Monday, July 21, 2014

Islamic Radicalism in the Balkans, by Giovanni Giacalone

Measures in the Balkans against foreign fighters
In the first half of 2014 Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and FYROM have all approved a legal framework to sanction citizens that take part in foreign wars, such as the one in Syria and Iraq, intending to discourage participation and prevent returnees from going back to their countries of origins, where they could pose a serious threat to public security. [1]

In January 2014 the Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDSP) proposed in parliament a new law to sanction recruiters with prison sentences of up to 12 years, and those who depart to participate in foreign wars with prison sentences of up to five years.
Last year, Serbia also upgraded the criminal law to include acts of international terrorism.
In April, Bosnia introduced jail terms of up to 10 years for any citizen who fights in or recruits for conflicts abroad, seeking to curb departure of young Bosnians to Syria. [2]
FYROM is amending its criminal law, submitted in parliamentary procedure, to punish recruiters and citizens who agree to participate in foreign military or paramilitary formations with prison sentences of up to five years.
The Interior Minister, Gordana Jankulovska, explained how four FYROM citizens already died in Syria, which is a strong indicator that this problem is expanding. [3] [4]
Jankulovska added that FYROM's government did not have a clear view of the exact number of its citizens fighting in Syria.
Some approximate statistics
It is not easy to have a precise number of the foreign fighters from the Balkans fighting among radical groups in Syria and Iraq; several study centers have come up with their own statistics, but it is extremely hard to find accuracy.
According to a report of the Combating Terrorism Center, approximately 159 individuals from the Western Balkans are involved in Syria (the report includes fighters, facilitators, wives of fighters and others who were not clearly identified).
In terms of nationality, the dataset contains 70 individuals from Bosnia-Herzegovina, 42 from Kosovo, 25 from Albania, 9 from Serbia, 5 from FYROM, 2 from Montenegro. There are also a number of dual nationals, including one from Algeria/Bosnia, two from Egypt/Bosnia, one from Lebanon/Bosnia, one from Syria/Bosnia, and one from Switzerland/Bosnia. The dual nationals, with the exception of the Swiss/Bosnian, are all ex-members of the disbanded el-Mujahid unit that was active during the conflict in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. [5]
According to Ivan Babanovski, former professor at the Security Faculty in Skopje, there are more than 400 fighters from the Balkans participating in Syria, though other security services raise the number up to 2,000. [6]
A December 2013 report of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) points out that in the Balkans, the largest contributors of foreign fighters are Kosovo (4-150), Albania (9-140), and Bosnia (18-60), with smaller numbers coming from FYROM (3-20), Serbia (3). [7]
The real threat
A few years ago some experts and academics had claimed that the terror threat in the Balkans had been exploited by local and Western media, mainly for “propaganda”, “ignorance” and “sensationalism”, while the infiltration of Wahhabi radicalism in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and FYROM had failed. [8]
According to such theories the threat was not serious and mainly for three reasons:
1- The small number of individuals who were active in radical activities
2- Due to the longstanding tradition of the so called “moderate Islam”
3- The influence of four decades under the Communist regimes
The conflicts that were viewed as a struggle between seculars and Wahhabis were interpreted by some analysts as contrasts between political-regional factions looking for hegemony and funds.
This view might partially be acceptable; it is true that the Salafis and the Wahhabis did not find fertile ground among the local population, especially in Bosnia and FYROM.
The creation of small “enclaves” inside Bosnia, such as the ones in Zenica, Zepce and Gornja Maoca on behalf of former Arab fighters belonging to the “El Mujaheed” unit is a good example. The fact for itself that they had to create separate areas where those who do not share the radical ideology are not welcome clearly shows a separation between the majority of the local Muslim population, more secular and attached to its Sufi traditions and these groups of radicals who created small strongholds in different areas, where a few hundred families currently live.
Key figures and the “Bosnian network”
Although, the relatively small number and the dispersion throughout the territory do not necessarily signify a lack of threat.
