Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Islamist Radicalization in Bulgaria

European Eye on Radicalization

Like many other Eastern European countries, when it comes to Islamist radicalization, Bulgaria has been kept out of the spotlight of terrorism studies. Nevertheless, the country is characterized by some interesting trends that are likely to create complex scenarios in the near future.

Islam is the largest religion in the country after Christianity. According to 2011 estimates, Muslims comprised 7.8% of the population. Just six years later, the percentage had doubled to 15%.[1] Ethnically speaking, Bulgarian Muslims are mostly Turks, ethnic Bulgarians, and Roma. Ethnic Turks are also the largest ethnic minority in the country, comprising 9% of the total population of Bulgaria.

Muslims in Bulgaria are largely secular like most Muslims in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Dr. Evgenia Ivanova of the New Bulgarian University stated in 2011 that religion was not of primary importance to Bulgaria’s Muslims. She conducted a survey of 850 Muslims in the country, which found that approximately 41% never went to a mosque and 59.3% did not pray at home. Only 0.5% believed that sharia should partly inform the law and 79.6% said that wearing a veil in school was “unacceptable”.[2]

In 2017, however, a new survey by Pew Research Center showed signs of an increased religiosity, with 33% of Bulgarian Muslims stating that religion was “very important” in their lives, 7% of Bulgarian Muslims prayed the five salat, 22% attended mosque at least once a week, and 6% read Quran at least once a week.[3]

In this diverse landscape, internal and external forces might try to influence the way in which Bulgarian Muslims practice their faith, potentially contributing to the surge of radicalization. Moreover, informal Islamist groups and associations might exploit poor education and scarce religious knowledge of some segments of the Muslim community, in order to pave the ground for indoctrination of radical ideologies.

External Causes for Radicalization

Experts have identified four major external causes of radicalization. First, quite obviously, are the activities of terrorist organizations such as Daesh and al-Qa’ida. The second risk is the transit of the returning foreign terrorist fighters (RFTFs) through Bulgarian territory from Syria and Iraq.[4] The third risk is linked to increased flows of irregular migrants and the fourth risk relates to the influence that external powers might exert over Bulgarian Muslims through funding and propagation of their own Islamist views.

In this respect, the relationship between the Islamic denomination and the state is regulated by the Denominations Act, according to which all confessional denominations, including the Islamic denomination and the Orthodox Christian denomination, are declared independent from the state (Article 4/2) and are eligible for state budget subsidies (Article 28). The main bodies of the Muslim Denomination in Bulgaria are the Chief Muftiate and Senior Muslim Council, and they represent all Muslims in Bulgaria, both Sunni and Shia (Alevi/Kizilbashi/Bektashi).

Foreign Funds

Because state funding is unable to cover all of the denominational needs of the Muslim community, Muslim organizations are remarkably receptive to foreign funding coming either through bilateral agreements—mainly from Turkey and Iran—or through donations from other Muslim states.

Undoubtedly, heavy dependence on foreign aid weakens the autonomy of the local communities and might make them more vulnerable to ideological pressure from external forces.

An interesting case, which started a few decades ago, is that of the Islamic association Al-Waqf al-Islami. The association was banned in 1994, but was allowed to re-register in the country in 2002. It receives its financial support from three sources. The first one is a Dutch organization—which is registered under the same name and is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The second source is the banned NGO Irshad, and the third is an unregistered NGO called Al Manar. In 2014, prosecutors convicted 12 Bulgarian men and one woman for preaching radical Islam between 2008 and 2010. The group was accused of working with an unregistered branch of Al Waqf-Al Islami.

Most likely, the penetration of foreign radical actors was also behind the first, and so far only, terror attack carried out in Bulgaria. On 18 July 2012, six people—five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver—were killed and over 30 wounded in a suicide operation on a bus at Sarafovo Airport in Burgas. Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman accused Hezbollah of being behind the blast, adding that the attack was “aided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards” or IRGC, which is no surprise since Hezbollah is the Lebanese division of IRGC.

