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Could Balkan nations become the new hotbeds of Islamist extremism?

Muslim communities in the Balkans are facing a growing problem - Islamist radicalism. Both the US and Germany have voiced concerns about extremism taking root in a region still struggling to heal war wounds.

At last week's OSCE meeting in Vienna, official statements from Bosnian and Albanian representatives seemed to confirm that the trend for Balkan jihadis to join the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and other radical networks in Syria and Iraq has died down. Estimates of the number of Balkan jihadis that joined IS vary, from one thousand to several thousand militants, but hardly any Balkan fighters have left the region for Middle Eastern battlefields in the past two years.

Regardless of this success, a small but significant domestic radical presence in Balkan nations, aided by returning IS fighters, is proving an even bigger headache for some western capitals and experts.

"There are hardly any extremists who left for Syria and Iraq in the last two years," Vedran Dzihic, scholar and Balkan expert at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs told DW. "But what's left is the local phenomenon." 

"Salafist, jihadi and Islamist extremists that are here - their infrastructure is intact, and now they are focused on certain countries and on the region as a whole."

Listen to audio 05:22

Inside Europe: 'Islamic State' and the Balkans

Dzihic estimates that around 30 to 40 percent of those who left Kosovo or Bosnia for Syria or Iraq were either killed or stayed there. Around 150 are thought to have returned to Bosnia and less than 120 to Kosovo.

"The problem of these returnees exists and they are definitely a security threat," Dzihic says.

The US government is also aware of the problem. Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee recently told a hearing in Washington that "more needs to be done."

"As converts to extremism return home from the battlefield or are radicalized in place, Balkan governments worry that they will see a surge in violence, intolerance, and extremism in the region - and perhaps see it exported north and west," Yee told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats on May 17.

Spread of Salafism

The same day, during a parliamentary session in Berlin, the German government acknowledged the existence of yet another problem that might further accelerate the radicalization of the Muslim population in the Western Balkans: the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

"Saudi Arabian missionary organizations are also active in Kosovo, spreading the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam by sending preachers," the government said in a written statement.

Fundamentalist Salafism, along with different radical branches of Islam, first entered the Balkans through Saudi-sponsored preachers and mosques during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Its influence has spread more dramatically in the last decade, fed in part by the dire economic and social situation in the region and the general lack of opportunities, especially for youth. The six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro) have over 50 percent unemployment rates among the youth population and an average monthly salary of around 300 euros ($335).

IS Flaggen in Gornja Maoca Bosnien und Herzegowina (Reuters/D. Ruvic)

An 'Islamic State' flag marks the entrance to the Bosnian village of Gornja Moaca

Balkan Muslims are considered to be among the world's more moderate Islamic communities, meaning radical interpretations of Islam remain alien to most of the region's population.

Still, Balkan countries with Muslim-majority populations, such as Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, are often mentioned as possible breeding grounds for religious fanatics and violent extremism. And neighboring Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are not immune to the problem.

In the recently published book "Between Salvation and Terror: Radicalization and the Foreign Fighter Phenomenon in the Western Balkans," author Vlado Azinovic claims that radicalization in the region has occurred primarily in the context of militant Salafism.

"In essence, the principal goal of militant Salafism in the region is to hijack the ethnic identities of Bosniaks and Albanians, each marked by centuries-old traditions of tolerance, with the aim of eventually absorbing them into a single, illusive global community - an Ummah, defined by religious identity," Aznovic wrote.

Vedran Dzihic (privat)

Balkan expert Vedran Dzihic

The problem will grow

The US-based Balkan expert Gordon N. Bardos recently compared the current situation in Balkan countries "with that of the Weimar years in Germany in the 1920s and 30s."

It is similar in that "we are dealing with a collection of countries with weak democratic institutions, depressed economies, and high levels of popular dissatisfaction," Bardos said.

Such prolonged socioeconomic downturn and rampant corruption, combined with the security risks and weak state institutions, might bring even more people closer to the radical movements.

Dzihic doesn't think the current situation in the Balkans should be a cause for great concern, but he warned that the signs should be taken seriously.

"It is clear that this phenomenon exists," Dzihic says. "That phenomenon will stay and follow the development of the Balkan countries in the coming years and decades. It is also clear that Islam in the Western Balkans will never have the same form again" as it did before the 1990s.

Dzihic predicted that possible further radicalization will go hand-in-hand with developments in the region's countries.

"If the security problems, instability and the economic difficulties continue to grow, this phenomenon will also grow."

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