Throughout time, local radical preachers such as Bosnian Bilal Bosnic and Nusret Imamovic managed to build a strong network of contacts, not only in the Balkans but in Western Europe as well, with hundreds of followers.
Nusret Imamovic, a naturalized Austrian citizen living between Vienna and the northern Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca, near the city of Brcko, founded and lead a small Wahhabi community which was closed to outsiders.
Bilal Bosnic, well known in the Gornja Maoca area, has been preaching at gathering in the Bosnian mounts, such as the one in Rastelica, on August 12, 2013 and has been hosted in several Islamic centers throughout Europe, in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland. [9] [10]
Bosnic was also reported in Italy in the summer of 2013, precisely in Cremona and Pordenone, where he has an interesting number of followers.
Vienna is another major center for Bosnian Salafi radicalism; the Tewhid Islamic Center in Vienna, runned by Austrian/Bosnian Muhamed Fadil Porca, often caught the attention of investigators.
Bosnian security services believe that Porca is a key financial and ideological supporter of radical forces in Bosnia. Some Bosnian Islamic community officials also accuse Porca of organizing and financing visits to Bosnia for radical Muslims from Germany and Austria. His Center has been repeatedly attended by Nusret Imamovic.
ISN Security Watch intelligence and police sources claimed that Vienna was the financial and ideological center for radical Bosnian Muslims and according to Bosnian Muslim terror expert, Dzevad Galijasevic, Vienna is the center of Bosnian Muslim recruitment.
“All those who want to go to war in Syria first go to Vienna. There they are moved onto airplanes to Istanbul and Adan, city near Syria. Turks have established a well runt scheme on moving the Jihadists into Syria,”. [11]
A new phase
The idea that the first decade of 2000 in the Balkans was relatively safe is not necessarily true; it would rather be more accurate to say that it was just a different phase, were the bases for the current situation were being settled.
The fact that several restricted areas became under Salafi control is not exactly a comforting signal, just like the various violent episodes that took place throughout the years.
For instance, in early 2007, Bosnian radical imam Jusuf Barcic and his followers gained national attention by attempting to physically occupy a number of mosques in Tuzla and Sarajevo. [12]
Many local Islamic groups, mainly linked to Sufi and Shia branches, have also been systematically targeted by extremists.
Same problem in FYROM, where the Bektashi were repeatedly targeted in Skopje and Tetovo.
Although it is true that from 2011 the situation became more problematic due to three new elements that made Bosnia and the whole Balkanic area far more dangerous:
1- The ongoing war in Syria and Iraq brought hundreds of citizens from the Balkans to join radical groups; once there, they received all the required training and know-how that could become lethal for their countries of origins if they actually manage to return.
2- The current economic crisis, high youth unemployment, political corruption and consequent desire for moralization among the young are all elements that have always been exploited by radical preachers in order to find more followers.
3- Internet and social networks are additional elements that are extremely important for the spread of jihadist propaganda, as we have currently seen in the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Through the web, radical groups are able to communicate, collaborate, recruit and spread radical ideology.
The internet has also become a gateway to radical forums and jihadist websites with explicit radical agendas, easily downloadable operational information and a platform to promulgate tactical and operational information. A type of communication that occurs in real-time, and with little consideration for border controls and censorship.
It is evident that we have entered a new, far more dangerous phase, which is quite far from the mid-90s, when a few hundreds Arab mujahideen were infiltrating Bosnia to fight against the Serbs.
The situation in the Balkans has now become serious and the Institutions need to take proper measure in order to prevent and contrast the phenomenon.

Giovanni Giacalone is an Italian researcher and analyst in Islamic radicalism, lives in Milan where he studies political Islam in Europe with a close look at issues linked to integration, radicalism and relations between the various European Institutions and the Islamic organizations present in Europe. He is researcher for the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy.He wrote this article in English for RIMSE.

[8] Bega F.M., “Islam Balcanico”, (Milano: Utet, 2008), p.251-254