Alija was born in the town of Bosanski Šamac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. During WW II, he joined a pro-Nazi (and pro-Ustaša Muslim youth organization (Mladi muslimani) headed by the conservative cleric Mehmed Handžić. After the war he and fellow Muslim youth activist Nedžib Šaćirbegović led a group of die-hard Islamists who challenged the new Communist Yugoslav régime. Their activites were coordinated through the underground journal Mudžahid (Arabic mujaheed, English soldier of God) which was eventually shut down by the Yugoslav secret police and its publishers imprisoned. Izetbegović himself served 3 years in prison.
Following his release, Izetbegović attended the University of Sarajevo where he gained a BS in Law in 1956. He spent much of his life working as a lawyer. He was twice imprisoned by the Communist Yugoslav government for 'pan-Islamic activity' which included the writing of his highly controversial book "The Islamic Declaration".
In a court proceeding that began on April 10, 1983, Izetbegović and twelve co-defendants (such as Melika Salihbegović and Hasan Čengić) were charged with:
Along with Fikret Abdić, Izetbegović founded the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske Akcije, SDA) in 1989. Although Abdić won the popular vote in the 1990 election, Izetbegović soon took over.
Following the 1990 elections, the SDA formed a ruling coalition with the Croat nationalist party HDZ. Izetbegović took the Muslim post of president (which he was to hold for only one year according to the constitution) and played a leading role in the Bosnian government during three years of war in this former Yugoslav republic.
Fikret Abdić, however, would come back to haunt his former partner and now rival by establishing his powerbase in his native Cazinska Krajina in which he established an "Autonomous State of Western Bosnia" which was completely surrounded by the the Serb forces and which fought against the Sarajevo Muslim government. Abdić's faction was later routed by Izetbegović's Army.
According to the constitution, Izetbegović was to relinquish his post of president in 1991 to a Serb (to be followed in 1992 by a Croat). However, using extraordinary circumstances as a pretext, he remained president until 1997. With the Serbs and Croats later vacating the government in 1992 and 1993 respectively, Izetbegović headed a Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina which existed only on paper, no longer legitimate according to some 60% of its population.
Izetbegović proclaimed Bosnia's independence on March 3rd, 1992, following a referendum that was supported by Bosnian Muslims and Croats but was boycotted by the Bosnian Serbs. A three year war with the Bosnian Serbs ensued. Initially the Bosnian Serb Army overpowered the Bosnian Muslim Army on almost all fronts. Izetbegović's government later also lost support from the Bosnian Croats.
Eventually however, Serb territory was overrun, as Izetbegović and Tuđman signed a peace treaty in Washington in early 1995, ending hostilities between Muslims and Croats. Izetbegović signed the Dayton Agreement to end the war in December 1995 on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims.
He was re-elected as President of Bosnia in September 1996 and remained in power until June 2000 when at the age of 74, Izetbegović announced his decision to step down as president. As one of the reasons for leaving office he cited that he felt that while the international community was helping to improve things in Bosnia they were achieving it at the expense of the Muslim population which was something that he could not live with.
Bosnian Serbs and Croats have tried to indict Izetbegović in the war crimes tribunal at the Hague twice already on charges of genocide, violations of customs of war and other issues. The court never raised an indictment but indicated following Izetbegović's death that he had been under investigation.
Alija Izetbegović was married to Halida Repovac and they had three children. Izetbegović is also a published author and his book Islam Between East And West has been a best-seller throughout Europe since its release in 1984. Other published works include The Islamic Declaration, Problems of Islamic Renaissance, My Escape to Freedom, Notes from Prison, 1983-1988 and most recently the memoirs Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes.