21 June 2019

Without the “Caliphate”, ISIL tries to rise from the ashes. Even in the Western Balkans

Stelian Teodorescu

Introduction: The Islamic State from Iraq and Levant (ISIL) continues to be both a regional and a global threat, despite the territorial loses it had lately. In order to survive, the organization tries to find other “safe” areas, not only in the Middle East, but also in regions like the Western Balkans. Organization’s extremist ideology remained the same and continues to be spread online, their main objective being to attract supporters, to gather the necessary human resources for the future terrorist attacks.

Image source: Mediafax

Around 40.000 ISIL members are operating in 102 countries from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, continuing to be a serious threat.

After its number of supporters in Iraq and Syria decreased from 60.000 to 5.000-6.000 of fighters and, implicitly, ISIL’s control over the “Caliphate” decreased as well, their cells reoriented towards a virtual “caliphate” and towards other spaces that can ensure their freedom of action and movement.

Afghanistan seems to be a new alternative operation theatre for the ISIL fighters, but there may be also other areas ISIL could act in. Among them, there is the Western Balkans area.

Western Balkans, the perfect environment to promote extremist ideologies

Western Balkans, due to its political, military and security dynamic, continues to play a key role in promoting the extremist movements’ propaganda and ideology. Region’s historical and religious myths come from Western Balkans conflicts’ seen as a confrontation between Christianism and Islamism. An eloquent example to that end is nationalist-Christian extremist groups’ development of the concept “defend Europe from Muslim’s flocks’ invasion”, a concept which raised many similar/ yet opposed answers and reactions during history, alike naming Western Balkans “Muslims’ border”.

The Western Balkans have many Muslim communities and, as expected, they were “passed” by the ISIL propaganda, which exploited war’s effects of the former Yugoslavia, from 1990, ended with region’s division and the demarcation of new borders following ethnical and religious criteria.

ISIL’s rhetoric is defined and seriously marked by the threats against “faithless” Serbians and Croatians for the war crimes executed against the Muslims, but are also including extremely serious threats for the apostates, Muslims who gave up their own religion, for those who do not support the Islamic radicalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The Islamic State- entering another stage since their presence in the Western Balkans

900 of 4.000 Europeans who joined ISIL come from Western Balkans, and the number is relative to the number of inhabitants of the home states. Most of the sympathizers left following this order: Kosovo, BIH, North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. The local political, democratic and barely created systems are really weak due to nationalist’s movements’ extremist tendencies. ISIL uses these political, social and personal reasons, specific to each entity’s geopolitical interests, to radicalize its own supporters, given that the region has a large cultural, ethnical and religious diversity.

According to data and estimations made long before ISIL’s last bastions fell in Iraq and Syria (Mosul, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor), in 2017, more than 300 adults came back to Western Balkans.


Recruited fighters/Adults who came back from Iraq/Syria







North Macedonia








Chart- the situation of adults/fighters of IS who came back in the Western Balkans from Syria/Iraq, 2012-2017

The comeback of those who were part of ISIL’s terrorist attacks in different conflict areas is, for now, one of the main challenges for the European intelligence, security and antiterrorism structures, because it asks for the effective management of hundreds of people’s reintegration. Given these circumstances, we should not forget about those who already came back to Europe, on migration routes, whether are known or not, from the Western Balkans or the Mediterranean Sea, who asked for asylum and, implicitly, got protection meanwhile they could also plan and execute possible terrorist attacks.

According to an analysis made by Frontex regarding Western Balkans’ risk, from 2018, the illegal border crossings from the Western Balkans (Albania, BIH, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) have decreased with 90% comparing to the previous year. At the same time, though, illegal stay has increased by 48% and false travel-document users are up by 91%. Such an evolution increases the individual infiltration risks of the ISIL fighters in different states and the development of terrorist cells after reaching their destination.

Croatia is the state that many migrants from Middle East and Central Asia pass through, trying to get to EU’s developed states, illegally crossing the BIH border to Croatia.

According to data published by the national police structures, at the end of September 2018, unauthorized immigrants’ number from Croatia was 30% bigger (in 2017, their estimated number was 4.800 people), many of them coming from Afghanistan.

Around 464 people remained in the conflict areas, more than half being considered noncombatants accompanying female fighters (chart).















