Is Bosnia and Herzegovina really a “terrorist haven”?

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There are around 900 people from the Western Balkans, who have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq, out of which some 250 people have returned to their home countries – data provided by a recent report by the Soufan Center, a US-based NGO aimed at raising awareness of global security issues.

According to the report, some 250 residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina have gone to Syria and Iraq, out of which more than 100 have remained fighting and about 50 have returned to their domicile. The Balkan investigative reporting network (BIRN) reports, too, there were about 50 residents of BiH who returned from the battlefield. Similar estimations were given by Dragan Lukač, Director of the Federal Police Administration.

“About 300 people from Bosnia and Herzegovina have gone to the battlefield, about 50 of them have returned to BiH so far, and a larger number has been prosecuted. They represent a security threat”, asserts Lukač.

The EU’s annual Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, released June 15, warns that the battle experience the returnee fighters had gained, might pose a significant threat to the region’s security.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina, the so-called Sandžak region (between Serbia and Montenegro), Albanian-speaking territories in Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania until recently were considered the main hotspots for radicalisation, recruitment, and facilitation activities of FTFs destined for Syria,” according to the report.

“The level of a threat posed by extreme leftwing, anarchist and extreme right-wing terrorism in Western Balkan countries appears to be insignificant compared to religiously motivated terrorism (primary threat) and ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism (secondary threat) in the region,” the report added.

In order to address these issues, the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted a law in 2014, which prohibits fighting for foreign military organizations and envisages severe punishments, such as the imprisonment of up to ten years, for participation in terrorist groups abroad and recruitment of people.

In addition, during a meeting in December 2016, Bosnian and Serbian security services decided to address the issues in a rather proactive way, i.e. they agreed on mobilizing NGOs in projects aimed at de-radicalisation and identifying the motivation of young people to embrace radical Islam. Moreover, the focus of the officials was to be shifted to working with isolated Islamic communities, where civil society was perceived as a key contributor, and to devoting more attention to de-radicalisation of those incarcerated. Namely, the imprisonment per se only postpones the expression of the same or even more radicalised pattern of behavior and there is always a potential threat of indoctrination of inmates.

Now, the question posed by many is, whether Bosnia and Herzegovina truly is a “terrorist haven”, or whether those allegations rather contrast the reality in BiH.

According to some of the high officials of the EU member states, including the Austrian Foreign Minister and a prospective Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, the Czech President Miloš Zeman, and the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, Bosnia and Herzegovina is perceived as a potential base for the terrorists.

Croatian media have been extensively reporting on the claims made by President Kitarović that there were about 10,000 people in BiH with radical intentions even towards Croatia.

“We must convince the international community that the state of BiH should not be underestimated, that radicalization is developing rapidly due to the current political vacuum because people there feel that no one wants them, so they turn to a third side,” the Croatian news agency HINA reports.

However, these and similar allegations were harshly criticized by numerous experts in BiH.

Vlado Azinović, an expert in terrorism in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a member of the Atlantic Initiative refers to such claims as “absurd”.

Denis Hadžović, from the Sarajevo-based Centre for Security Studies, asserted while the threat posed by Islamist radicalism existed, it could also be applied to other parts of Europe, BIRN reports.
“It’s true there is a presence [of extremists], but not only in Bosnia,” he added.

In an interview for European Western Balkans, Nezruk Ćurak, Professor of the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo, stresses ethnic nationalism, rather than radical Islam, was the main security challenge in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I think that the most serious security challenges for the region are in the context of the revitalization and renewal of the most extreme ideologies – ‘neo-Ustaša’, ‘neo-Četnik’ and ‘Neo-Balija’ ideologies, which from my point of view are much more dangerous than the peril of extremism of Islamic radicals which is perceived to be of a greater severity than the others“, he maintains.

Although there have been several incidents in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were referred to as terrorist attacks, such as the one in Zvornik, when a policeman was killed by an alleged radical Islamist in an attack on a police station, or the assault on members of the Bosnian army in a suburb of Sarajevo, both occurred in 2015, they are small-scale attacks, which mostly target aforementioned symbols of the state power. However, large-scale attacks, similar to those occurred in Western Europe, are less likely.

The concerns and warnings expressed by European high officials and the local elites notwithstanding, if one looks at the whole of the European Union and the countries at the periphery, there is a certain paradox in the Western Balkans according to Nezruk Ćurak, since this extremism was barely existent in terms of realized violence.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States