By John Jacobs (YATA President / Radboud University ), Olivier O.P. Korthals Altes (Radboud University) and Mark Nijland (Radboud University)
Originally written for Radboud University / Centre for International Conflict Analysis & Management
Counter-terrorism, preventing violent extremism (PVE) and countering violent extremism (CVE) are topics that have received increased attention by stakeholders in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the greater region of the former Yugoslav Republic. Violent extremism is generally viewed through the prism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Foreign Terrorist Fighter (FTF) threat. Rarely are other forms of extremism, (e.g. domestic, right-wing extremism, noted as a concern. The European Union has engaged with Bosnia and Herzegovina, considering it a potential candidate country. More recently the EU has started the process of preparing its opinion. While the 3242 questions do not cover radicalization and violent extremism specifically, chapters do include questions relevant to countering terrorism, incidents related to ethnic relations, and education. Topics, we found, are relatable to violent extremism. Aside from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s own responsibility, and the questionnaire, the authors questioned what the role of the EU was in preventing violent extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina in light of the accession talks.
Summary of Process & Main Findings
This policy brief was designed around a one-week field trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) between 14 and 21 January 2017, organized by Radboud University / Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM) as part of their annual (post)conflict excursion. It builds upon existing research done in the past years by the Democratization Policy Council (DPC), the Atlantic Initiative and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). During the intensive field week the authors spoke with high-ranking officials and local researchers compromising:
- An initial meeting with CICAM researcher Mr. Randall Puljek-Shank (16th January 2017)
- A group consultation involving the OSCE Mission to BiH (17th January 2017), followed up with mail contact with Mr. Samir Basic – Project Officer on Good Governance in Security Sector in BiH
- A meeting with the Office of the High Representative (17th January 2017)
- A meeting with the Atlantic Treaty Association (18th January 2017)
- A meeting and interview with Dr. Thomas Widrich, Political Advisor to EUSR/COMEUFOR (19th of January 2017)
- Consultation via email with the Atlantic Initiative (Between 17th January and 8th February 2017)
The findings can be grouped into three major fields where the EU could have a positive impact. Firstly Bosnia and Herzegovina are missing the needed (internet) monitoring capabilities to monitor violent extremism within and outside its borders properly. The internet and social networks play an important role in the spreading of extremist ideology and are used to recruit (young) people to fight abroad. Much can be gained in Bosnia and Herzegovina with technical training support. The European Union (EURFOR), together with its partner agencies is best suited to coordinate such training. Furthermore, it has a function in helping Bosnia and Herzegovina improving its security and intelligence services, in particular with the set-up of a national wide database of Bosnian foreign fighters and their networks. The database could help with criminal prosecution and the development of rehabilitation and reintegration. Ideally, this would be expanded to the greater Western Balkan.
Secondly, the EU must strengthen its efforts with the Bosnian civil society with regards to the Radicalization Awareness Networks. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, it would be useful as a tool if it includes the best practices and tools available and when it is adapted to the local Bosnian context. Third and finally, attention should be drawn to reforms of the educational system. Education is the groundwork for countering extremism and an early warning for (violent) extremism incidents. In its current form, it fails to counter radical messages. Mainstream critical thinking techniques and methods and strengthen critical thinking skills and compulsory media literacy to reduce the potential attraction of extremist worldviews and ideologies.
Research relevant background and context
During the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001), Bosnia and Herzegovina was a destination country for foreign fighters. Today, however, it is a country of origin for volunteers fighting wars in distant lands. When speaking of the phenomenon of foreign fighters, one image that comes to mind directly are those of jihadist fighting a holy war in Syria and Iraq. However violent extremism leading to foreign fighting is not limited to one ethnicity or religious group as became evident when the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) reported that extremists were fighting in Ukraine, not only as mercenaries but as “part of a broader perceived ideological and cultural struggle”. In particular young minds are susceptible to other forms of extremism (radical nationalist; white supremacy; neo-Nazi; anti-immigrant; etc.).For years Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in the spotlight as a failed state and both source and target for terrorist attacks. Following the recent attacks in Western Europe, similar attention is given to Belgium. Carl Bildt, co-chair of the Dayton Peace Conference Herzegovina noted the similarity in his assessment of the peace deal at its 20th anniversary, stating that “The constitutional settlement for Bosnia, agreed in Dayton, ended up somewhere between Belgium, with its complicated structure of Flemish, [and] Walloon”. In both Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina, or perhaps wider taken to any country with power-sharing between ethnic groups, complicated forms of government arise. A study published in the European Journal of Business and Social Sciences on the causes and impact of radicalization found a link between poor governance and radicalization. Perry points out that while the foreign fighters fighting for ISIL are much higher than the ones fighting in Ukraine, “caution against alarmism or exaggeration of the threat posed” should be taken. After all, “Bosnian Muslims are considered the least pious” and a moderate approach to Islam has been enjoyed by the country in the past centuries. On the other hand Perry advises the following when looking extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina:
“First, any focus on extremism in BiH should not focus solely on the issue of Islamic extremism. The 1992-1995 war was itself a manifestation of not one but multiple and increasingly extremist factions which rose to prominence in the political and intellectual vacuum at the end of the Cold War.”
