ISIS in Iraq, Syria Recruiting Foreign Fighters from Balkans

Balkan Muslims are uniquely positioned to fight with ISIS in the Middle East.

“This is the greatest day for me. I hope that no mother will live my destiny,” the boy’s mother, Pranvera Zena, told reporters at the Pristina airport once she was reunited with her son, Erion.

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Those fighters’ home nations are taking the threat they pose seriously: Bosnia passed a law this year that throws convicted Islamists and recruiters in prison for up to 10 years, and arrested 16 people in September on such suspicions, while Kosovo, which arrested 55 Islamists, and Serbia, which charged five jihadis, both earlier this month, are also considering strengthening their anti-terrorism laws.

While the majority of Balkan Muslims observe a unique form of Islam that combines traditional and non-Islamic practices, there is a small but potent strain of extremism that traces back to the 1930’s, when Alija Izetbegovic, later the president of Bosnia, formed a Muslim Brotherhood-style political group, said Balkan expert Gordon Bardos.

“The serendipitous thing from [the mujahedeen] perspective was the war on Bosnia literally started just a few weeks after things died down in Afghanistan,” Bardos said. Many of the surviving foreign fighters from that war remained in the Balkans and helped set up Islamist communities like Gornja Maoca in Bosnia, where Mevludin Jašarevic, a Serbian who was convicted for a 2011 attack on the US embassy in Sarajevo, lived. The June CTC report found that 18 individuals associated with that community alone had traveled to Syria.

“They’re being exposed to more extreme forms of Islam. They’re building contacts with more extreme adherents of Islamic doctrine. So it’s going to have an influence,” Bardos said.

It’s also a lot easier for Balkans who gravitate towards Islamist rhetoric to travel to Syria; many fly or drive to Turkey, and then walk on foot over the Turkish-Syrian border.

But the real concern for westerners is not what these Balkans do when they get to the ISIS battlefield, but rather, what they will do when that fight winds down – however long that takes.

“A significant portion of them have torn up their passports,” Daniel Milton, an assistant professor at the CTC said. “They're not going to go home but they're going to go somewhere else."

Neither the United States nor Europe might be their next target, as they might be more drawn to wherever Islamists are fighting external forces. But wherever they go, Milton warned that many will have used their time with ISIS to hone their capabilities on the next battlefield.

“The opportunity for them to refine their skills is simply going to allow them to be more deadly wherever they go,” he said.