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Extremists accused of 'hijacking identity' of Muslims in Western Balkans

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The threat posed by radicals who are ‘hijacking the identity’ of Muslims in the Western Balkans is “real” and needs addressing urgently, writes Martin Banks.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a hearing in the European Parliament on the ongoing threat from radicalisation.

The debate on Tuesday was organized by TRENDS Research and Advisory, Human Rights Without Frontiers and the European Foundation for Democracy. It sought to explore the drivers behind radicalisation in Europe and its impact on the EU’s neighourhood countries, including the Western Balkans.

Opening the discussion, Croatian MEP Marijana Petir voiced particular concern about the trend, “especially apparent” in BiH, to “hijack the ethnic identities” of Bosnians and Albanians.

She said: “Each are rich with centuries of tradition and a culture of tolerance but the overarching goal of militant Salafism in the region is to reduce them to nothing more than a single religious identity.”

The region, she noted, is seen by terrorist organizations, including the so-called Islamic State “for rest and recuperation or recruitment of new fighters, for their transfer to or from Western Europe and for the acquisition of weapons, ammunition and explosives”.

Croatia, she told the hearing, has the longest border in the EU which “makes preventing and exterminating radicalization all over Europe that more important.”

She said that many surburban areas in BiH, including Sarajevo, were “harbouring” Salafi settlements.

Wahhabi settlements on the Croanian border serve as a “recruitment and training centres”  for Islamist radicals “that will then benefit from visa-free and cross-border travel” to the rest of the EU.

She added: “That is why Croatia needs strong support from the EU to protect the external border. Only by identifying the problem, isolating it and making a plan of action can we assess this successfully.”

Her concerns were endorsed by another speaker, Richard Burchill, director of research at TRENDS, who said, “The attempts by these radical and extremist groups seek to squash the identity of other Muslims is simply wrong. We must have freedom of religion and religious expression. This has to be protected although, equally, that does not mean there should be a free-for-all.”

While welcoming the opportunity to openly debate the possible catalysts of radicalisation, Burchill also expressed a degree of pessimism, saying: “We have to realize that while we may defeat such people militarily that does not mean that the ideology they are peddling will simply go away because it will not.”

Further contribution came from Vesselin Valkanov, head of the Brussels office of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) who also shared other speakers’ concerns about the growth of radicalisation and extremism in the Western Balkans.

He also said the region was “totally unprepared” for the task of trying to rehabilitate locals who, having left to fight for IS in Syria, had now returned home.

He agreed that Muslims in the region were now being targeted, saying, “The radicals are, indeed, trying to hijack the identity of Muslims. They are trying to reduce their identity of what the extremists call an ‘authentic’ version of Islam. This is a very pernicious development.”

He said: “The region is riddled with problems, including corruption and serious crime so that makes it very vulnerable to this sort of phenomenon and is one reason why it has become a shelter and fertile recruitment ground.”

He added: “I am not saying the region is a hotbed of terrorism and do not want to overstate the problem. But the risk is real and needs addressing.”

Valkanov, a Bulgarian, told the packed gathering that the focus of the incoming Bulgarian presidency of the EU will be the Western Balkans.

Valkanov also pointed to several iniatives by the RCC to tackle these and other related issues, citing as an example the creation of a ‘religious platform’ designed to counter the spread of radicalisation.

Willy Fautre, director of HRWF, told the debate the results of an investigation by the Belgian parliament into the twin terrorist atrocity which killed 31 and injured 250 in Brussels in March 2016.

One of the areas under investigation was the role of the Grand Mosque and Cultural Islamic Centre in Brussels which, said Fautre, gave “real cause for concern.”

Fautre said the parliamentary inquiry into the Brussels attacks had criticised the mosque authorities for refusing to register it under Belgian law, adding, “Registration means coming under some sort of control. You can only assume the reason they continue to refuse to register is because they do not want to be open and transparent.”

Magnus Norell, of the European Foundation for Democracy, spoke about the current situation in his native Sweden which itself was hit by a terrorist attack earlier this year.

He said that there was a thin dividing line to be straddled in the debate about Islamist radicalization, saying, “There is the danger of, on the one hand, being branded a racist and, on the other, accused of being too lenient. In Sweden, for example, there is still a reluctance to talk about these issues. While Belgium has produced four official reports into the 2016 attacks Sweden, so far, has produced none on the attack that happened in April this year.”

In a question-and-answer session that followed the main debate, Fautre pointed out that it was not only the Grand Mosque in Brussels that was not registered with the Belgian authorities.

He said: “There are others in Belgium as well. One of the reasons, clearly, is that they do not wish to be transparent about their finances.”

The Grand Mosque, he said, has an annual budget of some €1.4 million but has been accused of propagating Wahhabism and Salafism in Belgium. Wahhabsism proposes a radical view of Islam and “the others” who do not share Wahhabi ideas.

