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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the Balkans struggle to shed the notoriety of being a radicalization hotspot. Although most states in the region have taken more concrete efforts at curbing homegrown extremists than many North Atlantic states, the region continues to be perceived as a haven for terrorists. In the 1990s, two events facilitated the infiltration of al-Qaeda (and like-minded groups) in the Balkans and the regional revival of Islam: the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the Kosovo War (1998-1999). These wars, triggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia, became a cause célèbre for Muslim populations across the world and attracted many aspiring jihadis. 1 The most famous of these was none other than Osama bin Laden. The leader of al-Qaeda is known to have visited Albania in the early 1990s to stir support for Bosnian mujahideen and the Kosovo Liberation Army. 2 He helped establish networks between the Balkans and other parts of the Muslim world, placing his operatives in charge of various humanitarian organizations and charities rebuilding mosques destroyed in the wars. Osama bin Laden's visit to Albania further opened the door for other Arab mujahideen coming out of the Soviet-Afghan War. By the summer of 1992 Arabs arriving with money, military experience, and novel ideas of global jihad had created a thriving radical milieu in the Balkans. They popularized the idea of jihad and used the concept to justify violence as the only way to “defend” Islam from those portrayed as enemies, including modern society and ordinary Muslims. Their emergence was thus formative to today’s violent Islamist activism in the Balkans. More importantly, they streamlined systems of financial and logistical support through a network of humanitarian organizations tied to public and private sources in the Arab world. 3 For example, Al- Kifah and the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), led by Osama bin Laden's associate Enaam Arnaout took donations to support foreign fighters in the Bosnian War. 4 The efforts at propagating jihad were further energized by Osama bin Laden's visits to the mujahideen camps between 1994 and 1996, which eventually led to him getting a Bosnian passport . Humanitarian aid organizations played a vital role in the proliferation of Salafism and jihadi Salafism in the region. The Saudi High Commission for the Relief of Bosnian Muslims (SHC), established in 1992 and overseen by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, was perhaps the most significant single Muslim donor. Following 9/11, media investigations pointed to the SHC and related organizations as supportive of extremism-related activities. This organization supported various Salafi NGOs on the ground, such as the Active Islamic Youth (AIO), operated by former members of the El-Mujahid unit. 5 Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States pressured the Balkan states to crack down on foreign-funded Islamic charities. The subsequent regulations gravely impacted the operations of major Islamic NGOs in the region. As the influence of Salafism was temporarily silenced, and foreign networks were squeezed, the movement itself began to fragment. More specifically, it led to ideologically motivated foreign mujahideen and their affiliated international humanitarian organizations being replaced by local Bosnian radical influencers. Operating alongside Arabs during the 1990s, these Bosnians had developed their networks with the Middle East and even sought education at Salafi seminaries in the Middle East. The Bosnian influencers capitalized on this educational background and social networks to establish their own NGOs and support base amongst the local population. These new local influencers, however, operated on a much tighter string. Due to aligned American and al-Qaeda interests during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the Arab mujahideen and their NGOs had been given a free hand in establishing local influence. After 9/11, the circumstances changed dramatically with the U.S. pushing Balkan states to join their fight against terrorism. 6 This foreign pressure led the Balkan states to realize the danger that Islamist extremism posed to their countries. Since then, countries of the region have actively participated in the U.S.-led Global War on Terror. Among other countries in the region, Albania cooperated closely with the U.S. in information sharing and investigating terrorist-related groups and activities. At the insistence of Washington, Bosnia and Herzegovina deployed a State Border Service throughout the country and established a State Investigative and Protection Agency (SIPA) tasked with investigating organized crime, terrorism, and illegal trafficking. Post-9/11 domestic counterterrorism reforms made possible the prevention of several terrorist plots throughout the region. Yet, like in other parts of the world, the Balkan states have not won the fight decisively. As mentioned earlier, postwar instability and wartime al-Qaeda propaganda served as inspiration for a new wave of homegrown radical influencers. Some of these local jihadis have now found their way to Iraq and Syria. The Balkan states' inability to foresee and assess the threat of their citizens fighting wars abroad remains one of the biggest failures in their otherwise successful counter-terrorism efforts. Between 2012 and 2016, about a thousand people from the Balkans are believed to have joined the so-called Islamic State (IS) or Al