Western Balkans raising security levels to prevent ISIS threat

Fri 7 Aug 2015

Western Balkans raising security levels to prevent ISIS threat

Countries in the Western Balkans have raised security levels and introduced new precautions to counter the threat of terrorist attacks by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Experts say closer cooperation between regional security services is required, including permanent communication with leading global intelligence agencies, to prevent such attacks. Between 200 and 600 fighters from Wester Balkans have traveled to Syria since 2012. Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania are the main recruiting countries for radical Islamists seeking fighters for the wars in Syria and in terms of numbers, they come just behind Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

Video message

The video published on June 5 features Balkan fighters calling on “fellow Muslim brothers” to join the fight for ISIS or “attack” non-Muslims in their respective countries. The 20-minute film, entitled Honour is in Jihad, features several Bosnian ISIS fighters exhorting their fellow countrymen to join the battle in Syria or carry out opportunistic attacks on perceived enemies of Islam at home. Bosnian security officials said that the ISIS video was probably made at least half a year before it was broadcast since some of the filmed ISIS fighters are known to have been killed in recent months.

Following the video message security levels have been raised in the region. On 6 August nine people have been arrested in Macedonia in a crackdown on citizens who traveled to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS or who helped recruit fighters for it. The operation took place in five cities and was aimed primarily at the ISIS network of recruiters and organizers. Macedonian officials estimate that 130 citizens have gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. Officials say that at least 16 have been killed. Earlier, on 11 July, Kosovo police detained five people suspected with ties to ISIS who allegedly planned to poison Pristina's main water supply. As a result of which the water supply was cut off the next day until it was confirmed that no poisonous substances were found in the water. The Basic Court in Pristina ordered a month's detention for all five. A document leaked to the press said police had received details about a possible attempt to poison the water supplies in both Skopje and Pristina by groups tied to ISIS. The document said the goal was “to cause as many casualties and material damage as possible”.

The Montenegrin intelligence service data have revealed that six Montenegrin nationals are currently fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Parliament's Security and Defence Committee urged the National Security Agency to continue to keep track of Islamic extremism and radicalism and the ISIS actions in Balkans. The government said the intelligence agencies were monitoring an "insignificant number". However, Melvudin Nuhodzic said that monitoring should be carried out through joint operations among Balkan countries.

Furthermore, ISIS has expanded its efforts to recruit fighters in Bosnia and incite terrorist attacks there. The initiative, though small in scale, is causing alarm in Western capitals. Returning foreign fighters pose a direct threat not only to the security of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also the region. According to diplomatic sources, the Sarajevo government is preparing a new counter-terrorism strategy, with greater emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation of returned fighters, and presented a draft to General John Allen, the US special envoy for countering Isis. Denis Hadzovic, director of the Center for Security Studies, a think tank in Sarajevo, said that between 150 and 350 people from Bosnia had gone to the battlefields of the Middle East or were connected with ISIS. According to him, around 3,000 people pose a possible threat of terrorism in Bosnia.

A newly published report by Atlantic Initiative on jihadism found that the return of fighters from Syria and Iraq pose a direct threat to the region and especially  to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The report found that in 2013 and 2014, 156 Bosnian men and 36 women travelled to Syria, taking with them 25 children. Out of that number, 48 men and three women had returned this year. The authors, Sarajevo University associate political science professor Vlado Azinović and Islamic theologian and columnist Muhamed Jusić, found that Bosnia was ill-equipped to deal with the potential threat as there is a lack of coordination between local law-enforcement agencies.  Chronic deadlock between the rival entities has contributed to economic stagnation and a 63% unemployment rate among young Bosnians is becoming a factor in the flow of ISIS recruits. Almost a third of the Bosnian ISIS recruits had criminal records.

The Guardian, CNN, Balkan Insight, Reuters, Long War Journal