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Commentary | 16 March 2016

How to counter the ISIS threat in the Balkans

The refugee crisis in Europe is just one of a series of problems confronting the Balkan states. The decision of some EU states to close their borders, accompanied by bitter internal fighting, has undermined confidence in the EU among political leaders and citizens in the Balkans. The confused and fractured EU response only underlines to us that the Euro-Atlantic perspective is now unclear, while the economic prospects for the region remain uncertain. Furthermore, geopolitics centred on big power rivalry is once again stoking tensions in this region: Russia has clearly declared an interest in keeping the Balkan countries out of NATO, while Turkey has become more assertive in promoting its interests.

With all of these issues creating great uncertainty, the plague of ISIS is not getting the full attention of EU and Balkan decision-makers. They should ask themselves: Are we prepared to deal with these challenges? Do we have a real understanding about the threat and complexity of ISIS? It is clear that despite some improvement there is an urgent need for better regional cooperation, especially in intelligence sharing, as well as more reciprocal communication and cooperation between security institutions of states in this region.

The US and EU are concerned about the ISIS capacity to organize and launch terrorist attacks in Europe (Paris) and the US (San Bernardino). Still, it is clear that terrorism is a global threat to all states. The Balkans have a special role in combating this threat, being a major route into Europe and a bridge for ISIS funding, supplies and recruitment, and for other radical terrorist groups. Unfortunately with Europe and the US distracted by other issues – the attacks in France and other western states; the ongoing global economic instability; the war in Syria; and the flood of refugees and migrants into Europe – this has reduced support and understanding for the gravity of the terrorist threat in the Balkans.

The facts on the ground in the region confirm the need for immediate action to curb ISIS and deal with home grown terrorist “lone wolves”. ISIS cells and networks are infiltrating our societies, but more importantly they are securing their strategic position in Europe with an eye on America as the ultimate target.

Recent arrests and trials in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, highlight the real problem of terrorist-trained and battle-tested individuals to regional security. The appearance of ISIS flags in Bosnian villages, involvement of individuals from the region in foiled terror plots in Sweden, Germany and Austria (for example the case of four Bosnian nationals and an Arab trying to smuggle a bomb from Bosnia into Sweden); and more importantly the links to actual attacks in Spain, France and in the region itself (such as those on a police station and the military in Bosnia) all point to the urgency in increasing regional efforts to contain and eliminate this threat.

According to some media and intelligence sources, the Balkans have become one of the largest recruiting grounds for ISIS. No one really knows how many fighters from the region have made their way to Syria and Iraq, but estimates range from 700-850 or more. The volunteer flow from the region continues despite local efforts to prevent recruitment. These fighters are determined to join ISIS, regardless of the risks and legal punishments they may face. Many have already been killed in combat in Iraq and Syria and some have made propaganda videos revealing their identities. All of this shows the extent of their radicalization and commitment to the ISIS cause. Once returned, they represent grave threats to our societies. Most of them have passports which allow them access to the EU because of visa liberalization and the Schengen agreement, extending the geography of the threat.

Radical Islamic indoctrination over the last two decades has not only created shelters, indoctrination centres, training hubs and safe transit routes but it has also destabilized the Islamic tradition of the region, known for its secular character, historic tolerance and cultural integration. Now a foreign, radical and heretical interpretation of Islam has taken root and is destabilizing the region already troubled by ethnic and national strife.

The Balkans are especially vulnerable for several reasons. Our diverse ethnic and multi-religious region has seen a number of historic conflicts, some still simmering, others dormant, which can be ignited by this new seed of radicalism. Most of the states in the region have very unstable political situations, weak governments and security institutions, stretched thin by economic crisis, war, political infighting, corruption and the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants trying to get to the EU. Prolonged economic crisis and high unemployment have alienated many, exposing youth especially to radicalization. The increasing return and presence of fanatical fighters trained in Syria, Iraq and Libya also creates a serious and immediate threat.

The communist legacies of inefficient governance, bloated bureaucracies and public sectors have created a serious impediment to responding to this and other threats. The legacy of large militaries and recent wars have left large quantities of weapons, explosives and ammunition that have filtered into the black market through corruption and organized crime networks. The slowing EU expansion and lack of will to receive new members in the near future have diminished hope and optimism among citizens, creating more opportunities for radicalization, and undermining political will for reforms and enhancement of regional security. There is also a widespread feeling among the region’s peoples that the terrorist threat and the new migrant crisis are EU problems that have been dumped on the Balkans.

How can regional leaders more effectively and decisively address these challenges and how can they contain and eradicate ISIS? Despite all of the problems and factors of instability that besiege this region a response is possible and it begins with increasing cooperation and communication. I believe the following initiatives would create a better foundation for dealing with ISIS and other terrorist threats to the Balkans:

  • A Balkan Intelligence Coordination and Cooperation Centre must be established, that will better coordinate the collection and sharing of vital information between states and can make a better contribution to building cooperation with EU and US intelligence services and Europol.
  • A database (clearing house) system must be built that begins a more serious and comprehensive screening of refugees and migrants traveling through the region. This system must combine all aspects of intelligence acquisition that is more easily accessible to states in the region and that will help identify potential ISIS infiltration in a more timely and efficient manner.
  • Regional leaders and institutions must cooperate in developing an immediate reaction and proposals for resolving the issue of refugees on a regional basis.
  • States should, with support and expertise from NATO or the EU, immediately start investing and working in developing a more adequate cyber security strategy, addressing ISIS propaganda and communication.
  • The EU must provide a clear strategy for Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries in the Balkans. This would eliminate uncertainty, fear and frustration within regional states and would allow them more space for addressing the ISIS and refugee challenges in a more confident and efficient manner.
  • A more open and serious discussion about the ISIS threat to our nations must begin and a coordinated effort of states in the region should be made in better informing citizens through education and building better cooperation with local religious leaders that would close public space for recruitment and indoctrination by ISIS activists.
  • Greater effort should be made with religion communities, especially with the Islamic community to identify the groups and mosques that are out of their control or are under the influence of extremists.
  • A coordinated strategy should be developed for dealing with returning foreign fighters and their families.

These steps would not only build a better foundation for dealing with the ISIS threat in the Balkans but it would also bring broader benefits to the region. Greater cooperation would contribute to peace and stability, while at the same time it would help the EU better deal with their own challenges tied to the refugee crisis. The states of the region will need greater support from the EU and the US, but it should be recognized that any investment in building institutional capacity and regional cooperation will also improve the security of the EU and the US. The time to act is now.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.