The return of the warriors

One-third of Islamic State fighters and their families return to Europe, 500 to Balkans

Photo: Humesh Kumar

A Sunni extremist organization, ISIS (IS, ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levante) took advantage of the chaos of the Syrian civil war almost ten years ago and began carrying out Islamic colonization of Iraq and northern Syria with the help of local paramilitary units. Its goal was to establish a Salafist state whose central ideology is an anti-Western interpretation of Islam in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Levant (Cyprus, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan).

Cruel beheadings, torture of the local population, rape, sale into slavery, bloody murders and persecution of local residents from their own homes. ISIS spread bloody terror and thousands of Europeans wanted to join the project.

Five thousand and six Europeans, most of them citizens of Belgium, France, Germany and Great Britain, traveled from Europe to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

The vision of the militant terrorist group ISIS in its golden times (2011–16) also attracted over a thousand citizens of the Western Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and Northern Macedonia). Many left their countries with their wives and children.

“If we wanted to build a rough profile of Balkan warriors, we can say that they are young people, most of them had a low education, they came from rural areas. The Salafist version of Islam is closer to them, “Safet Music, an expert on security issues in the Balkans, explained to Večer from Mostar.

The Islamic fairy tale of terror finally collapsed in December 2018 when U.S. forces, along with a coalition of Kurdish and Arab militants, completely devastated ISIS conquered areas. Their fighters and their families began to flee home — and Europe began to face new security issues:

What to do with thousands of radicalized returnees?

Balkans — the concentration of terrorists?

Till today a third of former fighters and their families have returned to Europe, 500 of them in the Balkans alone. The rest live in Iraqi and Syrian prisons, refugee camps in northern Syria, while after some tracks are lost.

We could read in the foreign media that the return of its radicalized citizens has already “become the center of the highest concentration of terrorist returnees in Europe and the focus of long-term security challenges”.

Music does not agree with this label.

“I would not say that security is particularly threatened in the Balkans. Let us not forget, we are talking about some specifics when considering Balkan warriors. These are not the children of migrants, as is the case in Western European countries, but indigenous Muslims. So these fighters are returning to the countries where their grandfathers and great-grandfathers came from, “explains Music.

The specificity of the Balkan warriors is not only in their cultural and historical background. In the Balkans in general, there is high unemployment, economic and social instability. Young people saw their escape from participating in war formations of this type out of a sheer desire for existence.

“They were promised financial compensation, partners and houses, and of course that they would fight for a state based on Islamist principles, in which they themselves believed,” explains Music.

At the same time, according to Europol, a third of the men from the Balkans who joined ISIS had previous experience in the Yugoslav wars. According to police data, in the case of 156 Bosnian fighters, 44 of them had criminal experience, including terrorism, illegal possession of weapons and explosives, robberies and illegal trade. The same goes for ISIS fighters from Kosovo: about 40% of them have previously been linked to various types of crime.

The different profiles of individual warriors also indicate that in some cases they were also war mercenaries.

All returnees from the Middle East battlefields face similar fate when they return: between 2014–15, all Balkan countries introduced the law on terrorism and the fight on foreign battlefields. This means “membership, participation, funding, recruitment, etc. in a terrorist organization and participation in foreign war zones” has become a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment.

Low penalties for nearly two hundred warriors

Untill today, Balkan judicial authorities have brought nearly two hundred war returnees to court, accused of involvement in the terrorist organization ISIS and Al Qaeda’s smaller cell, Al-Nusra. The spectrum of punishments imposed so far shows that each country interprets in its own what membership in a terrorist organization and participation in foreign battlefields is.

However, in almost cases, the courts have laws that are written very similarly. All prosecutors are dealing with the problem of lack of evidence for crimes committed in a foreign war zone.