Nusra Front. Yet, in relative terms, this latest manifestation of Islamist radicalization is still a marginal trend given how vast the idea of jihad had become during earlier decades, when foreign-based Islamist networks propagated their ideology and foreign aid. If anything, it proves that twenty years after 9/11, the Balkans have not turned into a large-scale hotspot of radical Islamization, and the states in the region continue to strongly support the Global War on Terror. By showing their strong commitment to anti-terrorism efforts, the Balkan states aspire to become bonafide members of the EU and NATO. As proof of their commitment, the Balkan countries have made active efforts at repatriation of citizens who had joined IS. Kosovo, for example, repatriated eleven nationals from Syria recently and thus brought the total number of repatriated jihadis to 121. Public repatriation of jihadists and their families also took place in neighboring Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia. In this regard, Balkan countries are seen as positive examples, especially in comparison to Western Europe, where governments are reluctant to take their IS citizens back and further prosecute and reintegrate them. The approach undertaken by the Balkan states assumes that the governments seek to control the issue and not contribute to the further radicalization of their citizens by abandoning them in Syria. While Balkan states, with their difficult and painful legacy of Islamist extremism, understand the need to address security concerns, they remain dependent on international cooperation and U.S. support in the decision-making process concerning repatriation. Given the decade-long history of jihad, frozen ethnic disputes, and proximity to Western Europe, the Balkans remain a vital region for IS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist organizations. Yet, the situation is nothing like what it was in the 1990s. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the threat of Islamist radicalization is much more decentralized and locally contained. Most importantly, Islamist extremism now must fight against the local state rather than through their support. With efforts undertaken to repatriate citizens fighting jihad abroad, the Balkan countries have given a clear message that they now want to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Dealing with the prosecution and the reintegration of jihadists is a challenge but, at the same time, a chance for the Balkan states to show their resistance to radical actors.
Source: Wikipedia (Julian Nyča)
September 8, 2021 Islamist Radicalism in the Balkans: From Immigrant Arab Fighters to Emigrant Combatant in Arabia
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HOME HOME THEMATICS THEMATICS Source: Wikipedia (Julian Nyča)
Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the Balkans struggle to shed the notoriety of being a radicalization hotspot. Although most states in the region have taken more concrete efforts at curbing homegrown extremists than many North Atlantic states, the region continues to be perceived as a haven for terrorists. In the 1990s, two events facilitated the infiltration of al-Qaeda (and like-minded groups) in the Balkans and the regional revival of Islam: the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the Kosovo War (1998-1999). These wars, triggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia, became a cause célèbre for Muslim populations across the world and attracted many aspiring jihadis. 1 The most famous of these was none other than Osama bin Laden. The leader of al-Qaeda is known to have visited Albania in the early 1990s to stir support for Bosnian mujahideen and the Kosovo Liberation Army. 2 He helped establish networks between the Balkans and other parts of the Muslim world, placing his operatives in charge of various humanitarian organizations and charities rebuilding mosques destroyed in the wars. Osama bin Laden's visit to Albania further opened the door for other Arab mujahideen coming out of the Soviet-Afghan War. By the summer of 1992 Arabs arriving with money, military experience, and novel ideas of global jihad had created a thriving radical milieu in the Balkans. They popularized the idea of jihad and used the concept to justify violence as the only way to “defend” Islam from those portrayed as enemies, including modern society and ordinary Muslims. Their emergence was thus formative to today’s violent Islamist activism in the Balkans. More importantly, they streamlined systems of financial and logistical support through a network of humanitarian organizations tied to public and private sources in the Arab world. 3 For example, Al-Kifah and the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), led by Osama bin Laden's associate Enaam Arnaout took donations to support foreign fighters in the Bosnian War. 4 The efforts at propagating jihad were further energized by Osama bin Laden's visits to the mujahideen camps between 1994 and 1996, which eventually led to him getting a Bosnian passport . Humanitarian aid organizations played a vital role in the proliferation of Salafism and jihadi Salafism in the region. The Saudi High Commission for the Relief of Bosnian Muslims (SHC), established in 1992 and overseen by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, was perhaps the most significant single Muslim donor. Following 9/11, media investigations pointed to the SHC and related organizations as supportive of extremism-related activities. This organization supported various Salafi NGOs on the