Extremist organisations and foreign fighters: some observations about Balkans.

In succession, you will be able to find the English version of an article published in  Geopolitica Online the 28 of December 2014 (“Unirsi ad organizzazioni estremiste e fare la guerra all’estero: una questione da cui i Balcani non sono esenti”).  The translation, from Italian into English, has been realised by the author himself.


To join extremist organisations and make the war abroad: an issue Balkans are not exempt from

The advance of the Islamic State (IS), its project to establish a caliphate in Middle East, the new challenge the international community must take on against a radicalism able to be efficient on the military plane and through the media have a considerable place between current events and, of course, draw public attention also towards other pertinent matters. A very good example is provided by people coming from Western countries and going to join the jihadist ranks.

In June, Gianluca Mezzofiore wrote on the International Business Times that the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” had up to “6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000-5,000 in Syria, including some 3,000 foreigners”. The author mentioned The Economist about “perhaps 500 or more” fighters hailing “from France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe”. Going beyond the figures concerning those having in particular embraced IS cause, it was interesting to read that, during the previous year, “the number of Westerners who” had “travelled to the region and become radicalised” had “mushroomed from hundreds to as many as 3,000”.

The enlistment, by radical organisations in the Middle East, of militants coming from other regions of the world is a living, serious matter. Properly, media pay attention to the danger of potential new fighters coming from the European Union. Persons who, armed – among other things – with fanaticism and an EU passport, could become a not negligible threat if decided, for example, to come back and to accomplish a terrorist act. If we keep on making reference to the European continent, it turns out to be interesting to cast a glance to what is happening in countries that are not yet members of the Union but involved in the enlargement process. Let’s think, for example, about Bosnia and Herzegovina, a stimulating as complex social and institutional context placed in the Balkans.

As we can read on a web page dedicated to this state by the Directorate General for Enlargement (European Commission), “Bosnia and Herzegovina – along with other Western Balkans countries – was identified as a potential candidate for EU membership during the Thessaloniki European Council summit in June 2003”. Beyond the mention of a “number of agreements” having been signed with Brussels, we notice that the latter “continues to deploy considerable resources” in this former part of dissolved Yugoslavia “within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP)”.

If the Union has a stake in Balkan region stability, keeping an eye on the support radical and armed organisations are able to find in this area becomes rather logic, especially in a delicate moment like this. Concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina, before half September, Balkan Insight spoke about “16 people arrested”, a few days before, “in a nationwide operation by hundreds of police to detain suspected financiers and recruiters of Muslim fighters for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq”. The same article quoted “Vlado Azinovic, a professor at the Sarajevo Faculty of Political Science”, saying that, according to the appraisals, “in these three years since the conflict in Syria started, around 160 men from Bosnia and Herzegovina were there and some 20 women”. It would be, in the majority, about people coming from “the social, economic and even geographical margins” and “with limited education”. Of course, it was also reported as “the families of some of the suspects arrested […] insisted that they have been unjustly targeted”.

Certainly, about these arrests, we are not able to say who is right but, beyond doubt, tension is high and “the Bosnian authorities” would be resolute in going on “with the crackdown on those suspected of providing fighters for insurgent forces in Syria and Iraq”. On the other hand, two days after the quoted article, the same publication announced the intention of the “authorities” to implement “a new range of criminal sanctions”. On this occasion, Balkan Insight quoted Goran Salihovic. The official from the State Prosecutor’s Office confirmed the commitment “of the judicial and police agencies” but, concerning the decision of some nationals to go and fight in behalf of a certain radicalism, he noted as this problem is affecting also other parts of the Balkans, referring to “Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo” and “Montenegro […], where certain persons are joining paramilitary formations on the frontlines of Iraq, Syria and Ukraine”.

According to an article of Professor Blerim Reka and published on September 23 on the Austrian Economics Center (AEC) website, about “600 mercenaries from Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo are fighting in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq”. Moreover, “six per cent of all foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria” would hail from the Balkan area. An interesting query was whether those fighters are motivated by “money or ideology”, making – in this second case and in our opinion – the word mercenary a little bit less appropriate. Anyhow and beyond terminology matters, the author mentioned different kinds of motivational factors, which could be social, cultural, financial, religious. High rates of “unemployment and poor education” would be able to constitute “key factors influencing the younger generation to fight abroad”, without neglecting a possible role plaid by “freely accessible information about some radical religious organisations and movements”. Certainly and also leaving motivations aside, fighters returning home can represent a risk for security and stability in the context of “Balkans democracy just two decades after their own wars”.

In reference to the Balkan region, the web site of The Daily Star (Lebanon) recently noted how “an economic slump in weak states battered by past wars” have “fired up some of the disenfranchised”. Of course, we can find the traces of a rich soil to enlist recruits going back to the past. Some media, for example, explain like, “in the 1990’s, the mujahedeen guerilla fighters”, following the conflict in Afghanistan, “were looking for a new battleground and found it” in this area, “where Bosnian Muslims were fighting Serb and Croat forces”.

In general, this kind of issue is worrisome for all the countries forced to face it. Finding effective solutions in order to stop this phenomenon without repressive or discriminatory approaches to their population is, in our opinion, an important – not easy – precept public institutions should keep in mind.

Angelo Tino

Angelo Tino studied at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and then obtained an Advanced Master at the Institut d’Études Européennes of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.


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