Analysis and Main Findings
Why they fight
The number and composition of Bosnians going to Syria and Iraq are unique compared to departures to Ukraine and related areas. However, estimates on the exact number of Bosnian citizens that left for Syria and Iraq vary. According to data presented by the EU and the Atlantic Initiative, 188 men, 61 women and 81 children with Bosnian citizenship have traveled to Syria and Iraq between December 2012 and December 2015. Thereby 330 Bosnians are believed to have traveled to these countries, a number confirmed by research conducted by The Soufan Group. Estimates on the number of returnees varies widely. The Atlantic Initiative estimates that 50 men and women returned from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Dr. Dijana Gupta, president of the Atlantic Council of BiH, claims there are approximately 150 returnees. However, only a fraction of the returnees have been prosecuted. Since mid-2014 fighting in a foreign war has been declared a crime, yet according to the OSCE only 19 individuals have been trialed. With on average one-year prison sentences, these individuals receive relatively mild punishments. The estimates on foreign fighters and returnees vary widely due to the use of different methods. Each agency uses the same sources to gather data, however, they make analyses based on different criteria.
The fact that men and women departing BiH for Syria and Iraq are older than their European counterparts, and the fact that more Bosnian women are migrating, can be attributed to the hijra trend that picked up from the second half of 2013 in some Salafi communities. Motivations to join Syria changed over years. In March 2011, it initially had a universal humanitarian character, that was caused by empathy toward the victims of the Assad regime in Syria. As time has passed, this motivation has been co-opted by narrower, theological arguments when the IS caliphate was established. Another reason to join is that these movements offer youth “forms of support that meet their material and socio-psychological needs, e.g., money, protection, and solidarity”. Consistently, the EU has different threats of radicalization and terrorism in Europe, that “include nationalist and separatist ideologies, those inspired by Al Qaida, violent left-wing, anarchist, and right-wing ideologies.”
While the phenomenon of foreign fighters from BiH going to Syria and Iraq are the most ubiquitous, Perry draws attention to the fighters from the Balkans that have gone to eastern Ukraine, and not only as mercenaries but also a part of a broader perceived ideological and cultural struggle. Pockets of radicalization have been identified across the country, in particular in the Wahhabi community. In addition, reports of Europol indicates that there exist small scale training camps in Balkan countries. Survival training enables IS recruiters to test fitness and determination of aspiring IS members. Sports activities have been used for combat and interrogation resistance training. While sensationalist media headlines including Breitbart, Huffington and Corriera de la Serra warn too of such existence of “jihadi training camps” in BiH, police investigations have for so far found no evidence that would resonance these reports. Dr. Thomas Widrich, political, advisor to EUSR/EUFOR, dismisses these claims. Furthermore, traditional military camps that would include training and accommodation facilities have never been discovered. There are known cases of groups or individuals that attend one-day or weekend religious seminars in isolated areas in the Bosnian highlands with martial arts training and basic shooting practice, but police intelligence could not track more organized training system for aspiring foreign fighters. This lack of prior proper military training can help to explain the higher rate of fatalities among Bosnians (25 %) compared to the European average (14 %) on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. A significant number (27%) of the Bosnians that departed to Syria or Iraq lived, or paid regular visits, to well-known Salafi communities in BiH, such as Gornja Maoča, Dubnica, Ošva, Liješnica, and Bočinje.
After the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, demobilized foreign fighters and their families joined others who converted to Salafism and began settling in remote and isolated locations along former military front lines. Due to internal fractions and an increased stigmatization of the movement as a result of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the members of the communities temporarily reduced their visibility and retreated to the privacy of their houses. However, Salafism is gradually expanding in BiH and spread from their isolated and remote locations into larger suburban areas. Thereby the recruiting base for jihadi fighters also shifts. The Salafi movement has not been very visible, but they are definitely present. Another development is the increased influence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. These countries have been funding mosques and training imams in BiH.
