Radicalization threat runs risk of undermining #Balkans links with West

| September 27, 2018

The continuing threat posed by extremism and Islamic radicalization in the Western Balkans countries runs the risk of undermining the region’s ambitions for forging ever closer links with the West, a conference in Brussels was told, writes Martin Banks.

It heard that the ongoing threat from so-called Islamic State, which remains a pervasive influence in the region, and other violent Islamist extremists “hampers” both the efforts and credentials of the six Western Balkans countries to eventually accede to the EU.

This was one of the key messages to emerge from a briefing on “radicalisation in the Western Balkans” at Brussels Press Club on Wednesday, organised by the European Foundation for Democracy and supported by the US Mission to the EU.

The participants agreed that more efforts and better coordination between the EU and the US were needed to counter the threat, which is buttressed by what was called the “malign influence” of outside forces.

One of the speakers, Edward Joseph, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the Jihadist threat was a problem not just for the region but EU member states and the rest of the international community including the United States.

It was therefore important, he suggested, to support all efforts being made in the region, including the focusing on the role of women and rehabilitation of “foreign fighters”, to counter the jihadist ideology.

Joseph stressed the historical European credentials of each of the six countries in the region, saying: “I cannot stress this enough. Let’s remember, this is part of Europe and not an alien, foreign part of the world.”

He said people in the Western Balkans “live” in the hope of closer EU integration, the prospect of which remains the “main engine” for the domestic reform process and the “most effective” way of countering the tendency towards jihadism and radicalization.

One of the current challenges he highlighted is the “high concentration” of foreign fighters returning to the region from conflict zones, including Syria and Iraq. The rate is, per capita, the highest in Europe, he told the meeting and this continues to cause concern.

While there had been no terrorist attack in the region since 2015, compared with numerous such atrocities in other parts of Europe such as London and Brussels and the rest of the world, the jihadist threat remains.

Another current issue, he said,is the threat posed by what he called “reciprocal radicalisation”,  or non-Islamic extremist forces which have adopted the “crusade-like narrative” of IS.

Joseph, also Executive Director of the National Council on US-Libya Relations with long years of experience working in the region, spoke of the “instability” and “division” in three countries in particular: Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo, each of which faced in the coming weeks “destiny defining” period in their histories.

This, he pointed out, includes a referendum in Macedonia on the country’s controversial name dispute with Greece on 30 September, a general election in Bosnia on 7 October and ongoing EU efforts to resolve long-standing territorial issues between Kosovo and Serbia.

The Macedonian ballot is, he said, an example of potentially “ground breaking” achievements in the Western Balkans but such efforts risk being undermined both by radicalisation and also “foreign influences.”

Such interference, he said, comes mostly from Russia which is “most interested” in “derailing” the integrationist ambitions and credentials of Western Balkans states but also from other countries.

It was important, he said, to distinguish between relative instability in the Balkans, whose “aspirations are European” and the Middle East, which generally has no such allegiance. 

He underlined that the US-EU cooperation in the region was also crucial in countering Russia’s efforts to destabilize Europe.

His comments were partly echoed by another speaker, Vlado Azinovic, Associate Professor of the University of Sarajevo, who agreed that the primary motivation of Islamic extremists, together with radical groups from both the left and right which currently operate in the region, was to “hamper” accession to NATO, in particular, and also to the EU.

He said: “The rise of Islamist radicalization and other extremist ideologies in the region is very worrying.”

Azinovic also voiced “concern” about the effectiveness of organisations working against jihadist radicalization in the Western Balkans, saying, “the issue has become very ‘sexy’ in recent years but you have to question just how effective these efforts have been on the ground. This is taxpayers’ money but you sometimes wonder where it is going.”

The West, he argued, focuses on the threat posed by militant Islamists while the threat from other radical and extreme groups is also “clearly visible” and should not be underestimated.

Radko Hokovsky, chairman of the executive board at European Values, a think tank, also identified countries like Saudi Arabia among those who “do not want the Western Balkans to be part of the EU or the western alliance”.

He said: “They will use whatever methods they can to target the population in these countries and undermine their EU and Western orientation.”

Outlining the role of the EU, he said the bloc had teamed up with 50 different partners in trying to counter such tendencies in the region.

A key initiative, he said, was the launch by the EU earlier this year of a strategy and action plan for the Western Balkans which aims to co-ordinate and integrate anti-radicalization measures. 

Hokovsky said there was a need for better co-ordination and co-operation between the EU and the US to prevent radicalization and to “promote our shared values” including respect for human and fundamental rights.

“The challenge now is to ensure the initiative and Action Plan for region are both fully implemented.” 

Gerta Zaimi, a researcher at the University of Florence (CSSII), also spoke of nationalist threats in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and the problem posed by foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.

Zaimi, also a member of the Albanian Human Rights Group, said there were various reasons foreign fighters had returned to the region, including “disenchantment” at the way their ideas had been executed.

Zaimi warned that, despite the military setbacks IS had suffered, the threat from Jihadists and those with an “ultra-conservative view of Islam” had not dimmed. 

The event forms part of a US Mission to the European Union-funded initiative.

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Category: Defence, EU, Radicalization, Terrorism, Western Balkans

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