At least 3,000 EU citizens have left for conflict zones in Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State. Some received training in Balkan countries, according to a Europol report which has raised alarm in the Czech Republic. EurActiv.cz reports.
Militant Islam in Balkan countries was largely inherited from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and its traces are particularly visible still in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Militant Islamic fighters developed communities in Bosnia in the aftermath of the 1992–95 war. Hundreds of so-called Bosnian mujahedeens – or foreign Muslim volunteers who fought in the country – received Bosnian citizenship after the war.
“The majority of radicals can be found among locals,” says Filip Tesař, a Czech expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
“Apart from training facilities in Syria, there are also smaller-scale training camps in the EU and in Balkan countries,” Europol warned in a recent report. This includes “survival training” camps which “enable IS recruiters to test the fitness and determination of aspiring members”.
Albanian government statistics reveal that 110 fighters have been operating in Bosnia. But unofficial sources say the number is higher – around 200 people. Similar camps are believed to be hosted in Kosovo and Macedonia.
“It is a problem mainly for the intelligence and security forces,” says Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský who follows the issue in the European Parliament for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
“They focus on people who travel to Turkey and Syria but not on those who come to the Balkans,” Zdechovský says.
The refugee crisis is a major challenge by itself. If you start mixing it with terrorism, you confuse the logic, EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told EurActiv Czech Republic in an exclusive interview.
EU exchange of information
Radical Islam is not only a concern for the EU’s neighbourhood. According to Tesař, at least five Islamic radicals form Macedonia and five from Kosovo have in the past lived in Western European countries including in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Norway.
“Other Albanians who were planning to travel to Syria and Iraq were stopped in Great Britain, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia,” he wrote in an opinion piece for EurActiv.cz.
Albanians are not the only ones involved. According to estimates, one fifth of Bosnian citizens who left for Syria and Iraq have visited friends and relatives in Europe and the US while working there, whether legally or illegally. Some of them have European citizenship.
International terrorism experts are convinced that better exchange of information, not only among intelligence services in Balkan countries but also within the EU, is needed to help the situation.
Information sharing between law enforcement agencies of the EU Member states and operational coordination are the main tasks of the European Counter-Terrorism Centre (ECTC). The ECTC was launched in January 2016 in response to the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 where 130 people were killed.
Czech MEP Zdechovský believes the EU should force candidate countries who applied for EU membership last February to fight radical Islam – including Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia.
“The problem lays mainly in convincing Bosnia to expel radical imams, who are at the same time donors of charity projects in this very poor country,” Zdechovský said.
EU ministers open talks Monday (25 January) in Amsterdam on ways to save the Schengen passport-free zone from collapse, and tackle the jihadist scourge, as a new counter-terrorism centre in The Hague is launched.