How Islamic State Is Putting the Balkans on Edge

Two Croatian Defense Council Army T-55 Main Battle Tanks pull into firing position. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The brewing climate of fear and inter-ethnic mistrust has meant national leaders have been unable, and unwilling, to coordinate counterterrorism activities.

In Europe’s fragile southeast, Islamism threatens to galvanize national rivalries and unravel two decades of cold peace.

For the largely secular, moderate and west-leaning Balkan states, where religious kinship transcends borders, violent extremism is fueling fear, ethnic tribalism and seditious security agendas. And as Islamic State group fighters disband amid the siege against Mosul, the situation only promises to escalate.

In July, footage of Islamists burning Serbian flags to the tune of pro-Bosnia music and gunshots went viral. It followed the murder of a policeman in the Republika Srpska (RS) (Bosnia’s Serbian “entity”) by a lone-wolf Islamist extremist, a similar gunning down of two Bosnian soldiers in a Sarajevo suburb, and deadly clashes between officers and alleged insurgents in Macedonia last year.

A small, yet significant, domestic radical presence, flanked by returning Islamic State fighters are carrying the threat. Salafism, an ultra-conservative strand of Sunni Islam, has been nurtured in the Balkans through Saudi-sponsored preachers, mosques and madrassas ever since the 1990s when the Bosnia and Kosovo wars first lured thousands of jihadists to the defense of fellow Muslims. Poorly governed post-communist and transitions have meanwhile left a legacy of poverty, unemployment and corruption in the former Yugoslav states, which has only pushed the disillusioned further into the path of radical cells.

It’s meant the region has been a significant exporter of fighters for Islamist groups, with official sources claiming around 900 nationals—mainly from Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania—have travelled to Iraq and Syria. But as Islamic State paralyzes in the Middle East, many combatants are slated to return home—some have already done so, aided by the smokescreen of Europe’s refugee crisis. They will possess frontline skills, sharpened ideological beliefs and a desensitization to violence that will intensify and influence the Islamist movement in their homeland.

The concern now is that extremists will conduct further attacks and drive antagonism. Some may also push overtly nationalist strategies. The video in July, which was reportedly filmed in Bosnia, follows an Islamic State propaganda film last year featuring Albanian, Kosovan and Bosnian Islamists who call for Balkan Muslims to create a regional Caliphate by inciting violence on non-believers. The lone-wolf attacks in Bosnia last year and a foiled Islamic State-linked attack in Sarajevo, planned for last New Year’s Eve, also implies a broader intent to spread panic, chaos and destruction.

The magnifying fear of Islamism in turn risks reifying divisions between, and within, the region’s Muslim- and Christian-majority nations, while uniting ethnic groups across borders. The current track record of protests, hate speech and trashing of places of worship among opposing religious groups may snowball amidst the heightened perception of extremism. This happens at a time when Islamophobia is spreading in the region, fuelled by the influx of Muslim immigrants and Islamist attacks on the continent. And it only adds to the hostile ethno-nationalist legacies of the past.

The 1992 to 1995 Bosnian civil war, which brought Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats into conflict, left the status of RS as a focal point of tension between the territory’s majority Orthodox Christian Serbs and minority Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks). In Macedonia, the 25 percent largely Muslim ethnic Albanian population have been fighting for better representation in the majority Orthodox Christian state ever since Macedonia’s 2001 armed conflict with the National Liberation Army (NLA)—an ethnic Albanian insurgency originating from Kosovo.

Divisions have in part been stirred by nationalist leaders and the media who have manipulated the Islam and terrorism narrative for their own ends. Anti-Serbia terrorist rhetoric, and the attack in RS last year, have made Serbs in the territory increasingly concerned for their safety and suspicious of Bosniak residents. And RS President Milorad Dodik—who has long held secession ambitions—has used the fear to push away from Bosnia. “Serbs do not want to live in a community where radical Islam flourishes,” he said following the flag-burning incident.

And in Macedonia, the threat of terrorism is suspected of being exploited to detract from a government wiretapping scandal and push nationalism. After a bloody shootout between policemen and a group claiming ties to the NLA in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo in May last year, 29 of the alleged gunmen were arrested on contentious “terrorism-related” charges. The incident was linked to radical Islam by media and social networks, while the ongoing trial has continued to stir accusations of a state cover-up with Albania calling for an international inquiry.