In this special bonus episode of Intercepted, we take an in-depth look at one of the most consequential eras of modern history: the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 as the Soviet Union crumbled. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan came to an end, thanks in no small part to the covert and overt involvement of the United States. Bill Clinton brought an end to 12 years of Republican rule, defeating former CIA director George H.W. Bush for the office of president. And with Clinton’s two terms in office came a new spin on U.S. militarism across the world: the notion of liberal so-called humanitarian intervention. The propaganda pitch was that the United States would use its military force as a sort of global police officer whose violent actions were wrapped in the justification that U.S. missiles, bombs, and troop deployments were serving a greater good. Nowhere was this more boldly asserted than in the wars in Yugoslavia, which stretched from the early 1990s all the way through 2008, when the U.S. officially recognized the independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo. The years that ushered in the declaration of the end of the Cold War would have a significant impact on global relations and war-making to this day.
University of Chicago scholar Darryl Li has written a meticulously documented book that seeks to understand the trends that emerged from this era, with a focus on putting into context the movement of foreign fighters from country to country. The book is called “The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity.” Li highlights the parallels between transnational jihadists, U.N. peacekeeping missions, and socialist nonalignment and examines the relationship between jihad and U.S. empire.
Jeremy Scahill: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from The Intercept in New York City. And this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted.
We live in an era where information is spread quickly via social media. Complex developments are distilled into 280 character summaries or observations and they can go viral without any editing or fact-checking. It is a two-edged sword: on the one hand, social media can circumvent the historic monopoly of large media corporations over the means of disseminating news; and on the other, it has the ability to spread disinformation rapidly. The rise of social media has also encouraged systemic oversimplification and ahistorical analysis. Today on the show, we are going to take a step back from this framework and take an in-depth look at one of the most consequential eras of modern history: the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, as the Soviet Union crumbled. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan had just come to an end, thanks in no small part to the covert and overt involvement of the United States in backing foreign fighters, including some who would just a decade later organize the 9-11 attacks.
Dan Rather: The retreat of Soviet military power from Afghanistan is complete. The last of Russia’s regular army invasion force is out. Fear and uncertainty were mixed with joy today as the commander of Soviet troops followed the last of his men across the border, leaving the communist Afghan regime alone to face victorious resistance fighters.
JS: In the United States, Bill Clinton brought an end to 12 years of Republican rule, defeating the former CIA director George HW Bush. And with Clinton’s two terms in office came a new spin on U.S. militarism across the world, the notion of liberal so-called humanitarian intervention.
Bill Clinton: Our mission is clear to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s purpose so that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of reversing course, to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo, and if necessary to seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo. In short, if President Milosevic will not make peace we will limit his ability to make war.
JS: The propaganda pitch was that the United States would use its military force as a sort of global police officer whose violent actions were wrapped in the justification that US missiles and bombs and troop deployments were serving a greater good. Nowhere was this more boldly asserted than in the wars in Yugoslavia, which stretched from the early 1990s all the way through 2008 when the U.S. officially recognized the independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo. The years that ushered in the declaration of the end of the Cold War would have a significant impact on global relations and war-making to this day.
The scholar Darryl Li has written a meticulously documented book that seeks to understand the trends that emerged from this era, with a focus on putting into context the movement of foreign fighters from country to country. The book is called “The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity.” In its simplest form, this book is an anthropological study about a group of experienced foreign fighters who volunteer to fight for the Bosnian Muslims in the Yugoslav civil war. They fought against the forces of the more powerful Republics of Serbia and Croatia. And while Li paints a complex and very human picture of what motivated these fighters, the book takes on a much broader swath of history and geopolitics. What is perhaps most interesting about this book is that Li does not only write about the jihadists, Islamist militants, or Al Qaeda operatives as “foreign fighters.” He also describes the most well-armed and powerful foreign fighters on the planet, the soldiers sent by the United States and other major powers, who intervene under the banner of humanitarian intervention or national security.
Li highlights the parallels between transnational jihadists, UN peacekeeping missions, and socialist non-alignment. And he examines the relationship between jihad and U.S. empire. In doing this, Daryl Li strips away the US narrative of itself as the great defender of human freedoms and subjects it to a sharp, critical analysis where it is judged by its actions and not its own hagiography or propaganda. It’s a really fascinating and provocative work of scholarship.