136 (41 females, 95 children)


North Macedonia






6 (4 females, 2 children)




21 (11 female, 10 children)






Chart- the situation of recruited people by IS in the Western Balkans, who remained in Syria/Iraq, 2017

Given that 200 females, men and children, or one of five, died in region’s operations theatres, between 2012-2017, but also that fights and bombings’ magnitude after capturing the mentioned bastions, according to analyses, some think that the rest of fighting contingents in the Western Balkans who were part of ISIL’s actions in Syria and Iraq were strongly divided in the last year. Anyone who will come back from this region to the Western Balkans, including minors, could be the witness or survivor of the brutal atrocities or inhuman treatments from the conflicts areas and will need proper services to help them with their reintegration, re-socialization and, if needed, de-radicalization.

According to official data, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) is one of the most important Balkan entities which exports Jihadist fighters in the Middle East. This entity, which has almost half of its inhabitants considering themselves Muslims, is seen as a “sanctuary for IS fighters, recruiters and planners”, despite the fact that 4% of them are following radicalist tendencies. From all the 200 Bosnians who were part of the Syria war, 50 were killed and 40 of these fighters who came back to BIH, were brought to court. According to the International Center for Radicalization Studying, from Regal College in London, the real number of Bosnian fighters who were part of ISIL’s actions is bigger than 330, most of them being the Mujahedin who remained in BIH after the war from the former Yugoslavia.

According to a study of the Atlantic Initiative, the one to offer the largest details on ISIL’s Bosnian fighters, until 2015, they can be divided in two categories, on different reasons:

- former members of people close the Mujahedin’s units, who were part of the BIH war, between 1992-1995, most of them being in the middle or at the age of 40;

- people converted to Islamism, at the end of their adolescence and before their 20’s

The first group sees the war between Syria and Iraq as Jihad’s continuation that they ended in 1995, when the Peace Agreement from Dayton came into force. The second one, acts more for self-validation, self-respect and membership to a group and a common cause.

In Kosovo, on 11th of August 2014, Pristina’s government arrested 40 Kosovar citizens suspected for being involved in ISIL’s terrorist attacks from Iraq and Syria. They arrested them after developing raids in 60 locations in Kosovo, finding as proofs explosives, armament and munitions. The Kosovar police investigated many local imams, as well as other Albanian people, for their involvement in ISIL recruiting.

So there is a paradox ahead: how can a pro-American society, wherein NATO troops are seen as liberating in 1999, have such a big number of Jihadists comparing to its total population? According to data published by the independent center, Global Research, at the end of July 2016, 314 Kosovars, including 38 women, joined the terrorist group ISIL. At that time, there were five military fighters’ training camps in Kosovo, placed close to the border with Albania and Macedonia.

In March 2016, there were launched some interesting hypothesis in terms of the Kosovar’s militants motivation and typology, after a series of documents (whose authenticity continues to be disputed) an ISIL fighter who deserted gave to the officials. There were very interesting details about four Kosovars in the registration documents for the terrorist group, one of the 23 questions being about the career they would want to follow: “fighter”, “suicide missions” or “fighters who does not want to go back to their home state”.

In North Macedonia, according to the minister of foreign affairs (March 2016), around 140 former Macedonian militaries, coming from Albanian minorities, fought in ISIL, 20 of them being killed. All in all, these people were seen as having a high religious analphabetism rate and really small information about Islamism.

In Albania, it was created the perfect environment for the Islamic radical groups, emerged in 1990, given the political, ideological, economic and social disequilibrium which was created after the communist regime collapsed. Here, the radical groups were Islamic only by name, because their true motivation of using violence and compelling was similar to other extremist groups to have different religious or ethnical reasons. Hence, around 90 Albanian people joined ISIL, most of them being killed or disappeared. Some information claims that most of Albania’s sympathizers were recruited between 2012 and 2014 and most of their activities were developed close to Kosovo.

Between 2015 and 2017, the Albanian police made several arrests, which reduced terrorists’ recruiting process. It was identified and arrested in Tirana a Macedonian fighter, ISIL member.

In October 2016, the Albanian authorities retained four Albanian and 15 Syrians, who supposedly tried to escape to West Europe through Kosovo. In November 2016, the Albanian police arrested four terrorism suspects, two in Shkodra, close to the border with Montenegro and other two in Peshkopi, close to North Macedonia border. In January 2017, the police arrested also a possible foreign militant, in Kosovo, accused for terrorism.

The possibility of a large scale terrorist attack in Western Balkans became obvious in November 2016, when Albania and Kosovo’s security forces combated a terrorist attack over an Israeli football team, during their qualifier for the World Cup, in Elbasan, Albania. On 17th of November 2016, many ISIL members were arrested.