Apart from that, Balkan countries impose seven years lower penalties for participating in a terrorist organization compared to European countries. For example, on average, BiH sentenced to less than two years in prison for participating in a terrorist organization. The first convicted Bosnian warrior, Ibro Čufurović from Velika Kladuša, was sentenced in December 2019 to a total of four years in prison for organizing a terrorist group and fighting on the side of ISIS in Syria. Čufurović was 19 years old when he traveled to the Middle West. He spent two years on the battlefield and later two additional years in Kurdish prisons. In Kosovo, the average prison sentence for terrorism-related crimes has been three and a half years, and since the beginning of 2020, the average sentence has been further reduced. In Serbia, penalties differ between war sentences in Ukraine and Syria. Fighters returning from Ukraine mostly received suspended sentences or house arrest. However, individuals convicted of joining ISIS were sentenced to between 7 and 11 years in prison (three of the seven accused were tried in absentia).

In Montenegro, only one foreign Islamic fighter has been convicted so far, with the lowest sentence of six months he has already served. In total, over 20 of its citizens went to the battlefields and most of them now live in the country.

“For those who were able to convince the prosecution that they were deradicalized, they could have hoped for significantly lower sentences, but the authorities continue to control them,” explains Music.

Due to the low sentences, many of the accused are already at large. Otherwise, the question arises, are prisons the right way to punish radicalized individuals?

The example of Mirsad Bektašević shows the failure of the prison policy. Bektasevic, a Swedish citizen born in Serbia, filmed a video in Sarajevo 15 years ago, where he is wearing military equipment and weapons and explosives “threatening a massacre across Europe, the White House bombing and a bomb attack on the British embassy.” Bektašević was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but his sentence was later reduced to eight years when he applied for asylum in Sweden. In 2011, he was released. Five years later, Greek authorities announced that Bektasevic had been arrested in eastern Greece on his way to Turkey. He carried military uniforms and knives in his bag. A year later, a Greek court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for membership in an “unknown terrorist organization and possession of a weapon.”’

Prosecutions against returnees limited by epidemiological measures are still ongoing today in all countries of the region. The Balkan states are also continuing to arrest their citizens: the authorities in Bosnia arrested 21-year-old Jahjo Vukovic from Bihac on suspicion of membership in the terrorist organization Al Nusra only four months ago. According to the prosecution, Vukovic joined an Al Qaeda cell when he was just 15 years old.

A destroyed tank in a Kurdish region in northern Syria in 2017. Here, US-led coalition forces attacked members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State from Syria and Iraq. (Credits: Sterling)

The transformation of terrorists?

Prosecution is just one of the counter-terrorism activities undertaken by the Balkan states under the supervision of international bodies: in 2015, they adopted the Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which also deals with the process of deradicalising individuals inside and outside prisons.

“In the field of BiH, the implementation of the strategy was led by the Organization for Migration (IOM), which proved to be inexperienced in this field, and was financed by the British and American governments and not the domestic one,” explains Music about the strategy of “transformation of terrorists”.

The strategy envisages, among other things, the involvement of various local authorities, experts, social services, non-governmental organizations, etc.

“The Islamic community in BiH, Kosovo and Northern Macedonia has also started a program of deradicalization, which is commendable, but much too late. Religious communities have a great influence in Balkan society and their response would have been very necessary much sooner, “explains Music, adding that most religious communities were probably unaware of the” danger “of radicalization almost ten years ago.

Rehabilitation, deradicalization and reassimilation are otherwise extremely complex processes to which each individual reacts differently.

“International partners have suggested that methods used by the United Kingdom, Germany and Saudi Arabia could be introduced in the Balkans. I on the other hand did not agree with this because of the cultural specificity that our Muslims have, “says Music about the strategy and its implementation in the Balkans.

A telling example of failed deradicalization in prison is a 20-year-old Austrian terrorist, Kujtim Fejzulai, who killed four people and wounded 23 others in Vienna last November. Fejzulai was born to Macedonian-Albanian parents in Austria, where he also grew up. In April 2019, he was sentenced to 22 months in prison after unsuccessfully seeking to join ISIS. He was released from prison after eight months. His case, however, resonated with the public, as a young Balkan Austrian was exposed in prison to experts dealing with deradicalization.

