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News 30 Mar 16

Incomplete Analysis Hinders Anti-Extremism in the Balkans

Experts warn Balkan states need to fully investigate violent Islamic extremism and urgently implement strategies to counter radicalisation during BIRN’s regional jihadism conference in Sarajevo.

Rodolfo Toe
A screenshot of a recruitment video ISIS made for the Balkans last year

Balkan governments need to support efforts to properly measure the scale of radicalisation and violent Islamic extremism and implement comprehensive strategies to tackle the issue, regional experts have warned.

“If we don't have a complete analysis of the phenomenon, how can we adopt an effective strategy, conduct monitoring and coordinate a multi-agency response?” Uros Pena, deputy director of the Bosnian Directorate for the Coordination of Police Bodies said during a conference organised by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, on Wednesday.

In addition to problems with intelligence sharing between Bosnia’s 15 police agencies, Pena also identified gaps in monitoring associates of suspected and known extremists.

Speaking of a “key figure” among Islamic extremists who is believed to have radicalised and supported violent jihadism, Pena said that security agencies had failed to identify other Bosnians who the suspect was in touch with.

He described it as an example of a reactive, rather than proactive, response to the issue that he believes is hampering Bosnia’s ability to tackle the problem. He said that without full analysis and a comprehensive strategy that state will not “have an adequate reaction tomorrow”.

Pena was speaking at BIRN’s conference, Balkan Jihadists: The Radicalisation and Recruitment of Fighters in Syria and Iraq, held in Sarajevo.

During the event, BIRN presented the results of research into six countries in the region: Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

In the first cross-regional report of its kind, BIRN revealed an estimated 877 nationals from the six states included in the research have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Around 300 are believed to have since returned to their home countries.

Most Balkan nationals travelled to Syria and Iraq during 2012 and 2013, with the highest numbers coming from Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

The numbers travelling to join jihadi groups declined sharply in 2014, after most states adopted law reforms that criminalise illegally fighting in foreign wars and, stress experts, as the nature of the Islamic State’s activities became more widely known.

‘Rapid radicalisation requires early warning mechanisms’

Other experts underlined that legislation alone will not counter radicalisation or prevent people radicalised online, within peer groups or in ‘unofficial’ mosques from adopting violent Islamic ideology.

Dr Bibi van Ginkel, a research fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, ICCT, in The Hague, warned that research in other EU states had shown that the radicalisation process is now faster than previously thought.

“The time in which the radicalisation process takes place is much shorter… we have seen that someone who was in nightclubs… two months later they are wearing a bomb belt… [this] rapid radicalisation process asks for early warning mechanisms,” she said.

In addition to providing more education, particularly for young Balkan nationals who are new to the religion and have had little religious instruction, all experts noted that marginalised and disillusioned youngsters are often easy prey for recruiters.

“Radicalisation happens on a breeding ground of hopelessness,” van Ginkel said. “Religion is less of a driving factor ... it does play a role later, but not in the initial stages ... people who have a lot of grievances are exploited by recruiters, including imams and people preaching very radical interpretations of Islam.”

Citing ICCT research, van Ginkel also noted an increase in the number of female foreign fighters and converts to Islam recruited from some EU countries.

Vehbi Bushati, vice-director of the Albanian state police counter-terrorism unit, said that a lack of opportunities for young people in the region has given extremists room to manipulate and eventually recruit jihadists.

“The reality is that the younger generations are not happy with life in our region,” he said. “They [youths] use the internet and they are easy to mislead and radicalise and [some of] these persons could pose a credible threat.”

Bushati also said that some known extremists continue to radicalise people inside and outside of prison.

“There are radicals in prisons, working both in and out of jails, extending radicalisation through their mediators. Still there is radicalisation, wherever you put them,” he said.

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