A six-month probe uncovered indisputable links to Lebanon and Hezbollah, prompting criticism from Israel’s prime minister and a top US official. Unveiling the results of the six-month inquiry in Sofia, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said two suspects holding Australian and Canadian passports were directly linked to Hezbollah. In The Hague, the director of EUROPOL backed the Bulgarians’ conclusions that Hezbollah was involved.

The Roma Community

Since the beginning of the 21st century, individuals or groups of Muslims, in particular belonging to the Roma community—some of whom were recent converts—began adopting more radical interpretations of Islam and identifying with jihadi organizations.

The first such act was reported in 2003 when a banner that read “The state is a Caliphate” was displayed above two houses in the Roma Iztok quarter in the town of Pazardjik, where followers of the banned Islamist organization Halifat (Caliphate) were gathering.

In October 2014 a video was uploaded on the Facebook profile of the chief Islamic preacher in the Pazardjik Roma quarter—Ahmed Musa. The video showed waiters at a Roma wedding wearing T-shirts with the emblem of Daesh taking pictures. A subsequent investigation revealed that members of the community possessed video materials that preached and glorified Daesh ideology and advocated for the establishment of a “Caliphate”.

In the most recent incident, a picture was posted on the personal Facebook profile of informal Islamic preacher Remzi Hasan of the town of Harmanli posing with the Daesh flag.

The Far-Right Factor

A crucial factor potentially increasing Islamist radicalization is the surge of far-right narratives and discourses. Bulgaria is the EU member state with the largest indigenous Muslim community that has been formed over the centuries following the Ottoman conquest at the end of the 14th century. As a result, hostility towards Islam has been a key component of Bulgarian national discourse which was opposed to the Ottoman Empire.

The rise of the far right in Bulgaria has also led to an increase in xenophobia. “Gypsies, Turks, Armenians and Jews are guests in Bulgaria and if they are good guests, they can live peacefully here,” argued Zvezdomir Andronov, leader of the Bulgarian National Union, on one of the most popular political talk shows in Bulgaria on 22 April 2019.

According to Dr. Radosveta Vassileva, in the past few years, far-right rhetoric has become so common in both the media and government, that it seems Bulgarian society has lost its sense of measure. Racist and Islamophobic discourse—like in many other countries—might easily produce opposite radical reactions within the Muslim communities. Far right and Islamist narratives complement each other perfectly, making it possible for the two ideologies to be enemies and allies at the same time.[5]

National Measures to Counter Radicalization

In Bulgaria, violent radicalization and its potential threats to society have only been recently raised in policy debates and entered the political agenda, mainly in the light of the phenomena linked to so-called homegrown terrorism and radicalization. The National Plan for combatting terrorism (2008) is among the first strategic documents that tackled radicalization trends. The majority of measures included in the plan were centered on protection from terrorism, as well as how to respond to potential terrorist attacks, subsequent crisis management, operational control, deterrence, better intelligence gathering, information exchange, and preparedness. In other words, the focus was on so-called hard measures.

In 2015, the new Draft Strategy for Countering Radicalization and Terrorism 2015-2020 outlined a much more comprehensive approach, which included an unprecedented emphasis on prevention activities and soft measures, which have been integrated into the vision and mission of the State Agency for National Security (SANS), the main Bulgarian intelligence agency.


In conclusion, the threat posed by radicalization—both Islamist and linked to the far right—is a real risk in Bulgaria. The two components are likely to reinforce each other’s narratives in an ethnically and culturally complex country, where counterterrorism actors are working to develop new comprehensive approaches to the fight against radicalization.



[1] Bulgaria, CIA World Factbook

[2] Ivanova Evgeniia, Gulubov Antonii, Dimitrova Boriana, Tomova Ilona, Ivanov Mikhail, and Khinkova, Sonia. “Naglasi na miusiulmanite v Bulgariia” [Opinions of Muslims in Bulgaria]. Results of study conducted by New Bulgarian University and Alpha Research. 2011.

[3] “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe: Final Topline.” Pew Research Center, May 10, 2017.

[4] S. Brzuszkiewicz, “Radicalization in Europe after the fall of Islamic State: Trends and risks”, European View, October 10, 2018.

[5] J. Ebner, “The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism”, I.B. Tauris, 2018.