Darryl Li is an assistant professor of anthropology and a lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago. I spoke to him earlier this year and we began by discussing the world alternating events that began to unfold between 1988 and 1992.
JS: Darryl Li, thanks for being with us.
Darryl Li: Thanks. Great to be with you today.
Jeremy Scahill: In March of 1992, Bosnia declares its independence.
Newscaster: Even before the result is known, the Bosnian government is claiming that a majority has voted for independence.
JS: Yugoslavia was at the beginning stages of an all-out civil war.
Newscaster: With most ethnic Serbs boycotting the referendum, it was left to the majority of Muslims and Croats to decide on the republic’s future. Western governments fear the fragmentation of Bosnia could throw the republic into a civil war worse than that which killed thousands in Croatia.
JS: You also had the Russian-backed government in Kabul falling to a coalition that was supported by the United States, included foreign jihadist fighters. Set the stage for what was happening in the world at that moment, as it relates to jihadist movements and Mujahideen groups around the world.
DL: You’ve just wonderfully described some of the most important set pieces at this crucial moment at what we can think of as the dawn of the post-Cold War era. So on the one hand, there’s this narrative that American-led capitalism in the free world has vanquished the Soviet threat, and this is a new era of flourishing in human history. But then also this sense of foreboding, right? Of new types of conflicts — or actually old types of conflicts based in ancient hatreds and religious, you know, categories and so on, that are beginning to flare up around the world.
The U.S. needs to find a new rationale for being the most powerful nation-state in the world, with its massive military; the Soviet threat is no longer there as a justification, so there has to be some other reason to make it OK to have this immense disparity in military and other forms of power. And in this period in the ‘90s, you know, one of the rationales that the U.S. settles on, however kind of tentatively, is the idea of being a kind of humanitarian policeman, right? And not only is it the end of the Cold War, it’s also the 50th anniversary of World War II and events associated with it, most prominently the Holocaust. And these events sort of converged into a vague sensibility that what makes the U.S. great is that it ended the Holocaust. Now, of course, anyone who is familiar with the history of the Holocaust knows how much violence that narrative does to the actual historical facts, but that’s the sensibility that you kind of see percolating.
JS: It also completely erases the sacrifices made by Russian forces.
So, all of these things are kind of happening around the same time in the 90s. And then you have these conflicts in various parts of the world, most prominently in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa with the Rwandan genocide, but also the crisis in southeastern Europe and the Wars of Yugoslav succession. What’s especially important about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that they happen in a space that’s racialized as white. The U.S. and Europe have a particular set of expectations about the sort of post-colonial world as a space of violence and disorder. But the violence in ex-Yugoslavia strikes this chord — it’s not just that the people in the TV news are dying and starving and behind barbed wire, but they’re also white.
Joe Biden: There is no moral center in Europe. When in the last two centuries, have the French, or the British, or the Germans, or the Belgian, or the Italian, moved in a way to unify that continent to stand up to this kind of genocide? The only reason anything is happening now is because the United States of America finally — finally — is understanding her role.
DL: So it resonates with sort of notions of the Holocaust and the anniversaries of World War II, and this notion of “never again” is happening again. This is kind of the standard narrative of how U.S. power in the 90s is kind of justifying itself before 9/11. So it’s this post-Cold War, pre-9/11 moment.
JS: Before we get deeper into the war in Yugoslavia, the role of the U.S., the role of foreign fighters, Mujahideen that had joined from other countries and come to Bosnia, let’s just back up a little bit and talk briefly about Russia’s war in Afghanistan — the posture of the United States.
DL: You know, it’s fair to say that the Soviet Union launches a military incursion in Afghanistan to sort of prop up but also replace the regime because there’s a bit of backstory there. And of course, for the United States, this is a golden opportunity for payback for the Vietnam War. And the United States, in concert with key allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, pump enormous resources into supporting various Afghan gone political factions, which call themselves the Mujahideen.
Newscaster: As product shortages continue, the Soviets call for an immediate ceasefire and offer to stop shipping weapons to the government if the U.S. will stop supplying the Mujahideen guerrillas. It’s a deal the Americans have refused before.
DL: And it’s funny because this term Mujahideen really enters the American media lexicon in the 1980s, and it’s kind of a positive term — it’s romanticized.
