Combating Salafist Influence in the Western Balkans

The Gulf States have been contributing to the spread of Salafist Islam in the Western Balkans, shown by the high proportion of foreign fighters in Syria. In the past years, Kosovo stood out in the region as the largest breeding ground for ISIS recruits, although this problem extends to other Balkan states. Kosovo’s approach to combating such radicalization can serve as a model for the entire region as well as other European countries.

Since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the Gulf States have been influential in proliferating the teachings of Salafist Islam in the Balkans. They have done this through charities and NGOs as well as educational exchanges and could continue to do so now that the European Union and the United States are less involved in the area. This threat has regional implications due to the fact that radicalism can be easily deployed throughout the Balkans thanks to easy movement through its borders. 

The most immediate repercussion of this influence is shown by the high proportion of foreign fighters from the Balkans who left their home countries to fight in Syria on behalf of the Islamic State. More than 1,000 men, women, and children from Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro have fled to Syria since 2012, and many are now returning home, prompting many officials to worry about possible attacks on their own soil.


Waning Western Influence

 Western involvement in the region is mainly represented by the EU and the United States, however, it isn’t as strong as it once was. The EU was one of the key actors in 1990s as Yugoslavia was embroiled in ethnic conflicts. From 1995 to the early 2000s, most EU officials believed the best way to ensure security was to fast-track EU accession. 

Although opinion polls show that the local population in the Western Balkans still supports joining the EU, there has been a lack of engagement from the EU and the region in the past years and EU accession seems more distant now than ever. Summits in Berlin in 2014 and Sofia in 2018 demonstrated that officials favored connectivity in the region as opposed to enlargement. Many attribute this to the EU’s internal divisions over the migration crisis and complications with Brexit. The situation has created an opportunity for other regional actors, such as the Gulf States, to step in and exert their own influence.


Kosovo and the Gulf States’ Influence Through Soft Power

 While the Gulf States’ influence in the region is marginal compared to other external powers like Russia, Turkey, and China, it is unique in that its main goal is exerting influence through the ideology of Salafism, which is ultraconservative and deeply entwined with a political agenda. Many in the Balkans worry that returning foreign fighters who still espouse this ideology could eventually launch terrorist attacks in their home countries. Kosovo stands out in the region when it comes to this issue because it has one of the highest per-capita rates of foreign fighters and the source of its Salafist Islam is mainly external. Although Muslims make up the majority of the population, the Republic of Kosovo regards itself as secular and has maintained religious tolerance. Despite this, many Islamic charities and NGOs have deliberately spread Salafism.

 The Gulf States have exerted this influence through the use of soft power under the guise of humanitarian aid. Since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have invested approximately $800 million in the construction of mosques. Many organizations also provide scholarships to study at religious institutions in the Middle East and promote Koranic schools in rural areas. A professor at the University of Pristina told Telegrafi that many of these scholarship providers espouse an extremist ideology and encourage their students to do the same. The New York Times reported in 2016 that the Gulf States are funding several publications and videos to indoctrinate younger Kosovars.


How to Combat Salafism in the Region

 Kosovo’s approach to the spread of Salafist Islam has been very effective and many believe that the threat of extremism within its borders has dissipated somewhat. With the help of the EU, the Kosovar government launched a multidimensional strategy that focuses on prevention and includes the close cooperation of local and international actors, including civil society, religious communities, non-governmental stakeholders and experts. The government also targets those who associate with foreign fighters (arresting more than 120 suspects accused of recruiting foreign fighters between 2013 and 2018) and prosecutes those who left to undergo a rehabilitation program. While the EU and the United States were integral in supporting and drafting the strategy, one of the action plan’s strengths is its ability to make sure policies are adjusted to the needs of the local individuals. 

In addition to empowering local actors to fight this problem, the EU can lend its support on the international stage. One way to do this is by pressuring Gulf States leaders to condemn violent extremism in the Balkans. Many of these Islamic NGOs in the region are infiltrated or led by extremists, however tracing the source of this money is difficult and there is a lack of evidence directly linking them to the Gulf States’ governments. Kosovar officials have been able to shut down many organizations that were accused of financing extremist activity, such as the Saudi Joint Committee for Relief of Kosovo, which served as an umbrella organization for many Saudi Arabian agencies and was suspected of being a front for Al Qaeda. According to Kosovo researcher Vesa Bashota, 21 similar organizations were shut down in 2018 alone. The EU could work more closely with Kosovo Intelligence Services and the Financial Intelligence Unit of Kosovo to shed more light on the source of this international funding and try to cooperate with countries that haven’t recognized Kosovo’s independence in order to give the local government more legitimacy.

 The EU also has the ability to improve the underlying conditions that help foster extremism. Kosovo has many weaknesses that make it a ripe field for ISIS recruitment, including low employment, high dissatisfaction with public authorities, lack of social services, poor public education. The EU could promote activities that bolster employment and business development, as well as provide better education for youth and cleanse the public administration of corruption. Many of these activities can also be strengthened throughout the Balkans.

In this way, the Kosovo case serves as a good indication of what is needed throughout the region in order to contain the spread of extremist ideology. The cooperation of individuals on every level, from the local community to the international arena, enabled a multifaceted strategy that helped stifle the threat of attack. The West will need to use what it learned from this situation in order to be effective in combating such extremism in the future.  

About author: Nicole Ely


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