The Balkans and the foreign fighters: a story that will not end
The Balkans are home to Muslim communities who have established themselves in the region centuries ago. With the rise of Islamic terrorism on a global scale and the various conflicts plaguing the Middle East from Afghanistan to the current fight in Syria and Iraq (SIRAQ), the region has become fertile ground for extremists and professional soldiers (FTFs, Foreign Terrorist Fighters).
The relationship between the Balkans and FTFs was not a recent development, it harks back to the wars between ethnicities in the former Yugoslavia when veteran jihadists from Afghanistan and other Muslims driven by the desire to defend the Islamic minorities in the region joined the ongoing conflict. These volunteers joined local militias and in some cases regular formations integrated with the Bosnian military such as, the El Mujahid Battalion.
After the Dayton accords of 1995 and the end of the war, the Bosnian government granted passports and residency to the various Islamic fighters. During the war, along with foreign fighters, came investments from the Arabic gulf states and Turkey, mostly aimed at the construction of mosques and schools from which the diffusion of the radical Salafist interpretation of Islam began to spread. For instance, mosques in Prizren, the city in which Germany based its headquarters for their area of responsability (AoR DEU) during NATO operations KFOR in Kosovo, had their call to prayer in Turkish and not in Arabic or Albanian.
According to the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism The Hague (ICCT the Hauge) only a fraction of the fighters decided to remain and “operate” in Europe whilst the rest either settled in Bosnia or continued its terrorist activities outside the old world. Over the years a vast network of fighters formed in the region: the economic collapse that struck the former Yugoslavia following the conflict (especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo), along with poverty, a high crime rate and a numerous and disgruntled Muslim population made the perfect conditions for radicalisation and recruitment of new fighters.
Initially, over half of the foreign fighters who had come over to help Muslim minorities in the Balkans became exporters of FTFs to the middle east, especially in the SIRAQ area with the aim of joining groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra.
A relevant factor is the criminal past shared by quite a few of these individuals. According to a report by the European Institute of Security Studies (EUISS) 40% of fighters coming from Kosovo were already known to the authorities due to a criminal record and previous sentencing something common among all fighters form the Balkan area.
The connection between crime and radicalisation, seen elsewhere in Europe is relevant in the Balkans. Recruitment is in fact often carried out within prisons and not solely through the usual channels such as mosques and over the internet.
An example of this that directly touched Italy the 11 December Strasbourg attack in which Antonio Megalizzi was murdered along with three other innocent people by yet another “lone wolf” already known to both Police and Intelligence agencies in France. This “lone wolf” was radicalised in prison while serving a sentence for minor crimes. Since 2017 sixty-nine people have been victims of Islamic terrorism on European soil; Italy alone saw 44 of its citizens killed in terrorist attacks since 2003. These innocent Italians were struck down in Paris, Tunis, Nice, Melbourne, Dacca, Barcelona, Berlin, London, in Egypt and lastly in Strasbourg.
In another study by the Extremist Research Forum it was reported that in the timeframe between 2012 and 2015 there was a considerable influx of FTFs from the Western Balkans (meaning Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) to the SIRAQ region. This influx gradually declined until collapsing in-between 2016 and 2017. The same study reports that 878 adults and 197 children had arrived in Syria and Iraq from the Balkans, of these 70% between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 a period of high traffic toward the region. The collapse in the influx of FTFs is to be attributed to several factors: firstly, the tide turning clearly against ISIS due to Russian intervention and Kurdish forces on the ground, secondly because of new legislation criminalising FTFs finally being implemented in the Balkans and lastly because of a drain of available and willing The concept of logistics and human resources is the basis of strategy in military operations. During its operations in SIRAQ, ISIS could “recruit” in the occupied territories and receive much needed help from FTFs. However, high casualty rates inflicted by bombardments and fierce fighting on the ground have seen the operative capabilities of the Islamic State severely crippled.
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that local recruitment and support from Europe through Turkey provided motivated yet unskilled volunteers incapable of being immediately “operative” or to survive prolonged combat. In short, the old FTFs kept falling in number due to death, mutilation/disease, or simply because of their inability to keep fighting after years of conflict whilst the newly arriving FTFs lacked skill and experience on top of being insufficient in numbers to replace losses let alone bolster the ranks.
Regardless of the fact that there has been a fall in departures of FTFs and that their criminalization in the Balkan region has, at least on paper, finally given local governments the tools to curb the phenomenon, the enormous problem of returning FTFs lurks over Europe along with the consequent security risks for European citizens.
The influence of foreign fighters in the Balkans keeps increasing as the already deeply rooted network is strengthened by returning fighters which are both radicalised and trained. The local authorities are yet to take control of the situation and despite the recently passed legislation they have failed to substantially counter the phenomenon. Yet the FTFs from the region fortunately do not reach the number of those of Western European countries such as France, Belgium or the UK. Furthermore, the countries of former Yugoslavia excluding, Slovenia and Croatia, are not in the European Union as of yet. This has partially hindered these terrorist’s ability to move within the continent unlike their counterparts hailing from countries in the Schengen area. In fact, freedom of movement within the EU’s borders can, and has been, exploited before by terrorists. This lack of access paired with the fact that many of these individuals are already known to the authorities for previous criminal convictions would make it very easy for the governments of the Balkans to identify them, should they seriously wish to do so.
While the danger of the arrival in Europe and Italy of FTFs from the Balkans is real but partially contained in the region, it is more immediate that of the FTFs that return directly to the EU Member States. This factor should not be underestimated for any reason as these individuals have been shown to be trained to the guerrilla war, even urban, and able to represent a very serious threat for all European nations. In these last hours, it is evident that the repeated alarms, also of those who sign this article, were unfortunately due to the infiltration of FTFs among the illegal immigrants who crossed the Mediterranean.
It is necessary today, more than in the past, to activate all the instruments of protection of our democracies to undermine terrorism.
Ermete Del Buono