We have a Rambo film —
Character [from “Rambo III”]: What you see here are the Mujahideen soldiers, holy warriors. To us, this war is a holy war. And there is no true death for Mujahideen, because we have taken our last rites, and we consider ourselves dead already. To us, death for our land and God is an honor.
DL: — there’s a James Bond film, of course, in that time, that also treats the Afghan Mujahideen kind of, you know, as Muslim Ewoks —
Timothy Dalton [as James Bond from “The Living Daylights”]: It’s the work of the Mujahideen.
Maryam d’Abo [as Kara Milovy from “The Living Daylights”]: Mujahideen?
TD: The Afghan resistance.
DL: — friendly natives, you know, who embody a kind of rugged authenticity, that’s totally compatible with benign American power.
And alongside all of this that’s going on, you have different kinds of networks of support throughout the Muslim world that are trying to mobilize on behalf of the Afghan people. This network of pan-Islamic solidarity includes people who are going to Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian aid, to engage in forms of Islamic education, and also, of course, to fight. Some volunteers from different parts of the Muslim world, especially from Arab countries, go and participate in the fighting against the Soviet Union. And they are also understood or understand themselves, to be engaged in jihad. They’re a relatively small part of the overall military picture; they’re not a decisive factor by any stretch of the imagination. But they include individuals who later go on to achieve considerable notoriety — of course, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In the early 90s, these folks, as the war winds down, or rather, I should say, as the Soviet part of the war winds down, you move into the civil war between Afghan factions. And a lot of these solidarity activists from other parts of the Muslim world get disillusioned because they came to fight the Soviets and help build an Islamic State in Afghanistan. But now they find that the Afghans have turned against each other. So a lot of these folks start to leave. And some of them are engaged in violent opposition in their home countries, especially in Egypt and Algeria. So they’re seen as kind of troublemakers returning home; others return home and just take up ordinary lives again, and this is something that they did, but they continue to do other things. And yet others look for new jihads. And Bosnia begins at around the time as the Soviet-Afghan war winds down and it’s another place where you see mass atrocities against Muslim populations at the hands of non-Muslim powers. Right? So that’s the general framework that calls forth this kind of armed solidarity.
JS: Talk about the position of the United States at that time toward the war in Yugoslavia, as well as some of these fighters that came from other countries to join the jihad against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul?
DL: I think it’s fair to say that there was a general consensus among the U.S. and European states that the breakup of a large socialist nation-state in southeastern Europe was not necessarily a bad thing. But, beyond that, not a lot of agreement about what should happen and who should come out on top, and how the process should be managed.
And, in the case of Bosnia, what made Bosnia different from the other five republics that together made up Yugoslavia as a federation is that it didn’t have a clear demographic majority for one particular national group. So Bosnian Muslims, or what today are often called Bosniaks, actually had a plurality, followed by Serbs and Croats as the next largest national groups.
So when the war came to Bosnia, it was especially violent, because all of these nationalist groups, in very different ways, wanted to create spaces where they would kind of be in the majority. But of course, this is a very mixed country with mixed populations, lots of people married together, and people didn’t even necessarily think of themselves primarily as Bosniak, Serbs, or Croats before the war. So if you have an agenda for purity but a reality of mixing, that’s usually going to end badly. So you have mass atrocities — Bosnian-Muslims kind of bore the brunt of those mass atrocities from Serb forces and Croat forces — and this was also exacerbated by the fact that the international community, through the U.N. Security Council, imposed an arms embargo on ex-Yugoslavia. So that effectively locked in the advantage that Serb and Croat forces already had.
And this was something that was very controversial. It enraged liberals in the West who were sympathetic to the Bosnian-Muslim cause and it also enraged folks in Muslim-majority countries. Right? It was seen as sort of something that was unjust, right? If you’re not going to save these people or stop ethnic cleansing and genocide and mass atrocities, you should at least allow them to defend themselves, right? So this was a line that was shared by people like Margaret Thatcher, Bob Dole.
What this book does is it kind of brings in a different perspective, and one that’s been largely overlooked, which is that of activists from Muslim-majority countries who really believed in supporting Bosnia in the framework of solidarity between Muslims around the world in the name of a worldwide Muslim community, or ummah. And those support and solidarity activities included everything from sending humanitarian aid, diplomatic support for Bosnia, allowing in refugees, but also included folks who went there to participate in the fighting.