The attack warning came from the Israeli secret services, who tracked several online conversations between an Albanian born in Kosovo, who was afterwards killed in Syria by the coalition forces, on 8th of June 2017, and a group that supported ISIL.

A total of 19 people, including the supposed head of the attack, were arrested in Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia. 170 people were arrested in Albania and interrogated about the possible attack, including 30 ISIL fighters who were recently returned from Syria. The operation highlighted the collaboration between regional intelligence agencies and international partners, but it also highlighted the serious security vulnerabilities.

Between 2015 and 2017, in the Western Balkans, hundreds of supposedly ISIL terrorists and militants were arrested and investigated, tens of people were accused and convicted for their interference in the radicalization, recruiting, funding or participation process to terrorist groups, among them ISIL also. Starting with 2015, courts in the region issued “guilty” sentences against tens of people for frauds related to participation to foreign conflicts and terrorist actions, in 2017 being arrested for their crimes around 70 people (chart).



Punishments (detention period) for IS fighters crimes in Syria/Iraq 2015-2017

Incarcerated people in 2017










North Macedonia












Chart – Pronounced punishments and number of incarcerated people for being part of IS’s actions in Syria/ Iraq

Until now, Western Balkans’ authorities made many efforts for the investigation, prosecution, conviction and incarceration of ISIL fighters who came back in the region and less for the de-radicalization, rehabilitation and social reintegration. Detained jihadists are staying in prisons along other criminals, which creates supplementary risks because radicalized criminals can also take advantage on that environment to make plans and develop terrorist cells.


In Western Balkans, radicalization and recruiting was eased in the big cities. Until recently, internet’s influence in the radicalization process in the region was quite limited and considered as a secondary factor, but had the ability to multiply the effects the terrorist and extremist groups wanted.

Internet’s increasing role as radicalization and recruiting platform in the region contributed to the increasing concerns in terms of the role and potential ISIL members, like those who call themselves the „lone wolfs” could have in Western Balkans’ region.

The analyses and estimations made to that end are highlighting that transfer of all efforts’ center of gravity on extremist groups’ division and different messages to possible target groups, in less visible online spaces that are also offering safety in terms of exposure and, implicitly, the start of investigations by intelligence security structures.

On long and medium term, Western Balkans’ entities will face new security challenges related to de-radicalization and reintegration of those who were part of ISIL’s actions from Syria and Iraq, but who came back in the entities they were part of. Given the well-known Balkan nationalism, without a trustable social reintegration platform to ensure the effective disengagement from the extremist group they fought for, these former ISIL fighters could be a threat for region’s future recruits.

Western Balkans’ big challenge, on long term, could be violent extremism, even if this risk is overestimated by a great number of experts and researchers, more and more concerned by non-violent extremism’s spread. The radicalization process in the region affects both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Media is highlighting that people in the Christian Orthodox Slav community in the region are part of the Ukraine conflict, joining to the pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian forces which are involved in region’s fights.

The fight against extremist groups and radicalization in the Western Balkans should follow three directions:

- multinational intelligence- by developing a tied international intelligence, security and terrorism cooperation and make a greater information collection, a trustable analysis and an effective information exchange and mental models to understand the regional and global phenomenon and make an early-warning and reaction system;

- mass-media and international organizations- through disinformation combat, manipulation, intolerance and violence measures;

-financial-economic- by creating a tied international cooperation in the field, to block the funding of extremist and terrorist groups;

In order to effectively prevent and combat violent extremism, local governments, civil society’s organizations, strategists, researchers and practitioners must identify and present a more diversified palette of solutions, scenarios and methods to cover a larger field, besides Islamic radicalism and other ethnical-nationalist radicalism and extremism, which are increasing in Western Balkans’ region.

Western Balkans entities’ strategies are aligning to the “prevention, protection, pursuit and response” model, created in 2010 by EU, which is focusing on police structures’ actions, community education, to combat extremist propaganda, as well as on social-media and internet’s monitoring in terms of terrorist activity. Albania, for example, founded a Center for Violent Extremism Combat, for the regional coordination and development of interested parts’ capacities.

BIH’s effective political, social, ethnical and religious division and the tensions that continue for a long time now, between Serbia and Kosovo, will also continue to be opportunities that extremist and terrorist groups, like ISIL, could exploit to provoke major challenges against region’s security and, implicitly, against the entire continent.

Translated by Andreea Soare