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Untangling ISIS’ ties with the Balkans

July 2nd, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

On June 4th, ISIS released an article threatening a large-scale terror campaign in the Balkans. The article comes almost exactly two years after the very first ISIS message directed at the region, a 20-minute long recruitment and radicalisation video urging people in the Balkans to join the battle in Syria or, if not possible, to kill the “unbelievers” and perceived enemies of Islam in their home countries. The article turns the violence up a notch, with ISIS themselves vowing to decapitate “infidels” and kill Serbs and Croats for their behaviour during the Balkan wars, as well as “traitors” to the Islamic faith unless they return to Islam. The recruitment part of the article uses the same tactics employed all over the world – what differ are the tone and the threat itself. The article goes beyond promising or urging isolated attacks aimed at a way of life they disagree with; it promises and urges a murderous tour on the streets of the Balkan capitals, reminiscent of post-war behaviour from victorious radical groups.

The 1990s wars and their legacies, as well as the significant number of Muslims in the region, make the Western Balkans an unsurprising target for ISIS’ propaganda and quest for allies. Their goal is to reach out to those who suffered at the hands of foreign perpetrators, as well as those who have lost loved ones and are yet to see said perpetrators punished. The attempt is to play on feelings of animosity and lingering distrust and blame which, however, are generally not even remotely strong enough to entice the Balkans citizenry to engage in these barbaric acts. Muslims in the Balkans have traditionally been and continue to be moderate, and post-war extremism in the region has yet to translate itself into widespread violence.

The June 5th 2015 video was followed by a film that called for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in the Balkans, and was released on 10 July of the same year. Since then, police sweeps have been consistent in the countries targeted, with dozens of suspected members of pro-ISIS groups being detained each time. All Western Balkan countries have also changed their laws to facilitate the prosecution of those suspected of fighting or inciting others to fight illegally in foreign conflicts, and the Zvornik shooting of April 2015 remains the only recent terrorist incident to cause casualties in the region.

Despite a limited impact in terms of provoking domestic attacks, ISIS has been relatively successful in recruiting people from the Balkans to join their fight. A weak economy and high levels of youth unemployment are strong motivators that explain why countries like Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have seen a rise in Islamic jihadists leaving their homes for the Middle East. The European Union’s annual Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, published on 15 June, notes that more than 800 foreign terrorist fighters have travelled from the Western Balkans to join the armed conflict in Syria. Albania and Kosovo remain the main exporters, but Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia are also on the list of Balkan hotspots for radicalisation and recruitment. And although actions have been taken to apprehend and punish those who participate and engage in violent extremist activities, much like everywhere else in the world, there have been virtually no steps taken so far to address the underlying causes and prevent others from being radicalised.

Bosnia-Herzegovina seems to be of particular interest to ISIS, as this is where the so-called Islamic State chose to publish the regional version of its terror magazine. Although Albania and Kosovo have much larger Islamic majorities, about half the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina is Muslim, and many Bosnians have military training. Moreover, out of the 100,000 killed in the conflict, 65 percent were Bosnian Muslims, and around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre alone. In terms of death, suffering and hardship, Bosnia-Herzegovina is arguably the country that has been most affected by the Balkan wars.

In recent months, however, the exodus of jihadist fighters leaving Bosnia has reportedly stopped, and this seems to be the case all across the region. This is largely due to a perceived weakening of ISIS as a terrorist organisation, but also partly due to the authorities’ apparent taking of the threat seriously, which translates into difficulties for those who attempt to join ISIS, and increased likelihood of imprisonment if they do so and then attempt to return home.

Particularly in the months following the first video, the media was flooded with reports of increased monitoring, border security checks and the uncovering of regional militant networks extending to Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. An important issue in the Balkans, however, is that both reports on the severity of the threat and on the authorities’ efficiency is coming from the political elite, and are likely to be exaggerated for political gains. The terrorist threat is a useful tool that can be employed to either attract votes, exploit existing divides, or simply draw attention away from more day-to-day domestic problems. Even greater than the political elite’s desire for immediate domestic gain, however, is their eagerness to bring their countries’ closer to NATO and EU membership. The introduction of tougher punishments, the close monitoring of suspected networks and citizens returning from Syria, as well as an increase in regional cooperation, serve to illustrate to the West that these countries are worthy partners.

Despite this, external investigations and those conducted by local NGOs highlight a general weakness on the part of the authorities and institutions responsible for countering security threats. These authorities and institutions are considered to lack the capacities and resources to handle terrorism cases effectively, and are largely unequipped to prevent and deal with a potential large-scale incident. An overlapping of jurisdictions, alongside corruption and ineffective coordination among agencies, are also among the challenges faced by all the countries in the region.

Fortunately, a large-scale attack that would only harm non-Muslims would be difficult to organise and stage, and is therefore unlikely to take place in the near future. Similarly, the impact of ISIS propaganda has so far been near non-existent in terms of smaller-scale attacks, especially when compared to that witnessed in other parts of Europe and the world. ISIS sympathisers and members of radical religious groups exist, but reports on violent activities on their part have so far made only very occasional appearances in the media.

The Western Balkans is not a region left to its own devices enough to make the kind of plan ISIS seems to have for it a possibility; it is also not a region that will willingly put itself through this kind of violence, loss and hardship again. It is, then, ISIS’ recruitment tactics that need to be countered, as they target groups that consider themselves marginalised or oppressed, and do so very effectively. Alongside promoting ideas of empowerment and self-expression, they also offer potential recruits the promise of belonging, which is something they have sought and not found in the countries in which they were born. The appeal is related more to a sense that they are becoming part of something great rather than deep religious sentiments, and it is this that needs to be replicated at home.

The Western Balkans are no more of a “terrorist haven” than other regions in Europe. To promote this kind of message is not only inhuman, but insulting – to their history, to their progress and, above all, to their future. It is political, economic and social dissatisfaction, not religion, that drive people to seek what they consider to be a better life – and it is political, economic, and social dissatisfaction that need to be the focus of any strategy aimed at preventing current and potential future security threats.

Image: Screengrabs from an ISIS propaganda video targeting the Balkans

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.