Muslim Extremism in the Balkans

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by Jelena Vićić

Amongst the images of terrorist acts perpetuated by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ones that caused the most outrage in the Balkans were those of Levdrim Muhaxheri, a Kosovo national, decapitating a Syrian teenager. These images uncovered the reality of ISIS’ success in recruiting foreign fighters not only in Kosovo, but also in other countries in the region, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. However, the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of Balkan Muslims for radical causes is not new – it started long ago, with the fall of Yugoslavia.

Wahhabism, a religious movement that inspires Islamic fundamentalism around the globe, first entered the Balkans with the start of the Bosnian bloodshed in 1992. According to Erdoan A. Shipoli, Program Director at Federation of Balkan American Associations, the movement itself was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhabi in 18th century Arabia. It was then espoused by Muhammad ibn Saud, who founded the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is identified today with both al-Qaida and ISIS.

Preaching hostility against the infidels, Wahhabi warriors coming from Afghanistan joined the war in Bosnia to fight against the Serbs. In the same manner, using the existing instability to infiltrate Muslim-populated areas, they entered Albania in 1997 and Kosovo in 1999. Some of them stayed behind and married locally after the conflicts had ended. According to Sarah Schelsinger of National Review Online, harsh economic conditions after the war drew another influx of Wahhabis. They provided financial support for the Muslim communities in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, while inseminating their ideologies. “After the war, anyone could come and go as wanted. This is why some of our youth have been indoctrinated,” said Kosovo’s Mufti Naim Trnava.

Known as “people in short pants,” and frowned upon by the local, traditionally liberal Muslims, the Wahhabis in the Balkans today populate remote villages, such as their settlement in Gornja Maoča in Bosnia. This village has been the focus of attention in 2010, due to “Operation Light.” The operation involved 600 police and security agents raiding the village with the aim of “arresting individuals posing a security threat by undermining territorial integrity,” according to Boris Grubešić, spokesman for the Bosnian State Prosecutor’s Office at the time. During the raid, agents arrested Nusret Imamović, a native of Gornja Maoča and one of the most important radical Muslims in the country. He was later released. Imamović is currently fighting with ISIS in Syria and was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Fighter by the U.S. State Department in September.

The success ISIS had recruiting in Kosovo was seen as an embarrassment for a country loyal to America. As the U.S.-led NATO coalition against Serbia is considered crucial in their fight to obtain independence, it is unthinkable to Kosovars that their citizens might be joining ISIS.

According to Valerie Hopkins of Foreign Policy, “as Kosovo emerged from war in the 2000s, several foreign, conservative Islamic aid organizations established schools and funded the construction of mosques in the country.” She notes the concern that religious leaders preaching in foreign-funded mosques might influence people to join ISIS in Syria has materialized. So far, Radio Free Europe reports, “15 influential Muslim leaders have been arrested across Kosovo in a crackdown targeting … a recruiting network for Islamic State.”

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci announced in his The Guardian op-ed that, “we will crush any cells that believe, wrongfully, that they can find cover in Kosovo.” This statement follows the series of arrests that started in August 2014, when over 40 Muslim extremists were arrested across the country. Meanwhile, in Bosnia, Balkanist reports that 16 people were arrested in September in an operation aiming to detain suspected sponsors and recruiters of Muslim fighters for ISIS.

According to the Westpoint Combating Terrorism Center, Bosnia is the fifth largest non-Arab contributor to ISIS, while the Balkan region as a whole ranks third. The path to joining ISIS involves the jihadists from Bosnia travelling trough Vienna where they receive funding, then through Turkey, and into Syria. More than 330 Bosnian citizens, 50 to 90 Albanians and 80 to 150 Kosovars, in addition to a number of fighters from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, went to Syria and Iraq to fight. “These are mostly people who come from the social, economic and even geographical margins, with no propensity for work or abilities, with limited education, who believe they are fulfilling their holy mission there,” explained Vlado Azonović, Sarajevo Faculty of Political Science and an expert on terrorism issues.

The success ISIS has had in recruiting in the Balkans shows that certain conflicts can have unsuspected consequences. One can hope that the governments whose people used to live under the Yugoslav banner of “brotherhood and unity” will persist in their fight against extremism. Otherwise, they might have to join forces and fight the ISIS recruitment cells together.

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