Bosnia: when poor governance meets returning jihadists

By on February 7, 2018

A security crisis might – again – be in the making in the Western Balkans, with Bosnia- at its core. A series of established worrisome trends – poor governance, socio-economic apathy, high youth unemployment – is being coupled by an increase in destabilising influence from actors like Saudi Arabia and by the return home of foreign fighters leaving a crumbling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Last November, Berliner Zeitung reported that the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, was increasingly focusing its activities on Bosnia out of a stronger concern on local Islamist tendencies (DW, November 11th). Returning foreign fighters, the extensive amount of money pushed by the Gulf states to export a stricter version of Islam to the country and the consequences of being part of the Balkan route used by refugees to reach Western Europe prompted BND to raise awareness in Germany on the issue and ‘go public’ by voicing its concerns to the press.

Bosnians are the largest group from the Western Balkans fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. According to a study by the Atlantic Initiative, a Sarajevo-based think tank, 188 men, 61 women and

81 children departed from Bosnia to join the Daesh-held territories between 2012 and 2015. Of those men, 47 returned to Bosnia and 50 had been killed. There are mixed signals on the rate of prosecutions and convictions for those who made their way home: while Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Metkic assured that all of them were brought to court, there have been reports of only few trials and mild punishments, with average one-year prison sentences which in some cases have been turned into fines (Balkan Insight, December 2016).

A further cause for worry comes from the 80 Bosnian children and young men who are still supposed to be in ISIS-controlled territory. According to Vlado Azinovic, co-author of the abovementioned Atlantic Initiative’s study, boys aged 13 and 14 underwent military training before being sent to join fighting formations; a new generation of children has been raised on the battlefield, creating a time-bomb for any country they may end up in.

Returning foreign fighters pose a danger not just to Bosnia and the Western Balkans, but to the whole of Europe as well. In recent years, Sarajevo has adopted a set of legal and judicial tools to address the phenomenon, which brought to a strong reduction in both aspiring and returning fighters. Nevertheless, in a highly volatile institutional context as the one in Bosnia, the prevention of radicalisation and the persecution of jihadists could fall pray of political and ethnic rivalries, of a segregated education system and of dangerous influences from the Gulf. A mix of factors that might strengthen the ‘encirclement’ narrative perceived my several Muslims in the country, making them both more sympathetic to the jihadi cause to defend Islam both in Bosnia and worldwide and less reactive to those radicalising trends in the country often pushed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.  

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