The Bosnian Salafi communities also provide valuable insights in the role of the Internet and social media networks in the process of radicalization and recruitment. Their first encounter with Salafism is often through friends or family members. However, many of those people will seek more information and connect with like-minded people online. Thereby, social media networks and the Internet in general function as force multipliers for radicalization. Foreign fighters who are bound for Syria or Iraq, also make use of the internet during the preparation phase and actual departure. Within the current legal framework in BiH it is difficult to effectively shut down online networks that promote radicalization and violent extremism. One site, perceived as most inflammatory, has been blocked but a new version is expected to be online soon. The Internet plays an important multiplying role in the radicalization, of especially minors. To effectively combat radicalization and violent extremism it is therefore, important to adopt legal frameworks and capabilities of the intelligence services to the online domain.
EU as a main stakeholder
Concerning BiH’s fight against terrorism, the EU is a main stakeholder due to BiH’s status as a potential candidate for membership and its geographical position in the EU’s neighborhood. Since the implementation of the Dayton Accords in 1995, the EU has assisted Bosnia’s thorny road of postwar reconstruction through its agencies and with the cooperation with other international organizations in multiple ways.
First, the EU is a key partner in the implementation of BiH Strategy for preventing and combating terrorism 2015-2020. This strategy outlines BiH’s vision on the fight against terrorism. The strategy is developed in accordance with, and based on, the EU’s counterterrorism strategies. BiH claims that the strategy for preventing and combating terrorism enables them to meet the commitments the country made on an international level, particularly those arising from the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. However, according to a resolution by the European Parliament, BiH’s strategy lacks an action plan for the implementation of the strategy. Furthermore, the European Parliament calls on the Bosnian authorities to ensure country-wide cooperation among police, intelligence and security agencies in the fight against terrorism. The capacities of Bosnia’s counter-terrorism task force needs further strengthening. The EU considers it essential that data is shared within the country. An important step in that respect is the expanded cooperation on cross-border crime by BiH and Europol. The agreement includes the jointly planning of operational activities and the exchange of information, such as personal data on suspected criminals.
Second, the EU urges BiH to meet the international standards of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism. According to the FATF BiH remains a high-risk country. The EU considers BiH as susceptible to terrorist financing due to its strategic position on the Balkan route. According to the EU, public authorities throughout the country neglect the possible risks of terrorist financing through the non-governmental sector. However, BiH has taken a number of steps to meet its international commitments.
Third, an important measure to combat radicalization and violent extremism is the development of national and regional Radicalization Awareness Networks (RAN) as a part of the wider countering violent extremism policies. The EU has valuable expertise in this regard due to the existence and implementation of such networks within the EU. RAN networks aim to connect first-line practitioners, teachers, social workers, NGO’s, law enforcement, academics, civil society organizations and others. Countries in the Western Balkans, BiH included, are working to set up such networks through the Western Balkan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. However as the Atlantic Initiative outlines, it is of utmost importance to include a community-based approach. Community groups play a vital role in the effectiveness of RAN and should, therefore, play an active role in the implementation of it. Furthermore, it is important to take the local context into account and incorporate local knowledge and experience. Especially in the complex Bosnian context, inadequacies in counter-terrorism policies could produce more harm.
Fourth, the European Police College (CEPOL), the EU’s police academy for high ranking officers, signed a Working Arrangement with the Ministry of Security of BiH in December 2014, to facilitate mutual law enforcement training. By conducting common training schedules with European officers, Bosnian police officers got the unique opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience with other European police officers in particular subjects such as cross-border crime, trafficking in narcotics and organized crime and counterterrorism, in order to enhance their effectiveness on the work field.
As mentioned before, “CVE” (countering violent extremism) projects have become lately on the rise in response to the higher terrorist threats in BiH with important support from main stakeholders such as the EU. Research done by the Atlantic Initiative shows how such counterterrorism efforts are firstly mainly based on assumed rather than previously researched drivers and patterns of radicalization. Secondly, such efforts are not fully adjusted to the local Bosnian context and thirdly, do not incorporate the available local expertise. Taking the complexity of contemporary BiH into account, these shortcomings could cause more harm than good. For example, the wrong areas, target groups, and causes of radicalization could be targeted, efforts by local communities could be neglected, and the impression can be created that the prevention of radicalization into violent extremism is another undesired intervention in domestic affairs by international actors.
Recently, research institutes including Hedayah and the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation indicate the importance on the role of education to prevent radicalization and extremism. In their words, “just adding a CVE dimension on a weak base will not work.” This weak base or governmental structure of postwar Bih has made possible the development of three opposing and often incompatible curricular approaches, school systems and worldviews, separated according to the three constituent groups of Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. It is true to say that these separated curricular approaches to Bosnian history and the policymakers that enable it, do not encourage young people to lean towards to extremism in particular.
