Out of a total of 4,000 Europeans who have joined the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, 900 (approximately one-quarter) originate from the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia), like reported by neweasterneurope.eu. This fact brought the four nations to the top of the list in the ranking of the number of foreign fighters per capita. Torn by sharp ethnic conflicts until recently, the Western Balkans today face another enemy – jihadism – which could prove extremely dangerous for the fragile democratic political systems still taking form.
A closer look at the role ISIS is playing in the Western Balkans is necessary in order to understand the social changes taking place in the region. First, however, it is important to point out that term “Western Balkans” could be misleading. It designates the region geographically but it does not suggest uniformity in the processes of radicalisation and recruitment which, despite sharing some similarities, are actually quite distinctive and contextualised. Therefore, a separate examination of each country provides greater clarity to the situation.
The fall of the communist regime in Albania led to the creation of a number of political, ideological, economic and social imbalances. Radical groups, which were Islamic in name only, emerged in the 1990s. In fact, their motivation to use violence and coercion were reminiscent of the tactics used by communist groups in the early 20th century. It is estimated that about 90 Albanians have joined ISIS, with many of them having been killed or gone missing. The names of 30 have already been published by the Albanian press.
What has led to the spread of radical Islam in a society that has always been characterised by religious tolerance? According to Ylli Gurra, a member of the Muslim Community of Albania and a prominent Muslim cleric and mufti in Tirana, the roots of this process should be sought in the post-communist transition period, which was not only political but also religious. Islam in Albania remained “exposed” after a majority of the old Muslim clerics had passed away and no younger ones came to replace them. This spiritual vacuum was taken advantage of by foreign powers, such as religious organisations from Saudi Arabia which invested in infrastructure and education of young Albanian Muslims in the spirit of Wahhabism.
In this sense, the reasons for the penetration of radical ideologies are not related to religion per se but to social phenomena like the ghettoisation of society, lack of institutional attention to these alarming processes and the ineffective operation of security services. It can be suspected that economic motives have also a played a role, namely, taking on debtors’ debts, economic support for the families of fighters, and covering costs which would be otherwise unaffordable on behalf of radical organisations. But these are only assumptions, because no comprehensive study on the motivations of Albanian jihadists has been conducted.
Over the past two years, not a single Albanian citizen has joined ISIS. Albania was among the first countries to join the global coalition’s fight against the terrorist organisation. In 2015, a national strategy for combating violent extremism was adopted with the aim of mobilising efforts of both the state and society. The contribution of the Muslim community is not to be ignored. They trained local imams to have better communication with believers and implemented a practice for each mosque to have a governing body which would systematically inform local community leaders about the messages released during prayer. However, the question of possible de-radicalisation of those returning remains open. Albania has no strategy or available programmes for their eventual re-socialisation.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
According to official data, Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the main regional exporters of jihadists to the Middle East. Data show that out of the 200 Bosnians fighting in Syria, 50 have been killed. Of the 60 fighters who have returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, 40 have been brought to justice. However, according to researchers from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at the King’s College in London, the actual number of Bosnian fighters in the ranks of ISIS is no less than 330. It is assumed that a significant portion of them are mujahideen who have stayed behind after the end of the Bosnian war, marrying local women and creating families there.
According to another study by the Atlantic Initiative organisation, about 80 Bosnian children are residing on the territory of the so-called caliphate, as 13-14 year olds undergo military training to join the ranks of ISIS. There are also about 60 Bosnian women who have joined. Volunteers from the largest Bosnian community in the United States (St. Louis) have also become members of ISIS, with information being currently available on about at least six people.
The small Balkan country, which between 1992 and 1995 attracted Europe’s attention as a scene of a dramatic multi-ethnic conflict, is home to 3.8 million people, nearly half of whom identify as Muslim. This amounts to a little more than 1.5 million. Despite the fact that only four per cent of them adhere to radical views, it increasingly seems that the country is becoming a sanctuary for ISIS fighters, planners and recruiters.
Many circumstances have contributed to this. It should be noted that there exists a resilient jihadist structure from the time when Mujahedeen from all over the world had been flocking to the region in the 1990s. In 1992, the so-called Mujahideen Battalion was formed. It is made up of Arab volunteers operating in Central Bosnia and consequently turning into a 1,500-strong Mujahideen Brigade after inclusion of local fighters. At the same time, the arms trade in this small country is almost uncontrollable today. Anyone can obtain a weapon in exchange for a relatively modest amount of money. Bosnia is important for ISIS for one additional reason: there are many men with excellent military training who are unemployed and who would be ready – motivated by money or ideology, or perhaps a mix of both – to join ISIS’s ranks.
