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Returning from violence: How to tackle the foreign fighters’ problem in the Western Balkans

Summary Project Description

The project aims to contribute to the understanding of the phenomenon of foreign fighters and the challenge they mean for security and stability. Through a comprehensive approach, communication with the public can be depurated from negative prejudices while it can contribute to better policy solutions. Conflicts in Syria and Iraq as well as in Ukraine cause serious problems for both the V4 and the EU, and the Western Balkan countries.

The project will facilitate the analyses of the phenomenon and the policy solutions of the countries in concern which will allow the exploration of gap between problems and solutions as well as opportunities for cooperation. The latter is of utmost importance in the Western Balkans where confidence building among governments is still a challenge.

Furthermore, the project will provide an great forum for experts from both the Visegrad and Western Balkan countries to exchange their views and experience on this topic.


Importance of the Project

Foreign fighters from the Western Balkan countries are involved in different conflicts from Syria to Ukraine. The sources of motivation vary significantly and thus, stopping recruitment poses great challenge for the governments.  Increasing number of terrorist attacks organized by Islamic State in EU and NATO member states and the growing number of actions against state institutions in which former fighters were involved further increased concerns related to foreign fighters and returnees. Both local and international factors (including poverty, weak state institutions, and international crime networks) facilitate this phenomena and accordingly, a comprehensive approach for building strategies at national and international level is necessary.

Target Group

International relations and security community participants and broader public: university students and graduates, professors, government officials, experts, policy professionals, think tanks, universities, media, private sector executives. These constituencies would be drawn from:

- V4 countries
- Official community: those practitioners interested in the V4’s inputs on breaking security issues
- Policy makers, analysts, media representatives and experts worldwide

Partners

The project is coordinated by the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The core partners of the initiative are Warsaw Institute for Strategic Studies, Slovak Foreign Policy Association and the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy. Furthermore, experts and researchers will be invited to the project to contribute to the expert exchange and the book that will be published as part of the project.

Project coordinator: Anna Orosz

Sponsor(s)
The project is funded by the International Visegrad Fund Standard Grant.

 

Conference Summary - „Returning from violence: How to tackle the foreign fighters’ problem in the Western Balkans?” (26 April 2018)

On April 26th, the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, in cooperation with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and the Warsaw Institute for Strategic Initiatives organised a conference titled „Returning from violence: How to tackle the foreign fighters’ problem in the Western Balkans?”. The conference was part of a project running under the same name, and was supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

In his opening remarks Ambassador Márton Schőberl, the director of IFAT stressed the importance of the project, stating that comprehensive analysis and understanding of the foreign fighters phenomenon are crucial, especially in the light of media and political statements that are often built on prejudices and simplifications. He expressed also his gratitude towards the partners and experts involved as well as the International Visegrad Fund for its financial support. Afterwards Anna Orosz, research fellow of IFAT in charge of the Western Balkans and the coordinator of the project introduced the goals of the initiative and highlighted its relevance for the Visegrad Group, the EU as well as for the Western Balkans. She welcomed the fact that the project managed to gather researchers from all Western Balkan countries providing accurate data and information about the state of affairs in these countries, while the experts from the Visegrad countries contributed by the analyses of more thematic questions and the perspective of EU and the Visegrad Group.

In the first panel, the experts from the Visegrad countries shared the findings of their analyses. Christian Kvorning, researcher of the Czech EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy outlined the Aarhus model, a de-radicalisation model named after the Danish city of Aarhus that aims to prevent radicalisation and to de-radicalise the returning fighters and to support their reintegration into the society. The Aarhus model is based on a bottom-up and multi-level approach that builds on the involvement and common engagement of various actors (civil society, local authorities, families, friends, different social and educational institutions, police and security agencies, and experts).

Tomáš Madleňák, researcher of Slovak Foreign Policy Association analysed the answers and attitudes of the Visegrad countries and European Union towards the returning fighting fighters. By presenting two cases for foreign fighters from the Czech Republic, he demonstrated the double standards which are present in the application of legal measures against foreign fighters. In his opinion, Muslim people are treated much more harshly than the – mostly Russophile, far-right wing – fighters who joined the conflicts in Ukraine, although in legal terms both are supposed to be in the same criminal law category.

