Sunday, May 27, 2018

Returning IS Fighters in the Balkans: Beyond the Immediate Security Threat

Publication: Terrorism Monitor

By: Ebi Spahiu

The Jamestown Foundation

Over the years, the nations of the Western Balkans have seen about 1,000 of their citizens join al-Qaeda’s Syria wing, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), and move on to join so-called Islamic State (IS). [1] 

They have hailed from majority-Muslim communities in Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, as well as minority Muslim populations in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Regional governments have responded by criminalizing participation in foreign conflicts and taking measures against recruiters, radical preachers and jihadist propaganda networks. [2] The threat of attack is real but limited, while years since the alarm bells first went off, it remains unclear what effect returning foreign fighters will have in the longer term.

While the Western Balkans is not immune to terrorist attacks, as sporadic attempted attacks and some lone actor shootings have demonstrated, there is little consensus on the true threat returning foreign fighters pose for the region. Indeed, the general perception is that the region holds little propaganda value as a target for jihadists, raising the question of whether they intend to move further into Europe and in what way the phenomenon will manifest itself in the region’s security landscape.

The Returnees

Between 250–300 Balkan fighters who quit IS and returned home between 2014-2015 seem to have done so having become disillusioned by the war and disheartened by the infighting between jihadist groups (Gazeta Tema, October 8, 2017). The authorities appear to believe that few of these returnees pose an immediate security risk. In Albania, for instance, media reports have claimed that only 15 of some of the 40 returnees may pose a threat (, March 23, 2016).

Others seem unable or unwilling to return, instead remaining in Syria and Iraq with their families and children. [4] Security agencies in Kosovo claim that there are still 91 children (37 of whom were born in Syria and Iraq) and 41 women in areas under IS control. Only seven women and three children have so far returned home (BalkanWeb, April 5).

Vlado Azinovic, professor of political science at the University of Sarajevo, commented that there were only “a few groups of women and children desperate to return” to the Balkans. “I don’t think that the men will attempt to come back, short of being faced with the choice of imminent death in Syria and Iraq, or criminal prosecution back home,” he said. [5]

Despite the security implications of leaving a generation of potential jihadist fighters to grow up under the influence of remaining IS leaders, governments across Europe, including those of the Western Balkans, seem hesitant to repatriate those left in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Bosnia, there are an undetermined number of children born in territories formerly held by IS as a result of “marriages” between Bosnian men and women of other nationalities, Azinovic claims. There are also orphans, adopted by Bosnians, whose nationalities are unknown.

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