Despite the Bosnian government claiming to control the religious situation, there are increasing reports of what is known as “Sharia villages”, where most families live in polygamy under Islamic law, and symbols of ISIS are freely displayed in public places in breach of the established constitutional order. We should not overlook the fact that locals buy real estate in remote areas, seldom visited by outsiders, with the support of Islamic charity organisations. There is suspicion that it is at such locations where illegal activities are conducted in support of the jihadist movement, such as stockpiling of arms, military training and preparation for crossing Schengen zone borders. The exercise of police control over such “property closed to outsiders” is hindered by Bosnia’s administrative structure, consisting of many autonomous units requiring specific police procedures.
Jihadist roots in Bosnia
Do macroeconomic factors related to unemployment – at 63 per cent among young people and 27 per cent of the total population – economic tensions and memories of the sharp ethnic conflict in the past contribute to the success of jihadism in Bosnia? An alleged positive response requires empirical evidence, but even without it, there is an obvious impenetrable airtight network within communities, alienated from the Bosnian state and society as a whole in the making.
“We‘re talking about villages where children no longer go to the public schools, opting instead for private schooling in accordance with a Jordanian curriculum”, Igor Golijanin, a security official in Sarajevo, recently stated. “We’re talking about violence prone people who communicate using secret codes in video games. We‘re talking about concealment: What used to perhaps be recognisable as a training camp disappears today under the cover of a non-governmental organisation.”
According to the latest data, 64 such radicalised communities were counted in Bosnia at the end of 2016. Many suggest that the events in Bosnia in the 1990s were a turning point in the development of modern jihadism. In Afghanistan, the United States and the mujahideen had a common foe – the Soviet Union – and were, by the power of circumstance, allies. Bosnia, however, especially after Serbian atrocities, became a common cause for jihadists from all over the world – supported financially by rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It was in Bosnia where they stood up to the West, which gave birth to the contemporary jihadist narrative – namely, the struggle of Islam against western domination.
A number of analysts blame this situation on the Dayton Peace Agreement, losing sight of the fact that it was directed more towards stopping the bloodshed than building a country that would resist radical Islam. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a victim of terrorist attacks, which regularly shake the country. This leads many to the assumption that Bosnia could become a European base for ISIS fighters, especially after the series of military defeats suffered in Syria and Iraq. Evidence of the growing interest in Bosnia can be seen in light of the fact that in September 2016 the caliphate’s quarterly journal, Rome – presumably to invoke the idea of the fall of the Roman Empire – was released in Bosnian language.
According to an Atlantic Initiative study, which is the most detailed study on Bosnian ISIS fighters, until 2015 they could be divided into two groups, led by different motives: “There appear to be two sets of underlying motives linked to two distinct generations of volunteers. The first includes former members of, or individuals close to, the El-Mujahid Unit from the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia – most of whom are in their mid- and late 40s. The second is comprised of ‘born again’ Islamists and converts to Islam, mostly in their late teens and early 20s. While the first group sees the war in Syria and Iraq as the continuation of the jihad they felt was ended prematurely in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accords, the second group is driven mostly by adrenaline and a quest for self-validation, self-respect, group belonging and purpose.”
Adding to this, in the authors’ view, is a strong erosion of socio-cultural values and norms specific to the Bosnian post-conflict society where ideologies of violence are often perceived as the only measure of self-affirmation and protection. The government makes significant efforts to deal both with the process of radicalisation and the challenges posed by returning jihadi fighters who could bring radical Islamist ideology and threaten national security.
In order to address these challenges, the parliament passed a law in 2014 which severely penalises (imprisonment of up to ten years) participation in terrorist groups abroad or the recruitment of people. In April 2015, four people were sentenced under this new law. At a meeting in Banja Luka on December 12th 2016, Bosnian and Serbian security services planned an additional set of measures: involving the NGOs in projects for de-radicalisation and identifying the motivation of fighters; working with radicalised Muslim communities living in isolation from Bosnian society; and working with those convicted and serving prison sentences (about 12 people so far). Formal leaders of the Muslim community in Bosnia repeatedly expressed their strongly negative attitude towards radical Islam as well as their readiness to co-operate with the authorities in combating it.