Music believes that it is an extremely complex and individual process: “Maybe we can still convert young people, but those who are radically convinced of their ideas are very difficult.”

However, there are success stories: Munib Ahmetspahić is described in the Balkan media as “the first deradicalized returnee from Syria”, ruled also by the court. A psychiatrist, Abdulah Kučukalić, said of Ahmetspahić, who fought on the side of ISIS and later lost his leg: “He is sorry that he allowed himself to be manipulated by radicalized religious leaders.”

The fate of Terrorist Brides

Balkan judicial authorities prosecute male fighters relatively effectively. It remains unclear, however, what to do with adult women. Hundreds of European women traveled to the Middle East to join their partners; to find partners, or to give birth to as many “children of ISIS fighters” as possible. Interviews with them, as well as testimonies from victims, prove that they were often aware of the terror perpetrated by their partners and brothers.

Western countries have been struggling for two last years to accept hundreds of women and children living in Kurdish neglected and inhumane accommodation centers in northern Syria. Kurdish forces, however, have been unsuccessfully trying for years to persuade the West to accept its radicalized warriors.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was first against the repatriation at the end of the last year changed her mind, and authorities organized the arrival of five women and 18 children in December. The women have been arrested and will be prosecuted for participating in a terrorist organization. In the past, German authorities have sentenced rare ISIS brides to lower prison sentences for participating in a terrorist organization, as well as for neglecting children.

On the other hand, we do not see a similar practice in the Balkans.

“We are Bosnian citizens and we are urging the authorities to bring us and our minor children back to normal life,” the Bosnian authorities told ISIS brides from Kurdish centers in a public letter. “Take us back at least for the sake of our innocent children,” they asked. A total of at least 100 other mothers and children of Balkan origin or born to war-torn Balkan parents live in Kurdish centers.

Some of them claim that their husbands forced them to go to the war zone, that they did not take part in the fighting, others went there voluntarily, and some also participated in police militias that carried out surveillance and torture, thus boasting on social networks. The stories are as different and individual as ISIS brides.

After the first return of nearly a hundred of its citizens in April 2019, the Kosovo government allowed all children to go home while the women were under house arrest during the trial. Eighteen women were later charged with “organizing and participating in a terrorist group.”

There is also a well-known case from Montenegro of a woman from Plav who was prevented from entering the ISIS-occupied area by the Turkish authorities. After returning to Montenegro, she married a local member of the Salafist movement, began wearing the niqab, and severed all contact with her parents. Today, she is involved in the further radicalization of local girls and the authorities can do nothing but “security surveillance” to prevent her religious activism.

Relatives of Balkan returnees regularly appear in local media and warn authorities to help their children to return. Last September, the families of Bosnian fighters protested in front of the relevant ministry under the slogan “Give us back our children” and warned the authorities that their children were still trapped in northern Syria.

“We cannot escape the responsibility to accept individuals who are in refugee centers and prisons today. These are our citizens, “says Music and concludes:” Otherwise, this is a new phenomenon in the world, and we cannot refer to experiences and practices because they simply do not exist. “

After Islamic fairy tale failed the rest of the hundreds of war returnees, mostly wives and children, are expected to return to the Balkan region in the future. So far, it seems that local authorities, under the monitoring of foreign organizations, are ready to offer them a second chance.

Text was originally published in Slovenian daily, Vecer: Povratek bojevnikov: V Evropo se je vrnila tretjina borcev Islamske države in njihovih družin, 500 na Balkan (archive.is)

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Katja Lihtenvalner

Journalist. Greece, Western Balkans #PoliticalExtremism #HateSpeech #FakeNews Head of Research at RusaalkaFilms Monitored #GDtrial I train #MuayThai