Interview: ISIS in the Balkans

Interview with Florian Qehaja, the head of the Kosovo Center for Security Studies

In the new ISIS recruiting video published in June, Bosnian fighter appeals to Balkan muslims for fighting against unbelievers in their countries and joining the fights in Syria. Another promotional video from July calls for the conquest of Serbia and the destruction of democracy in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro and establishment of Sharia law. It is estimated that around 600 individuals left for Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic state. We asked Florian Qehaja, the head of the Kosovo Center for Security Studies, about the current situation in the Balkans and the ISIS threat.

Hundreds of citizens from the Balkan states, especially from Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, went fighting in Syria since 2012. What are their main motivation factors for taking part in the war in the Middle East? And what measures can be taken by the Balkan states to prevent it?

There are countless factors and reasons why West Balkan people join foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. First there are economic reasons rooted in socio-economic problems in some parts of these countries. The Islamic state is very successful in recruiting new fighters in such an environment because fallacious offer to fight for “true Islam“ is the only offer these people ever get. It is the only option of an employment and chance for prosperity.

Brainwashing is another factor. This is related to the abuse of Islam by terrorist organizations that convince people to see themselves as shahids [the term comes from Quran where it originally referred to devotion to faith, but later it was used in the sense of martyrdom in hadiths which is a meaning that now prevails – Ed.]. Due to shahid they are forgiven past sins. This is one of the biggest factors that people find appealing. As much as 40 percent of all fighters that leave Kosovo to fight in Syria and Iraq have criminal past.

The third reason is the lack of cultural education and perspective which makes people living in the remote parts of the Balkan states particularly prone to propaganda within which recruiters misuse Islam that is not a traditional religion in some regions and they take the advantage of the fact that it comes from the outside. Such an Islam is however false and based on untrue references to Quran.

It is necessary to take the holistic and comprehensive approach to prevention of violent extremism. Intervention by security authorities and institutions should be seen as the last resort while preparedness of all state bodies is a necessity. In the short-term prospect it is important to concentrate on cooperation with the communities, especially with the Imams, to prevent spreading of extremism. In the long-term prospect it is necessary to invest more in cultural, sporting and economic development in regions where extremism is the strongest.

After ISIS published a recruitment video aimed at Balkan muslims in June, ISIS fighters returning to the Balkans announced the establishment of a new net. The governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro subsequently passed laws allowing the seizure of returning fighters. Several suspicious fighters and Imams that reportedly sponsored extremist activities were captured. What other measures can be taken by local governments against these threats?

Regional security cooperation in defense against potential attacks is the key. But it is unlikely that the Balkans should become the target of such attacks, they are more of a recruitment area. The threat is however viewed as moderately dangerous because the individual extremists or small groups of fighters can attack various elements of state security. No state is immune and cooperation is inevitable. Current cooperation is however very limited and selective because it is based on political preferences instead of security analysis and risk assessment. Even though Kosovo is being pointed out as a source of violent extremism in the region, Macedonia or Serbia are unwilling and reluctant in the matter of cooperation.

Considering the relative restraint of muslims in the Balkans and the absence of threat of big terrorist acts, we can expect rather small and simple attacks instead of the complex, sophisticated and logistically demanding ones. What are the possible targets of such attacks?

It is necessary to repeat that the Balkans is more of an area of fighter recruitment than a target of attacks. Nevertheless it is likely that there are small, half-organized groups or individual extremists that are able to carry out simple attacks with the aim of spreading fear among the population of the whole region. Possible targets could be people with the influence over society, people actively taking a stand against ISIS or groups supporting secularism, LGBT communities etc. It is very unlikely that the attacks could be aimed at traditional strategic targets as government institutions, police etc.

Are terrorism and extremism enough of security threat to require help from the USA or the EU? Considering relatively limited intelligence service of the Balkan states, can they face the threats alone?

The Balkan states have limited intelligence skills and capacities, especially concerning the prevention. Cooperation in security matters however joined and increased the capacities so they can easily recognize and eliminate the ISIS threat. The USA is particularly helpful in the matter of sharing information and skill building.

Can radicalization in the Balkans disrupt the fragile religious relations in the context of war in the former Yugoslavia?

Of course there is a potential. It is possible that religious relations can be misused by some of the countries to create conflicts in society. The Islamic extremism is not organic but it is being developed in the region by individuals from the Northern Africa or Saudi Arabia.

With the growing threat of terrorism and radicalism we can see the effort of the politicians to bring these countries closer to NATO. Can we expect the public to take the geopolitical change positively or the anti-western mood and dissatisfaction with political elites will grow?

I think that the threat of violent extremism will deprive the EU and the NATO of reluctance of expanding because they consider collective security the only alternative for the Balkan states.

Can the media unwittingly help the ISIS propaganda by publishing news concerning terrorist attacks, organizations and their recruitment activities? Could the matter be resolved by establishing government programs for media education and information strategy?

Based on my experience from Kosovo, I am very critical about the role of media. Media exaggerate in their reports, which increases the panic above normal framework of reality. It is called securitization. Securitization occurs when a problem is exaggerated. Media can indirectly help the ISIS strategy in spreading the fear and feeling of danger in society. A study made by the Kosovo Center for Security Studies in April 2015 describes how the foreign fighters welcomed the media attention in Kosovo which subsequently made them more agressive and active in terrorist acts. The role of media should be more educated.

About author: Labinot Hajdari

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