When Did the EU’s Future Member States Become a Shelter for Extremists?

Foreign fighters from the Balkans in the ISIS Propaganda video. Source: Al Jazeera

Foreign fighters from the Balkans in the ISIS Propaganda video. Source: Al Jazeera

It has been more than a decade since the European Council promised the Balkans a future within the European Union. Today, rather than EU accession, militant Islamist networks recruiting dozens of people for ISIS-launched global jihad is making it to the news headlines on a daily basis. Prior to the conflict in Syria, less than a dozen people from the Balkans attempted to join extremist organisations abroad. Since late 2012 however, according to the estimates around 300 Albanian fighters and at least 217 Bosnian citizens have left their countries to join al-Nusra or ISIS. The majority of fighters joining ISIS from the region originate from Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania; but sporadic cases have also been reported from Serbia and Macedonia.

To date, dozens of people who allegedly belong to Islamist networks have been arrested. Most recently, six Bosnians suspected of having connections with ISIS were placed under arrest. One of them was detained in Turkey en route to Syria. Bosnian police also detained 11 people in December 2015 who allegedly recruited jihadis and planned a terrorist attack on New Year’s Eve. Kosovo police arrested 80 people in September 2014 and arrests continued during 2015. Currently, more than 40 people, including some imams accused of having links to ISIS are on trial. In Albania, 7 people including 2 imams accused of recruiting Albanian citizens to fight in Syria were arrested in March 2014. In particular, since July 2015, security is on high alert across the region following the release of a video by ISIS jihadis from the Balkans calling ‘fellow Muslim brothers’ to join the fight for Islamic State preceding the Pope’s visit to the region.

The exact sources of funding of these recruiters are unknown. In November 2015, Bosnia jailed a cleric who publicly supported ISIS for recruiting fighters. The court has found that in order to carry out ‘his work’ in Bosnia, a total of $200,000 was transferred into his bank account from various Arab countries. What is known is that small groups of local extremists have well-established links with global fundamentalist networks. Usually, a radical cleric or self-declared imam mobilises a small number of close supporters who reach out to people in order to encourage them to ‘join the fight for Allah’ through underground networks and illegal mosques. Usually people are introduced into these networks through their friends and start attending the sermons of these radical clerics, later becoming indoctrinated. Herein lies the ideological aspect of the story. The numbers of these illegal mosques have reportedly increased recently. Online recruiting networks are also widely used and are easily accessible tools for spreading violent extremism and the call to jihad. Another issue many analysts agree upon is that the route they usually take to reach Syria passes through Turkey. As also confirmed by some of the returned fighters from Syria, it only requires booking a one-way ticket to Istanbul-Antakya from Tirana or Skopje once a person is determined to join ISIS as a foreign fighter.

Route of foreign fighters from the Balkans top join ISIS. Source: Balkan Insight

Route of foreign fighters from the Balkans top join ISIS. Source: Balkan Insight

Route of foreign fighters from the Balkans top join ISIS. Source: Balkan Insight

Then the question becomes if the recruiting bases and routes are known, why security forces fail to take action to dismantle these networks. One reason is that these illegal networks are usually underground, which makes it difficult to track their activities and bring them to trial. For instance, more than 80 people were arrested in Kosovo; but the majority were released due to a lack of evidence. Moreover, the intelligence and investigation units of these countries are not always equipped with sufficient staff and resources to tackle this unprecedented situation. Finally, Turkey has agreements with these countries allowing their citizens to travel visa-free which also curtails attempts to monitor potential jihadis.

