As Croatian voters go to the polls Sunday to potentially unseat remnants of the country’s communist past, there is growing intelligence that the Islamic State may be setting its eye on infiltrating and destabilizing the Balkans.
A senior diplomatic official from the region tells The Washington Times that Croatian intelligence has identified a possible Islamic State leader who is setting up in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina and beginning to organize scores of Islamist fighters who left the Balkans to join the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in war-torn Syria and Iraq and have since returned home.
“We have identified a possible Islamic State leader for the region and are monitoring the jihadist fighters returning to the Balkans, and there is much to be concerned about,” said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive intelligence.
The concerns have been exacerbated by the refugee crisis sweeping Europe, which has security officials in the Balkans worried that an Islamic State sleeper cell could slip into the region disguised as Syrian refugees seeking asylum.
The official noted that a video that surfaced in June from the propaganda arm of the Islamic State showcased numerous Balkan fighters in Syria and threatened jihad in the Balkans.
The video made reference to the U.S.-led war against Serbia in 1990s and urged Islamists in the Balkans to join the fight in Syria or to wage attacks on their home soil. “Plant bombs under cars, explode houses, poison them, kill them everywhere,” a fighter in the tape declared, according to a rough English translation.
With a large Muslim population and a weak economy that leaves young, poor men vulnerable to radicalization, the Balkans region is experiencing growing fears that terrorism may be breeding among its civilian population.
“The threat is real, and the region is a potential tinderbox for radicalization,” the Balkan diplomatic official said.
The concerns are growing as Croatia, a NATO member and close U.S. ally, holds elections Sunday in which the governing Social Democratic Party, which grew from the former Yugoslavia’s communist roots, faces a tight race to hold on to power in the parliament as the more conservative Croatian Democratic Union (CDU) makes a late push.
The results will likely determine which party controls the prime minister’s job below President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, 46, the country’s first female chief executive and a member of the CDU. She has worked at NATO and is considered friendly to the U.S.
Polls leading into Sunday’s election showed a tight race that could result in a virtual tie between the leading parties in parliament.
The refugee crisis has been a major factor in the race. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, a member of the SDP, has embraced the influx of refugees while the Croatian Democratic Union has raised concerns about security and focused attention on the Croatian economy, which is among the weakest in the European Union.
Terrorist recruitment concerns
Concerns about Islamic State recruitment in the Balkans extend far beyond the region.
The CIA estimates that several hundred Islamic State fighters in Syria came from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania or Kosovo since 2012 and scores have returned to their homes. Croatia has seen little radicalization thus far — nearly 90 percent of the population is Christian, and Muslims represent an estimated 2 percent — but worries that a terrorist could slip across its borders from a neighboring country.
“The Balkans have proven a rich breeding ground for ISIS and as these experienced fighters go back they pose an increased risk to either spread the radicalization or carry out attacks either in the Balkans or elsewhere in Europe,” said a U.S. official directly familiar with the American assessment. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
“All the countries in the region are on high alert, and some threats have been disrupted,” the U.S. official added. “But it’s a concern that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”
Several U.S. agencies have raised red flags in past year about threats in the Balkans.
In September 2014, the State Department designated two Balkan fighters — one an Islamic State member from Kosovo and the other an al Qaeda sympathizer from Bosnia — as terrorists who should have their assets frozen.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point estimated late last year that 200 to 600 men have joined Islamic State fighters from the Balkans since 2012, mostly from Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.
The Congressional Research Service provided a more detailed picture this spring, estimating that 330 foreign fighters for the Islamic State in Syria came from Bosnia-Herzegovina, 100 to 150 from Kosovo, 90 from Albania, 50 to 70 from Serbia and about a dozen from Macedonia.
About 50 of the fighters are believed to have been killed on the battlefield, and about 100 have returned to the Balkans.
“Data patterns for known foreign fighters from the Western Balkans appear to reveal several main clusters, with groups of individuals linked to isolated, radical communities in Bosnia or Serbia or to radical networks based around several informal mosques in Albania,” the Congressional Research Service report said.
Several countries in the region in the past year have tightened their laws to punish any citizens who attempt to leave their homeland to fight in foreign conflicts, and security agencies from neighboring Balkan states met as recently as this summer to better coordinate intelligence-sharing.
The increased vigilance has resulted in arrests and a few disrupted plots, one involving a potential attack elsewhere in Europe.
In February, a Swedish man and four Bosnians were arrested in Bosnia on charges of plotting to launch a terrorist bombing in Scandinavia, one of the first clear-cut cases of using the Balkans as a launching pad for terrorism.
In July, authorities in Kosovo — where Muslims represent over 90 percent of the population — arrested several people with suspected ties to the Islamic State who reportedly planned to poison Pristina’s main water supply. The water supply was shut off in the city for an extended time until authorities could confirm no poisoning occurred.
In August, Macedonia rounded up nine Islamic State sympathizers believed to be involved in recruitment and radicalization or having fought in Syria. Macedonia recently increased its estimate of foreign fighters who left its country to closer to 130, much higher than the estimate in the Congressional Research Service report.