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Commentary | 2 October 2014

The (Mistaken) Complacency on ISIS in Central Europe

Image of Kacper Rękawek

Kacper Rękawek |European Security and Defence Economics Project Analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

Central Europe Defence Middle East Security Terrorism Euro-Atlantic Security

As the next atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are revealed in both Iraq and Syria, an international coalition to battle this organisation has launched its activities, with bombings of jihadist targets in Syria capturing most of the attention. While watching these events, a casual observer could assume that the coalition is made up of a representative combination of NATO/EU allies and a string of Middle Eastern states. However, this is not exactly true. Central European countries, i.e. some post-communist NATO and EU member states, are less than enthusiastic about this coalition. More fundamentally, they struggle with the understanding and assessment of the threat posed to the international order by ISIS. Below are five false contextualised assumptions which dominate the Central European narrative on the world’s most popular jihadist organisation.

ISIS will not come to our neighbourhood because it is ‘calm’. Counter-terrorism officials and practitioners from the region always stress that their part of Europe is not directly threatened by terrorism. Theoretically, they could not be more right – just one look at the Europol data on terrorism provides backing for their statements on the ‘safety’ of their countries, as there are hardly any reports on terrorist activity within their borders. The trouble, however, is that this is mostly seen as a result of the low numbers of Muslims in Central Europe, i.e. an insignificant potential recruitment base for Islamist terrorists. This fact only strengthens the region’s conviction about its peripheral nature and, in contrast to Western Europe, alleged diminished attractiveness to terrorism. However, one need only look at the example of Finland, another ‘calm’ country and a seemingly off-beaten track location, which provided one of the largest European contingents of foreign fighters travelling to Syria (proportionally to its population size), to question this narrative.

ISIS is not plotting against us so it is not the priority. ISIS is unlikely to put into motion an elaborate terrorist plot against Central Europe. Still, the U.S. and the UK treat this organisation’s potential with growing concern not only because of their strategic interests in the Middle East, but also because of the fate of the American and British hostages held or executed by this organisation, which made front page news all over the world. Central European states (e.g. Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary) also had their citizens kidnapped in Syria and in other global hot spots (Pakistan, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq). If ISIS captures hostages from Central Europe, the ‘ISIS is not our priority’ attitude could overnight evolve into a crisis fuelled by the need to secure the release of the captives.

ISIS is full of foreign fighters but they are not ours. True, hardly any of the ISIS foreign recruits so far come from Central Europe – even though there are rumours of individual Polish, Romanian and Slovak fighters. Again, the low number of the potential recruitment base is the most likely reason for this state of affairs. However, it would be foolhardy to end consideration of the matter there. The region has extensive historical experience with the phenomenon of foreign fighters. Poland’s motto ‘for our freedom and yours’ and the fact that its national anthem is basically a song by 18th century foreign fighters (Poles in Italy) is a testament to this. Hence, it is not that Central Europeans are generally less likely to fight in foreign conflicts. They might do so in the future (again) and it would be prudent for the countries of the region to prepare for such an eventuality and study the recent experiences of their Western peers in preventing and fighting radicalization.

ISIS is far away. ISIS runs a statelet-like entity on NATO’s South-Eastern borders, i.e. relatively far from Central Europe. It might, however, be poised to directly challenge Turkey. Most of the Central Europeans support NATO as an organisation focusing on territorial defence, but how would they respond if it is not Russia, but ISIS which threatens the territories of NATO, using similar tactics of hybrid warfare? These questions are hardly asked in Central Europe but may need to be mulled over in the coming months, as the Central Europeans could be confronted more directly with the security implications of challenges faced by their Southern and Western allies.

We have no capabilities to offer in the fight against ISIS. George W. Bush once remarked that anyone can offer something to the coalition on the global war on terror. Surprisingly, this statement still stands as the anti-ISIS coalition goes into action. No one is asking the Central European air forces to assist in the bombings of ISIS and al-Nusra targets in Syria. But they could still consider going beyond their purely political support for U.S. actions in the region. Simply showing more concern and interest, e.g. by sending a delegation to the recent Paris conference on Iraq (the Czech Republic was the only country in the region to do so), would constitute a meaningful beginning. This could also dispel the widely held notion in Western Europe that the countries of the region are almost solely looking at the east while assessing threats to their security. More engagement in the south would also strengthen the case for expecting their Western allies to reassure them in the face of threats emanating from their immediate Eastern neighbourhood.

Central Europe is definitely not threatened directly by ISIS. Nonetheless, the security assessment must go beyond this, especially if our partners are concerned about some of their compatriots fighting in ISIS ranks in Syria or Iraq. Central Europeans could learn from their Western peers and prepare for the emergence of their own terrorist problems or the return of the foreign fighter phenomenon to their region. Simultaneously, showing more interest and involvement in combating threats on NATO’s South-Eastern flank might prove beneficial in calling for more understanding of their own regional woes.


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 challenges of our time.