Sunday, August 9, 2015

Balkans as a soft underbelly, by Ioannis Michaletos

The traditional "role “of the Balkans as the soft underbelly of the Continental -and not only-, Europe , seems to be re-enforced judging by the recent culminations regarding the intention of the Islamic State (I.S.) and other Jihadist factions to subvert European security. 

The various arrests of Jihadist cells over the past few months in Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and FYROM, coupled with increase mobilization of security forces also in Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia further attest to this. Moreover, recently the French ambassador in Washington D.C. relayed that the bulk of automatic weapons such as AK-47 found in the hands of extremists & criminals in Paris and other major French urban centers, come from the Balkans. It has to be noted that the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine was done by perpetrators carrying Kalashnikov's that originated most probably from Bosnia. 

There are also various indications and reports over the past decade that explosives used in the attacks against Madrid (2004) and London (2005) also were sourced from Western Balkan contraband circles. More importantly there have been arrests over attempted terrorist attacks that were connected with the Balkans and in relation to the Jihadist threat in most EU countries over the past 15 years, clearly indicating the perils involved. 

Balkans constitutes nowadays a major hub for all kinds of organized and transnational illicit activities. The most important route for the importation of heroin is the "Balkan route" that starts from Afghanistan and reaches Central Europe via Iran-Turkey and then Balkan countries following Northward direction. Western Balkan ports have significant interest as import and re-distribution hubs of cocaine originating from South America. In addition the Balkans are a major hub for illegal immigration into the EU, arms trafficking, money laundering, extensive loan sharking activities, sex trafficking, fuel and tobacco contraband, cybercrime, counterfeit imports and re-exports and many other niches of organized criminality. 

Apart from the local gangs, criminal kingpins and so-called "Mafias" the region has attracted the attention of the Georgian, Italian, Russian, Turkish, Chinese mafias who have established firm roots and bases. Newcomers include Colombian cartel representatives, Mexican ones, and Nigerian, Israeli, Pakistani, Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish groups. The total revenue of organized crime activity in the region is hard to be numbered but it runs in excess of 70 billion USD per annual, a good portion of the local GDP. 

The rapid decrease of the standard of living in Greece, coupled with the chronic societal and economic issues of most countries, bar Slovenia, in the Balkans, further fuels the dynamics of the various criminal groups and assorted corrupted public officials. This could well develop in a "Mexican scenario" scenario for the region in the coming years and in relation to the rest of the European countries. As it can be understood the environment been described is an ideal springboard for the subversion and intrusion of international terrorist groups en route to the EU coming mostly from the MENA region. 

The role of Turkey is also of great importance since it links together via its territorial "Eurasian corridor" the civil strife in countries such as Syria and Iraq with the Balkans. Turkey is also heavily implicated in the support towards Jihadist factions. The radicalization of Islamic groups in the Western Balkans is an added factor.

Arms contraband networks already supply rebels and indirectly terrorists alike since the beginning of the Arab Spring back in 2011. Large consignments of weapons from the surpluses of the former Soviet Bloc, but also newer armaments find their way to Libyan, Syrian or Iraqi groups mainly from the Adriatic Coast. Relations and connections are been constantly formed between those Balkans elements that supply the weapons with Jihadists across the Mediterranean. Further, a continuous flow, seemingly uninterrupted, of more than 1,000 people per day streams from Turkey to Greece and then to the rest of the Balkans, largely facilitated by powerful human smuggling networks that have local collaborators. The "osmosis" between local criminals and corrupted officials with Jihadists is becoming more and more, even if all sides are not aware of the networking or even the stakes involved. 

The Balkans are also a major European hub for the provision of falsified documents such as passports, driving licenses, state id's or educational titles, while logistics that can facilitate entrance of substantial number of potential terrorists are already in place, judging by the multitude of NGOs used as fronts via capital supply from extremist Middle Eastern circles, charities and myriads of individuals willing to assist either for religious, ideological or monetary reasons. 

Informal capital transfer systems, such as "Hawala" are spreading fast in the region and facilitate all kinds of illicit activities, while the deteriorating economic climate or stagnation in terms of the region's economic future has led to the establishment of many "business fronts" that are willing to back up anyone able to hand out capital.

Lastly, credible information points out, that extremist local groups in the Western Balkans have upgraded their supply of armaments over the past few months, an indication of a possible new round of ethnic conflicts or destabilization attempts such as the one in Kumanovo-FYROM last May. That is added risk factor that could further render any meaningful attempts to check the Jihadist flow into the EU. 

In a nutshell it can be assessed, that new terrorist attempts by Jihadists should be expected in major EU centers in the coming period, and the probability of a direct or indirect Balkan connection is significant with main focus in Bosnia. Thus effective and speedy collaboration within the Balkans security forces is of outmost importance, as well as, assistance and back-up from EU and NATO and any other "bona fide" partner.