Analysis 28 Mar 16

Jihadists ‘Target Young, Marginalised Serbian Muslims’

Anti-Muslim sentiment and the rift between Serbia’s Islamic affairs institutions have allowed violent jihadi extremists to exploit disadvantaged Roma and Bosniak communities, warn experts.

Marija Ristic, Zoran Maksimovic, Sasa Dragojlo
BIRN
Belgrade, Novi Pazar, Smederevo
According to Serbian intelligence records, Islamic extremists, said to be linked to Wahhabi communities in Sandzak with strong links to groups in Bosnia, are operating through ‘unofficial’ mosques. Photo: BIRN

“My husband explained some things about Islam to me and I decided to embrace it. In the beginning, everything was fine. It was a change but it was OK… But when we went to Syria, everything changed. He was telling me fairy tales. I believed him, so I went,” says Makfirete Saciri.

In her first media interview, Saciri told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, she travelled to Syria in late 2013 to join her husband, Ferat Kasumovic, and brother, Fahredin Saciri.

Taking her child with her, Saciri crossed into Syria from Turkey and spent three months in Raqqa, considered the ‘capital’ of Islamic State, ISIS. Saciri, an ethnic Roma in her late 20s, says she was placed in “an apartment for women and kids”.

Fighter numbers

26 are believed to be still fighting with ISIS or Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq *

8 Serbian nationals are believed to have died in the conflicts so far *

7 former fighters have returned to Serbia *

In total, 50 Serbian nationals are estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq between early 2012 and January 2016 *

The Serbian prosecution office estimates at least 10 women and 15 children have travelled to Syria and Iraq.

There are no year-on-year estimates for Serbian nationals leaving for Syria and Iraq but the Serbian Military Agency says most left in 2013 and 2014.

* Source: The Serbian police (January 2016)

“There were women from France, Germany, [and] Switzerland… There were women from Zagreb and Belgrade, but most of the women there were Bosnian,” she says.

“I barely understood what was happening around me…except that I was scared all the time,” she recalls. “I feared for myself but even more for my child.”

Her brother was killed fighting in Syria, at which point Saciri claims to have “come to my senses”. She, her husband and child returned to Serbia in February 2014 because, Saciri says, “my husband got the order to do so”.

According to security service estimates, 50 Serbian Muslims, including women and children, travelled to Syria and Iraq between early 2012 and January 2016. Many are, like Saciri, from Serbia’s highly marginalised Roma community. Others have been recruited from the Bosniak Muslim population.

As it became clear Muslims were leaving to fight in the Middle East and Serbs were joining pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, the government passed new laws in October 2014 criminalising participation in, or organising and recruiting others to take part in, foreign wars.

Aleksandra Djurovic, a Serbian Progressive Party MP, said during a parliamentary debate held in December the number of nationals leaving to fight in overseas conflicts had declined sharply since the new laws were introduced. 

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Background

Western Balkans on Alert Over ISIS Threat

Countries in the region have raised security levels and introduced new precautions to counter the threat of terrorist attacks by Islamic State.

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