JS: One of the main characters in the book, perhaps even the central individual character, is Abu Abd al-Aziz. He arrives in Bosnia with his Saudi passport, just as Bosnia has declared its independence. Talk about who he is, and his journey that you described in this book.
DL: So Abu Abd al-Aziz is one of the first Arab Mujahideen arriving in Bosnia very early in the war with a small number of folks. And he’s a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan. And he and a relatively small number, maybe a few dozen Arab and other foreign Muslim combatants, arrive in Bosnia. They link up with one of the many militias that at that point are fighting on the side of the predominantly Muslim government in Sarajevo. So really early in the war, the Bosnian Muslims are militarily disadvantaged, they don’t have a really organized army, right? It’s a sort of a patchwork of local militias, criminal gangs, and so on — and significant numbers of non-Muslims as well fighting on the side of the Bosnian government.
So one of these many, many different units is a sort of piety militia. It’s a small group of Bosnian Muslims who believe that the best way to win the war is to also be religious Muslims. Now, for those who may not be familiar, many Muslims in Bosnia and ex-Yugoslavia are not necessarily practicing, right? So in that part of the world, Muslim is predominantly an identity category, like a national identity; you can be an ardent Muslim nationalist, and not practice, drink, eat pork, and there’s no inherent contradiction in that, right? It’s about what a lot of these people said was, you know, we’re being killed as Muslims, are being targeted as Muslims, so we might as well and have it that identity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have any feelings about practice one way or the other.
So these folks, this relatively small militia called the Muslim Forces, they kind of get started up at the beginning of the war. And again, Muslim Forces with a capital M, capital F — not to be confused with the Bosnian army, which just happens to be predominantly Muslim. These folks are kind of the natural interlocutors for Abu Abd al-Aziz, and the jihad fighters who come, right? Because they show up and they’re also interested in combat that is religiously grounded and inflected and proper from their point of view.
So Abu Abd al-Aziz shows up, he starts giving interviews to journalists, pretty much any journalist who comes by, whether from East or West, as it were. He talks to Newsweek, he talks to Asharq Al-Awsat, the newspaper in London. And, you know, he starts kind of raising awareness about the jihad.
So he’s there for a few months and then he leaves and goes on a speaking tour. He’s in Jordan, he goes to the U.S., the U.K., to Pakistan. But he’s kind of this jet-setting character. He’s trilingual in Arabic, Urdu, and English. And he kind of assumes this sort of prominent role. So a lot of the books that have been written about the Bosnian jihad spend a lot of time talking about him. But it’s important to keep in mind that he really only spent a few months in Bosnia at the beginning of the war, and not an active player on the ground after that — even though he’s kind of raising funds, and they’re in touch with him. But he assumes this sort of outsized prominence in discussions of the Bosnian jihad.
JS: I’m curious if you can share some insight into how these foreign fighters or people that were coming there because they viewed it as an extension of the armed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, how are they received by this overwhelmingly secular, non-passionately-religious population in the Muslim sectors of Bosnia?
DL: In my research, I found that a lot of the so-called foreign fighters are people who were already kind of migrants or diasporic in one way or the other. And oftentimes they went to Bosnia with really different — and even kind of vague — motives. Right? Sometimes they went thinking they would do humanitarian work, and then they decided jihad made more sense. Sometimes they went to fight and then got disillusioned and did humanitarian work instead. But when you think of them as folks who are already in motion, and who are kind of moving between the category of worker or refugee or migrant or pilgrim, their decision to join the fight suddenly becomes less dramatic and less crazy than kind of the standard image that we think of, which is a Muslim in country A finds out about suffering Muslims in country B, drops everything, and then travels to go kind of give up his life, right? That’s the more standard foreign fighter narrative that we see, and that I think is actually not particularly kind of helpful.
To your question about the interaction between the Bosnian Muslims and these people arriving from abroad: I mean, clearly, there was a lot of tension. Bosnian Muslims, many of them are not practicing, or they were practicing a very different type of Islam than what was being proffered by these people coming from abroad. At the same time, I think it’s important not to overplay the difference because I think if you’re a kind of an average Bosnian Muslim at that particular point in the war, you’re terrified of you and your family getting massacred. And you see that the international community is doing nothing for you, and also preventing you from arming yourself. So under those conditions, people showing up offering solidarity who might seem less than ideal in some ways, you might be a little bit more open or sympathetic to them. But I think it’s fair to say that the general majority response was some kind of wariness or skepticism, even if there was some gratitude for help during the war.
