Islamic State in Balkans

  • Dominika Jandová
  • 5.4.2017 17:12

"Dark days are coming. We will put fear in you. We will come to you with explosive belts. We will do to you what we have done in Iraq." So speak the members of the Islamic State in their first recruitment video titled "Honour is Jihad" released on 4 June 2015 and intended for Muslims living in the Western Balkans. In the recruitment video, they tempt mostly residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina to strengthen the ranks of the Islamic State or to carry on terrorist attacks in the Balkans. What real impact the Islamic state truly has in the Balkans?

The armed conflicts in the 90s resulted in many security challenges with which the Western Balkan countries still deal today – political and economic instability, ethnic tensions, organised crime, corruption and high unemployment. Wars also opened the door for spreading of Islamist extremist ideologies that were supported by outer external actors – especially Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.

Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) estimates that since 2012, more than 300 fighters from Kosovo, 330 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 110 from Albania, 100 from Macedonia, 50 from Serbia and 13 from Montenegro went to war zones in Syria and Iraq. Unofficial sources estimates are up to twofold higher, the exact numbers are not known. Analyst Adrian Shtuni estimates that the total number is over 1,000 individuals, which is a number that might raise concerns. According to the Europol report from January, in addition to training camps in Syria, there were also smaller training camps in the EU and in the Balkan countries. The issue of training camps in the Balkan countries lies in the connections with governments and politicians, as for ESJ News further described Tomáš Zdechovský.

What had the Islamic State to offer to the so-called foreign fighters? Firstly, it is necessary to mention the economic factor that contributes to spreading of radicalism. A fighter for the Islamic State could earn at least double the average wage he could make in the Western Balkans. The bad economic situation, caused by slow post-conflict process and by a transition from a centrally planned economy, and high unemployment mostly affect young people, who therefore do not have good future prospects. Along with poverty, there is a sense of historical injustice as a result of conflicts, which the Islamic State takes advantage of by offering a chance to retaliate against the West.

Additionally, we should keep in mind that a significant number of young people from the Balkans is being radicalised online, especially through social networks. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and it is vulnerable not only due to the lower level of religious education but also because of the poor economic situation in the country and extreme level of unemployment. Reportedly, in order to radicalise the young people in Kosovo, they are being offered certain monthly stipends for attending sermons in mosques. As reported by BIRN, local security experts often believe that the scope of the problem is being underestimated by governments or its extent is not completely known.

Lastly, contributing factors that are often being given are a chance to belong, to give their lives some meaning, a quest for identity or outrage at the violence in Syria and Iraq. The desire to learn something new, to get abroad, to have an adventure, or to get adrenaline from fighting play their part as well. However, the main problem is no longer the willingness of fighters to leave their homeland to fight for various terrorist organisations, but quite the opposite: their return to the Balkans.

Since its peak of power in 2014, the Islamic State lost about a half of previously controlled territory in Iraq and more than a quarter in Syria. Among the biggest losses were particularly the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the Libyan cities of Sirte and Benghazi or territories around the Syrian-Turkish border. Currently, there is a successfully ongoing operation to free the second largest Iraqi city, Mosul, and realisation of plans to conquer the Syrian IS stronghold of Raqqa that could deliver a final blow to the Islamic caliphate. With territorial losses, the number of the IS fighters was lowered as well and the financial sources were reduced due to the fact that the Islamic State was gaining them from oil deposits, taxes from controlled areas, ransoms from kidnappings or agriculture.

Scattering of foreign fighters, due to i.e. defeat of the IS strategic territories in Iraq and Syria, also brings a risk of them returning to the Balkans as radicalised people with combat experience or they are at least able to manipulate weapons or explosives. They can also have the potential to create new conflicts or to flare up the old ones. There is also a risk of spreading tactics and practices of the Islamic State – terror and unconventional way of fighting, not only terrorist attacks. Returning fighters might recruit other people, previously inactive, or they might preach extremism and violence. Aside from the number of foreign fighters coming from the Balkan countries, other factors contributing to the overall threat are the current migration crisis, economic situation and weak, but still present religious radicalism. Especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are Salafi Muslim communities that often live in marginal, rural areas, virtually isolated from society and usually do not pay taxes. Radical Salafi movements are, however, also present in Kosovo or Macedonia.

In 2015, there were two incidents that were classified as terrorist attacks by Bosnian authorities: in Zvornik and Sarajevo, where they cost lives of two army officers and two policemen. Both attacks were carried out by individuals – lone wolves, somehow linked to Syrian jihadist veterans. The risk of an attack increases with a potential to attack an important or strategic site. In last year's November, the Kosovo police announced the arrest of several people suspected of having links to the IS and planning of several terrorist attacks, one of which was to be directed at the Israeli national football team that played in neighbouring Albania qualifying match for the World Cup. Subsequently, the Kosovo police increased their presence near potential targets of attacks – the buildings of Kosovo government and international organisations, as well as around the churches and monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Without increased trust and cooperation between security and intelligence services, these countries are highly vulnerable to threats of violent extremism and radicalism.


Former director of the Intelligence-Security Agency (OSA), Almir Dzuvo, estimated in 2010 that up to 3,000 potential terrorists are located in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to Filip Tesař, an external associate of the Institute of International Relations, radical Islamism in the Balkans is a matter of thousands of people, it is not a mass social phenomenon. Additionally, the Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that "only" 20% of Kosovan Muslims, 15% of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and 12% of Albanian Muslims support the implementation of sharia law. Even so, the number per capita of foreign fighters recruited from key countries - Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina - who left to fight in Iraq and Syria, is higher than anywhere else in Europe.

Massive attacks of the IS supporters in the Balkans are, according to experts from the Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS), rather unlikely. In reaction to the recent US government's warning against travelling around Europe, the report claims that attacks similar in intensity, frequency and scope to those that happened in France or Germany are not to be afraid of in the territory of the Balkans. The influx of foreign fighters in the Middle East dropped significantly since last year, also as a result of better understanding of the nature of IS and adoption of new laws, that Albania implemented as the first Balkan country. However, their success will depend on their implementation and capabilities and capacities of security institutions.

About author: Dominika Jandová


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