With the world on high alert over foreign fighters joining jihadist ranks in Syria and Iraq, Balkan states are launching efforts to clamp down on recruiting in their region, considered fertile ground by Islamists.
Of the more than 20 million people in southeast Europe, more than 5 million are Muslims, and an economic slump in weak states battered by past wars has fired up some of the disenfranchised. They live in countries formed from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, whose economies were devastated by the wars of the 1990s, as well as Albania, one of the poorest states in Europe.
According to local media quoting a recent CIA report, hundreds of men from the Balkans have joined ISIS – adding to the waves coming from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
In Kosovo, a mostly Muslim territory that unilaterally seceded from Serbia in 2008, deep political crisis and endemic corruption has fueled hopelessness among the youth, said Blerim Latifi, an expert on religious issues at the University of Pristina.
“A very important factor is the lack of economic opportunities for youths in Kosovo, which opens the way for brainwashing by opaque groups,” he said.
The indoctrination and recruitment efforts are focused on the poorest among the population as well as on high school students, said Visar Duriqi, a journalist covering issues related to Islam who was recently threatened with decapitation by Kosovo Islamists.
“Radical imams, who often complete their studies in Arab states, are tasked with this. It is financed from abroad. The most preferred targets are high schoolers without perspectives who hope to improve their social status by accepting fanaticism.”
In nearby Bosnia, hundreds of Islamist fighters joined Bosnian Muslim forces during the 1992-1995 interethnic war.