayed Serbia’s regime as a victim of aggression, rather than the primary culprit for a decade of wars and massacres. As James Kirchick writes in Commentary magazine, “Scahill’s work…was focused almost exclusively on isolated incidents of violence committed by ethnic Albanians—to the exclusion of the vast, methodical ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by the Serbs.” In addition to omitting some facts, Scahill has distorted others, portraying the Balkans as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. Thus, a central paradox emerges in Scahill’s career: while now campaigning against the war on terror waged by democracies, he has portrayed real atrocities, even attempted genocide, as a justified response to jihadist threats- in a part of the world where no jihadist threat existed.
“Extremist Albanians”? Discrediting NATO by any means necessary
The International Socialist Review is a bimonthly leftist journal, published by a nonprofit called the Center for Economic Research and Social change. In this small but serious magazine, in October 2000, Scahill published
a scathing critique of post-intervention Kosovo.
The article starts the clock in late 1999, after Milosevic’s troops had withdrawn and a transitional government was being established. In exchange for a NATO presence that would protect the region from Milosevic, the KLA had agreed to disarm. Many of its members had returned to civilian life or been recruited into the new agencies established by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. One of these was a police-force in training called Kosovo protection corps. Scahill saw the KPC as an indictment of UNMIK and NATO, its ethnic composition- almost entirely Albanian- at odds with the stated ideal of a “multiethnic Kosovo”.
This lack of diversity was underlined in the KPC’s founding ceremony, which was supposed to be bilingual, with speeches in both Serbian
and Albanian. the KPC’s recruits, and their families, demanded a monolingual event. They didn’t want to hear what they viewed as the language of their oppressors. Refusing to hold the ceremony in Serbian, as well as Albanian, did nothing to assure ordinary Serbs of their place in a new Kosovo. But the relatives’ angry protest was not petty bigotry, as Scahill portrays it. The Serbian language was associated, for some, with dictatorship in Belgrade and the crimes it perpetrated in Kosovo. Every action has a reaction, but every reaction has a catalyst.
It was not just its lack of diversity that made the KPC suspect. Scahill spends several paragraphs discussing the record of its first commander Agim Ceku,who would eventually be arrested in Bulgaria in 2009. Ceku had served as a mercenary in the Croatian army, and was wanted for war crimes committed in 1993, when Croatian nationalists expelled hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the Krajina region. Under his leadership the KPC turned a deliberate blind eye to attacks on Serbian monuments and churches. “In tactics reminiscent of American tactics in central Ameica”, Scahill writes, “extremist Albanians have made the Serbian orthodox church a major target of attacks…according to the office of the patriarch, more than a hundred churches and monasteries have been plundered, vandalized burnt or leveled.”
From the reports on Albanian crimes in the aftermath of intervention, Scahill does not merely that intervention was badly managed, that UNMIK failed to protect all of Kosovo’s citizens. What he concludes is that the status quo ante should’ve been respected, preserved, by the world community: a Milosevic-ruled Kosovo from which Albanians were being ethnically cleansed, in which thousands of people, before being deported, were subject to torture and rape- this was preferable to the aftermath of NATO involvement.
But Washington’s Men in Kosovo is disturbing for yet another reason. In this bitter critique of what he terms NATO’s “reign of terror”, he makes no mention of the events that triggered NATO’s intervention. Human Rights Watch reported in October 1998, when the KLA’s rebellion began, that the Serbian army was subjecting civilian women to mass rape, repeating the cruel strategy used in Bosnia 4 years earlier, where torture and sexual violence had been recognized as effective means of inflicting terror. By April 1999, when NATO started bombing Belgrade, thousands of civilian men had, in the brutal phrase, “disappeared”- imprisoned in hellish camps or killed outright. Like in Bosnia, the anonymous graves are still being found; the latest was uncovered in December 2013. These extremes of cruelty, murder and violation, were only the worst aspects of a larger crime, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of hundreds of thousands of people. Washington’s Men in Kosovo mentions none of this. It is not hard to understand why. It becomes much harder, knowing the extent of Milosevic’s crimes, to see western intervention as the main, or even the sole, evil.
“Admit you’re a Muslim extremist”: propaganda and fact
Most of Scahill’s work, in the last decade, has concerned the American-led war on terror. But several times since 9/11, his focus on the middle east has been interrupted by important events in Europe. The death of Slobodan Milosevic in 2006, and Kosovo’s independence in 2008, prompted Scahill to revisit his earlier views.
