Islamic State in Balkans II: Issue of counter-terrorism measures

  • Dominika Jandová
  • 5.4.2017 22:42

From the Balkan countries, especially from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the number of foreign fighters per capita, who went to fight in Iraq and Syria, is higher than anywhere else in Europe. Fear of escalation of religious radicalism and terrorism due to the influence of the Islamic State forced the governments of these countries to implement a series of measures that, as they hope, will help to reduce the threat. What are the obstacles to these efforts?

The idea that the Balkans is home to (potential) terrorists is based on several aforementioned historical and contemporary factors. The rise of militant Islamism in Southeast Europe is the result of long-term efforts of extremists to radicalise the local population. Over the last decades, the militant Islamist movements in Southeast Europe have also developed sophisticated infrastructure, composed of local sanctuaries in the form of isolated villages and mosques controlled by radical clerics, wide variety of means of radicalisation through media, the Internet and social networks. All that with generous support supplied by some Middle Eastern countries especially Saudi Arabia. Some experts argue that potential terrorist threat level in Sarajevo is no different from other European countries, while other experts disagree and point out the estimated number in the range of three to five thousand of potential terrorists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Individuals, who participated in the attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, in June 2016 at the airport in Istanbul or a month later in the suicide attack in Germany, had one thing in common – they lived in the Balkans or travelled through them in the recent past. Another problem is a long-term issue of training centres of radicals which were pointed out by Europol again last year. Considering these camps, that essentially offer military training and a certain "religious education", change their location, they are more difficult to detect. There is also a great number of documents that allegedly contain evidence of politicians being linked to these radical networks and camps, which concerns namely the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and some of its high-ranking officials.

Key Balkan states demonstrate commitment in the fight against terrorism, but they face many obstacles in the form of still weak administrative capacities, corruption and generally ineffective cooperation of individual institutions in this effort. The extent of radicalisation and threat of terrorism in the Balkans is also rather unknown for the security institutions. All states regard returning jihadi fighters as a serious security threat and they have implemented criminal law reforms enabling prosecution of people suspected of involvement in armed conflicts or incitement to fight. Recruiting and training in order to create foreign military groups or their financing are prosecuted as well. Sanctions vary from state to state.

Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS) estimates that there were around 130 suspected returnees, of whom more than 50 were accused of committing crimes associated with the fight in Syria and Iraq. Kosovo has adopted reforms in March 2015 and penalties range from 3 to 15 years in prison, with the top rate being the more frequent verdict. Most of the suspects were charged under the older legislation because their activities took place in 2013 or 2014. Widely criticised is the application of house arrest at prosecuted when, after confession, the suspect may be released from jail and placed under house arrest, which is in the case of the crime of "organising and participating in terrorist organisations" rather counterproductive. Moreover, the suspect is more than willing to admit to acts he didn't commit, in order to be released from custody.

A different situation is in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the laws, which were adopted in June 2014 and introduced a classification of a number of new offences, including involvement in foreign military or paramilitary unit, were applied retroactively to people who participated in the fighting in Syria or Iraq since 2012. Arrests themselves cannot be presented as a universal solution since people can become even more radicalised in prison or spread radicalization there. The official Islamic communities responsible for appointing imams or regulation of mosques are not able to adequately respond to the challenges of radicalisation in "unofficial" mosques, which raises questions about a possibility of intervention by the authorities.

On the other hand, many experts across the Balkans call for greater efforts of civil society, religious and state institutions, which will primarily depend on the prevention of radicalisation and rehabilitation programs for returning warriors and their families. Indeed, many of them had left under the influence of the IS propaganda, which was somewhat different from reality. Awareness programs and religious education also help to solve the situation of people who were radicalised in the territory of the Balkans. In September 2015 Kosovo published the Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism for the period 2015-2020, which already includes some aspects of religious education and multi-institutional awareness campaigns. Kosovo is following in the footsteps of European countries such as Denmark and Germany by creating rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programs for its citizens. The question remains whether Kosovo is able to recruit the necessary number of experts trained in rehabilitation, de-radicalisation and reintegration of people into society.

In many Balkan countries, a serious problem in the fight against terrorism is the lack of information sharing between security and intelligence agencies, both between countries and within them. This is especially noticeable in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the political system is divided among three entities and security systems operate on the same principles. Currently, Bosnian authorities are implementing counter-terrorism strategy, which aims, among other things, to create a single database of information concerning radicalism and terrorism that would be available to all police units. Experts also believe that the sharing of intelligence among numerous Bosnian police forces is further complicated by the influence of politicians, many of whom are facing allegations of taking advantage of inter-ethnic tensions in the country for political gain.

Therefore, while the states developed detailed strategies to combat extremism, there are concerns that they are unable to implement these measures quickly enough. Technological and human resources are problematic as well, particularly in Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania, that are burdened with the ongoing migration crisis, which increases the risk of weak combat readiness, as well as infiltration of radicals. Additionally, security services are vulnerable because they are primarily aimed at protecting political interests of their countries, and less at external security threats. Despite the governments' intervention against extremism, enhancing security measures and adoption of security strategies, only a little effort has gone into preventing Islamic radicalism in cyberspace.

Gathering and sharing of information within and between states, an effective system of registration of returning foreign fighters and coordination of activities of security services are some of the ways that help to deal with the current security situation. A coherent strategy should be implemented to deal with the returning foreign fighters and their families with the use of rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programs. The Balkans will certainly need support from the EU, since neglecting the risks could affect the security of member states. For this reason, the European countries should be prepared to adequately respond to potential risk and improve safety measures.

About author: Dominika Jandová

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