ground, such as the Active Islamic Youth (AIO), operated by former members of the El-Mujahid unit. 5 Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States pressured the Balkan states to crack down on foreign-funded Islamic charities. The subsequent regulations gravely impacted the operations of major Islamic NGOs in the region. As the influence of Salafism was temporarily silenced, and foreign networks were squeezed, the movement itself began to fragment. More specifically, it led to ideologically motivated foreign mujahideen and their affiliated international humanitarian organizations being replaced by local Bosnian radical influencers. Operating alongside Arabs during the 1990s, these Bosnians had developed their networks with the Middle East and even sought education at Salafi seminaries in the Middle East. The Bosnian influencers capitalized on this educational background and social networks to establish their own NGOs and support base amongst the local population. These new local influencers, however, operated on a much tighter string. Due to aligned American and al-Qaeda interests during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the Arab mujahideen and their NGOs had been given a free hand in establishing local influence. After 9/11, the circumstances changed dramatically with the U.S. pushing Balkan states to join their fight against terrorism. 6 This foreign pressure led the Balkan states to realize the danger that Islamist extremism posed to their countries. Since then, countries of the region have actively participated in the U.S.-led Global War on Terror. Among other countries in the region, Albania cooperated closely with the U.S. in information sharing and investigating terrorist-related groups and activities. At the insistence of Washington, Bosnia and Herzegovina deployed a State Border Service throughout the country and established a State Investigative and Protection Agency (SIPA) tasked with investigating organized crime, terrorism, and illegal trafficking. Post-9/11 domestic counterterrorism reforms made possible the prevention of several terrorist plots throughout the region. Yet, like in other parts of the world, the Balkan states have not won the fight decisively. As mentioned earlier, postwar instability and wartime al-Qaeda propaganda served as inspiration for a new wave of homegrown radical influencers. Some of these local jihadis have now found their way to Iraq and Syria. The Balkan states' inability to foresee and assess the threat of their citizens fighting wars abroad remains one of the biggest failures in their otherwise successful counter- terrorism efforts. Between 2012 and 2016, about a thousand people from the Balkans are believed to have joined the so-called Islamic State (IS) or Al Nusra Front. Yet, in relative terms, this latest manifestation of Islamist radicalization is still a marginal trend given how vast the idea of jihad had become during earlier decades, when foreign-based Islamist networks propagated their ideology and foreign aid. If anything, it proves that twenty years after 9/11, the Balkans have not turned into a large-scale hotspot of radical Islamization, and the states in the region continue to strongly support the Global War on Terror. By showing their strong commitment to anti-terrorism efforts, the Balkan states aspire to become bonafide members of the EU and NATO. As proof of their commitment, the Balkan countries have made active efforts at repatriation of citizens who had joined IS. Kosovo, for example, repatriated eleven nationals from Syria recently and thus brought the total number of repatriated jihadis to 121. Public repatriation of jihadists and their families also took place in neighboring Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia. In this regard, Balkan countries are seen as positive examples, especially in comparison to Western Europe, where governments are reluctant to take their IS citizens back and further prosecute and reintegrate them. The approach undertaken by the Balkan states assumes that the governments seek to control the issue and not contribute to the further radicalization of their citizens by abandoning them in Syria. While Balkan states, with their difficult and painful legacy of Islamist extremism, understand the need to address security concerns, they remain dependent on international cooperation and U.S. support in the decision-making process concerning repatriation. Given the decade-long history of jihad, frozen ethnic disputes, and proximity to Western Europe, the Balkans remain a vital region for IS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist organizations. Yet, the situation is nothing like what it was in the 1990s. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the threat of Islamist radicalization is much more decentralized and locally contained. Most importantly, Islamist extremism now must fight against the local state rather than through their support. With efforts undertaken to repatriate citizens fighting jihad abroad, the Balkan countries have given a clear message that they now want to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Dealing with the prosecution and the reintegration of jihadists is a challenge but, at the same time, a chance for the Balkan states to show their resistance to radical actors.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Islamist Radicalism in the Balkans: From Immigrant Arab Fighter to Emigrant Combatant in Arabia
Written by
Researcher at the Institute of International Relations, Prague.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT