Elia Bescotti's Blog

Bosnia and Kosovo: the Balkan forges of the European Jihad

April 24, 2017
The rising of jihadism in the Balkans represents a big security problem for all the European and Mediterranean community: different estimations show that Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo are two of the main centers of recruitment of foreign fighters directed to Syria, who are joining the ranks of the so-called Islamic State. A 2014 estimation made by CIA identifies Bosnia as the primary departure location of the jihadists from the Balkans, counting for 350 foreign fighters, while Kosovo is ranked second, with 150 leaving terrorists[i]. Other more updated sources place Kosovo as the country with the highest rate of foreign fighter per million of population, precisely 125, which accounts to 232 jihadists who left for Syria, followed by Bosnia with 85 foreign fighters per million of population, which results is 323, quite similarly to the CIA estimation[ii]. Although the sources don’t share the same measurement, they both show one fact: even if the flow of jihadists is not very high in absolute numbers among the European countries, the relative share is dramatically high. The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a critical element in the rising of radical Islam in the western Balkans. After the Yugoslavian Federation broke up during the civil war, the parts involved in the Bosnian conflict (Croats, Serbians and Muslims) were silently supported by foreign countries. The abroad support to the Muslims came basically from foreign Muslim countries, mainly Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, a huge number of mujahedeen came from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and many other Muslim countries[iii]. Albeit it is impossible to say how many mujahedeen came to Bosnia during the Yugoslavian civil war, estimations indicate that between 10.000 and 12.000 mujahedeen, organized in special or regular units of the so-called Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina (ARBiH), took part in both terrorist and military operations in the 1992-95 period[iv]. Former CIA officials claim they were even more, reaching the 17.000 units[v]. Some mujahedeen remained in Bosnia after the Dayton agreements and Izetbegovic granted on giving them the Bosnian citizenship. This made Bosnia the centre of movement of the jihadi extremism, since travel documents with citizenship. Indeed, a secret report prepared for the Clinton Administration in late 2000 “shocked everyone” when the scale on which the Izetbegovic regime had provided travel documents to international extremists was revealed[vi]: about 12.000 Bosnian passports were distributed to international jihadists[vii] and Osama bin Laden himself owned a Bosnian passport given by the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina[viii]. After the war in Bosnia, many mujahedeen, left the country to fight the Jihad in Kosovo in support to the Uçk against Milosevic. Subsequently to the unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, Kosovo has become even more unstable due to its poor institutional level. Although the European Union does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state, the EULEX mission is aimed to help the self-proclaimed government of the republic to achieve the status of an independent multi-ethnic State under every aspect, from politics to police. However, EULEX (as well as UNMIK) is failing in supporting the Kosovar authorities in secure the State, which has become a basis for the recruitment of foreign fighters ready to depart to Syria and Iraq[ix]. As already mentioned, Kosovo is one of the most critical country in exporting foreign fighters: the New York Times reports that “[o]ver the last two years, the police have identified 314 Kosovars — including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children — who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State”[x]. The problem is not only the high rate of Jihadists per capita, but the fact that until 2014 the Kosovar authorities were completely unaware about what was going on: Kosovo approved a law against the foreign fighters’ phenomena only in 2015[xi] and just in June 2016 NATO opened one of its Centre of Excellence in Albania to deal with this problem[xii]. The fragility of the institutions in the Western Balkans, along with the high unemployment rate, the widespread poverty and the low standards of education constitutes a fertile ground for the growth of radical Islam in the Balkans. The common citizen feels himself or herself far from the political institutions, which are most of the time surrounded by a cloud of ineffectiveness and low transparency. In a survey about corruption, Kosovo has gained 33 point out of 100 according to the perception of the citizens, were 0 means totally corrupted while 100 means no corrupted at all, ranking Kosovo 110th out of 175 countries[xiii]. Moreover, the institutions are differently perceived among the rural population and the one living in the cities, because in the first case the penetration of religious ideas is much higher also because of the weakness and the distance of the institutions in those places[xiv]. In Kosovo, “the societal disorientation and weak economic and political conditions provided fruitful grounds for religionization right after the war”[xv]. It’s questionable whether Bosnia or Kosovo is the weakest country in the western Balkans, but since in Kosovo the Albanian community is the biggest ethnic group and is almost totally, Muslim it’s simple to understand why the rate of Kosovar foreign fighters is so high. As for Bosnia, the growing number of Wahhabi and Salafi mosques in the Balkan country poses a serious threat to the European and Mediterranean security: more than 25 madras have been built on the Bosnian territory, and in these Islamic schools the teachers are mostly formed in Saudi Arabia and teach the Wahhabi precepts. Moreover, uncontrolled mosques are rising in the whole Bosnian territory, and it’s not interest of the Muslim authorities to stop this process due to the “charity founds” provided and Islamic NGOs[xvi]. The little transparency of the donations to these mosques (which by the way are mostly linked to Islamic NGOs and Saudi Arabia) doesn’t allow to find a way to fight and stop the spreading of extremist religious centers: “the neglect of Kosovo’s rural communities after the war by international and local governing structures, together with other “secular aid agencies” created space for Islamic charity organizations to penetrate those areas”[xvii]. The CIA has estimated that one third of the Bosnian NGO’s operating worldwide have terrorist connections or employ people with terrorist links. Of the estimated $800 million the Saudis alone gave to Bosnia after Dayton, about $100 million is untraceable, lost in a maze of Al Qaeda front organizations funding terror activities worldwide. The lack of transparency in many Middle-Eastern-based banking institutions makes it extremely difficult to track the flow of money to militant groups in the region. Money donated for legitimate charitable purposes often get deviated and used to support weapons purchases or to provide support for families of imprisoned or killed jihadists. Stephen Schwartz has claimed that “a Saudi-based Wahhabi group operating in Western Europe exercises alarming financial influence over the highest Kosovo Islamic leadership.” Islamist NGO’s and humanitarian groups also finance sending school-age children to study in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria where they are indoctrinated in extreme forms of Islam[xviii]. A certain number of religious charity organisations have been established in Kosovo in the after the war. Among the most active, we can find those working under the umbrella of the Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo, which was a Saudi government based relief organisation, already chaired by the Saudi Minister of Interior, Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz. The committee built 38 mosques and 12 schools, and even financed the Provisional Institutions of Self-government during UNMIK’s period. This committee also appeared to have monopolized assistance especially in rural areas after the war, due to the lack of presence of state institutions but other aid organisations. After the war, bad conditions in rural areas in Kosovo depended on Saudi aid. Moreover, The Islamic Endowment Foundation openly admits its support to more than 30 madras in Kosovo’s rural areas, all built after 1999, more 200 new homes and has renovated more than 260 homes destroyed during the war. Al Haramein Islamic Foundation was another charity based organisation which was active in Kosovo. It is a branch of the Muslim World League charity, which is closely linked to the Saudi government. Another active organisation was Al Waqf Al Islam, which is not registered as an organisation in Kosovo, but operates as a “physical person” of a polyclinic centre “Mekka”. Besides their immense charity work in Kosovo, Al Haramain and Al Waqf in some cases were accused of being linked to and financed organisations like Al Qaida and other violent extremist groups’ actions. For instance, the founder of Al Haramain was listed on Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee as being associated with Al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, or the Taliban[xix]. It is also important to consider a few local charity organisations such as Shoqata “Parimi”, based in Kaçanik, and the Cultural Association “Rinia Islame”, which had close ties to Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a Kosovar foreign fighter known as “the Butcher”, who several times posted his executions and appeals to join the jihad on YouTube and on Facebook, both in Arab and Albanian. Both the organisations are reported to have been linked with Takfirs in Kosovo and their attempts to take young people to Syria. “It is difficult to know where these organisations get the funds from, but when it comes to financing people’s transfer to Syria, a number of sources, including one state security institution, indicate that the financing is supported by petty cash provided by a number of Takfiri individuals who together collect the money and give them to potential victim foreign fighters[xx]”.

