Counter-Terrorism: the Balkan States and Croatia
Jihadist in the Balkans
It is no doubt that there is a strong and prevalent Jihadist terrorist presence within South Eastern Europe and the Balkan region. Over the years we have seen attacks from terrorist cells operating in this area as well as many reports of training camps and operational busts that come from the authorities in this region. Although there has always been some form of Muslim presence in this region, global jihadist sentiment is a relatively new phase in the area which has developed over many years of conflict and repression.
The early years of Muslim extremism can be traced backed to World War II. The area during this time was seeking for Muslim Independence and one man in particular sought to deliver this by any means possible. Haj Amin Al-Husseini, in return for political support, collaborated with the Nazi’s and supported their ideals. He recruited young Muslim men to fight for the Waffen-SS and other auxiliary units of the Axis powers. In the end of the war he was taken into French custody and later escaped to Egypt where he lived in exile. Although in exile his radical ideals of Islam still festered in the Balkans and years later would be even more amplified.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the republic of Yugoslavia fell into absolute turmoil. Each newly formed state fought both for its independence and for ethnic groups within its own borders. Each state combated these challenges in individual ways, some accepting Western help while others sought the assistance of mercenaries and extreme militant groups. In the case of Bosnia we saw the importation of the Mujahedeen who not only brought military and operational capability, but also ideological support for global Jihad. During the first years of the war there was estimated to be approximately 300 mujahedeen fighters but by the end of the war it was speculated that there were over 3,000 mujahedeen in the Balkans. After the conflict ended many of the fighters moved on to other areas of Jihad such as Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan. However there were still a few that remained in the region and sought citizenship and families.
The aftermath of the Yugoslav wars was detrimental to the region and left states and governments in complete shambles. Years of recovery work was required and it was left to the West to assist in the rebuilding of the region. New legislation was placed and many leaders and soldiers in the region were tried for war crimes and sent to prison for the remainder of their lives. As for the radical Muslim fighters left in the Balkans, authorities were faced with a dichotomy. On one side of the scale many of these foreign fighters were considered hero’s by the locals while on the other hand their presence was undermining the security of the region. Through this entire time they had been spreading ideology, establishing networks, providing logistical and financial support to affiliated groups, and also conducting terrorist activities. The newly formed governments in this region sought little action against these perpetrators due to their hero status which created a precedent of lenience in the future to come.
Current Issues and World Effects
The history of extremism in the Balkans set up an environment in which terrorists could operate with little pressure from any form of legal or authoritative entity. This led to 4 major issues that are prevalent today.
- The first of these issues is homegrown terrorism. There was an obvious shift after the war that the jihadists in the region changed their outlook from helping fellow groups to focusing all their attention on creating a frontline against the West. The shift to Wahhabistic ideals in the Arab community is a sign of this.
- The second of these issues is government infiltration. In recent cases in Bosnia the head of intelligence has been linked to terrorist training camps outside of Sarajevo. Also embassies in the Balkan region have been accused of handing out passports to Islamic extremist in order to facilitate their free roam throughout Europe.
- The third deals more with the geographical location of the area. It is a key land route between Europe and Asia. This becomes even more attractive due to the frail governments and weak border security and is known as a main transit route of foreign fighters into Syria’s current Civil War.
- The fourth issue is accessibility to government documents, especially passports. Any passport from South Eastern Europe allows for free movement through the Schengen area. Also Bosnian passports have been found on dead foreign fighters operating in Syria, Afghanistan, as well as Chechnya.
Global Impact of Jihad
Jihad in South Eastern Europe has made impacts across the globe over a period of a few decades. Within the past two decades, veterans of Bosnia’s Kateebat al-Mujadeen (Battalion of Holy Warriors) include some of the most high profile terrorists such as Khaled Sheik Muhammed, Juma al-Dosari, and Omar Saeed sheikh.
The conflict taking place within Syria has been the result of major spillover issues in all parts of Europe. The inflow of foreign fighters into Syria is greater than any other conflict in world history. South East Europe is the prime land route for anyone coming from Europe headed to Syria. The Balkans themselves have multiple source countries supplying foreign fighters with confirmed reports from Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, and Macedonia. The main reasons that people leave the Balkans in order to go to Syria are historical and religious symbolism, proximity to Syria, active support network, Urban vs. rural combat zone, and border vulnerability.
There have also been reports of Syrian foreign fighters returning to their home nation and committing terrorist attacks or acts of violence. The most recent case of this was in Brussels, Belgium. Mehdi Nammouche walked into the Jewish Museum of Brussels and opened fire with an AK-47 ultimately leading to the death of 4 people. He was radicalized in prison and then went to Syria to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and had just recently returned. He was eventually caught a few days later and is awaiting trial in France.
Since this first attack, which took place a mere 5 minutes from ATA HQ in Brussels, we have seen a surge of attacks coming from the same ISIS led inspiration in Canada, Denmark, Australia and of course the infamous Charlie Hebdo attacks in France.
Croatia and Counterterrorism
Croatia has had a developing past when it comes to counter-terrorism and it takes place in a number of stages. The first stage spans from their newly gained independence and throughout the homeland war. This period in counterterrorism was mainly focused on preventing and eradicating terrorism from happening with the border of the new nation as well as any form of violence that sought to upset the sovereignty or overthrow the government.
The second phase exists in the period after the Homeland war. This is a period characterized by reorganization of many departments and thus confused roles in terms of anti terrorism. Intelligence, military, and police all had overlapping duties while at times some gaps in governance were not even addressed. The third phase was the accession into NATO and the EU. This period demonstrated security sector reforms in order to be a part of NATO’s membership Action Plan (MAP).
The finalized security reforms allowed for numerous counter-terrorism capabilities to be deployed within Croatia. The most prominent is the Croatian Special Police who specialize in counter terrorist operations. They have units that are trained for maritime operations, diving, and airline terrorism. Another important tool that the Croatian government has in its arsenal is the Anti-Money Laundering Office which carries out tasks that combat the use of the financial system to launder terrorist finances.
Croatia not only combats terrorism within its own borders but at the same time supports all international counterterrorism efforts set forth by both the UN, NATO, and the European Union. During their term as a non-permanent Security Council member at the UN, Croatia was elected as the chair of the Security Council Counterterrorism Committee. It was also elected two terms in a row as the Chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Terrorism also known as CODEXTER. Croatia has also signed and ratified all legislation from the Council of Europe relating to terrorism and counterterrorism. Croatia has participated in ISAF since 2003, which is its largest peace mission in effect to date.
The issue of global terrorism, under no circumstance, will be solved or combated successfully in the near future. With the increasing rate of globalization and the advancement of weaponry, the world is becoming an easier place to commit transnational violent acts. The Balkans present a problem of a Jihadist harbor, but states in the region are working with international organizations in order to combat and suppress the continued terrorist activity. Croatia is exemplary in this instance. It transitioned from one of the area’s biggest security risks to the region’s largest security provider. It did this all while becoming a member of the EU and NATO in 12 years.