JS: What kinds of battles were they engaged in? Was there any significant activity that any of these groups were participants in that either defended cities or were able to take territory back?
DL: At the beginning, you just have these foreign fighters showing up in different parts of the country, often in very small numbers; it’s a bit scattered, it’s a bit disorganized. In the middle part of the war, the Bosnian army decides: OK, we need to centralize these people and put them under one authority, because we need to know who they are, and we don’t want random foreigners running around, right?
And then for the Mujahideen, it was also a good way to make sure that they were duly registered and that they weren’t going to be accosted by the authorities or treated as illegal migrants. And then for the Bosnian Muslims who joined them, they had often run away from other military units, so they didn’t want to be marked down as deserters, essentially, right?
So this special Battalion, it’s called the El Mudžahed in Bosnian or Katiba al-Mujahideen in Arabic, this battalion gets set up in 1993. And it’s sort of this interesting mix, where you have a bunch of so-called foreign fighters coming in, who are fighting in the name of a global Muslim community, who raised their own funds from outside, who have their own media materials where they are speaking in this kind of global Muslim sense, but at the same time, they are fighting under the broad leadership of an avowedly secular, multiethnic nation-state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and taking orders from generals who are either not practicing Muslims, not Muslims at all, and many of them are erstwhile communists, while at the same time being a military unit that is led by self-described Salafi Arabs who have chosen their own leadership. So it’s a really interesting case study, that kind of upends a lot of our assumptions about how jihadism works as a phenomenon.
JS: How did major players in the world, nation-states view the developments at this period in the ‘90s in Bosnia and former Yugoslavia in general?
DL: So as far as I can tell, it was not particularly central on their radar screens. Because as I mentioned, their military role was rather limited. And we are just coming off of the Afghan jihad, where these guys are basically, you know, good guys in the books of the U.S., so to the extent I’ve been able to do some archival research and look around, it doesn’t seem to have been a major concern.
The United States in particular was much, much, much more concerned at this point in time with the influence of Iran and of the Lebanese Hezbollah in the conflict. And it’s important to note that Iran and Saudi Arabia supported the Bosnian government in their own ways. The Iranian state, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, sent military advisors to Bosnia; the famous tunnel that linked Sarajevo to the outside world and allowed humanitarian aid to come in was apparently suggested by an Iranian military adviser — at least this is what you’ll read if you look at the memoirs of Jovan Divjak, who was the highest-ranking Serb member of the Bosnian army. And when the United States is negotiating the peace treaty that ends the war, they insist to the Bosnian government that all of the foreign Muslim advisers, and fighters, and elements basically need to leave. And they put a provision in the treaty saying that they need to leave within 30 days. The language is all foreign advisers, and freedom fighters and mercenaries need to leave within 30 days. And then that same provision also exempts NATO and U.N. peacekeepers, right? So there’s kind of this idea of like, what kinds of foreign fighters are the good ones and what kinds are not allowed.
And one of the first moves that the U.S.-led peacekeeping force makes after the war is to raid and expel an alleged training camp run by Iranian advisors. And actually, there are a few Iranian IRGC folks who died during the war. And Hezbollah has also publicly acknowledged that several of its people had died in the war.
JS: In the book, you write: “The notion that participating in armed forms of solidarity without the permission of any nation-state is treated as suspect.” And then continuing on, you’re contrasting this with the policies of U.S. empire that you say has, “long engaged in alien rule over foreign territories.”
I’m curious to set it in that bigger context of the way that foreign fighters, jihadists, mercenaries, etc., how they’re talked about, versus the intervention of large nation-states, including in Bosnia.
DL: This is really kind of one of the central conceptual questions of the book. And this term “foreign fighter” really enters the media discourse with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. There’s enough discontent or uncertainty over the invasion, because it’s quite unpopular, that American national security elites kind of understand that, OK, there’s an insurgency going on, the Iraqis are not happy with us, because we kind of messed everything up. Like there’s some understanding of that. But there’s this notion that local insurgents can potentially be won over to our side. But the foreign fighters, these people coming from outside, they’re the really crazy ones. They’re the ones who we can’t negotiate with, and they’re the ones who justify all the extraordinary measures of Guantanamo, black sites, and so on.
