ISIS’ Balkan Networks

By Gordon N. Bardos*
Wednesday, March 25th, 2015 @ 9:45PM

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Left: Albanians Fighting for ISIS earn $65/day, come from Middle Class Families

The appearance of ISIS flags flying over a Bosnian village a few weeks ago made headlines across Europe.[1] Last week’s discovery of a plot involving four Bosnian nationals and an Arab trying to smuggle a bomb from Bosnia to Sweden,[2] and a German police raid on the Sahabe mosque in Stuttgart frequented by Bosnian émigrés, through which “the majority of people” from southwest Germany pass on their way to Syria,[3] provide further stark reminders of the international growth and spread of Balkan Islamist extremist networks over the past two decades. Berlin’s Der Tagesspiel recently claimed that Bosnia is one of the largest recruiting stations for the “Islamic State” in Europe,[4] and various estimates concur that Balkan countries (per capita) are by far providing the largest number of European volunteers for the Iraqi and Syrian jihads.[5]

European Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria (per million people)

Bosnia & Herzegovina – 92
Kosovo – 83
Albania – 46
Belgium – 40
Sweden – 32
Denmark – 27
France – 18
Netherlands – 15
Austria – 13
Norway – 12
United Kingdom – 12
Germany – 8
Italy – 2
Spain – 2

(Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 2015) [6]

In September 2014, the CIA estimated some 700 Balkan volunteers had become foreign fighters in these conflicts. This could be a conservative estimate; an Italian journalist who has studied the movement, Domenico Quirico, recently claimed that these are “just the optimistic official figures issued to avoid spreading panic,”[7] and security specialist Ilir Kulla has suggested that the number of jihad volunteers from the region could be “in the thousands” if one includes individuals from the Balkan diaspora.[8] Some sixty have already died in Iraq and Syria, and dozens of others have returned to their home countries. The question now facing security officials is whether these individuals—many of whom have passports giving them visa-free travel throughout the EU’s Schengen zone—will return tired violence, or as ticking human time bombs looking for an opportunity to spread jihad across Europe.

Estimated Number of Balkan Jihadi Volunteers in Iraq and Syria (by country)

Albania – 140
Bosnia – 350
Kosovo – 150
Macedonia – 20
Montenegro – 30
Serbia – 3

Total: 693

(Source: Central Intelligence Agency, September 2014)

Providing volunteers for ISIS, however, is only one aspect of the problem. The militant Islamist infrastructure that has developed in southeastern Europe over the past two decades has developed cells and branches throughout the world, and now provides an organized, dedicated network of extremists who recruit, finance, indoctrinate and train individuals (and sometimes entire families) intent on joining the global jihad. In some cases, European ISIS volunteers even get their first training sessions in the region. In September 2014, Albanian foreign minister Ditmir Bushati revealed the discovery in Albania of terrorist training camps for individuals joining the jihads in Iraq and Syria,[9] and such camps have been operating in Bosnia since the 1990s.[10]

After almost a decade of inaction, last year a concerted international effort finally began to disrupt and dismantle the Balkan militant Islamist infrastructure across Europe. The first stage began with a drive to arrest suspected ISIS recruiters. Over the past twelve months, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo have arrested dozens of individuals for facilitating and financing the transport of volunteers through Turkey and on to Syria. This effort has extended beyond the region as well; for instance, in what was billed as the largest operation in the history of Austrian state security, last November police rounded up over a dozen ISIS recruiters, including a Sandžak Wahhabi named Mirsad Omerović, aka “Ebu Tejma,” who alone is accused of recruiting over 160 young people from across Europe to join the Iraqi and Syrian jihads.[11] His Bosnian colleague Bilal Bosnić, dubbed “ISIS headhunter in Europe” by Italian media[12] (and who some twenty years ago during the Bosnian jihad had been an indigenous member of the Al Qaeda unit in Alija Izetbegović’s army, the “El Mudžahedin” battalion), was arrested in September and is awaiting trial.

