Feature 15 Dec 15

The Dark History of Serbia’s Security Services

The quashing of the acquittal of two former security officials has again highlighted how Belgrade’s intelligence agencies have been involved in running assassins and paramilitary killers for decades.

Marija Ristic BIRN Belgrade
Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic at their war crimes trial. Photo: BETA/AP.

“Lords of life and death” was one of the descriptions of the wartime units run by former Serbian State Security Service chiefs Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, heard during their trial at the UN war crimes court in The Hague.

Stanisic, the former head of the Serbian State Security Service and his right-hand man Simatovic, the former head of the Security Service’s Unit for Special Operations, were acquitted two years ago of murder, persecution and deportation during the 1991-95 wars, but the Hague Tribunal overtuned the verdict on Tuesday and ordered a retrial.

They are accused of being co-perpetrators in a joint criminal enterprise whose objective was the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic were the key people in charge of secret units which were not legally authorised to undertake special military operations.

During their existence from 1991 until 2003, these units had various names – the Knindze (‘Ninjas’ from the town of Knin), the Scorpions, Arkan’s Tigers, the Red Berets and the Special Operations Unit.

In 2013 the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found that the units committed the crimes listed in the indictment but ruled that Stanisic and Simatovic could not be held criminally responsible for them.

A tradition of covert killings

Stanisic and Simatovic are rare examples of former officials brought to trial for murders committed by the Serbian State Security Service and before that, by the Yugoslav intelligence agency.

The use of secret units to kill ‘enemies of the state’ goes back decades to long before the collapse of Yugoslavia.

The Serbian State Security Service, also knowns as the DB, emerged from the Yugoslav secret service, known as UDBA and later as the SDB, which operated from the end of World War II until the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Both Stanisic and Simatovic joined the SDB in the 1970s when the service was focused on eliminating troublesome dissidents and other perceived foes both domestically and abroad.

Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito pursued dissidents around the world: in Austria, Britain, Belgium, Australia and the US. However, the main focus for the SDB leadership was on West Germany.

Philipp Gruell, the maker of a documentary called ‘Tito’s Murder Squads’, says most of the orders for the murders came from Belgrade but the victims came from all over the former Yugoslavia.

“According to our research, the Yugoslav state security killed at least 29 exiled Croats in Germany. Furthermore dissidents from the other former Yugoslav republics were murdered, for example from Serbia or Albania,” Gruell told BIRN.

However, only a few of these murders has been prosecuted.

“When we looked at the German files, it seemed that the investigators only did the minimum. In many cases the files were closed after a short time,” Gruell said.

One of the reasons was the German government’s insistence on good relations with Yugoslavia, he believes.

“The country was very important for Germany as a partner and as a mediator between East and West. The German government knew that the Yugoslav secret service murdered on German soil. But this was never discussed in public,” he explained.

“The [German] government could have condemned the deeds, they could have expelled diplomats. Instead they gave Tito a medal,” he added.

Germany waited for more than 30 years to arrest its first Yugoslav State Security officials for some of these murders.

Former SDB agents Zdravko Mustac and Josip Perkovic were extradited to Germany, on a European arrest warrant, right after Croatia joined the EU, accused of responsibility for the killing of Croatian dissident Stjepan Durekovic in Munich in 1983. The verdict in their trial is expected next year.

While deploying its own agent to pursue dissidents in the 1980s, the SDB also recruited various criminals to carry out its executions abroad.

Some of these men later became notorious figures in the 1990s wars, among them Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as the paramilitary boss Arkan.

Arkan was a criminal who spent several years in prisons across Europe, including Germany, became affiliated with state security, and then during the 1990s wars in Bosnia and Croatia become a warlord accusedof some of the most brutal crimes of the conflict.

According to Filip Svarm, editor of Serbian news magazine Vreme and creator of the documentary ‘The Unit’, Arkan and the SDB both benefited from their liaisons.

“He was doing various murky business[tasks] for state security and in exchange,state security allowed him to have his own business – to open cafes and various shops in Belgrade,” Svarm said.

New countries, old methods

As Yugoslavia split, so did the SDB’s members – most of them joining newly-formed state security services in Serbia and Croatia. Stanisic and Simatovic stayed loyal to Belgrade, as did Arkan.

In the first days of war, in March 1991, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic said: “The government has an assignment to prepare additional groups which will make us safe and enable us to defend the interests of our republic, but also the interests of Serbs outside Serbia.”

Milosevic gave the task of forming secret police units to experienced intelligence agents. In 1991, Stanisic, already at the time the head of the DB, which had been formed from the remnants of the Yugoslav SDB, went to Croatia to help local Serbs to establish special militias.

The first active unit was Knindze, then the Scorpions were formed, followed by the Arkan’s Serbian Volunteer Guard, the ‘Tigers’. Almost all the fighters in these units wore a red beret, which later became the symbol of the only unit that the DB admitted it was controlling, the Special Police Unit, JSO.