One thing that’s really important for folks to keep in mind is that the CIA black sites and secret interrogation program almost exclusively targeted Muslims who were outside of their country of origin, right? So it’s this idea that, you know, the U.S. in most places in the world just tells the local government who to arrest and who to torture, right? But when Muslim travelers kind of move from one national space to another, there’s something that makes the national security establishment extra nervous about controlling those folks, right? Again, the CIA black sites, it’s almost always a Muslim from country A, who is kidnapped by the CIA in country B, and then sent to a prison in country C, and that maximizes all the different forms of separation, right? So they’re separated from their home country, they don’t have any link to the country where they’re being detained, it kind of creates a space of like maximum discretion for the United States.
The interesting thing about this foreign fighter discourse in Iraq is that the U.S. again, really emphasizes that there’s Iraqi insurgents who we will fight, but we will have to deal with at the end of the day, and the foreign fighters who are the really diehard, you know, dead-end or crazy ones. Now, of course, this term is used in an entirely unselfconscious, unironic way, because, of course, the largest foreign fighter presence in Iraq at that time is the U.S. military, right? So this idea of who gets to cast people as foreigners, and who gets to just assume kind of like the mantle of the universal — implementing the will of the international community — that’s one of the central questions that is sort of driving this book.
JS: The broader context of how you write about these various individuals, and then movements, whether it’s Al Qaeda or ISIS, or it was certain factions or groups in Bosnia, you compare it, in a sense to the way that the Non-Aligned Movement also functioned in the world. And I think before we get into this, maybe just you give a brief overview of what the Non-Aligned Movement movement is, or was in its heyday, and then how you compare the Non-Aligned Movement in this book to everything we’ve been talking about, and the kinds of people in groups.
DL: During the Cold War, kind of the geopolitical space was supposedly divided between capitalist West, led by the United States, and the communist East, led by the Soviet Union. Now, a great many countries that were emerging from European colonialism were not particularly pleased with this set of options, and a number of them decided to kind of get together under the banner of a Non-Aligned Movement, right? Neither with the capitalist West and nor with the communist East. And three countries, in particular, played a prominent role in organizing the Non-Aligned Movement. This would be Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia.
The Non-Aligned Movement was really kind of an important part of everyday Yugoslavs notion of their role in the world, especially in the 80s prided themselves on being neither East nor West, on having this, this iconic red passport, right — the crveni pasoš — that allowed them to travel to Eastern Bloc and to the Western Bloc. And also for them, because they saw themselves as being outside of the history of European colonialism and such. They hosted large numbers of students from the Middle East, from Africa, from Asia. And these folks, you know were sort of living in Yugoslavia and for, you know, kind of an everyday Yugoslav seeing this kind of racialized difference on the street was kind of like a reminder of their own sort of membership in this broader kind of cosmopolitan project of the Non-Aligned Movement.
One of the sort of historical ironies, if you want to call it that, is that as state socialism collapses in most parts of the world and the Cold War ends, right, the Non-Aligned Movement also has to struggle with its own relevance, right? I mean, how can you be not aligned if one of the people you’re not aligning with is no longer, you know, operative? As Yugoslavia is falling apart or is being broken apart, and people start kind of reconfiguring their own identities, and thinking of themselves primarily as Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, rather than as Yugoslavs, there’s also this way that racial categories shift, right? So folks who, at one moment, especially Arabs, were seen as kind of, you know, like symbols of socialist brotherhood, right, now, during the war, are regarded with suspicion.
The irony here is that, you know, the Arabs who are studying Yugoslavia were often sort of chosen or supported by socialist or left-leaning political formations in the Arab world, like the Ba‘ath Party, and so on. So a lot of them were quite avowedly leftist. Now a small number were sympathetic to or actively engaged in kind of Islamist politics. And these folks, especially from Syria and from Iraq, play a pivotal role when the jihad fighters sort of show up at the beginning of the war, because, again, I’m interested in this question of like: How did the cultural and doctrinal differences get managed in these things? You’re bringing together Muslims from all over the world. How do you just figure out basic stuff like language, right?
So when these fighters show up, they need interpreters, they need guides, they need minders, if you will. And they actually turned to Arab students who were already there, who spoke the language, because of the Non-Aligned Movement. Right? So this is an obviously unforeseen sort of outcome, whereby some folks who are kind of vanguards of socialist solidarity play a crucial linkage role in facilitating a kind of pan-Islamist project.