Another Bosnian Wahhabi leader, Nusret Imamović, probably sensing a crackdown was imminent, fled Bosnia for Syria in December 2013 where he joined the Al Nusra Front. In September 2014 the U.S. State Department named Imamović a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Also earning the designation was Kosovo jihadi Lavdrim Muhaxheri, who achieved notoriety by posting pictures of himself on Facebook decapitating prisoners, long before Mohamed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John,” had become infamous.

The confrontation with Balkan extremists linked to ISIS has reached this side of the Atlantic as well. In February, the FBI arrested six individuals in Missouri, Illinois and New York who were part of an alleged Bosnian-American ISIS support group. One of those arrested, Ramiz Hodžić, was, like the aforementioned Bosnić, also a veteran of the El Mudžahedin unit. Another member of this group, a former St. Louisan named Ramo Pazara (who served as deputy to “Islamic State” emir Omar al Shishani) was killed in Syria in September 2014.

Alongside this drive to incarcerate jihad recruiters, a second stage in the battle against ISIS’ network of Balkan sympathizers and supporters has been to update the legal and judicial framework in many of these countries. All of the states of southeastern Europe have enacted new legislation and criminal regulations making it illegal for individuals to participate in foreign conflicts, or to recruit or finance volunteers for such conflicts. Throughout the region, official Islamic institutions (and many Muslim politicians) have also spoken out forcefully, condemning the barbarism of the “Islamic State” and urging young people to avoid participation in unsanctioned conflicts.

While this crackdown against ISIS’ Balkan networks is welcome, it is still too early to tell whether it has staunched the outflow of jihad volunteers from the region. It also remains to be seen whether the current counterterrorism strategy in place goes far enough to degrade and destroy the region’s militant Islamist infrastructure in any meaningful way. Two other important measures remain to be taken—first, breaking up the financing channels that sustain these networks, and second, neutralizing the propaganda network ISIS and similar extremist movements have in the region. Unfortunately, these measures may prove to be the most difficult parts of the effort.

The militant Islamist movement in southeastern Europe is financially sustained by a large network of NGO’s which straddle the line between some legitimate charity work and, more surreptitiously, providing monetary and logistical support for the global jihad. Mainly supported by wealthy Middle-Eastern patrons and certain affluent sections of the Balkan diaspora in Europe, over the past twenty years hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to sponsor Wahhabi proselytism, the building of mosques and madrassas that promote Saudi-style religious indoctrination, and to support the foundation and maintenance of mosques, outposts and villages run by Islamist extremists. Although there was a brief window after 9/11 when the U.S. and the EU exhibited the political will and devoted the intelligence resources needed to breakup these financial networks, unfortunately over the past few years the international commitment to combating this problem has dissipated.

A second necessary next stage in breaking up ISIS’ network of Balkan sympathizers and supporters is dismantling the propaganda machinery the militant Islamist movement has developed in the region that plays such a large role in attracting and brainwashing new recruits. This propaganda apparatus continues to operate virtually unhindered, producing a constant flow of hate speech, incitements to violence, and the most extreme interpretations of Islamic doctrines. The targets of such intolerance are predictable: Americans, Jews, gays, liberals, cartoonists, and people of other religions. And what one finds on these websites provides very chilly reading.

Visitors to the numerous Balkan Islamist extremist websites can find things such as a learned explanation for why burning captives alive is permissible under Islam (accessed some 7300 times),[13] or see pictures of the execution of alleged homosexuals–by throwing them bound and tied off of a tall building—in the “Islamic State” province of Nineveh.[14] A September 2014 posting on the Bosnian extremist website Put Hilafeta (“Way of the Caliphate”) shows a jihadi with an AK-47 juxtaposed against a picture of the U.S. president. The caption reads “A Message to Obama: We Will Attack You in Your Country!”[15]

Ethnic and religious intolerance is the cornerstone of the militant Islamists’ belief system. Jews (and Israel) are of course an especial target of the militant Islamists; as the Bosnian terrorist/Syrian jihad volunteer Bajro Ikanović explained in a recent interview, “The goal for all of us is death, especially in the battle against the Jews. Syria is not at all important to us. Our goal is Jerusalem.”[16] A Kosovo imam named Sefket Krasnici recently claimed that Mother Theresa (herself a Macedonian-born Albanian nun), “belongs in the middle of Hell because she did not believe in Allah, the prophet and the Koran …”[17]

Incitements to violence and justifications for Islamist violence are also frequently on evidence. Two imams currently imprisoned in Albania on suspicion of recruiting some seventy ISIS volunteers, Abdurrahim Balla and Bujar Hysa, recently endorsed the Charlie Hebdo attacks, writing “this is considered an act of war . . . The act that happened in France, if it is proved that was carried out by Muslims, because of the cartoons, it’s considered a good deed that will be rewarded by Allah.”[18] (Coincidentally, Nasser bin Ali Ansi, the man who claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo attacks on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), was himself a Bosnian jihad veteran.)

In a similar vein, a few weeks ago the Bosnian-Danish extremist Adnan Avdić (who himself has been linked to terrorist attacks in both Denmark and Bosnia) spoke at the gravesite of the gunman who killed two people in February’s Copenhagen attacks on a synagogue and free speech seminar, saying “As Muslims, we support him. The worst terrorists are those that dishonour the prophet. It is the Danish cartoonists that are responsible for inciting to terrorism. They are the real terrorists, not this guy. He was a hero.”[19]

Some militant Balkan Islamists are even more clearly psychopathic. In Kosovo, a radical imam named Zeqrija Qazimi has posted a sermon on YouTube in which he tells followers that “The blood of the kaffir (infidel) is our sweetest drink.”[20] One of Qazimi’s acolytes, a young man named Patriot Matosi, died in Syria in August 2014. With good reason, the current head of the Islamic Community in Bosnia, Husein Kavazović, recently said “These are dangerous people. They belong in a mental institution.”[21]

The influence such individuals have on impressionable young people should not be underestimated. In March 2014, a young man from Kosovo, Blerim Heta, became “the Balkans’ first suicide bomber,” killing himself and approximately two dozen other people in Baghdad. Heta’s family claimed his radicalization process started in April 2012 when he began attending sermons by the aforementioned Krasniqi and other radical clerics.[22] A few months later, a young Bosnian jihad volunteer, Emrah Fojnica (who had been Mevlid Jašarević’s companion on the day the latter attacked the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011), carried out a similar suicide-bombing attack in Baghdad. Both Jašarević and Fojnica had set out from Nusret Imamović’s stronghold of Gornja Maoča on the day of the attack.

Fortunately, the majority of southeastern Europe’s Muslim populations finds ISIS’ barbarity abhorrent and rejects such extreme interpretations of their faith. Nevertheless, ISIS’ Balkan networks and the militant Islamist infrastructure in southeastern Europe as a whole should not be ignored. Although relatively small, these networks have a demonstrated capacity to move indoctrinated jihadis and lethal weaponry between Europe and the Middle-East. As the EU’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2014 has noted,[23] the threat to the EU from extremists returning from Middle-Eastern jihads is likely to “increase exponentially” in the near future—and ISIS’ Balkan networks are a key link in this dangerous chain. It is encouraging that at least some European officials are beginning to recognize the danger. As Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano noted on a visit to Tirana in January “This part of the world, the Balkans can be considered a shelter for terrorists. For Europe, this area is of strategic importance.”[24]

Footnotes: 

[1] See, for instance, Jenny Stanton, “Inside the Bosnian Mountain Village Where Locals Fly the Black Flag of ISIS Above their homes as jihadists’ influence spreads,” Daily Mail (UK), 4 February 2015, at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2940244/A-far-welcoming-village-Entrance-Bosnian-mountain-hamlet-branded-Islamic-State-emblem-homes-fly-terrorists-flag-group-s-influence-spreads.html, accessed on 13 March 2015 at 9:00am EST; “Police Raid Bosnian Village that Displayed ISIS Flag,” Al Arabiya, 6 February 2015, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/world/2015/02/06/Police-raid-Bosnian-village-that-displayed-ISIS-flag.html, accessed on 13 March 2015 at 9:04am EST; Hajrudin Somun, “ISIS flag at Bosnian homes,” Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), 28 February 2015, at http://www.todayszaman.com/op-ed_isis-flag-at-bosnian-homes_373767.html, accessed on 13 March 2015 at 9:07am EST.

