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Identification, Regional Co-operation Will Stem Threat of Extremists

Militants from the Balkans who go to Syria to join opposition forces present a regional security threat when they return home, experts said.

By Ivana Jovanovic, Linda Karadaku and Miki Trajkovski for Southeast European Times in Belgrade, Tirana and Skopje — 28/10/13

Security experts are warning about the threat posed by hundreds of Balkan citizens who have joined opposition fighters in Syria, saying that radicalised fighters will likely present a threat for their countries when they return home.

Rebel fighters take position on a front line in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. There are estimated to be more than 400 Balkan militants fighting in Syria. [AFP]

Rebel fighters take position on a front line in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. There are estimated to be more than 400 Balkan militants fighting in Syria. [AFP]

The Serbian police office that monitors and researches terrorism told SETimes the Syrian war is a concern for the region.

“They are going there as extremists but coming back as terrorists. This is something they are learning in training centres, including how to cause unrest. This is why they become so-called ‘lone wolves,’ individuals ready to do everything for their faith,” police said in a statement to SETimes.

Abit Hoxha, a security expert for the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies, agreed.

“One of the problems is that radicalisation is easier than de-radicalisation, as well as the re-integration of such people back into society,” Hoxha told SETimes.

Ivan Babamovski, former chief of the Macedonia State Security Service, said more than 400 people from the Balkans have gone to fight in Syria. They are from Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Hoxha said that the militants’ impact “can’t be determined by the number of people, but by the fact that the consequences of such involvement and the image of people fighting in Syria is not getting any better.”

Foreign militants who join the rebel fighters are paid between $10,000 to $15,000 a month, Babamovski said.

“People going to Syria are Wahhabis, veterans and members of paramilitary organisations. When they return from Syria, the question is what will they do here and where they will earn $10,000 to $15,000 a month? They will be doing what they have learned in Syria. That is a serious threat to us,” Babamovski told SETimes.

Recent developments in Arab countries show how dangerous and destabilising Islamic extremism can be. [AFP]

Recent developments in Arab countries show how dangerous and destabilising Islamic extremism can be. [AFP]

Zoran Dragisic, a professor at the Faculty of Security in Belgrade, told SETimes that extremist organisations represent a threat to the entire region. According to him, the Balkans is the only area in Europe where Islamic radicalisation does not come from the east but from west.

“Young Muslims from the Balkans who join the Wahhabi movement get work, papers, money. In the west, prisons are mostly a place to perform Islamic radicalisation. Many criminals from Sandzak come out of prison as Islamic radicals,” Dragisic said.

Muslim boys from the Balkans have fought in Syria, Libya and other Arab countries.

“Many of them spend training in Islamic countries because international Islamist networks will send their people [to recruit them] when there is a crisis. That happened during the wars in the Balkans,” Dragisic said.

Extremist groups benefit from a social media and internet presence by being able to present themselves for free to a mass audience. Islamic extremists most often use emotional topics related to the current socio-political developments in the world — the war in Syria, killings of Muslims, details from the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina — to gain an audience, Fahrudin Kladicanin, co-ordinator at Forum 10, an academic initiative based in Novi Pazar, told SETimes.

Recent developments in the Arab countries show how dangerous and destabilising Islamic extremism can be, said Stojan Slavevski, a professor at the Faculty of Security in Skopje.

“It is true that in our country there are some radical groups that may be visible if the competent institutions do not take appropriate action, but we cannot compare and say that it represents such a threat as in Arab countries. However structures in the country that are dealing with the fight against terrorism must act preventively,” Slavevski said.

In order to control the situation, Xhavit Shala, a university professor and security expert in Tirana, told SETimes that law enforcement agencies should identify the individuals from the Balkans fighting in Syria and monitor them on their return.

“For this, it is important to have an exchange of information and co-operation between the agencies of the regional countries. It is also necessary to investigate if they have been involved in war crimes in Syria and to have international co-operation to take them before justice,” Shala said, adding that a review of the legal basis for the prevention and penalisation of such cases would be necessary.

“The identification of the persons from the Balkans who are participating in the fighting in Syria has extraordinary importance for law enforcement agencies in Balkan countries. This is because many of those persons have been ranked in the radical groups with a clear extremist religious inspiration,” Shala told SETimes.

Babamovski said it is necessary to unite law enforcement and special security forces from the region.

“When the war in Syria ends, we all together will have big problems,” Babamovski said.

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