Furthermore, education policymakers are not taking steps either to prevent the development of narrow-minded, ethnically exclusive groups of young citizens that are ill-prepared to operate in a pluralist and heterogeneous society. Therefore, any serious efforts to address the noted weaknesses need to be comprehensive, systematic and structural; they need to be focused on policy rather than technical tinkering; and they need to be focused on content, curricula and critique. Consequently, it is inevitable to diagnose Bosnia and Herzegovina’s as a failed state that has produced an underachieving society, polarized and not able to protect and restore the common-sense values and norms. It might be very hard to believe that BiH could produce an effective counter-narrative to deter extremist worldviews. Hereby, a more steadfast effort to European Union accession could help BiH restore its traditional values by providing a unifying narrative with which the vast majority of Bosnians still find familiar.
- BiH law enforcement agencies must develop additional (Internet) monitoring capabilities, given the increasingly important role of the Internet and social networks as a tool for spreading extremist ideas and recruitment of young people, especially minors. EU partner agencies (EUFOR, OSCE, EU) are best suited for this task through the provision of technical support and training.
- All security and intelligence services of BiH, law enforcement agencies, intelligence services, and the Prosecutor’s Office must develop a set of uniformed criteria by which a single, national database of Bosnian foreign fighters and their networks of support can be established. This database could help with criminal prosecution in some cases, but also (and more importantly) in the development of rehabilitation and reintegration programs.
- The creation of a similar regional database of foreign fighters and their networks of support would be beneficial for counter-radicalization efforts across Western Balkan countries.
- The EU must further strengthen its efforts to establish and implement national and regional Radicalization Awareness Networks (RAN). These should be based on the best practices and tools available from the implementation of these networks within the EU, as well as adapted to the local Bosnian context.
- Reconsider civic education initiatives that, while introducing useful concepts, fail to counter the messages sent in other classes sufficiently. Mainstream critical thinking techniques and methods and strengthen critical thinking skills and compulsory media literacy to reduce the potential attraction of extremist worldviews and ideologies. EU education.
It is up to the state to develop and employ effective tools and mechanisms including monitoring, surveillance, and criminal prosecution; and it is up to society to call for effective interventions and develop counter-narratives that oppose radicalization. Families, the educational system, civil society organizations, the academic community, and media must all play a role in clarifying the severity of the problem and bringing about some consensus regarding norms to combat it. Above all, the political elites of BiH must develop more ownership and responsibility to overcome the ethnic differences and victimhood.
List of sources
Aščić, M. (2015); “SIPA: U Siriji ratuje 80 bh. Državljana,” Dnevni avaz , 29 March 2015.
Azinović, Vlado (2015); “Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Nexus with Islamist Extremism”, DPC Policy Note # 5, Democratization Policy Council, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Azinović, Vlado and Jusić, Muhamed (2015); “The Lure of the Syrian War: The Foreign Fighters’ Bosnian Contingent.” The Atlantic Initiative, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Barrett, Richard (2015); “Foreign Fighters. An updated assessment of the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq”, The Soufan Group, New York, United States of America.
Bildt, Carl (2015); “Dayton Revisited: Bosnia’s Peace Deal 20 Years on”, European Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin, Germany.
Bringa, Tone (1995); “Being Muslim the Bosnian Way”, Princeton University Press, Princeton, United States of America.
Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers (2015); “Strategy of Bosnia and Herzegovina for preventing and combating terrorism: 2015-2020”, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
CEPOL (2014); “CEPOL signs working arrangement with Bosnia and Herzegovina”, 3 December 2014.
Council of the European Union, (2015); “EU Western Balkan counter-terrorism initiative: integrative plan of action”, Brussels, Belgium.
The Economist (2014); “Holy Warriors.” 21 August 2014.
The Economist (2015); “Fight the Good Fight.” 18 April 2015.
European Commission (2014); “Preventing Radicalization to Terrorism and Violent Extremism: Strengthening the EU’s Response” European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.
European Commission (2016); “Bosnia and Herzegovina 2016 Report”, European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.
Europol (2016a); “Changes in modus operandi of Islamic State terrorist attacks.” The Hague, The Netherlands.
Europol (2016b); “Europol and Bosnia and Herzegovina agree to share information on cross-border crime.” The Hague, The Netherlands.
Fink, Naureen Chowdhury, et al. (2013); “The Role of Education in Countering Violent Extremism”, Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, Washington D.C., United States of America.