JS: It’s specific to Bosnia, but I’m curious about how it applies elsewhere. I mean, you paint this really understandable and straightforward picture of the motivation of some individuals who participated then in the war in Bosnia whose origins or citizenship was from elsewhere. Is it your sense that there are those same kinds of stories that would sound logical to a neutral observer or listener that apply to Al Qaeda, or ISIL, ISIS, these kinds of groups that are now just, you know, in the headlines all the time?
DL: You know, I interviewed Abu Jandal, Nasser al-Bahri, who was one of bin Laden’s chief bodyguards in Sanaa. You know, he just put it in very straightforward terms. He said: I joined Al Qaeda to end American control over the Middle East.
Now the thing is, at an individual level, when you interview people in a jihad formation, or in a state army, you’re going to get motivations that are all over the map. So some folks are going to say things that, you know, as you said, may sound reasonable, and others may say things that sound a little bit less reasonable. And that’s one of the reasons why I think, although it’s very important that we talk to individuals, sometimes some of the work on jihadism, sort of just only stays at that level, right? Like, for example, you couldn’t understand the politics of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq just by interviewing regular privates in the U.S. Army, right? Like their views are important, but we need to kind of get beyond the sort of individual level of analysis. And that’s something that we see in a lot of the commentary on this subject.
JS: I’ve watched lectures given by mainstream imams in the streets of Sanaa, in Yemen, that if they were broadcast on American television, you would think that this is Osama bin Laden giving the lecture. And if you just report on the literal words of what was said, and you don’t give context, and you don’t give an understanding to how people talk even in the culture, or in the street, or in the markets, it’s intellectually dishonest to broadcast that as meaning what you think it means, right?
I mean, that seems to be part of what you’re saying here is that like, you can take the slogans, the images, the chanting, even full lectures of some people — if you don’t understand where their sources are from, or the context of where they live and the experience, historically, it’s weaponizing disinformation to promote this in the English language as meaning what you think it means.
DL: Yeah, well, I think the basic issue is, if you look at the world with the baseline assumption of American or Western beneficence, then a lot of things seem shocking that maybe shouldn’t seem so shocking. If your baseline is “we’re good” then the question becomes: Why do they hate us? But if you have been around the block, and have been to different parts of the world, you might have a different starting point. Your different starting point might be: Why don’t they hate us more? It might be, you know, given the immense damage that the United States has wrought in many different parts of the world, not just in Muslim-majority countries, why do we not see more pushback or more discontent? I’m not saying that that’s a better set of questions, right, but it’s not obvious to me that either starting point is inherently more valid than the other. And I think there’s just a basic thought exercise that we should all be going through about sort of interrogating our priors and where we’re coming from and understanding things that might seem, at first blush, sort of radically other and different.
JS: If you strip away the propaganda about, you know, America being the shining city on the hill, and the historical revisionism about America’s role in the world, particularly World War II, which comes up every single day on almost every single discussion of foreign policy — but if you were to strip that away, or approach it with a very accurate anthropological lens, and then you look at the situation in Syria, or Iraq, post 9/11, today, how would you describe what is happening right now in Iraq and Syria, regarding the United States, the fighters, Russia, etc.?
DL: I think what’s happened is that the United States essentially smashed one of the largest and most capable nation-states in a pivotal part of the region. And the reverberations of that are far-reaching and unpredictable and very messy in all sorts of ways.
JS: When you say the United States, what do you mean?
DL: I mean, there’s so many ways one can describe it, but I think of it primarily as you know, a settler republic, settler colony, that has taken on a kind of global hegemonic and imperial power.
Now, of course, it might be in decline now for various reasons, right? So we’re in an interesting moment in world politics. In many ways, I feel like this book is sort of shaping up to be an epitaph of a particular period of American hegemony that may very well be fading into irrelevance, for all we know.
The United States smashed one state, Iraq, and it decided to bleed and undermine another state next door, Syria, right? Without quite knowing that it wanted to go all the way in destroying it. What you have, therefore, is two situations of territorial dissolution or immense pressure, that are happening next door to each other. And I think what happens is the two dynamics sort of end up feeding off of each other, right? So Western Iraq and Eastern Syria get patched together by this group, or rather groups — a coalition of actors — who kind of mobilize under the banner of a self-declared Islamic state.
