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Europe

Are the Balkans a gateway for 'IS'?

Millions of Muslims live in the Balkans. According to media reports, Islamist terrorists are increasingly trying to influence them. But opinions are split on how dangerous the situation really is.

The history of the Balkans over the past 100 years is nothing but a chronology of Muslim oppression, at least according to the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group, whose propaganda targets the region. The only solution in the fight against the communists, so-called "crusaders" and Jews is jihad, they say. In an elaborately produced video, "IS" urges Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegowina, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia to kill their "infidel" neigbors.

"Put explosives under their cars and houses, pour poison into their food, let them croak," a young bearded man shouts in Bosnian. The terrorists in the video even have nicknames, depending on where they come from: Al-Bosni, Al-Albani, Al-Kosovi.

Exagerrated or realistic?

The propaganda has already served one purpose: for days, all of the regional media reported that "IS" has its sights on the Balkans. Such reports are extremely useful to the Islamists, warns Vlado Azinovic, a political scientist and journalist from Bosnia.

"Via Twitter alone, the IS publishes more than 200,000 short messages per week," the terrorism expert says. "They all contain such threats in several languages, so it's wrong to believe that IS is targeting the Balkans in any way," Azinovic told DW.

But, notions that the Balkans represent a gateway for jihadists are nothing but media hype and an expression of "hysteria", he added.

Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper also reported that radical Islamists are increasingly networking in the western Balkans, offering "a kind of initial training for would-be jihadists."The paper quoted German security officials as saying the situation is so alarming that it was discussed at the most recent G7 summit.

"The threat posed by IS should be taken seriously," says Filip Ejdus, a Belgrade political scientist. While the expert doesn't believe "IS" can create branches in the Balkans at this point, he fears the terrorists will soon carry out more attacks in Europe. "The Balkans with their instability will prove to be easy prey," he warned. "The political elite there must understand that there can be no answer to a global terrorism threat without definitive cooperation with western democracies," Ejdus told DW.

Economic hardship and jihad

Experts may disagree about the extent of the threat posed by "IS" in the Balkans, but there is no doubt that the "Islamic State" has been recruiting many new backers in the region.

IS Flag in Gornja Maoca, Bosnia

An IS banner in the Bosnian town of Gornja Maoca

A record 250 men from Kosovo have gone to war for "IS", media reports say. Bosnia-Herzegowina is also said to be at the top of the jihadist recruitment list. "Usually, these are young men from the economic fringes of society, men without an education and no work experience," says Azinovic, who investigated the phenomenon on behalf of the Berlin-based Atlantic Initiative (AI) organization.

Young people don't radicalize only because of the bleak economic situation in their native country, but because of the alleged "global suffering of the community they identify with," says Azinovic. "They travel to faraway war zones they wouldn't have been able to locate on a map in the past, and a war they don't understand." And, he adds, they all believe they are doing God's work.

Financed by the Gulf States

In the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, Belgrade expert Ejdus says, the conflicts were also fought along religious lines between Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats. Back then, Mujaheddin from the Arab region fought alongside Bosnian Muslims. After the war, their radical interpretation of Islam remained in the region and their mosques receive financial support from the countries on the Persian Gulf even today. Ejdus says they use this interpretation of Islam as an inspiration for 'holy war'; "Although a majority of Muslims in the Balkans rejects these anti-civilizing ideas, they still unfortunately find their way to some people."

The same is true for Kosovo, says Ismail Hasani, an expert on the sociology of religion from Pristina. Some Imams, who were trained in the Middle East, propagate a non-traditional interpretation of Islam, he told DW. "But in the Balkans, these radical versions don't fall on fertile soil." Hasani is convinced these interpretations will soon be a thing of the past.

There is one detail that media reports about "IS" propaganda usually fail to point out: The video aimed at Muslims in the Balkans was shot last year - and many of the fighters in the video have since died.

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