Galdini, Franco (2015); “The Myth of Muslim Radicalisation in Bosnia.” Gulf News, 16 August 2015.
Khan, Rashid, Khan, Sareer, Aziz, Rukshana, and Shah, Rehmat Ullah (2015); “Causes and impact of radicalization on young people inside and outside Pakistan, European Journal of Business and Social Sciences, Vol.1, No.3, 2015, pp.146-57.
Milekić, Sven (2015); “Some Croats are Fighting in Ukraine Army, Pusić Says.” Balkan Insight, 12 February 2015.
Moneyval, (2015); “Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism”, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France.
Olchawa, Matt (2015); “From Brussels to Sarajevo: Why Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina Are Home to Islamic terrorists”, Huffington Post, 24 November, 2015.
OSCE (2013); “Youth Engagement to Counter Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terror: Report on Findings and Recommendations”, Vienna, Austria.
Pasqualetto, Andrea (2015); “I villaggi della Sharia alle porte dell’Italia (e nel cuore dell’Europa)”, Corriere della Sera, 27 December 2015.
Perry, Valery (2015); “Countering the Cultivation of Extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Case for Comprehensive Education Reform”, DPC Policy Note New Series # 10, Democratization Policy Council, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Perry, Valery (2016); ” Initiatives to Prevent/Counter Violent Extremism in South East Europe A Survey of Regional Issues, Initiatives and Opportunities”, Regional Cooperation Council, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ristić, Marija (2014); “Serbian Fighters Help ‘Russian Brothers’ in Crimea”, Balkan Insight, 6 March 2014.
Weinstein, Harvey, M.; Sarah Warshauer Freedman and Holly Hughson, (2009); “School Voices: Challenges Facing Education Systems After Identity Based Conflicts”, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2009
Williams, Thomas, D. (2015); “Report: 3,000 Jihadists Have Made Home in Europe’s Balkans”, Breitbart, 30 March 2015.
 Hereafter ISIL
 A comprehensive study of this phenomenon is done by Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić. “The Lure of the Syrian War: The Foreign Fighters’ Bosnian Contingent.” The Atlantic Initiative, 2015.
 See Valery Perry (2015); Citizens from Bosnia and Herzegovina have been reported registering for Ukrainian formations. A State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) report announced there were at least five citizens of BiH in Ukraine. See also Aščić, M. (2015), for more information see also Vlado Azinović (2015), p.13. Additionally see also Marija Ristić (2014); The Economist (2014); Sven Milekić (2015); The Economist. (2015).
 Valery Perry (2015), p1.
 Carl Bildt (2015), p3.
 See Rashid Khan, et al (2012).
 Valery Perry (2015), p2
 Interview with an OHR official by the authors, 17 th of January 2017.
 See Franco Galdini (2015); see also Tone Bringa (1995).
 Valery Perry (2015), p2
 European Commission, 2016, p. 74; See also Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić (2015), p. 23.
 Richard Barrett, 2015, p. 8.
 Interview with Dr. Dijana Gupta by the authors, 18th of January 2017.
 Interview with OSCE officials by the authors, 17th of January 2017.
 Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić (2015), p. 83.
 Vlado Azinović (2015, p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 53.
 OSCE (2012), p. 4.
 European Comission (2014), p. 2.
 Valery Perry (2015), p. 1.
 European Comission (2016).
 Europol (2016a).
 Andrea Pasqualetto (2015); Thomas Williams (2015); Matt Olchawa (2015).
 Interview with Dr. Thomas Widrich by the authors, 19th of January 2017.
 Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić (2015), p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 66.
 Interview with Randall Puljek-Shank by the authors, 16th of January 2017
 Valery Perry (2016), p. 28.
 Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić (2015), p. 74.
 Valery Perry (2016), p. 28.
 See Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers (2015).
 Europol, (2016b).
 Moneyval, (2015).
 Council of the European Union (2015), p. 7.
 Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić (2015), p. 98.
 Ibid., p. 82.
 CEPOL (2014).
 Vlado Azinovic (2015), p. 82.
 Naureen Chowdhury Fink (2013), p. 7.
 Valery Perry (2016), p. 61.
 Weinstein et.al. note there is a general tendency in development and conflict affected areas to implement modules and “extras” rather than engage in the much more difficult task of comprehensive reform; something often opposed by policy makers in countries resistant to reform. The authors ponder, “whether integrated classrooms with challenging curricula and the long-term development of critical thinking skills might do much more than special classes in conflict resolution or in the ancient Greek roots of democracy,” in Harvey M. Weinstein, Sarah Warshauer Freedman and Holly Hughson, (2009), p. 45.