What we normally think of, as, you know: Oh, here are these Islamists who are trying to erase the nation-state and kind of take over the world, I think it’s more useful to say, look, we basically have one imploding and another quasi-imploding state that are actually next door to each other, and a group of folks who are cobbling together a different form of authority that crosses that border, and that they have the space to do so because the conflicts in both countries are multi-sided, and where every actor basically may not like them, but has a bigger priority in fighting someone else.
JS: It doesn’t ever happen in this country that anyone is forced to actually describe, especially the terrorism experts, the United States in terms that are not based on an ahistorical interpretation of what it means to be the United States in the world. You know, we don’t talk about that. Because I would love to see somebody ask this of any of the generals that are on television, or people that work for the defense industry, like: “Just let’s back up. When you say the United States does this, what do you mean by the United States?”
DL: So what’s really interesting about a lot of the terrorism experts is that there’s a range. So some are full-on racist, and others are War-on-Terror liberals, and they are very critical of Donald Trump.
The problem is, I think there’s a tendency to separate their expert knowledge, which they think of as objective, from their political opinions. So they might complain about the Muslim ban, but when they put their expert hat on, their idea is OK we’re going to give good information to hopefully persuade a policymaker to do the right thing.
You know, that is not an entirely crazy way of looking at the world. That’s just not my theory of how stuff actually works. And I think if you want to talk about issues like this, like so-called jihadism, that are so intensely politicized — and frankly, racist — I don’t think that’s a responsible stance. I don’t think you can pretend that yes, I’m critical of the government on the one hand, but on the other hand, I’ll tell them good things so that hopefully they’ll do the right thing. To me, that’s not a very responsible position.
JS: What do you want non-academics to take away from this book? What was your motivation in writing it the way that you did?
DL: Like many other academic books, one of the initial motivations was frustration with the prevailing discourse. I’m sort of a child of the post 9/11 generation. I finished college in 2001. And I think, for me, I was in the Gaza Strip on 9/11 and I remember shortly after, a few months after, seeing the news footage of the first detainees — captives — arriving at Guantanamo, and thinking that, you know, we — broadly speaking at that time, I was kind of in the human rights NGO complex — didn’t really have a narrative understanding these folks. And there was this sort of baseline of assumption that an Arab in Afghanistan was kind of a Muslim out of place, right? What business would these people have in Afghanistan if they were not up to no good?
And, I realized that not only was I against kind of the standard anti-Muslim narrative but that the standard critical narrative was also not enough. The standard critical narrative sort of emphasizes the need to not stereotype Muslims to understand that Muslims are very diverse, and so on, which is all completely true, but it doesn’t by itself do the political work that we need.
Part of it is because as I mentioned, I don’t think better scholarship is in itself the change that we need to see in the world, that racism and empire need to be politically defeated, and that’s different from writing better books about it. But also, at the same time, I think I just realized that there was a need to understand what these folks were up to and that it wasn’t really captured. Because, again, the other problem with this standard critical narrative of being against racism or against Orientalism, is that when you talk about folks who actually seem to fit the stereotype, who are engaged in violence, what do you say about them? And I think the standard kind of critical liberal response is basically been to ignore them and essentially cede that ground to the terrorism experts.
So I realized that there was a need there to actually just have a well-grounded narrative that was not concerned with either serving the U.S. empire or with that kind of defensive, apologetic thing of trying to prove that, like, Muslims are good people, too, right? Like, obviously, I believe that’s the case. But if you set that as the bar for your research, then you’ve already conceded so much. I mean, I don’t think for example, that we should be writing books about white supremacy and mass incarceration in this country that try to reassure people that Black people are not genetically inferior. Like, that’s just an absurd proposition. But for some reason, a lot of the writing about Muslims and Islamism really kind of starts off with this very, very low bar of just trying to say, look, they’re reasonable too or look, they’re normal. And yeah, of course, that’s true. But for me, that should be a starting point; it shouldn’t be where you end up.
JS: I learned so much from this book and I also changed my perspective on things, particularly in the history of Bosnia, that I thought I understood, that I realized from reading your book I didn’t. So thank you for that. And thank you, Darryl Li, for being with us.
DL: Thank you so much.
JS: Darryl Li is an assistant professor of anthropology and a lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago. He is the author of “The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity.”
And that does it for this special bonus episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program was done by Emily Kennedy. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.