Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Q & A with Dr. Shaul Shay: Balkan-Syria Jihadi connection

Interview with Dr. Shaul Shay, by Ioannis Michaletos

The ongoing civil war in Syria has an array of international security-related concerns, one of the most important one being the concentration of around 100,000 “Jihadi fighters” coming from more than 75 countries across the globe.

From the Balkans and especially from the Western part, it is roughly estimated that almost 1,000 Islamists have joined the ranks of the Syrian battle front and great concern has emerged amongst the local authorities on how to deal with this issue and most importantly how to effectively control the returnees who may become a major domestic security threat. 

In that respect one must take into consideration the ongoing nexus between Balkan and Middle Eastern Jihadist networks for decades and the presence of groups, organizations and cells of radicals in certain Balkan locales that are radicalized already and liable for assisting international terrorism. 

Dr. Shaul Shay sheds his insight on the subject, having researched, monitored and examined the issue of international Jihadism, the Balkan connection and the security concerns in the Middle East, both as a practitioner and academic.

In general it is safe to assume that the Syrian-Balkan connection will occupy security policy-makers in the Balkans and beyond in the coming period, as well as, the overall European Union’s security architecture which has another problem to deal with.

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay

(Ph.D. Tel Aviv University) Former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council (NSC), and former head of the IDF military history department. Expert on Hizballah, Hamas, intelligence and terrorism. Author and the editor of 16 books


- There has been a lot of talk regarding the nexus between radical Islamists in the Balkans and their involvement with the Syrian conflict. Do you share this view and how evolved is that collaboration with Jihadists fighting nowadays there?

First of all the historical context must be reviewed. In that sense we should look back in history around 20 years and in 1993-94 during the time of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina where we had Jihadists from all over the world and especially the Middle East, joining the ranks of their Muslim brethren there. At that time they fought with the local Islamists and provided all kinds of assistance. 

Nowadays we see the reverse direction and certainly Islamists from the local Muslim communities are joining Jihadists in Syria which is a clear reflection of the global Jihadi idea. 

This phenomenon started in the early 80’s during the Afghanistan war against the Soviets and we are talking now for the 4th perhaps even the 5th generation of Jihadists that are moving around the world since then and joining any battle theater. 

According to historical experience there is no doubt that once the war in Syria is over, the Jihadists will look for new fronts to fight and I am afraid that there will be returnees in the Balkans that will assist to the upgrade and sophistication of the operational capabilities of the local radical Islamic groups. 

That is of course a serious challenge ahead for the countries involved. 

- Do you assess that the Balkan states should take precautionary measures to prevent future negative surprises by these radical networks?

I am certain that it is better to start dealing with this issue right now, instead of waiting things to develop. A few things can be done at this point of time. 

First of all to enact campaigns within the local Balkan communities through the liaison of the clerics and leaders, in order to try to explain to mostly young people that it is not in their interest and duty as devout Muslims to engage in such activities in Syria or elsewhere. 

The moderate Muslims and their families should get this advice in all levels and have serious dialogue with them and understand the propaganda against them by Jihadi figures. Although there will be still quite a few Islamists that will travel for Jihad in any case, the prevention of others is certainly a positive thing. 

Moreover the Balkan states that face or will face an issue, should also impose security measures, especially regarding the Jihadists returning through monitoring of activities and travel movements and be able to track them down and be sure on their networking once back home. 

- How can Israel assist the Balkan states regarding the above dangers?

I think that first of all Israel is doing a lot regarding this relatively new security challenge. The Jihadists are already in our borders with Lebanon, Syria, Sinai region and the Gaza Strip and we have daily tasks that involve us to combat them and deal with this challenge. 

Certainly Israel has the experience when talking about Jihadists. On the other hand it cannot prevent the return of Balkan Islamists in their home territories, but I am sure that if a country from this region asks for the advice of Israel, it will get it since there is cooperation regarding the global war on terror and good relations in any case.