In the early 90s when Serbian forces were decimating Bosnia, Jeremy Scahill was a student at the University of Wisconsin; in 1995, the year made infamous by the slaughter at Srebrenica, he decided to drop out and “enter the struggle for justice in this country”. Inspired by the activist priest Phillip Berrigan, he spent the next few years devoting himself to various causes – investigating abuses by oil companies in the Niger delta and joining a dramatic sit-in at Andrews Air Force base.
Thus in the horrible decade leading up to war in Kosovo, it is safe to say that Scahill’s attention was quite far from the Balkans. His trips to Belgrade and Kosovo in 1999, as a new correspondent for the leftist network Democracy Now, was his first extensive encounter with the former Yugoslavia. He approached the conflict with a firmly engrained bias, not against Muslims but against whatever was said by the mainstream media in his own country, and whatever policies were adapted by its centrist president.
Up till 2006, though, Scahill’s main focus had been on Kosovo. He had said and written almost nothing about the longer, crueller war earlier in Bosnia. This changed in 2006. When Milosevic died at the Hague that year, Scahill took issue with how his death was depicted in the media. In a short passionate article, titled “Rest Easy Clinton, Milosevic can’t talk anymore”, he argues that had he lived longer, the defendant, could’ve become the plaintiff. Milosevic was “in the unique position of being able to expose the…US role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.”, and to “bring justice” for the NATO bombing of Belgrade.
(This bombing campaign, Scahill reminds his readers, lasted a total of 78 days. The number is supposed to shock. To put things in some perspective, the siege of Sarajevo- for which Milosevic was directly responsible- lasted 11,825 days, longer than the siege of Stalingrad.)
He then describes the ICTY, the UN-run tribunal which was trying Milosevic when he died, as a “poor and unfair substitute for a true international court”; he further accuses this ‘unfair’ court of practicing “victors justice.”
Since it opened in Noember 1993, hundreds of witnesses have testified to the ICTY. Many of them have remained anonymous, choosing to be identified by letters and numbers- witness VV, or witness 50. The reason for this is depressingly simple: the nationalist forces that plunged Bosnia into war are still active and powerful in the Republika Sprska; they still have the easy ability to threaten and terrorize. Challenging the court’s legitimacy, as Scahill does, implies that massive evidence can be discarded. Victors’ justice is by definition unobjective; it implies the exact opposite of credible legal judgment. If a court is practicing victors’ justice, and not actual justice, it follows that the verdicts are invalid and those convicted have been framed.
In 1992, when Serbian paramilitaries took over the town of Prijedor, the first people they rounded up were professionals and the intelligentsia. Among them a female judge named Nusreta Sivac, who was imprisoned in Omarska and repeatedly raped. After being released in a prisoner exchange she spent the next ten years collecting testimonies from other women across Bosnia, who like her subjected to horrible abuse. This led to the indictment of 8 military leaders and a groundbreaking ruling by the ICTY, which designates rape a war crime. According to Scahill’s argument, that ruling is victor’s justice. But in this inverted logic, the survivors of genocide are the victors, simply because they’re allowed to testify about what happened to them.
Scahill does not end by attacking the international legal system. A few paragraphs later, we come upon this:
“Little attention, therefore, has been paid to Milosevic’s long-term efforts…to expose the presence of al-Qaeda in the Balkans, from Bosnia to Kosovo. Following the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, many mujahedin eventually turned their sights on Yugoslavia, where they went to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims against the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.”
Two French journalists, Isabelleh Weiselling and Aurnaud Vaulerin, have written a detailed account of the ethnic cleansing campaign in Prijedor- a small city in northwest Bosnia about the size of Madison, Wisconsin. They interviewed survivors of three concentration camps on the city’s outskirts, where Muslim civilians were imprisoned in 1992. From these accounts and from interviews with former guards, they have built a comprehensive, terrible picture of what life was like in Omarska, Karaterm and Tronopolje. Since most of the victims were ordinary people, the ‘interrogations’ they were subjected to were essentially a pretext for torture. There was no reason for guards to ask them actual questions; doctors, professors and restaurant workers wouldn’t know military secrets. Instead they shouted things like this: “Admit you’re a Muslim extremist. Admit you organized a rebellion.”