[2] See “Swede Arrested in Bosnia over terror plot,” Radio Sweden P6, 13 March 2015, at http://sverigesradio.se/sida/gruppsida.aspx?programid=2054&grupp=9392&artikel=6116525, accessed on 17 March 2015 at 9:25am EST.

[3] See Franz Feyder, “Von der Moschee aufs Schlachtfeld,” Stuttgarter-Nachtrichten, 18 March 2015, at http://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.razzia-bei-salafisten-von-der-moschee-aufs-schlachtfeld.03f1b4fb-8b5b-4ffe-973a-284dbde21fa7.html, accessed on 19 March 2015 at 9:32am EST.

[4] See Una Hajdari and Krsto Lazović, “IS-rekrutierung in Bosnien,” Der Tagesspiel ( ) 8 March 2015, at http://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/is-rekrutierung-in-bosnien-im-hinterland/11474860.html, accessed on 13 March 2015 at 9:22am EST.

[5] Estimate according to Dr. Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, as cited by Frank Gardner, “Europe Could Feel the Backlash from Jihadist Conflicts,” at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25155188, accessed on 2 December 2013 at 10:19am EST.

[6] The numbers are derived from the infographic entitled “Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 29 January 2015, at http://www.rferl.org/contentinfographics/infographics/26584940.html, accessed on 13 March 2015 at 10:44am EST.

[7] See Domenico Quirico, “Bosnia, nel villaggio sedotto dall’Isis,” La Stampa (Rome), 22 February 2015, at http://www.lastampa.it/2015/02/22/esteri/bosnia-nel-villaggio-sedotto-dallisis-tutto-il-mondo-apparterr-allislam-578TJN7WmKFaB7wt0hlJzL/pagina.html, accessed on 17 March 2015 at 9:51am EST.

[8] See Kamil Arli, “Albanian Expert: Turkey Waypoint for Balkan Jihadists,” Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), 19 July 2014, at http://www.todayszaman.com/interviews_albanian-expert-turkey-waypoint-for-balkan-jihadists_353477.html, accessed on 17 September 2014 at 3:59pm EST.

[9] See “Bushati Says Terrorists Are Trained in Albania,” ALBEU, 2 September 2014, at http://english.albeu.com/news/news/bUShati-says-terrorists-are-trained-in-albania/168317/, accessed on 2 September 2014 at 10:55am EST.

[10] Sherrie Gossett, “Jihadists Find Convenient Base in Bosnia,” 17 August 2005 at http://www.aina.org/news/20050817121245.htm, accessed on 30 June 2012 at 2:24pm EST.

[11] See “Woman in Spain arrested for allegedly procuring wives for ISIS,” The New York Daily News, 17 December 2014, at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/woman-spain-arrested-procuring-isis-wives-cops-article-1.2048435, accessed on 19 December 2014 at 5:58pm EST, and John Hall, “The ISIS family: Mother, father, and three flee to Syria from Vienna after being lured by hate preacher,” The Daily Mail (UK), 6 February 2015, at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2942473/The-ISIS-family-Mother-father-three-children-flee-Syria-Vienna-lured-hate-preacher.html, accessed on 8 February 2015 at 7:51pm EST.

[12] On Bosnić’s membership in the 7th Muslim Brigade, see Fahrudin Bender, “Ko nožem sijeće efendiju?” BH Dani 917 (Sarajevo), 9 January 2015, at https://www.bhdani.ba/portal/clanak/917/skandali/ko-nozem-sijece-efendiju, accessed on 9 January 2015 at 6:46pm EST.