Andrzej Kozłowski, an expert of the Warsaw Institute for Strategic Initiatives analysed the propaganda and recruiting techniques of al-Qaida and ISIS. He presented the multidimensional communication strategy of the Islamic State which included many platforms and tools (online forums, magazines, videos, social media channels). He explained also that how the recruitment strategy of Islamic State is interconnected with its brand-building through the news and messages about their actions broadcasted and spread through the various information channels.

After the first panel, the country papers were presented by the experts from the Western Balkans. At first, Sanjin Hamidičević, project coordinator of the Center for Security Studies in Sarajevo talked about the historical origins and identity of Bosnian Islamic communities. He stressed that the Bosnian Islamic Community fundamentally shares the European values, however, there have been extremists who have already committed terrorist attacks in the country. According to certain studies the number of travellers to Syria and Iraq is estimated at 200-300.

Mentor Vrajolli from the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies divided the foreign fighters who have travelled from Kosovo to the Middle East into two groups. The members of the first group felt that it is their duty to help their Muslim brothers, that is, they primarily exited because of religious reasons. These people came back when they realised the true nature of the Syrian civil war and the realities of the Islamic State and other Jihadist organisations. Members of the second group who mainly joined these conflicts after 2014 saw often a solution for their individual problems, inter alia, unemployment, lack of acknowledgment within their own community, etc. There were also women among those who left, but interestingly, they were usually treated as victims while men faced the punishment.

Redion Qirjazi, researcher of Institute for Democracy and Mediation in Tirana pointed out that Albania faced similar challenges. He explained that the government introduced the strictest measures in the region against the exiting fighters after the threat of the Islamic State was realized. However, the weaknesses of the national capacities made the implementation of measures very difficult. Among the preventive measures of the Albanian government, he mentioned the registration of Imams and mosques since 2016 as well as a de-radicalisation program which is still at an early stage of implementation.

The researcher of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, Marija Ignjatijević, presented the different forms of radicalism in Serbia from where foreign fighters went to both to the Middle East and Ukraine. Ignjatijević said, the problem of the foreign fighters should be treated by the push-factors. Between 2012 and 2015 a number of fighters joined the Islamic State from Serbia, but since 2016 there was no new registered foreign fighter. Regarding the civil war in Ukraine, Serbian veterans now participating as mercenaries, mostly on the Russian separatists' side. Unlike those who joined the Islamic State, Serbian foreign fighters in Ukraine are not motivated by religious or ideological belief but mainly financial interests. Concerning the issue of prosecuting returning foreign fighters, Ignjatijević said that the judiciary doesn’t have the necessary resources to deal with all the cases within a short deadline. She also pointed out that the legal provisions are used selectively: those who went to Ukraine often get away with light sentences, while those who went to the Middle East were imprisoned for years for terrorism.

Stefanija Agrotova, teaching assistant of the Alumni Association of the Marshall Center in Macedonia, said that about 150 people, mostly belonging to the Albanian minority, have joined the Islamic State. 90 of them have returned since and 33 have died. Macedonia, like the other countries of the region, has also tightened the relevant legislation and adopted a security strategy, but so far not much has been achieved.

The conference gave an opportunity to make prognoses about the future. Despite the weakening of the Islamic State, it cannot be ruled out that any new emerging terrorist group can mobilize similar disenchanted societal groups in the future. The number of exits from the Western Balkans has diminished as a result of actions by the states and the disillusionment about the Islamic State, but the problem of the returning foreign fighters will need be addressed and more emphasis should be placed on prevention. Returnees - whether they are Muslim or right-wing extremists - even if in different ways may pose threats to the state institutions and the societies, it is, therefore, necessary to treat the phenomenon in comprehensive manner. Furthermore, the selective application of legal provisions can contribute to the alienation of certain Muslim groups as well as can negatively affect inter-ethnic relations that are often abused by divisive political rhetoric in the Western Balkans.

 

Research output

As part of the project, participating experts prepared analyses related to the foreign fighter phenomenon on the Western Balkans that has been published. The book includes country specific papers covering each Western Balkan countries, highlighting the main characteritics of the recruited persons, the tendencies in numbers of foreign fighters and returnees as well as the actions of various actors to cope with the numerous challenges stemming from this phenomenon. Beyond these papers, the contributing experts elaborate on issues like the approach of the EU to the foreign fighter phenomenon and the recruitment strategy of ISIS that have a strong impact on the approach and efficiancy of the actions and measures that have been put in place in the Western Balkans to fight this phenomenon and its consequences.

The electronic version of the book can be downloaded from here.