Stanisic and Simatovic denied having controlled the Knindze, the Scorpions or Arkan’s men. But, Christian Nielsen, an associate professor at Aarhus University who has testified as an expert witness at the ICTY, says that cooperation between Arkan’s unit and Serbian security officials was very close.

“Arkan’s unit was for all intents and purposes a unit of the State Security Service of the Ministry of Interior of Serbia, MUP. Had the MUP opposed Arkan, the unit would simply not have been able to exist. The army, on the other hand, had a quite ambiguous and at times hostile relationship with Arkan’s units,” Nielsen told BIRN.

According to Svarm, it was important to state security “that Arkan goes to certain areas and that in the widest possible sense, fulfils the policy of Slobodan Milosevic”.

“What Arkan did in the field, no one cared, and neither were there mechanisms to control him,” he said.

The ICTY ruled in 2013 that Stanisic and Simatovic assisted units including Arkan’s, but “this assistance was not specifically directed towards the commission of crimes”.

None of the Arkan’s men were ever prosecuted for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, and their leader was shot dead in Belgrade in 2001. Only a handful of Skorpions was ever brought to court.

The only state security commander to be prosecuted, besides Stanisic and Simatovic, is Dragan Vasiljkovic, the former head of the Knindze unit, who is currently in detention awaiting his war crime trial in Croatia.

State security’s first public war

Milorad Ulemek Legija, one of the JSO commanders. Photo: BETA/AP.

When the wars in Croatia and Bosnia ended, Milosevic’s administration decided that the men who fought with these elite units should remain part of the state apparatus.

Simatovic officially announced in 1996 that Serbia’s Special Operations Unit, the JSO, had been established, but admitted that it had actually started five years earlier.

“The unit was formed in May 1991, when Yugoslavia was falling apart and from its foundation the unit functioned as a tool for maintaining the national security of the Serb people… in all their ethnic areas,” he said.

In 1998 however, Stanisic was removed from his position as state security chief. Following the end of the war in Bosnia, protests against Milosevic erupted in Belgrade, and Stanisic met opposition leaders on several occasions, raising suspicions about his loyalty.

Milosevic also suspected that Stanisic had connections with foreign secret services, including the CIA, because he advocated that the international community become involved in the conflict in Kosovo.

As a result, Stanisic was fired, and Milosevic appointed Rade Markovic as the head of the DB.

The Kosovo war was the first conflict in which the DB and the JSO openly participated.

“Unlike in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Serbia didn’t have to hide it was in war in Kosovo. Therefore [Milosevic] sent the JSO, a legal unit of the DB, to take part in the Kosovo war, and part of this unit was also former members of Arkan’s units,” Svarm explained.

Milosevic formed a special anti-terrorist squad using leading men from the police and army to combat the Kosovo Liberation Army. A key figure among them was one of the JSO commanders, an experienced fighter in Bosnia and Croatia called Milorad Ulemek, who was known as Legija.

At Milosevic’s trial at the ICTY, Legija and his unit were alleged to have committed numerous war crimes during the Kosovo conflict.

During the same trial, the DB was alleged have been involved in some of the clean-up operations to transport murdered Kosovo Albanians’ bodies to mass graves in Serbia.

Milosevic died during his trial in 2006, and local courts in Belgrade have never dared to question the role of the DB in Kosovo.

A new era for state security

Read more:

Stanisic and Simatovic, Belgrade’s Security Strongmen

Arkan’s Paramilitaries: Tigers Who Escaped Justice

Serbia’s Kosovo Cover-Up: Who Hid the Bodies?

Serbian Security Chiefs Acquitted of War Crimes


The DB ended its history in 2002, right after the democratic changes that removed Milosevic from power.

It was decided that the DB should shut down, and its chief Rade Markovic was put on trial for murder.

The same year, Serbia formed the Security Information Agency. Many DB staff remained active in the new agency or moved to other state bodies.

The JSO however existed until 2003, when it was disbanded because many of its members including Legija were directly involved in the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

In the same year, the ICTY filed an indictment against Stanisic and Simatovic, charging them with murder, persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, deportation and inhumane acts.

In the course of 15 years since Milosevic was ousted, several DB members have gone on trial for political murders after 1999, but not for war crimes.

Legija was sentenced to 40 years in jail for his role in the assassination of Djindjic, while former DB chief Markovic is currently serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and other crimes.

Markovic and three other DB members are also on trial for the murder of journalist and Milosevic opponent Slavko Curuvija in 1999.

The trial, which is considered key to understanding the role that the security services play in Serbia, was recently hindered by a request from State Information Agency to bar several former DB officials from testifying. The agency claimed “their testimonies could threaten the national security of Serbia”.

In the meantime, all the archives of the Yugoslav SDB and the Serbian DB remain sealed, as the government claims it is still not ready to deal with the consequences of opening up the files - raising speculation about what dark secrets could still be hidden.

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