[13] See mr. Zijad Ljakić, “Spaljivanje jordanskog pilota na vagi Islama,” VijestiUmmeta, 9 February 2015, at http://vijestiummeta.com/spaljivanje-jordanskog-pilota-na-vagi-islama/, accessed on 20 March 2015 at 9:18am EST.

[14] See “Sprovođenje Allahove kazne za pedere u Islamskoj državi,” VijestiUmmeta, 18 January 2015, at http://vijestiummeta.com/sprovodenje-allahove-kazne-za-pedere-u-islamskoj-drzavi-foto-izvjestaj/, accessed on 20 January 2015 at 6:24pm EST.

[15] See “Poruka Obami: Napašćemo vas u vašoj zemlji!” PutHilafeta, 22 September 2014, at http://puthilafeta.blogspot.com/2014/10/poruka-obami-napascemo-vas-u-vasoj_16.html, accessed on 20 March 2015 at 9:47am EST.

[16] See “Selefije u ‘svetom ratu’: ekslusivna ispovijest bh. džihad ratnika u Siriji,” 10 July 2013, at http://source.ba/clanak/1400134/vijesti/Ekskluzivna%20ispovijest%20bh.%20d%C5%BEihad%20ratnika%20u%20Siriji/?ref=najcitaniji, accessed on 27 July 2013 at 10:05am EST.

[17] See James M. Dorsey, “Militant Islam Gains Ground in the Balkans,” Deutsche Welle, 12 October 2010, at http://www.dw.de/militant-islam-gains-ground-in-the-balkans/a-6100488, accessed on 8 October 2013 at 10:17am EST.

[18] See Besar Likmeta, “Arrested Albanian Imams Praise Charlie Hebdo Attack,” BalkanInsight, 26 January 2015, at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/arrested-albanian-imams-support-attack-on-charlie-hebdo, accessed on 12 March 2015 at 9:58am EST.

[19] See “Salafist Calls Attacker a Hero,” dr.dk Nyheder (Copenhagen), 18 February 2015, at http://www.dr.dk/Nyheder/Andre_sprog/English/2015/02/18/135823.htm, accessed on 12 March 2015 at 9:45am EST.

[20] See Una Hajdari, “Kosovo Charges Seven with Islamist Terrorism,” BalkanInsight, 3 March 2015, at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/kosovo-charges-seven-for-islamic-state-involvement, accessed onn 5 March 2015 at 8:58am EST.

[21] As quoted by Amel Emric, “Bosnian Imam Attacked Seven Times for Preaching Peace,” Associated Press (Dateline Trnovi, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 6 January 2015, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/06/bosnian-imam-attacked_n_6424858.html, accessed on 24 March 2015 at 9:16am EST.

[22] See Visar Duriqi, “Rrëfimi i familjes së kamikazit nga Kosova që vrau 50 persona në Bagdad: E mashtruan, ndiqte ligjëratat e Shefqet Krasniqit,” Gazeta Express (Priština), 1 April 2014, at http://www.gazetaexpress.com/lajme/rrefimi-i-familjes-se-kamikazit-nga-kosova-qe-vrau-50-persona-ne-bagdad-e-mashtruan-ndiqte-ligjeratat-e-shefqet-krasniqit-6019/, accessed on 24 September 2014 at 9:47am EST.

[23] See “Returning Fighters from Syrian Conflict Cause Concern in the EU,” EUROPOL Press Release, 29 May 2014, at https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/returning-fighters-syrian-conflict-cause-concern-eu, accessed on 17 June 2014 at 2:38pm EST.

[24] As cited in Aleksandra Bogdani, “Italy on Alert Over Jihadist Threat From Balkans,” BalkanInsight, 5 March 2015, at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/italy-on-alert-over-jihadist-threat-from-balkans, accessed on 25 March 2015 at 9:03am EST.

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* Dr. Gordon N. Bardos is president of SEERECON, a strategic advisory and political risk analysis firm specializing on southeastern Europe. This article is exclusive to ACD.
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