ANALYSIS: European fears of the ISIS black flag crossing from the Balkans

Francesca Astorri
Francesca Astorri - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Rome, Italy - People living in Europe say they are now clear in the mind that when it comes to terrorism, the enemy is already inside their territories. What they are now taking in consideration is the idea that terrorism threat could come right from the heart of Europe, from the Balkans.

There are between 700 and 900 foreign fighters originally from the Balkans that went to support ISIS in Syria and Iraq since 2012, according to the Kosovar Center for Security Studies (KCSS).

“ISIS was partially successful in recruiting foreign fighters in the Balkan area, but countries from the region have taken counter-measures in order not to have many foreign fighters being recruited, because prevention is the best way to protect those young individuals, our countries, the region and Europe,” Zoran Jolevski, Minister of Defense of Macedonia told Al Arabiya English during the sideline of NATO’s Defense College Foundation high-level seminar “Balkan Networks and Stability” held this week in Rome, Italy.

Kosovo has 125 foreign fighters per capita for every one million citizens, making it the highest ranking country among the 22 listed, followed by another Balkan country, Bosnia with 85, then Belgium with 42, and Albania with 30 cases of foreign fighters per capita for every one million citizens, according to the KCSS.

The main concern still lies with those foreign fighters that have now returned to Europe.

“There are about 150 foreign fighters originally from Kosovo that have left Syria and Iraq, they either returned to Kosovo or are in other countries” said Executive Director of the Kosovar Center for Security Studies Florian Qehaja, adding that these 150 are not all people with combat readiness.

Qehaja explained to Al Arabiya English that between those 150, there are 42 women that weren’t fighting and up to 20 children that were just accompanying the foreign fighters. This drastically reduces the dimension of the potential threat, which still remains.

A house in the Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca decorated with ISIS flags, January 26, 2015. (Reuters)
A house in the Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca decorated with ISIS flags, January 26, 2015. (Reuters)

Recently three Kosovo nationals living in the Italian cities of Venice and Treviso have been arrested and expelled from Italy for national security reasons, as they were considered ISIS affiliated.

This news was released on April 3 by the Italian Ministry of Interior, which confirms in an official communication that since January 2015, over 160 people have been arrested and expelled from Italy with charges related to radicalization.

The next question comes natural: is ISIS terrorist threat in Europe coming from the Balkans?

“We can’t underestimate it, but I would wait before considering it a real problem and a real threat to us,” said Ambassador President of the NATO Defense College Foundation (NDCF) in Rome Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, who also served as deputy secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

“Considering that the Balkans are a politically fragile and economically underdeveloped area, there is a potential risk. But the idea that this potential risk turns into a concrete and real risk still has to be seen. Till now there is nothing that proves this” Minuto-Rizzo said to Al Arabiya English.

Kosovo remains in a critical position with unemployment reaching 60 percent in some villages and over two-fifths of the population living below the poverty line, burdened by the regional wide-spread problems of corruption, illegal trafficking and organized crime. Poverty and illegal activities are often intertwined, making it difficult to identify cause and effect. As the locals in the Balkans say, “We don’t have corruption because we are poor, we are poor because we have corruption”. From whatever angle one wants to watch it, this scenario leaves space for ISIS recruiters to take advantage of.

In its 2017 report titled Mapping the state of play of institutional and community involvement in countering violent extremism in Kosovo, the KCSS explains that lack of jobs and of opportunities for the youth have created the unintended consequence of youth being recruited into extremist ideologies and participation in foreign conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The poor educational system and lack of extra-curricular activities also created space for ISIS recruiters to pursue their agendas, often by using non-religious narratives based on isolation, poverty and lack of legitimacy of the institutions.

“The terrorism threat represented by the Balkans is exaggerated. There is a problem of radicalization, of extremism, not of terrorism” Qehaja said to Al Arabiya English. “Europe has to open the doors to Western Balkan countries, there needs to be more development prospective and clear prospects for integration because in that way people will find more alternatives in the West than in the rest” Qehaja added.

Kosovo police officers escort unidentified Kosovo Albanian men who are suspects in a terror plot, to a court in Kosovo's capital Pristina, Sunday, July 12, 2015. (AP)
Kosovo police officers escort unidentified Kosovo Albanian men who are suspects in a terror plot, to a court in Kosovo's capital Pristina, Sunday, July 12, 2015. (AP)

The European Union (EU) is supporting the gradual integration of the Western Balkan countries. In 2013 Croatia became the first of the seven countries to join, while Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania are official candidates. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which submitted its membership application in early 2016, and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.

The accession of Montenegro to NATO is expected to be completed by this spring 2017.

EU financial assistance to the Western Balkan countries and Turkey is quite significant, especially through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA II) which consist of 11 billion euros allocated between 2014 and 2020.

The IPA II funds aim at building up the capacities of the countries to implement reforms throughout the accession process, resulting in progressive, positive developments in the region.

If Balkan countries are looking for alternatives to interrupt that dynamic that sees poverty and illegal activities triggering dangerous radicalization, they clearly have one.

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