Counterterrorism in the Middle East is a hotly debated topic, but leaders aren't recognizing growing extremist activities right next door. Are terrorist organizations gaining ground in Balkan states, and could the West become subject to a domino effect?
Much attention has been paid to the state of security in Europe in the weeks following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November. Elevated threat levels in Belgium, among other European countries, in the following weeks, combined with a longstanding awareness of intensified Islamic State recruiting efforts, warrant concerns of future attacks on the continent. While this focus has been concentrated in Western Europe, there is also an increasing risk posed by terrorism to the east. Recent security incidents in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and ongoing trends in the Balkans in general, demand a shifting of focus to the opposite corner of Europe.
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia more than twenty years ago, many of the newly independent countries that formed in its wake have struggled with radical Islamism. This problem first came to light during the independence wars of the 1990s, but has persisted in the years since. While Islamic communities in the area are for the most part moderate, the area’s poor socio-economic conditions and inter-ethnic and religious tensions have spurred radical thinking. In recent years, the Balkan region has gained notoriety for the alarming number of local fighters being recruited to join warring factions in Syria and Iraq, and also for its emergence as a key node in the transit routes along which weapons and militants travel between Europe and the Middle East.
Trouble Beyond the EU
One of the most politically unstable countries in the region, Bosnia, also represents arguably the greatest security concern in the Balkans. Government authorities have with only limited success attempted to contain the emergence of a radical Wahhabi Islamist sect over the past two decades. The influence of Islamist fundamentalists has only grown amid the ongoing instability in the Middle East. As of the beginning of 2015, approximately 330 Bosnian nationals were participating as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, the seventh highest among European countries and the second highest per capita, behind only Kosovo.
Only one week following the Paris attack, a shooting occurred in the outskirts of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. An armed man identified as Enes Omeragic shot and killed two uniformed soldiers and injured three others riding on a bus in the vicinity of the area. In the absence of definitive information on the assailant’s motive, unconfirmed local reports linked the man with radical Islamist ideology, while contradictory statements by government authorities discounted the likelihood that he was affiliated with a larger terrorist group. The possibility of a “lone wolf” attack is still being considered, especially in light of the fact that members of IS have called for such attacks in the past.
Less than a week after the Sarajevo shooting, an explosive device was thrown at a police station in the town of Zavidovici, an attack believed to be unrelated to the first but nonetheless one that also targeted Bosnian security forces. Law enforcement authorities are investigating the possibility of an act of terrorism, though fewer details are known about this incident at the present moment. The incident appears to resemble a similar attack carried out by an alleged religious extremist earlier this year. However, in a part of the world where poverty, ineffective governance, and socio-ethnic divisions are prevalent, assaults targeting state facilities such as police stations can be rooted in a number of different grievances against the government.
A Look at the Surrounding Region
As Bosnia takes steps to adapt to the evolving terrorist threat, neighboring countries appear to be following suit. Kosovo, which ranks eighth among European countries in the number of foreign fighters that have traveled to the Middle East, is elevating security measures countrywide to respond to a greater risk of terrorism. Additionally, in late November Serbia broadcast an armed forces exercise. One can view this as an effort to calm a country that faces a growing risk of an attack, as well as a deterrent to would-be militants after an IS-inspired video released earlier this year called for the “conquest” of Serbia.
Still other Balkan countries are facing increasing threats over the past month. As a NATO member, Albania has received specific threats for its involvement in military efforts in Afghanistan, most recently in the form of an email sent to a high-ranking government official warning Albania could be the next country targeted after France. Reports have surfaced that Islamist extremist groups are profiting from the country’s widespread drug trade and taking advantage of supply routes used by organized crime syndicates for weapons and human trafficking. Meanwhile, a steady stream of funding from abroad has helped recruit hundreds of jihadists out of the country over the past four years.
Despite going relatively unnoticed by the Western public, the threats faced by the Balkans have a direct impact on the security of the rest of the continent. Preoccupation with securing their own territory, coupled with claims of already strained resources being devoted to taking in refugees, makes it difficult to see Western European countries contributing significantly to Balkan counter-terrorism efforts. Yet this approach may be one of the more effective ways of reducing the terrorist threat in the long-term, beyond even a potential defeat of IS. Left alone, the same infrastructure that has allowed terrorist groups to funnel militants in and out of Europe, and the latent support for radical groups that exists in areas with high poverty and social strife, will remain in place in the southeast corner of Europe, and vulnerable to further terrorist exploitation.
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