Over strong Arabic coffee, journalist Yehia Ghanem learned of the motivations of foreign fighters in the Bosnian war.
Gornja Bocinja, Bosnia & Herzegovina – Forty-five-year-old Ibrahim Delic spends his days taking care of his flock of sheep in the fields of Gornja Bocinja, a village in central Bosnia with a population of just 24.
But about once a week the shepherd entrusts his flock to his children for the day and travels two hours to Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. He is standing trial there, accused of joining and aiding the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Syria. His verdict is expected to be announced this month, along with those of seven other men, all of whom deny the charges.
Delic is one of the 200 to 400 Bosnian nationals (PDF) estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2012. ISIL has been actively recruiting in the Balkans for years. One recruitment video features a Bosnian fighter, Abu Jihad al Bosni, who vows to “bring our people out from the darkness and into the light”.
Delic left in the summer of 2013, he said, after watching the conflict escalate. In an interview, he told Al Jazeera that he felt outrage, distress and solidarity with the people there. He claims that all he did while in Syria was travel around the north of the country, in cities surrounding Aleppo, giving religious lectures to fighters and civilians, urging Syrians to defend themselves against Bashar al-Assad.
But after a month and a half he said he became disappointed with and fearful of the “anarchy” he witnessed and returned.
According to Bosnia’s State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), at least 30 Bosnians have been killed in the conflict and approximately 50 have returned home.
In June 2014, Bosnia adopted reforms that made it illegal to enlist in “a foreign military, paramilitary or para-police unit”. That law is now being applied retroactively.
SIPA arrested and charged Delic, along with 15 others, in September 2014 in an operation codenamed “Damascus”.
According to the indictment, the accused collected resources and left Bosnia with the aim of joining terrorist organisations in the second half of 2013 and in 2014.
The arrested were also accused of “recruiting [Bosnian] nationals for Syria and Iraq and funding and organising their travel”.
The members of the group are alleged to have illegally crossed into Syria from Turkey.
Delic grew up with six siblings in a family of shepherds in Zeljezno Polje, a village in central Bosnia.
“I always loved the solitude,” he explained, sitting barefoot on his front porch, his crutches leaning against his armchair.
His quiet life came to an abrupt end when war broke out in Bosnia in 1992. As a 24-year-old he joined the Bosnian Army and fought alongside foreign Arab fighters, who were known as the “Mujahideen”.
Delic described how he became more religious during the war and started to deliver lectures on Islam to his unit in order to lift morale. After the war, he worked as a missionary, touring the country.
When conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, Delic said he saw similarities with the war in Bosnia.
“Just like Yugoslavia, [Al-Assad’s forces] had an army, weapons; they had help from Russia and other countries,” he said.
“I felt distress for the people suffering; I felt the need to respond and help them.”
Delic was left handicapped after the Bosnian war, and relies on crutches to walk. He said he knew he couldn’t participate in the Syrian conflict as a fighter, so he looked for other ways to get involved.
Delic said he raised 10,000 BAM ($5,620) by selling meat from 170 of his sheep, and put some of the money towards his travel expenses.
He then flew to Hatay, Turkey, and crossed into Syria by taxi legally, he insisted, as the border authorities didn’t ask him for his passport.
Once in Syria, he met up with a group of Bosnian fighters who found him a place to sleep at the quarters of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA). The group was under the leadership of infamous commander Abu Omar al-Shishani at that time, and allied with ISIL.
Delic said the JMA asked him to pledge allegiance to them, but that he refused since he wasn’t planning to fight. The group allowed him to stay at their quarters at night and by day, Delic claims he toured various cities delivering his lectures and urging people to “defend their lives, their property and their honour”.
He soon began to witness the various opposition groups stealing each other’s weapons and money, and killing each other at checkpoints, he said.
“And at that moment, I knew that a big conflict among them was going to happen. I asked some people to help get me back across the border,” Delic said in another interview.
He returned after spending a month and 20 days in Syria. “There was no organisation. It’s guns that do the talking there,” Delic told Al Jazeera.
“The war in Bosnia was organised,” Delic reflected. “It was far more clean … In the Arab world, you never know when you’re going to get a bullet in the forehead; someone could mistake you for someone else.”
Although he was staying with an ISIL-affiliated group in an area where ISIL was carrying out attacks and taking over territory, Delic maintains, though he met various fighting groups, he never came across ISIL.
But he does openly admit that he regularly incited others to join the war, which, he concedes, may affect his verdict. Last year, the preacher Bilal Bosnic was sentenced to seven years in prison for inciting others to join ISIL.
With Bosnia’s population of 3.8 million, the country has one of the largest percentages of foreign fighters of all European countries per person, according to a 2015 report (PDF).
Four men have so far been charged with joining ISIL and sentenced.
Uros Pena, the deputy director of Bosnia’s Directorate for Coordination of Police Bodies, believes the government response is insufficient, since it has yet to identify the consequences of Bosnians returning home from Syria.
“The problem in Bosnia is that it’s a disorganised state,” Pena said. “Weapons, munitions and explosives are a lot more accessible to these people than in other countries.”
Pena thinks that more should be done to deal with returning fighters. “People who left and came back have been indoctrinated and prison sentences for those returning are on a low level.”
Delic is also accused of illegal possession of weapons and munitions. During his arrest, SIPA found an unlicensed rifle and 10 hand grenades hidden in a chest in the basement of his home.
Delic told Al Jazeera that he uses the rifle to protect his sheep from bears and wolves. And he claims the hand grenades were already in his house when he moved in in 2002. He said he suspects they were left over from the Bosnian war and, although he has thought about removing them many times, he never got around to it.
Delic insists he never joined an armed group and that, when he left, it wasn’t illegal to do so.
“I don’t regret going to Syria the way I did. I would go again to help the Syrian people who are suffering. And again, I wouldn’t join any group.”