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We are often inclined to think that Islamic terrorism stems from the Middle East, and from there to elsewhere across the world, including Europe. But if we take a closer look at the past 25 years, it is in the Balkans that the sectarian violence between muslims and christians, be they catholic or orthodox, has been concentrated. In fact, the bloody aftermath of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia and the path to independence of the States that were once part of the communist country was both an ethnic and religious conflict.

Now independent countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina have a predominant muslim population – over 50% – while relevant Islamic minority groups are also present in Macedonia (40%) and Montenegro (20%). Kosovo’s NATO-led secession from Serbia in 2008 has created another de-facto muslim country, since 90% of Kosovars are muslims, just like in neighboring Albania, where the followers of the Prophet are over 70% of the population.

During communism, Islam in the Balkans was definitely not radical, but it evolved after the outbreak of the conflict in the 1990s. During the war, Islamic brigades came to the rescue of Bosnia. The same happened a decade later in Kosovo. Saudi money helped build over 800 mosques in Bosnia, along with koranic schools. What was once a moderate vision of Islam soon became inspired by Wahabism. It should come as no surprise that over 350 Bosnians have joined ISIS, the seventh country in the world in terms of pro-capita contribution. Kosovo supplied a similar number of combatants to al Baghdadi, becoming the fifth country for pro-capita support. Other countries in the area have also sent jihadists to Syria and Iraq: 150/200 from Albania, 100/150 from Macedonia, while Montenegro and Serbia have only contributed a handful of combatants.

Terrorism in the Balkans is definitely more dangerous, as it doesn’t fit the stereotype of the dark-haired bearded Arab or of a woman wearing a burka. A caucasian looking individual, a Slav, can mislead authorities and induce them to underestimate the threat. The arrest of a cell of Kosovan jihadists ready to carry out an attack in Venice in March 2017 shows how close to home the menace is. Even Khalid Masoud, the man who attacked Westminster in London, is allegedly of Kosovar descent and was radicalized while working in Saudi Arabia. The fact that the Balkans are part of Europe, with some countries member of the EU or about to join, implies that the movements of potential terrorists can strike to the heart of the old continent.

The rising terrorist threat has led a number of countries in the region to approve a series of anti-terrorism laws. Kosovo has one of the most advanced legislations and has received funding and training from the US, while the NATO contingent in the north of Kosovo helps local police monitor the border with Serbia. Kosovar law has set up a special Attorney’s office and a police directorate to investigate terrorism. This model was also followed by Macedonia and Albania. At the same time, the Kosovars have released IDs which are hard to forge and set up a mass database which can detect forgeries in airports or along land-borders.

The security threat for Kosovo is linked to both the returning home from the Middle East of radical fighters and the jihadist propaganda at home and its impact on a largely disenfranchised and unemployed local youth. The menace from within has led to the closing down of a series of Islamic associations and the arrest of a number of preachers. However, the penetration of Wahabism is so deep-rooted that, no matter what happens to the ISIS, Kosovar society has already been radicalized. Saudi charities have opened hospitals, provided assistance to families in need, opened over 100 koranic schools and 250 mosques, while the Saudi embassy has at least 140 preachers on its payroll. In the near future, this could make of Kosovo one of the potential sources of Islamic extremism.

ridvan haiqifi
Ridvan Haiqifi

After all, the Islamic State’s propaganda has frequently referred to Kosovo as one of the caliphate’s targets. The threats were formulated by a Kosovar commander, Ridvan Haiqifi, aka Abu Muqatil al Kosovi, in November 2016. Haifiqi was killed in combat. Another Kosovar casualty fighting for ISIS is Lavdrim Muhaxheri. There are also rumors that the UCK, the Kosovo Liberation Army that fought the war of independence against the Serbs, has set up a number of training camps for wannabe jihadists. The paramilitary group has officially been disbanded and branded as “terrorist”, but it still benefits from a wide support from local public opinion. And since the conflict with Serbia took a religious twist, the UCK is now closer to Islamic extremism. Yet another case of a nationalist movement, tainted by widespread criminal feats, now fighting for a religion: Islam. Apparently, Islamic radicalization is also widespread inside Kosovo’s prisons. All those radical preachers and members of the UCK that have been put in jail have continued their proselytism behind bars.

Before former Yugoslavia dissolved, radical Islamists were coming to fight for the cause from the Middle East and other parts of the world. A brigade made up of volunteers fought alongside the Bosnian muslims. Some of them married local women and became residents. More volunteers have come to Kosovo and Macedonia. With the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Springs”, the flow went in the opposite direction. From being exogenous, the phenomenon became endogenous. The risk is that the hundreds of foreign fighters from the Balkans will return once the conflict with the ISIS ends in a defeat.

Alija Izetbegovic
Alija Izetbegovic

In places like Bosnia, political Islam goes as far back as the 1930s when a local movement known as the “Muslim Youth” ("Madli Muslemani") wanted the creation of a great muslim nation in the Balkans. Alija Izetbegovic was one of the members of the movement. He went onto becoming the president of Bosnia during the independence struggle between 1992 and 1996. It was thus inevitable that a war for Islam would attract among the first global foreign fighters, the so-called "Mudzahid", what in the Middle East they call "Mujaheddin", or warriors of the holy war. And once that conflict was over, the Saudi funded King Fahd Cultural Center and Mosque helped spread radical Wahabi Islam in neighboring countries through a network of charities, koranic schools and so forth. If this started off at the end of the 1990s, the radicalization of Kosovo only happens at a later stage, almost a decade later.

Yet, the methodology for the spreading of Wahabi ideology in the Balkans has used the same techniques that the ISIS has employed in the Middle East: publications of magazines and sermons, wide use of mass media, cyber propaganda. Such a ruthless strategy poured salt in a society that had just gone through a dramatic nationalist and sectarian conflict. The impact of this propaganda is visible today. A recent opinion poll found that 20% of Kosovars, 15% of Bosnian muslims and 12% of Albanians are in favor of the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in their countries. At the same time, 11% of Kosovars, 6% of Albanians and 3% of Bosnians justify the use of violence (including suicide attacks) to defend Islam. Although still limited in numbers, it is pretty evident Europe will have to deal with the negative side-effects the contagion of radical Islam in the Balkans has produced.

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