Dealing with ISIS threat in the Balkans

Article written by Fatmir Mediu – Chairman of the Republican Party of Albania/Former Minister of Defense

During a recent roundtable discussion in Washington D.C., on the ISIS threat and the Balkans, organized by Senate ASC, representatives from most of the states of this region agreed that the ISIS threat and other terrorist organizations remained a top security priority for their countries. Unfortunately, it was also clear that despite some improvements, there was an imminent need for better regional cooperation, especially in intelligence sharing, reciprocal communication and cooperation between security institutions.

Although the American participants were most concerned about the ISIS capacity to organize and launch terrorist attacks in Europe (Paris) and U.S. (San Bernardino), it was clear that terrorism is a global threat to all states and that the Balkans had a special role in combating this threat, being a major route into Europe and a bridge for ISIS funding, supplies and recruitment, or other radical terrorist groups. Unfortunately, the attacks in France and other western states, the ongoing global economic instability, the war in Syria and the flood of refugees and migrants into Europe have created a major distraction for Europe and the U.S., reducing support and understanding for the gravity of the potential terrorist threat in the Balkans.

The facts on the ground in the region, stress the need for immediate and greater actions in curbing the ISIS virus infestation and dealing with homegrown terrorist “lone wolves,” cells and networks that are facilitating the infiltration of our societies, but more importantly are using our geographic position to secure their strategic positions in Europe, with an eye on America as an ultimate target of their hatred.

isis flagRecent arrests and trials of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, highlight the real problem of terrorist-trained and battle-tested individuals to regional security. The appearance of ISIS flags in Bosnian villages, involvement of individuals from the region in foiled terror plots in Sweden, Germany and Austria, like that of the four Bosnian nationals and an Arab trying to smuggle a bomb from Bosnia into Sweden; and more importantly the links to actual attacks in Spain, France and in the region itself, like those on a police station and the murder of two soldiers in Bosnia, all show the urgency to increase regional efforts to contain and eliminate this threat.

According to some media and intelligence sources the Balkans have become one of the largest recruiting stations for ISIS. No one really knows how many fighters from the region have made their way to Syria and Iraq, but estimates range from 700-850 or more.

The volunteer flow from the region has continued, despite local efforts to prevent recruitment. These fighters are determined to take the risk, regardless of the potential risks and legal punishments they may face. Many have already been killed in combat in Iraq and Syria, many have abandoned their wives and children, some have made propaganda videos revealing identities; all of this shows the extent of their radicalization and commitment to the ISIS cause. This is why, once returned they represent grave threats to our institutions and societies. Most of them have passports which allow them access through EU, because of visa liberalization and Schengen agreement, extending the geography of the threat.

Radical Islamic indoctrination over the last two decades has not only created shelters, indoctrination and training centers, and safe transit routes, it has also destabilized the Islamic tradition of the region, known for its secular character, historic tolerance and cultural integration. Now a foreign, radical and heretical Islam has taken root and is destabilizing the region, inter-confessional cooperation and peace; already troubled by ethnic and national strife.

The Balkans is especially vulnerable for several reasons:

  1. Our strength as a diverse ethnic and multi-religious region has also seen historic conflicts, some still simmering, others dormant, which can be ignited by this new seed of radicalism. 
  2. Ethnic-based conflict, while historically comprising a religious element, now sees the possibility of real religiously inspired conflicts, that threaten peace within the multi-confessional states and the region as a whole.
  3. The increasing return and presence of fanatical fighters trained in Syria, Iraq and Libya creates a serious and immediate threat to peace and stability.
  4. Most of the states in the region have very unstable political situations, weak government and security institutions, stretched thin by economic crisis, war, political infighting, corruption and the increasing tides of refugees and migrants trying to get to the EU, representing another serious threat to regional security.
  5. Prolonged economic crisis and high unemployment have alienated many, exposing youth especially to radicalization.
  6. The communist legacy of inefficient governance, fear, bloated bureaucracies and public sectors have created a serious impediment to better responding to this and other threats, contributing to political and societal instabilities.
  7. The communist legacy of large militaries and recent wars have left large quantities of weapons, explosives and ammunition that have filtered into the black market through corruption and organized crime networks that have traditionally put profit ahead of national security and patriotism.
  8. The sputtering EU expansion and lack of will to receive new members in the near future have diminished hope and optimism among citizens, creating more opportunities for radicalization, and undermining political will for reforms and enhancement of regional security. There is also a widespread feeling among the region’s peoples that in essence the terrorist threat and the new migrant crisis are EU problems that have been dumped on the backs of the Balkans and as a result solidarity with the EU has been shaken.
  9. Outside “big power” rivalries often play out in our region and the conflicts between the EU and Russia, the U.S. and Russia, Turkey and Russia, Turkey and the EU all create instability and undermine regional cooperation.

It is because of these factors, and a few others, that the Balkans has been an attractive recruitment, indoctrination and transit zone for ISIS and other terrorist groups. It is also why this threat has greater impact and significance as this region is still far from the ideal in securing peace and security.