Defence

Biden to join eastern European NATO states summit, focus seen on Ukraine

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US President Joe Biden (pictured) joined a virtual summit of eastern European NATO states held in the Romanian capital Bucharest on Monday (10 May), Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said, with a focus on security in the Black Sea region and Ukraine.

The summit of the Bucharest Nine, a group of European countries on the eastern edge of NATO, will be jointly hosted by Iohannis and Poland's President Andrzej Duda and aims at coordinating the security positions of countries in the region.

"Glad to welcome Joe Biden to the Bucharest9 Summit which I host in Bucharest today," Iohannis said on his Twitter account.

"Together with President Andrzej Duda we'll also welcome ... Jens Stoltenberg in preparation of NATO Summit, focusing on Transatlantic ties, NATO 2030, defence and deterrence on the eastern flank."

Biden, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia will video-conference into the gathering.

"In ... the statement that the nine will publish after the meeting there will be the issue of security in the Black Sea region and the related security issues in Ukraine," the head of Poland's National Security Bureau, Pawel Soloch, told reporters.

Earlier this month, Washington said it could increase security help for Kyiv after Russia moved troops near its border with Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops are in conflict with Moscow-backed separatists.

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Cyber-espionage

Commission makes €11 million available to strengthen cybersecurity capabilities and co-operation

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The European Commission will make €11 million of funding available for 22 new projects seeking to strengthen the European Union's capacity to deter and mitigate cyber-threats and incidents, by employing the latest technologies. The projects, which have been selected following a recent call for proposals under the Connecting Europe Facility programme, will support various cybersecurity organisations in 18 Member States. The beneficiaries of the funding include Computer Security Incident Response teams, operators of essential services in the health, energy, transport and other sectors, as well as bodies dealing with the cybersecurity certification and testing, as defined in the EU Cybersecurity Act. They will start working after the summer on tools and skills necessary to comply with the requirements set by the NIS Directive and the Cybersecurity Act, while at the same time they will engage in activities aimed to enhance cooperation at the EU level. So far the EU has funded almost €47.5m to reinforce EU cybersecurity between 2014 and 2020, through the Connecting Europe Facility programme. Furthermore, more than €1 billion under the Digital Europe Programme will be directed towards the areas of focus of the new EU Cybersecurity Strategy. More information is available here. More information about Europe's actions to strengthen cybersecurity capacities is available here and EU-funded cybersecurity projects can be found here.

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Defence

Military leaders address collective Arctic security issues

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Military leaders from 11 European and North American nations concluded two days of strategic discussions focused on Arctic security issues during the annual Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) last week. While the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic delayed plans to meet in person in Rovaniemi, Finland, the Finnish military leveraged virtual technology to host the in-depth, time-sensitive discussions focused on current and emerging High North security issues.

Established in 2010 by Norway and the United States, the ASFR promotes Arctic cooperation among military forces that operate in and around the Arctic region, while also supporting nations that promote peaceful development of the Arctic region and adhere to international-rule-based order.

“The amount of focused attention and activity – commercially, militarily, environmentally – in the Arctic, along with the region’s continued strategic importance, makes this high-level military gathering an imperative for us,” said US Army Maj. Gen. Charles Miller, US European, Command’s (USEUCOM) director of plans, policy, strategy and capabilities. “From the issues we discuss to the relationships we continue to foster and forge, this roundtable is truly an invaluable forum for our nations.”

This flag-and-general-officer level, military-to-military forum, co-chaired by Norway and the U.S., to promote regional understanding and enhance multilateral security cooperation is currently the only military forum focused on the Arctic region’s unique challenging security dynamics and architecture, and full range of military capabilities and co-operation.

"The round table serves a critical role in ensuring that each participating senior military leader representing some 11 nations gains a clearer understanding of the Arctic," said Commodore Solveig Krey, Defence Staff Norway’s Assistant Chief of Staff Operations. "This roundtable, working in concert with the full range of bilateral and multilateral exercises and operations that occur throughout the year, helps support a secure, stable Arctic region where nations work cooperatively to address security challenges of collective concern."

During this year’s ASFR, participants discussed the roles of the Arctic Council, European Union and NATO, and those organizations’ aims to foster governance and cooperation in the region. Each participating nation detailed its own national Arctic strategy, senior representatives from NATO presented the alliance’s current Arctic outlook, and the participants addressed important transportation and environmental issues.

About USEUCOM

US European Command (USEUCOM) is responsible for US military operations across Europe, portions of Asia and the Middle East, the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. USEUCOM is comprised of more than 64,000 military and civilian personnel and works closely with NATO Allies and partners. The command is one of two U.S. forward-deployed geographic combatant commands headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. For more information about USEUCOM, click here.

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