Similarly, Kosovo’s case raises many questions. The main one being how a pro-American society, which welcomed NATO troops as liberators in 1999, turned into one with very large numbers of jihadists per capita? According to data by the independent analytical centre Global Research, at the end of July 2016, 314 Kosovars, including 38 women (according to other sources – 44) joined the terrorist organisation. At that time, there were five military training camps for fighters in Kosovo located around the border with Albania and Macedonia. The radical transformation in the attitudes of Kosovars, according to researchers from Pristina, was enabled by way of strong financial support from Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf monarchies, known for their generous donations not only to charitable and religious organisations, but also to state institutions.
According Fatos Makolli, director of Kosovo’s counterterrorist police force: “They promoted political Islam … they spent a lot of money to promote it through different programmes mainly with the young, vulnerable people and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature. They brought these people closer to radical political Islam, which resulted in their radicalisation.” It is assumed that before ending up in camps where they get trained by former operatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army, would-be migrants are recruited by NGOs and private schools on the territory of this small country with limited international recognition.
In March 2016, new light was shed on the composition and motivation of Kosovo militants after a number of documents (whose authenticity remains disputed) were handed to officials by a deserting ISIS fighter. A curious detail worth mentioning is the fact that among the documents, the registration cards of four Kosovars filled in after reaching ISIS soil could be found. Each of the cards contains 23 questions, including one about career options watered down to three choices: “fighter”, “perpetrator of suicide missions”, or “a fighter who does not expect to return to their country of origin”.
At this point, it is worth mentioning that women from Kosovo in the ranks of ISIS differ from those coming from other countries of the Western Balkans. At an average age of 23, many of these women lack a deep knowledge of Islam, have a predominantly secular biography before joining; they are largely influenced by local radical leaders and their wives, under whose influence their radicalisation most likely occurs. Serving ISIS, these women – mostly Albanian women from Kosovo – became notorious for their involvement and cruelty in some of the bloodiest atrocities against the Serbian population. During their new tenure with ISIS, they worked as online recruiters or were responsible for military training camps, as was the case with Chamilje Tahiri from Kosovska Mitrovica.
The participation of Kosovars in the Syrian conflict put a spotlight on a number of sensitive facts. For example, veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who receive a state pension with the help of the US, the European Union and the IMF, today make up part of the command structures of ISIS. In the opinion of Mentor Vrajolli of the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies, the motivation of Kosovo militants has varied over time. He suggests that the first wave of those who joined ISIS might not have been guided by radical views, but by humane principles seeking to help their Muslim brothers, or were simply misled. As a result of the government’s anti-terrorism effort, the police so far arrested 14 imams, 67 other people, and have banned 19 Muslim organisations for the dissemination of hatred and terrorist recruitment practices.
Macedonia and beyond
According to data by the Macedonian foreign ministry, as of March 2016 about 140 Macedonian soldiers have fought in the ranks of ISIS and 20 of them have lost their lives. They belong to the Albanian minority in the country. As a whole, they are characterised by high levels of religious illiteracy and poor knowledge of Islam. People of different professional background could be found among them: imams, technology specialists, blue-collar workers, and economics students. Efforts made by the Macedonian government led to the arrests of many accused of working for ISIS and also several convictions at a trial held in March 2016.
It would be appropriate to say a few words about the motivations of women from the Western Balkans to serve ISIS. Many researchers point to the deep similarities in their motives which can be categorised into three groups: ideological, socio-political and personal. A substantial number of women who decided to join the terrorist organisation were under the influence of their husbands, by whom they had been deliberately indoctrinated in the spirit of radical Islam. Concerning socio-political factors, they boil down to the subordinate position of women in those societies, their limited access to employment and their weak representation in Islamic communities. As for personal reasons, they are related to the desire to find a husband, start a family and to personal trauma experienced in the past. Of course, certain differences exist. For instance, women from Kosovo are actively involved in the conflict while Bosnian women remain primarily dedicated to the household, family and child rearing.
Under pressure from the international community ISIS will, in the foreseeable future, likely suffer a territorial defeat. However, the conflict will be far from over. The international community has no clear vision of what should replace it and existing alliances are too fragile and competitive. In other words, there are too many actors with too many contradictory interests in the Syrian conflict. A real danger exists in the de-territorialisation of the conflict as its transfer to social networks and online media. If this course of development is undertaken, the ideas of ISIS will outlive its territorial existence, thus intensifying the threat of radicalisation in countries which are key sources of jihadists.
The challenge that lies ahead for Western Balkan states is to create programmes of de-radicalisation and radicalisation prevention. Their weaknesses include limited resources, exclusive attention to ethnic relations and fragile democratic traditions. Their strengths include the long traditions of co-existence between different historically formed religious communities which have not fully disappeared.