Although the brutal videos and photographs of Albanian and Bosnian jihadis among the ranks of ISIS have shocked many people recently, religious extremism has not appeared in the region suddenly. Salafism was first introduced during the Bosnian war through the mujahidin brigades and foreign charities. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE provided billions of dollars and weapons either directly to the Bosnian religious/nationalist government or sent donations through charity networks established in Europe during 1990s. Moreover, Afghan/Arab volunteers, who had previously fought against Russia in Afghanistan, were welcomed by the late Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in the fight against Serbs and Croats. These fighters were incorporated into the Bosnian Army as a separate division called El Mujahid in 1993. The writer of the book ‘The Coming Balkan Caliphate’ Christopher Deliso wrote that the actions of El Mujahedin constituted the worst atrocities targeting Serbs and Croats during the Bosnian war. The Wahhabi/Salafist influence was not only limited to the supply of weapons and cash to finance the war, but also came in the form of opportunities for imams from the region to study jurisprudence in Islamic universities in the Arab world, mostly in Egypt. Upon their return to the region these imams promoted a different interpretation of Islamic lifestyle that is stricter compared to the Balkan tradition that was inherited from Ottoman Hanefism and pre-Islamic local folk.

Alija Izetbegovic with mujahidin. Source: Balkan Insight

Alija Izetbegovic with mujahidin. Source: Balkan Insight

After the war, the Saudi influence started to decline mostly because financial transfers to finance the war against Christian Serbs and Croats stopped. The European Union has become a prominent actor in the region through political conditionality and economic aid. Turkey and Turkish faith organisations (especially the Gülen movement) have also assumed an increasing role in the Balkans. However, these former jihadis did not leave the country; they settled in post-war Bosnia, married local women and obtained citizenship. These embedded networks have been once again revived by foreign finance and fundamentalist ideology originating from the Middle East.

Are there any societal implications of these extremist networks in the region? The spread of radical Islam or a wholesale Islamisation of the region is still an unlikely possibility. For a dominant majority of Muslims in the region, Balkan Islam or local Islam is distinguished as tolerant, moderate, non-violent, civic, and at ease with secular institutions, European modernity and values. The national/local traditions of Islam are seen as an anti-thesis of violent Islamist networks by the politicians and the people.

In fact, the Balkan interpretation of Islam is associated with local traditions and cultural, historical and political heritage rather than a more rigid understanding of Islam within the ummah framework. Balkan Islam was built on the Ottoman legacy, which was dominated by Sunni tradition and Sufi orders. The evolution of the Bektashism in Albania is exemplary of this ‘exceptionalism’. The previous Christian identity, tribal social structures, ritual observations of Islam through the Bektashi order and Albanian national identity have created a ‘vernacular’ Islam. Similarly, the Bektashi order generated a unique Bosnian way of Islam when faced with the heritage of the Bosnian church. Moreover, Islamic institutions displaying high levels of institutionalisation and autonomy have been intentionally integrated into the modern secular state. So, the historical and original roots of Islam in the region have prevented Wahhabist/Salafist ideas and violent versions of radical Islam (for example Takfirism) from making inroads into the societies.

However, as the increasing number of ‘jihad volunteers’ from Kosovo and other countries show, there is an expanding network of homegrown jihadis that cause a security concern for the countries in the region and the European Union. So far, the region has not witnessed a huge scale Islamist terrorist attack itself. Yet, people connected to major suicide attacks or weapons used during such attacks, including 9/11 and Paris attacks of January 2015, have been found to have Balkan connections. Arresting people who are already indoctrinated and determined to join the war is not a sustainable and decisive way of responding to the problem in the long term. Economic destitution, years of unsuccessful economic and political transformation, widespread corruption, unemployment, unaccountable governments and ethno-national narratives promoted by the ruling elites for political gains in these countries play an important role in increasing disenfranchisement and resentment of the youth that eventually make some of them vulnerable to the calls for ‘global jihad’.

A sustainable response would necessarily include a commitment to the establishment of truly responsive and accountable regimes. It also requires avoiding the labelling and criminalisation of different (perhaps more conservative but peaceful) versions of Islamic practice as extremism within these societies. Finally, increasing regional cooperation (including with Turkey), with an aim to improve common intelligence and investigation capacity is the only feasible way to crack down on underground centres of indoctrination. Surely, tackling religious extremism in the Balkans is related to the stability and security of the broader region including the European sphere.

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