Long before actual jihadis set foot in the country, Serbian media promoted hysteria about an Islamist threat. Florence Hartmann, a correspondent for Le Monde, explains how this worked:” Belgrade television made out that the Serb people were again under threat in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. Overwhelmed by…propaganda that inverted reality…the population backed Slobadan Milosevic’s criminal scheme or sank into indifference and apathy.” The claim that Bosniaks were fundamentalists was indeed a case of inverting reality. Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s wartime president and founder of the Democratic Action party, said “a non-secular Bosnia would be a nightmare.” Like many European countries, more so because of the legacy of communism- Bosnia had a remarkably low level of religious observance; Muslim was an ethnic identity more than a religious one. All these facts had to be denied to construct an Islamist threat where none existed.
Yet as Serb nationalists acted against this imaginary threat, the war they unleashed made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thousands of fundamentalists came from across the middle east to Bosnia, some out of religious solidarity and some out of political calculation, seeing an opportunity to spread their radical ideology. These mujahedeen included al Qaeda members from Afghanistan, two of whom would later become infamous as 9/11 hijackers.
Thus it is true, in a technical sense, that al Qaeda had a ‘presence in the Balkans,’ that foreign Islamists were fighting ‘alongside the Bosnian Muslims against Orthodox Serbs.’ What Scahill neglects to explain is why Bosnian Muslims were “fighting Orthodox Serbs” in the first place. They were fighting were for survival against an army that was committing genocide, that had thrown Muslim civilians in concentration camps. Even when it accepted help from foreign jihadists, the regular Bosnian army did not embrace their ideology; it was loyal to the elected government of a secular state, a form of governance that al Qaeda views as heretical.
This was not the last time Scahill would raise the alarm about jihadists in Bosnia. Invited to speak at a conference in Chicago called “Socialism 2006”, he gave a talk entitled “the Myth of Humanitarian intervention”. In the question and answer session, he turned to another theme, ‘blowback.’ Like his earlier comments in Rest Easy, Clinton, these brief remarks construct a picture at odds with reality.
“I think it’s a matter of time before we have blowback from what the United States did in Bosnia. There’s this phenomena, it’s actually a racist term but it’s the term that’s being used- ‘white al Qaeda.’ You have a very heavy Wahhabi influence in Bosnia, and you have a small but not insignificant minority of people in Bosnia who really are in sync with a sort of Islamic, uh, militant agenda. And those people could very easily integrate into western European capitals. I think there is a real legitimate potential for blowback for US support of these forces in
Well, as the Duke of Wellington said: if you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything. in suggesting that Bosnia is a hotbed of radical Islam, he echoes the wartime claims of Radovan Karadzic, who told western reporters “we’re fighting Muslim fundamentalism.” In blaming this alleged extremism on American policy, he shows the lengths to which he’s willing to go to make the case against intervention; when the facts suggest that intervention was a moral necessity, he has no problem omitting some and inventing others.
Barbara Demick, in her account of the siege of Sarajevo, noted that as the war went on, she noticed a slight but discernable increase in public religiosity- more people attending prayers, an occasional woman wearing a headscarf. That trend of a quiet revival has continued over the last two decades. “More than half a dozen madrasas, or Islamic high schools, have been built in the last few years”, reportd the New York Times in 2008. The most obvious evidence of Wahhabism in Bosnia is new mosques built by Saudi donors. Unlike older mosques, many of them dynamited during the war, these new buildings are built in a bland, austere style, since elaborate Ottoman-era architecture is viewed by the Saudi establishment as heretical.
There are less benign developments as well. An attack on a gay pride parade, men shouted ‘God is great” and “kill the gays”. (Gay pride parades in Belgrade have been similarly disrupted.)
These facts would appear to testify to some Wahhabi influence. Yet Stephen Schwartz, in his book the Two faces of Islam, documents just how much resistance the Wahhabis have faced, from the traditional religious establishment, which is theologically liberal and heavily influenced by Sufism, and by a political scene dominated by secular parties. Far from having undue influence, the Wahhabis
have alienated the people they were hoping to convert. Mustafa Ceric, the highest religious authority in the country, asserts that wahhabism has no future in Bosnia.
There is no Bosnian equivalent of the Muslim brotherhood, pushing for a de facto theocracy and winning massive support at the polls; the largest Bosniak political party, the Party of Democratic Action, is by any measure one of the most pro-American in Europe. Former education minister Emir Suljagic, has likened Bosnia’s struggle for survival to that of the Jewish state. Scahill would not be impressed, of course, by the SDA’s support for sending troops to Iraq (which Serbian parties opposed), or by Suljagic’s sympathies with Israel. But the political reality in Bosnia testifies to the disastrous failure of the Islamists. In purely religious terms, Sufi tradition is stronger than wahhabist prosletyzing, and in political terms, Bosnia’s theocrats are as relevant as America’s socialists.
The ‘blowback’ of inaction
But Scahill is not just wrong in exaggerating ‘Wahhabist influence in Bosnia.” He is also wrong in attributing it to American intervention, which came, late and minimal, in August 1995, with a few airstrikes on Serbian arms depots and communications. The very appearance of the mujahadeen, and the Bosnian army’s reluctant willingness to work with them, in the worst days of the war, stemmed precisely from non-intervention on the part of the west. The lack of any support from Europe or America made the help offered by foreign extremists impossible to refuse.
In addition to practical necessity there was another factor at work- the psychological shock of betrayal. It could not have been hard to reach the conclusion, in besieged Sarajevo or behind the barbed wire at Omarska, that the world’s inaction was an expression of deep hatred. Europe and America, it would have seemed, did not value Muslim life.
There has been a disturbing allignment, in debates about the Balkans, between the ‘anti-imperialism’ of the left and the blatant bigotry of the right. Pamela Geller, A tea party activist, banned from the UK for hate speech, writes that Ratko Mladic was waging a “struggle against Islamic imperialism.” Few on the left are obsessing over “Islamic imperialism”, its American imperialism they’re worried about, but the mental gymnastics are the same. Geller’s worldview, in which Islam is innately evil, requires that every conflict in which Muslims are involved be the fault of Muslims. Scahill’s worldview, in which American foreign policy accounts for most of the world’s problems, requires American intervention to be the greatest evil in all conflicts. Both arguments, to be sustained, have to be supported through lies: Milosevic has to have been framed, Srebrenica has to have been exaggerated, Bosnians have to be “in sync”, as Scahill alleged, with “an Islamic militant agenda” that threatens the “capitals of western Europe.”
Sarajevo and Manhattan
But if anyone shared a worldview with Bin laden, it was the snipers on Mount Trebevic shooting at civilians in Sarajevo. The similarities go deeper than a general contempt for life. When trying to explain why Manhattan was targeted for mass murder, some commentators, including the president, talked vaguely about freedom. Others talked about the evils of American empire. But one of the most compelling explanations was the ‘way of life’ New York embodies. It is a cosmopolitan city if there ever was one, uniquely American precisely because it is so diverse. Normal interactions among cultures were anathema to bin Laden, for the same exact reason they were anathema to Radovan Karadzic. The mosques in Banja Luka were destroyed for the same reason as the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Christopher Hitchens, speaking of Serbian nationalism, described his fear that “the forces of fanaticism, of hatred” were again on the march. They were and still are. To begin to confront them requires a sober approach to history.
Sovereignty over human rights?
Two years after Milosevic died, Kosovo declared independence. Scahill responded promptly with an article in the Huffington Post, republished on Counterpunch, a website with a long history of apologetics for Serbian nationalism. (“Srebrenica revisited” is a textbook case of genocide denial.) He opened with a sarcastic line bound to appeal to liberal readers: “newsflash, the Bush administration acknowledges there is something called international law.” Incensed that President Bush had acknowledged Kosovo as a new state, Serbian nationalists in Belgrade had surrounded the American embassy, attempting to burn it. When the Belgrade police showed reluctance to disrupt the mob, an American official expressed outrage- pointing out that the embassy was technically American territory. So, Scahill argued, America was asserting its sovereignty, saying no patch of its territory, even an embassy, could be attacked without there being consequences. What irony, since Serbia was a sovereign country, and American intervention in Kosovo had been a violation of tis sovereignty.
Scahill’s thesis can be demolished by two letters and a number. Responsibility to protect, abbreviated R2P, is a legal norm ratified by the United Nations General Assembly, part of an honorable attempt to update international law, so that state sovereignty does not become a sanction for genocide. When Milosevic began “cleansing” Kosovo of its Albanian majority, he forfeited sovereignty over the ‘province’. There are moral limits to what can be tolerated in the name of
Scahill’s statements on Bosnia and Kosovo raise serious ethical questions- about his credibility as a journalist, and his decency as a political commentator. Out of respect for
his current work or amnesia over the recent past, critics of American foreign policy have taken little notice of his record, pretending his real career started in 2001, and that nothing he said about the Balkans has any relevance. This approach, while convenient, is morally dangerous.
The 1990s saw the return of fascism in Europe, and the failure by the world’s democracies to prevent genocide. The longer the facts are blurred- by claims, like Scahill’s, that Serbs defending themselves from al Qaeda- the harder it becomes to acknowledge their implications.