[i] Source quoted in SEERECON, From the Balkans to ISIS: Militant Islamism in Southeastern Europe, Security and Intelligence Series Special Analytical Report, US, 2014, p. 19
[ii] S. Kursani, Report inquiring into the causes and consequences of Kosovo citizens’ involvement as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, Kosovar Center for Security Studies, Kosovo, 2015, p. 7
[iii] R. Simin, The new Jackals-Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, Northeastern University Press, Boston, US, 1999, p. 3.
[iv] I. Mlivončić, Al Qaeda perfected in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Naša ognjišta, Tomislavgrad, BiH, 2007, p. 127
[v] G. Martin, Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues, Sage, London, UK, 2010, p. 289
[vi] C. Peyes et al., Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists, The Los Angeles Times, 2001, http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/07/news/mn-54505

[vii] International Crisis Group, Bin Laden and the Balkans: The Politics of Anti-Terrorism, Albania, Belgium, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, 2001, p 11

[viii] SEERECON, Op.cit., p. 37

[ix] S. Kursani, Op. cit., p. 60

[xi] E. Venetis, Islam emerging in the Balkans, in ELIAMEP – The Middle East research project, Greece, 2015, p. 22

[xiii] Transparency International: http://www.transparency.org/country#KoS

[xiv] S. Kursani, Op. cit., p. 60

[xv] S. Kursani, Op. cit., p. 59

[xvi] E. Venetis, Op.cit., p. 26

[xvii] Ibidem

[xviii] Ibidem, pp. 26 - 28

[xix] S. Kursani, Op. cit, pp. 85-87

[xx] Ibidem, p. 91

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